Hear Me Out: Mark Harrelson


By Lee Shook

He may not be a household name, and you may not have ever seen his face or heard his voice, but if you’ve lived in Birmingham long enough you’ve definitely heard Mark Harrelson before. And whether it was through a radio jingle, the morning news, a television ad, or any number of bands and musicians he’s worked with and produced here over the years— both on his own and through his work at Boutwell Studios— Harrelson has been one of the quiet cornerstones of both the Magic City music scene and the audio artistry in general across a wide spectrum of mediums and messages for nearly 45 years.

Born in Birmingham, and raised in Homewood and Vestavia, as one of five brothers in his family, Mark first got interested in music and audio through his older siblings Rob and Keith, who introduced the middle Harrelson to early rock, soul and R&B records at a formative age. Briefly taking up drums in grammar school, he quickly realized that his interests were more aligned with being behind the scenes rather than out in front of an audience, setting him on a career path that would soon take shape after graduating from high school. Moving to Tuscaloosa in 1971 to attend the University of Alabama, it was there that he would make his first forays into production work, getting a broadcast degree while also working with local bands as a roadie and running live sound for gigs, including traveling artists like John Hartford and early glam icon Jobriath. Eventually falling in with local favorites The Locust Fork Band, it was through them that he would begin to really hone his skills as an audio engineer, learning about mixing and mic placement as well as how to build his own PA systems. Working with the band throughout the mid-to-late-1970s, it was also during this time that he would purchase his first 4-track tape machine, humbly launching what would become a lifelong passion for providing artists with the means to record and workshop songs— including early efforts with Muscle Shoals alums Tippy Armstrong and Eddie Hinton— eventually morphing into his home studio company Kudzu Productions.

Briefly returning to Birmingham after leaving Locust Fork in 1977, he would soon move to Macon, Georgia— home of Capricorn Records— to work with keyboardist and songwriter Bobby Whitlock, helping record demos and mixing live shows for the legendary musician. As a sideman to everyone from George Harrison to Exile on Main St.-era Rolling Stones, and a member of Derek and the Dominos, it was a watershed moment for Harrelson that saw him working with one of his personal heroes in a professional setting and would point to greater things to come. Moving back to Birmingham six months later, it was upon his return home that he would slowly begin to climb the professional ladder here in town, first by working as an audio gear salesman for Sonics Associates, before subsequently landing a job at Channel 13 News as Technical Director, both of which would prove invaluable experiences. Having amassed an ever-expanding collection of recording equipment through his sales job, he would also continue to ply his trade as a producer and engineer for local bands at his home studio, recording EPs for some of Birmingham’s very first New Wave acts like The Invaders, The Cronics and Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits, as well as doing demos for people like Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie and future Huey Lewis & The News songwriter Mike Duke.

But his most important break would come in 1983 when he convinced respected local studio owner Ed Boutwell to let him come on board as a partner at Boutwell Studios in its fourth iteration on 23rd Street South. Bringing his expertise in video-synching and broadcast audio, as well as a growing clientele of local recording artists like Telluride to the table, it was there that he would spend the rest of his career through today— including a move to its current location in Homewood in 1999— helping to expand the business into one of the longest running professional studios in the state. Landing high profile gigs along the way with artists like Gregg Allman and the Swampers, Harrelson has continued to evolve his craft, subtly leaving an indelible mark on the local and regional music scene from behind the mixing board, while also doing radio, television and film work. And although he’s stepped back in recent years to a more administrative role, he continues to be a hands-on presence, working alongside a stable of younger audiophiles and engineers to help keep the studio’s legacy alive and thriving, pushing their story forward into the future. And that’s something both Birmingham— and Alabama— can be proud of

3 Responses to “Hear Me Out: Mark Harrelson”

  1. Tim Denny says:

    Great story on Mark. Not only does he know how to produce, he has great stories about music legends. He has, as you say, worked in the background; but without his work, we would not have so loved the music out front.

  2. David Johnson says:

    Great article. I have known Mark for a number of years. I had the pleasure of working with Mark doing the State if Alabama’s songwriters contest. Mark is a great guy and remarkable engineer.

  3. Tommy Talton says:

    Lee,

    A fine article on a very talented, dedicated friend! Mark’s high standards, knowledge and ‘feel’ for the music and business end of music have truly helped many through the years. He certainly deserves any and all accolades on a life well spent ‘behind the scenes’ in an artistic world!

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