Prolific songwriter paints pictures in listeners’ minds while telling stories with lyrics and melodies.
One of bluegrass music’s most prolific songwriters draws from a deep well of influences.
Mark “Brink” Brinkman, 68, grew up listening to his grandfather play Big Band music, including a stint with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
His mom was a concert violinist who enrolled her son in classical piano lessons at age 4. Like most Baby Boomers, Brinkman was drawn to rock ‘n’ roll music in his teens, but broadened his horizons during the “folk scare” of the 1960s. There he discovered the heady tunes of Bob Dylan, which led him to stellar songwriters Dan Fogelberg and John Prine.
But it was a trip to Bean Blossom in the late ‘70s that imprinted bluegrass music on his soul. A roommate during a summer working at Glacier National Park introduced him to Doc Watson’s music and told him about the Indiana festival. Brinkman packed up his 1966 Martin D-28 and drove his 1971 gold VW Microbus to the festival, where he camped up on “Hippie Hill” with other long-haired music enthusiasts.
“I still remember walking down to the stage and Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass were playing,” Brinkman said in a phone interview from an RV park in Montana. “They had Marty Stuart playing mandolin and Kenny Ingram was playing the banjo. I still remember it like it was yesterday. They kicked off ‘Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ so fast you couldn’t even think that fast. My jaw kind of hit the ground.”
The visual memory of the band decked out in one-size-fits-all powder blue, polyester leisure suits lingers in his mind. “The music was incredible and I really didn’t know what I was hearing,” Brinkman said. “I heard all the big bands—Monroe, Jimmy Martin and on and on. It just really hit me and knocked me over. That’s when I started trying to immerse myself in learning how to play this stuff. Along with that, I started writing some things, kind of a melting pot of the stuff I grew up on.”
Painting a story
Brinkman, who was nominated as 2021 “Songwriter of the Year” for the fourth time by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), has always been drawn to story songs. He started writing as a teenager and has written over 3,000 songs in multiple genres, including 18 No. 1 hits.
A native of Wisconsin, Brinkman underwrote his songwriting career by working in the claims department of a major insurer until retiring about seven years ago. He and his wife, Jan, sold their home and lived untethered in an RV for about five years, traveling the country while drawing inspiration from the great outdoors. Last year they bought a home in central Florida, but the road still beckons. They traveled out west again this summer to visit old and new friends and hike in several national parks.
Brinkman often posts videos on his Facebook and YouTube pages, showcasing songs he’s working on in his daily writing sessions. “When you have a songwriter mindset, you’re writing all the time, literally 24 hours a day. Something is always hitting you,” he said. “I write every day. My mission statement for years has been to drink coffee and make stuff up. Every morning I make my coffee early in the morning, I grab my guitar and I have stacks of songs that I’m working on.”
Brinkman says he has an active pile of 15 to 20 songs that are in some stage of development, then another pile of 100 to 150 snippets or ideas that he can pull from. His specialty is the story song, painting a picture that strikes a chord with listeners. It’s a delicate process, basically producing a three or four-minute movie using lyrics and a melody. He is adamant about writing to emotion and not to the perfect rhyme. He draws on all the senses—hearing, seeing, smell, taste and feel and often adds a heaping helping of nostalgia.
“Less is more,” Brinkman tells aspiring songwriters in workshops. “If you can say it in five words, don’t say it in seven. I want to make the listener feel something. You have to paint a picture in the listener’s mind and that listener sees the picture. You paint that picture with the lyric and when the listener sees that picture, that’s when the emotions come.”
An example is “Grandpa’s Way of Life,” a hit recorded by the Spinney Brothers that was nominated for IBMA’s “Song of the Year” in 2014.
