This post is a contribution from Mark Stoffel, mandolinist with Chris Jones & the Night Drivers. It was written following his naturalization as an American citizen last week. As we look past this year’s extremely divisive election, it may do us all good to ponder how this country looks to an outsider coming in.
This past Friday, November 4th, 2016, was a big day in my life. I was in East St. Louis, in a room with lots of other immigrants from around the world, taking the oath to become an American Citizen. My family was there with me to witness the moment: My wife Mary, my two children Finn and Oliver, my in-laws Jim and Linda McDermott, and a few close friends.
I decided to become a citizen because I love this country, plain and simple.
I grew up in and around Munich, Germany, and have lived there two thirds of my life. Although I still miss the old home, family and friends I left behind, I have never felt so connected to a place like Southern Illinois since I have settled here in the fall of 2001. Back then, it was like moving to a place that was always supposed to be my home; neighbors embraced me, friendships were forged quickly, things just fell neatly into place in almost all aspects of life. Now I am happily married and we are blessed with two amazing children. Life is good and I rarely look back.
I am convinced that, in the end, music was the catalytic agent behind all of this. America has produced so many amazing sounds, acts, even its own genres. Before I even knew where to find the United States on the world map, I had vinyl records of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge spinning for hours on end. The tiny radio in my room was permanently tuned to AFN (Armed Forces Network) as I latched on to the songs and the radio personalities – even though I wasn’t at all familiar with the American English twang and all the embedded cultural contexts. I secretly listened to it late into the night with the radio hidden under my blanket. I don’t know what radio diet other German kids my age were consuming at the time, but I definitely overdosed on Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem, Bob Kingsley, Manfred Mann, the Eagles, John Denver, the Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, CCR, James Taylor, you name it. Thanks also to AFN for my first exposure to Bluegrass Music, as they would occasionally play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, the theme soundtrack of “Bonnie and Clyde’, released just a few years prior.
Behind all of that music seemed to be a life style, an attitude, a certain culture. Whatever it was, it pulled me in and I wanted to be near it and become a part of it. An active part, mind you. It really happened, but in the end I became a bluegrass mandolin player because of a couple of remarkable coincidences. First, I told my parents that I wanted a mandolin for Christmas, but I had a Ukulele in mind, not a mandolin. I just was too young to know the difference. Second, when I finally did get that mandolin, I didn’t know what to do with it, so I strolled around downtown Munich, checking music stores for mandolin instruction books. This is when I stumbled across a book Bluegrass Mandolin, by Jack Tottle, which in 1979 and considering the location, was a remarkable find! The pictures of Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, John Duffey, Frank Wakefield, Bobby Osborne – holding the coolest looking instrument I ever saw, an F-5 Gibson – completely sold me. I took the book home and the rest is history. Some 36 years later I get to be a tiny little part of this great American music experience as the mandolin player for Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, ten years and counting!
So …..… in becoming an American I will subsequently lose my German citizenship. I’ll always keep my German-ness in my heart, but I am now a proud American. I’m going to look forward, not back. I will not keep that backdoor open. If things get bad around here, I’ll do what I can to help fix it.
Thank you for reading this long message. Thank you, USA, for letting me be a part of this great experience! Thanks, everybody, for being my friend. Thanks to everyone in this amazing bluegrass community. Thanks, Jack Tottle for writing that book.
God bless & Cheers!
Mark will be heard on the new Chris Jones & The Night Drivers Mountain Home release, Made to Move, due out February 10, 2017.