The stars on the flag won’t be the only stars featured in Canton this July Fourth weekend. Grand Ole Opry inductee, chart-topping country musician, North Georgia native, community leader: all those descriptions apply to Mark Wills.

Mark Wills | Photo Credit: Jerry King/J. King Images

Mark Wills, inside P.O.P.S. in Downtown Canton. (Photo Credit: Jerry King/J. King Images)

On July 5, Canton’s much-loved First Friday Concert Series welcomes Mark to the stage. Part of Canton’s annual Independence Day celebration, the event features a parade, fireworks, and opportunities for families, friends, and neighbors to gather and listen to country favorites performed by a “boy from Blue Ridge.”

Mark says he’s thrilled to be part of the First Friday 2024 lineup. “I’m looking forward to playing in Canton, close to home. It’ll be a show where all my friends will be. Playing in an arena or other large venues where I don’t get to see friends is hard, but I love playing events where I can say, ‘Hey! This is a community show. Bring your family and friends, hit the food trucks, support the local vendors, and have fun.’” He adds that being able to play during a Fourth of July celebration is particularly special for him. “I get to watch my grandbaby enjoy the fireworks and be with my family as we celebrate America’s birthday.”

A Heart for Community Involvement

Throughout his thirty-plus-year musical career, Mark has been passionate about supporting the armed forces, veterans, and the local police and sheriff departments. He has traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Korea, and Italy to entertain troops. Mark has also frequently volunteered with St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Children’s Miracle Network, and other organizations as a national ambassador.

Mark Wills | Photo Credit: Jerry King/J. King Images

Mark stands inside the iconic gazebo in downtown Canton’s Cannon Park, where crowds will gather for his First Friday show on Friday, July 5. (Photo Credit: Jerry King/J. King Images)

Locally, in 2019, Mark performed at Rock for a Reason, an annual gala that benefits childhood cancer research. Cherokee County native Ollie Evans, owner of Georgia Chiropractic and Massage, cofounded the nonprofit in 2017. He notes, “It was really cool to have Mark at the event, donating his time and money. He’s a great guy.”

Over the last few years Mark has reemerged in community involvement opportunities that had been shut down because of COVID. In February he spoke to the newest cohorts enrolled in Teen Leadership Cherokee, an annual program the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce developed to educate and enrich local sophomores to prepare them for leadership roles within the community. During his presentation Mark focused on successfully aligning goals and dreams and how to set realistic goals that create better expectations for life experiences.

Newer, More Inclusive Release

One of Mark’s most recognized and well-loved songs is the 1998 release “Don’t Laugh at Me,” which received nominations from the Country Music Association for Best Single, Song, and Video of the Year. Mark says, “‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ was kind of everybody’s song because it’s one that everybody could relate to. As kids we don’t always realize we’re making fun of someone because they have the guts to be something we want to be.” Upon the song’s release, schools and anti-bullying organizations nationwide chose the song as an anthem, communicating awareness and spreading messages of kindness and tolerance for people from all walks of life. Within the last few years, the special-needs community has connected with the song in a profound, heartfelt way.

For the rerelease of “Don’t Laugh at Me” in 2022, Mark partnered with Nashville-based a cappella group Home Free, plus a special appearance from his daughter Macey. Mark wanted a broader spectrum represented in the video, noting, “The special-needs community wasn’t represented in the original music video, and I wanted to make sure they were, the second time around.” In addition to scenes portraying in-person bullying from neighborhood kids, the video also includes depictions of cyberbullying and online harassment. The video stars ASL interpreter JennaLee Wasserman and Nate Simon of 21 Pineapples Shirt Co. and earned the collaborators three gold Telly Awards.

The ripple effect of the message behind “Don’t Laugh at Me” has also positively impacted various organizations here in Cherokee County. Organizations that have used it as an anthem to spread positive messages of inclusion and hope include Fitfully Forward, an organization dedicated to helping individuals with special needs discover the benefits of dance, and Limitless Disability Services, which provides programs that allow special-needs adults to learn independence and grow through community support and activities.

