Mark Bruner enters a study with his “hello-friend” smile — a typical greeting known to thousands of Tulsa music aficionados. He settles into a leather couch, places his hat on the table and comments that performing with hats is all about the hair. He never figured he was the guy who loses his, says the tall man with the thinning hairline. “It turns out I was wrong about that.”
The 67-year-old guitar player and crooner takes a sip of water and looks ready to play his favorite song. He leans forward.
Bruner recalls his first live performances in 1967 at a chaperoned junior high event — playing drums at the Hillsboro, Missouri, horse show facility in a building called Teen Town. In the mid-’70s, Bruner left the University of Missouri after his freshman year to follow his music passion. His first paying audience was as a member of the house band for Harry’s Marlboro Lounge in south St. Louis, earning $125 a week.
“I distinctly remember the period (22-23 years old) when I said to myself, ‘Performing is exactly what I’m going to do,’ while everyone asked, ‘Are you sure, Mark?’’ Bruner says. “I made the commitment to jump off the high dive.
“I made sure I wasn’t going to have any distractions in my 20s. No kids, no marriage, none of that. It’s just me, my little duffel bag of clothes and guitar case. I’ve always had a music job. That’s really important to me because it validates the decision to develop my obsession for entertaining and to be a musician that is paid, not just a living room player.”
Bruner moved to Tulsa in 1982. After nearly four decades in Tulsa, he continues to reinvent himself. Early in that period, he played rock n’ roll, country and Americana, then blues, jazz, and smooth jazz in his street jazz band. “First, if you’re going to try to make a living in small-town America, you better not just do the same thing,” he says. “That’s always been at the forefront of my business thinking. The other thing is my restless musical spirit likes playing different genres of music and being challenged, so that’s part of it, too.”
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered music venues. “The pandemic has certainly posed challenges for all of us and, particularly, in the artistic community,” he says. “Outdoor events lend themselves to social distancing. I have been fortunate to maintain a normal schedule that points to my usual 240-260 dates a year.” Bruner has been playing nightly at Polo Grill, 2038 Utica Square.
Fans follow Bruner wherever he plays. Devotees claim the slender man with gig-hats for all genres and moods jives well with them. Bruner clearly loves to entertain.
“I’ve learned that it’s all about connecting,” he says. “You have to recognize, am I touching someone’s spirit? They might connect with ‘Fly Me to the Moon;’ they might connect to ‘The Thrill is Gone,’ or (another) BB King tune, or they might connect to a Hank Williams country song. Since I play in smaller venues, that thrill of connectivity challenges me as an artist.”
One evening State Rep. Regina Goodwin complimented him after his performance and asked about his background. Inspired by his accomplishments, she nominated Bruner for a statewide award.
Occasionally, the Oklahoma Legislature awards a Citation of Recognition to a person who, for many years, has contributed to the cultural fabric of the state — businesspeople, philanthropists and the like. There’s always a big fanfare event for the recipient on the Legislature’s floor and a lot of press attention. Bruner was scheduled to be honored April, but the pandemic made that impossible, and the citation was mailed to him.
“I hope this recognition makes my wife and two children proud, and I salute the sacrifices they have made over the years,” says Bruner, who has also been named Tulsa’s “Mr. Guitar” six times. “When I’m gone, hopefully, the framed citation will be in my little goodie trunk, and my kids can look back and say, ‘Hey, this was my old man.’”
Additionally, Bruner’s annual participation at the Tulsa State Fair Fingerstyle State Guitar Championship — he has 11-straight victories — are on hold because the 2020 fair was canceled. He shares his strategy for the competition: “I try to show them a few things — a couple of finger roll techniques, or a flourish, or a particular thumb pattern. I want to give them a decent overview of my right hand because that’s where it all is. It takes hours of practice, hours and hours of prep.”
Bruner explains how a fingerpicking guitarist faces extreme challenges. “I’ve kind of climbed or scaled guitar mountain,” he says. Improving his solo-guitar chops became the new barrier to cross. “Playing solo guitar has given me a bigger canvas for musical self-expression and artistic freedom,” he says. “This guitar style that I do has a very high degree of difficulty because it involves three essential things: melody, rhythm, and bass all at the same time, and it’s extremely challenging. Like the ultimate ‘rub your tummy and pat your head.’”
For Bruner, there are no signs of slowing down now. “I mean I’ve still got the fire in my belly,” he says. “I still want to do it. I still practice every day. Most of the time, my first thought of the day when I wake up is something musical. The thing I like about the musician’s life, really, is the music.”