Mark Cosgrove's distinctive, creative flatpicking sound is known and respected on both sides of the Atlantic, and it seems like he's just getting started. Not bad for someone who grew up in a Manhattan apartment surrounded by classical music and whose original musical ambition was to become a drummer.
"My first instrument was guitar, but I started playing drums when I was 10 or 11. I learned from records and played in school bands," he says. "I still love to play drums. I'm not a good drummer, but I'm adequate. I think that helped me have a halfway decent sense of time and feel for music. In this genre, I believe that feel and groove is essential."
Cultural exposure in Mark's home was distinctly highbrow. His mother, Mary, was a successful costume designer for major Broadway musicals and the opera, winning a Tony Award for her work in 1948. "My household was always full of friends of my parents who were involved in music and theater. None of my immediate family members are musicians, and getting established as a musician myself, people assume there was a lot of bluegrass and acoustic music in my household, but there really wasn't," he relates. "My parents and family loved classical music, and still to this day don't get the music I am so involved in and have made my life's work."
After flirting with drums, Mark returned to guitar when he was about 15 as he met high school mates who were into bluegrass and folk music, as well as acoustic-flavored rock acts like CSN&Y. A ninth grade math teacher who played fiddle encouraged him, as well. But it wasn't until he heard the glorious wail of Clarence White on the Byrds' "Untitled" album that the guitar really took hold of him. ""That knocked me out, when I took a look at the layers of what Clarence White was doing," he explains. Around the same time, Mark heard Doc Watson and the famous "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album and made the connection that Doc and Clarence both were flatpicking the acoustic guitar. "I was hooked and have been ever since," Mark says now.
Mark studious pursued flatpicking, and went to work for guitar maker Augustine LoPrinzi, where he spent a summer sanding guitar bodies. The shop had a Brazilian rosewood dreadnought on the wall that was considered a second. Despite their reluctance to sell anything considered less than their best work, Mark persuaded his boss to let him buy the guitar for $100. "I used that guitar to win both Winfield and the Doc Watson championships. I treasure it," he says.
In addition to playing acoustic, Mark also enjoyed playing electric guitar, an early musical experience that shows a profound impact in how he approaches his flatpicking style. By the time he was 18, Mark had joined a local swing country band called Cross Country that covered everything from Western Swing stylists like Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen and Asleep at the Wheel to the New Orleans-based Dixie funk rock of Little Feat. "I was and still am a huge Lowell George [Little Feat's founder] fan. I was knocked out by his phrasing," Mark explains. The band played professionally around the Philadelphia area, giving him valuable exposure to the world of being a professional musician. Hungry for musical growth, he absorbed country-rock licks and chicken pickin' style Telecaster leads from masters such as Ray Flacke, Albert Lee and James Burton, all the while continuing to soak up influences from Clarence White's astounding breakthroughs on both acoustic and electric guitar. It all went into Mark's musical upbringing, creating a daring and original style that wouldn't become fully realized until he started playing acoustic guitar full time in the mid-80s.
His first chance to do that came when he joined a Philly-based bluegrass band called the Lewis Brothers, which as Mark recalls, "didn't have a single person named Lewis or a single brother in it." The band released two LPs and toured Europe, where he met future partner Liz Meyer. Working with a straight-up bluegrass band helped Mark hone his acoustic chops, but the demands of his day job as a carpenter kept him from progressing as much as he wanted. Eventually, Mark and his then-wife bought a natural foods store selling everything from organic produce to supplements. "That afforded me time to play more guitar and, in a physical way, I wasn't so exhausted and I had been doing contracting work," he recalls. "I could concentrate really hard on my playing and did some major improving then."
Before long, he felt good enough to tackle the challenging guitar competition circuit. Making his first pilgrimage to Winfield in 1987, he entered his very first guitar competition at the National Flatpicking Guitar Championships. "I didn't make the cut. I really sucked," he admits freely. But he gained valuable experience and insight. "One thing that contributing to my sucking so bad was that I hadn't prepared. I could improvise pretty well, and I had the outlines of my tunes down and thought I could just blow over the changes and be relaxed. I had no idea of the level of competition out there," he tells FGM. "I spent the next eight years pondering how to go about that and have more success."
With his new job, Mark could devote many more hours to developing and practicing contest arrangements. Diligently, he worked on his tunes and developed his musicianship to a higher level. By 1994, he felt ready to take another crack at the big time, heading to Merlefest for the flatpicking contest there. "I just wanted to get more experience; I had no concept that I might win," he says, adding that, "I got lucky that day." Buoyed by his success in North Carolina, Mark returned to Winfield in 1994 and came home with a solid second-place finish, losing to Mike Whitehead and beating Kenny Smith. "Great company," he says with a smile now. That year at Winfield, Mark cracked the inner circle of top pickers, joining jams with two-time champ Gary Cook, the Kessingers and Steve Kaufman. "During my time off from contests, I looked at Steve's real genius for arrangement and creating strong competition pieces," he says of three-time winner and contest legend Kaufman.