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A Mentor for Local Musical Acts

In addition to his volunteerism and activism, Mark makes himself available for other local musical acts starting their careers. When local singer-songwriter and The Voice winner Bryce Leatherwood began his rise to fame, Mark offered the musician his support, explaining that the impact of transitioning from anonymity to full-fledged stardom can be challenging to wrap your brain around.

After meeting Mark at a conference, singer-songwriter Ben Kimbrell from Marietta says he’s also grateful for Mark’s mentorship. “Mark was gracious enough to come watch me play and gave me his number. Later I had the opportunity to meet up and play some songs with him. He also offered insights into songwriting and his career. It was cool to talk to a professional and get a firsthand look at what it takes to get to that next level.”

As their friendship grew, so did Mark’s mentorship of Ben. Ben says, “I explained I’d be doing an EP release show at MadLife [Stage and Studios] for my first-ever EP. Mark said, ‘If you want, I can play some songs with you.’ The show ended up being marketed as an EP release show with Mark as the special guest.” The EP show started with Ben playing his own set, followed by Mark playing a few songs. The two finished the set together, singing some of Mark’s songs.

“That was really cool. Hearing those songs growing up and then being able to play with him was special. I appreciated him taking the time and investing in me like he did,” Ben adds.

Mark feels strongly about making himself available to younger acts as a sounding board because he remembers what it was like as a young musician trying to make the best decisions for his future. “I would have loved to have somebody in my world who had been doing it for thirty years reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to support and guide you and share my own mistakes so you can learn from them.’”

From Blue Ridge Native to Opry Inductee

Mark debuted at the Grand Ole Opry on August 22, 1997; since then he’s played the venue an estimated three hundred times. On January 11, 2019, he was the 218th inductee into the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, following an on-stage invitation from Vince Gill, who told the audience, “That boy has been the greatest supporter and greatest proponent of what this Opry stands for.”

As a young performer from Blue Ridge, Mark never thought being inducted into the Opry would be something he could achieve. “When you think about career goals, when you think about family goals and personal goals, it kind of fits into all those things. Very few things transcend the family line, professional line, or even a personal goal.”

Mark acknowledges his induction into the Opry as one of the things he’s most proud of in his musical career. “The Grand Ole Opry is a country music institution and has really transitioned as a predecessor to the Country Music Hall of Fame.” He adds, “Of all the accolades and the positives that go along with the successes of a career in country music, I’m truly most proud of that accomplishment, of joining the [Opry] family, out of every other thing I could have done.”

In March, Mark performed during the Grand Ole Opry House fiftieth anniversary celebration, which honored country music legends Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely, and Connie Smith, who performed during the venue’s opening night in 1974, when Mark was just seven months old.

And the Crowd Goes Wild

From his debut single, “Jacob’s Ladder,” and ballads like “I Do (Cherish You)” and “Places I’ve Never Been,” to up-tempo favorites like “And the Crowd Goes Wild” and “19 Somethin’” Mark’s smooth baritone is set to float through historic downtown Canton on Friday, July 5. The free show is part of Canton’s annual First Friday concert series, which draws crowds that fill Cannon Park and spill onto Main Street for a street party full of family-friendly fun. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Tyson Leamon will kick off the tunes before Mark and his band take the stage.

Mark Wills | Velinda Hardy | Downtown Canton First Friday | Photo Credit: Jerry King/J. King Images

Canton’s Downtown Development Manager Velinda Hardy got the chance to meet Mark ahead of his show in July. Velinda is responsible for booking the talent featured in the city’s First Friday concert series. She says, “We’re thrilled to welcome Mark Wills to Downtown Canton’s First Friday. Get ready for an incredible performance that will light up the night!” (Photo Credit: Jerry King/J. King Images)

Learn more…

For more information on Canton’s First Friday Concert Series and Independence Day celebration, visit ExploreCantonGA.com. For information on Mark’s upcoming shows, visit MarkWills.com.

 

 

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