He drank his coffee from a saucer
Rolled his smokes from an old tin can
He could play Sally Goodin on the fiddle
Yeah, he was grandma’s kind of man
Spent six days a week behind a plow mule,
Turning acres into rows,
Yeah, he’d even get up early Sunday morning,
and put on his only Sunday clothes
And I wonder how things got so complicated,
You know it’s hard to find a good ol’ Barlow knife
I’d love to throw computers out the window,
and go back to grandpa’s way of life
He could fix anything with baling wire and duct tape,
He called them God’s essential tools,
He never had much use for the TV
Except for Walter Cronkite’s evening news
He only had an eighth grade education,
No old diploma hangin’ just for show,
But when it came to teaching me a lesson,
He will always be the smartest man I know
And I wonder how things got so complicated,
If I could hear his fiddle play tonight,
I’d throw my computer out the window,
And go back to grandpa’s way of life
Songwriting, particularly in bluegrass music, is not that lucrative. Brinkman’s reward is getting to meet and work with artists and other songwriters. He said he considers it a privilege to write with heroes like Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley and Carl Jackson. He treasures working relationships with other songwriters like Paula Breedlove, Becky Buller, Louisa Branscomb and David Stewart.
Fellow songwriter Branscomb, who wrote the bluegrass standard “Steel Rails” and co-wrote the 2014 IBMA “Song of the Year” “Dear Sister” with Claire Lynch, calls Brinkman a “bluegrass workhorse” and a solid songwriter. They worked together to get the IBMA “Songwriter of the Year” category added to the industry awards. As co-writers on several songs, they have built a collaborative working relationship.
“I trust that Brink is going to work with me, he’s going to respect my ideas and he’s going to work to get the songs placed,” Branscomb said. While they have different styles, they complement each other. “He’s more systematic than I am, so he gives me structure,” she said. “He’s my go-to guy as far as being a solid writer who can make a song happen. I have a lot of respect for him, too. We just have a good collaboration and he brings in a lot of the traditional bluegrass feel and drive to a song.”
She cited the song “Fireflies and Falling Stars,” recently recorded by Lizzy Long, as an example. Brinkman initiated the song after seeing Branscomb’s Facebook post about sitting on the back porch on her farm. They wrote the song quickly, but both are always meticulous when polishing the finished product.
“We’re alike in that we’re really hard on our songs,” Branscomb said. “We question everything. We’re really perfectionists. It’s just a joy to have a writer that balances you out. I hope he’d say the same. We know what it’s like to be first and foremost a songwriter. We share that. We both have an understanding that goes beyond words about what this life choice is. It’s a calling.”
Finding the Right Fit
Instead of sending artists a pile of songs, Brinkman talks with them to get a feel for the type of song that might fit an upcoming project. He knows their time is precious. Developing relationships with bluegrass musicians is what makes it all worthwhile for him. “Obviously, the monetary reward is getting less and less because of digital streaming,” he said. “The income streams in songwriting have just about dried up in many ways. The intrinsic things are becoming more and more important, the relationships and having the songs recorded by professionals and hearing it on the radio.”
Brinkman said he still remembers the struggle early on of trying to get a song recorded. He doesn’t take anything for granted, even after having over 400 songs recorded. “I look back now, I still remember those days,” he said. “I don’t ever take for granted getting a song recorded. I know how hard it is. You’ve got to have gator skin when you go into it because you’ll pitch songs and pitch songs. You get frustrated.”
His songs have made their way into southern rock, Americana, country, gospel and bluegrass. Where they land is not up to him. Rather, Brinkman’s goal is to write the best song possible and let listeners decide its fate. “Where it ends up, the song is the boss and it will find its place,” Brinkman said.
The biggest compliment he’s ever gotten is when a listener told him that his songs don’t all sound the same. Variety comes from all the influences that have rained down on him through the years. “If all you have is a hammer in your tool belt, the whole world’s a nail,” he said. “The more tools that you have in the tool belt the better songwriter you will be because you can draw on influences from jazz or rock or blues or bluegrass.”
During his travels, Brinkman often performs in campgrounds to test his material on varied audiences. He can tell when a song strikes a chord with the audience. “Two Fingers of Tennessee Whiskey” is a new song about a 99-year-old man who is looking back on the things that matter most in life.
Stress is going to kill you just as sure as any knife
Have a few friends you can count on and a good lovin’ wife
Every night play your guitar, smoke a fine cigar
and drink two fingers of Tennessee Whiskey.
You know, a lie will do more damage than you think
And hate is like a poison that you drink
Be quick to mend a fence, trust God and common sense
Life goes by fast and you’ll miss it if you blink.
“Certain songs you’ll look out and you can see it in their eyes,” Brinkman said of his songwriter showcases. “I’m always watching people when I’m singing. I’m reading them. This song is hitting them, I can tell. People are pulling tissues out. This is good.”