When you think of music from Michigan, there are probably a lot of places your mind goes instantly. Wether it’s the expansive work that came out of Motown, 8 Mile star and rapper Eminem, pop icon Madonna, or your dad listening to Bob Seger, Michigan has had its share of famous musicians from a wide variety of genres. Despite this, many people aren’t aware that Michigan has a thriving community of bluegrass and Americana musicians. Whether from big cities like Grand Rapids or smaller towns and bergs, Michigan’s bluegrass scene is a thriving and vibrant scene. No one embodies this more than Mark Lavengood.
Lavengood, born and raised in Grand Rapids, has been around music his whole life. His parents raised him around it, and he immersed himself in music while attending Alma College in Michigan. While he has learned to play many instruments throughout his life—from drums to the ukulele and guitar—his main love revolves around the dobro, a resonator guitar. If you’ve never heard of it, take a few minutes and listen to Mark make it sing below.
Pretty fantastic, isn’t it? Not only is Mark good at what he does, he does it pretty damn frequently. Not only does he play with his own band, The Mark Lavengood Bluegrass Bonanza!, but he’s also a member of Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys, another Americana band with Michigan roots. I had the chance to speak with Mark over the phone, and it was one of the most enjoyable conversations about music I’ve ever had.
You can sense Mark’s warm personality and shine as soon as you pick up the phone with him. Having just gotten back from a Flatbellys tour, Mark and I played phone tag for a few days before we got connected. Finally, with the rest of the band—Lindsay Lou, Joshua Rilko, and PJ George—returning to Nashville, where they relocated last year, Mark and I talked on a quiet Friday afternoon when he returned to Grand Rapids. “We got together on the phone!” Mark exuberantly proclaimed when I first picked up. The energy in his voice put an immediate smile on my face.
What struck me while I started talking with Mark was how much praise he had and positivity he had for those he played and toured with. Detailing a stop at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC, Mark glowed when describing songwriter Ana Egge, who shared the stage with them that night. “It was definitely a highlight of the tour. Love Ana Egge… she’s just so solid, such a great songwriter,” Mark said, even before he really got into the Flatbellys’ experience there. Every event Mark spoke on, from playing FestivALL in Charleston, West Virginia to playing at Levon Helms Studio—named after the late great Americana musician Levon Helms—for Levon’s 76th Birthday Bash at The Midnight Ramble, the focus was always on those they played with and the venue itself. Mark also expressed a ton of gratitude for those who come to shows, and we both agreed that there’s a larger collection of bluegrass and Americana scenes in America than most people realize.
What’s amazing is really how much touring Mark has done, even just with the Flatbellys. “We’ve just toured so hard over the years,” Mark explains. “We started off doing 160 shows, then we did 180 shows, then we did almost 200 shows, then we did 170 shows. Last year we did 120ish, this year we’re going to be around 120ish as well.” Spending large chunks of the year on the road can be tiring for anyone, and Mark tells me that all the members of the band are grateful for some time to pursue other projects. PJ and Joshua are touring with fellow Michigan bluegrass artist Billy Strings, Lindsay is playing as a part of the female trio The Sweet Water Warblers, and Mark is working on his own music. “I’m wrapping up recording in the next month, which is exciting and nerve-wracking because I have so much stuff to do for it,” Mark tells me with a laugh.
Mark and the rest of The Flatbellys are all members of the Earthwork Music Collective, an organization in Michigan that combines music with activism, environmentalism, and routinely holds events to educate the public on all of the above. It’s very much a tightly-knit community, as Mark runs off a large and extensive list of fellow Earthworkers whom he has met and played with. Mark also tells me that he’s experienced “a big resurgence of energy towards building up relationships” with Earthwork.
Speaking of energy, Mark will most definitely need a lot of it in the coming months. In addition to the multitude of projects, albums, and other musical works in his life, Mark very recently became a father. When I spoke to him the baby had yet to arrive, but I could already tell how excited Mark was for fatherhood.
By the time I hung up, I knew I was talking to someone who had a profound understanding of music and his place within it. “It’s good to talk to someone about this,” Mark muses, “it makes me realize how inspired I am about it all.” Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long to hear that inspiration. The Flatbellys will be getting together in November to record a new album for release early next year. Mark’s own album is getting a soft release around Michigan’s Hoxeyville Music Festival (at which he will be performing with both the Bluegrass Bonanza and The Flatbellys) on August 19-21, with a full release shortly thereafter.
“Next week we’re going into the Glenn Brown Studio in Lansing [MI] to bust out some tracks, recording some more tracks at my house and doing some demos. So cool…” Mark trails off, words not being able to capture his passion. From my time speaking with him, I can firmly state that Mark embodies the best of what the bluegrass scene has to offer. He’s kind, humble, passionate, and endlessly devoted to the music. Whether it’s through The Flatbellys, the Bluegrass Bonanza, or in some other form, know that Mark Lavengood’s talent and personality will continue to find ways to express itself.
*Feature photo courtesy of John Hanson