BATTLE OF WILLS

Mark Wills sits in a Nashville restaurant, talking above the noise of nearby conversations and the clatter of plates and glasses. Suddenly his cellphone rings and it's a call he just has to take.

It's Mark's 5-year-old daughter, Mally, on the line from the family home near Atlanta. Mark chats with her warmly before signing off for the evening.

"Her bedtime is at 8:30 and I always say goodnight to her, wherever I am," says Mark with a smile. "If I was being interviewed on 60 Minutes and her call came through, I'd have to tell them to hang on for a moment."

That says all you need to know about Mark's priorities - family's always first. But he's started to establish priorities in his career, too, mainly by taking charge of his music and the image that goes with it.

That's something that he had to go to bat for, starting with song selection. While Mark's biggest hits have come with tender ballads like "Don't Laugh at Me" and "Wish You Were Here," he was growing tired of being tagged Mr. Sensitive.

"I felt like I was getting pigeonholed as a ballad singer," he explains. "Everything I did was so sentimental. That's why I finally took the initiative with my record label, saying, '[I'm] not going to do this anymore.' It had come to a point in my career where I just felt like enough was enough."

With a gleam in his eye, Mark continues. "If I wasn't going to make the music I wanted to make, then why was I doing this? I felt like I'd paid enough dues and been around long enough that I was entitled to cut the songs I wanted."

Mark knew that taking a stand could land him on the seat of his pants. Music Row typically doesn't like being told what to do. "It is probably one of the most intimidating things you ever have to do in your career," he says after a deep breath.

The risk paid off last year when Mark released "19 Somethin'," a lighthearted look at fads of the 1970s and '80s. "We were striving to find a great up-tempo song, and this was it," he recalls. "There was no way this wasn't going to be a hit!"

Mark was right on target. The song became the fastest-rising record of his career, and eventually his first No. 1 since "Wish You Were Here" in 1999.

"After that came out, people were like, 'You know, you're not as depressing as we thought.' That was great news, because I didn't want people to continue to think I was a one-dimensional artist," he says. "I want to sing every kind of song."

He's getting that wish with his new album, And the Crowd Goes Wild, featuring the rousing title cut. "It shows a little bit of diversity," explains Mark with a grin. "The album was taken purposely in that direction. I'm really high about it because I think it's the best overall work I've ever done."

Mark is also excited about his family's recent baby boom. This past January, he and wife Kelly welcomed their second daughter, Macey Marie. "We are just enjoying her so much," raves the proud dad. "And Mally is a wonderful big sister to her."

As the new baby entered their lives, Mark and Kelly also went through that first "letting go" experience as Mally started kindergarten this fall. "I have to tell you, Kelly and I both cried, but it's one of those steps you have to take in life."

Mark pauses and finishes his last bite of dinner. As he runs a hand over his neatly trimmed goatee, he gazes upward and ponders the future.

"I've been at this now for seven years," he says, "and the best part is, I'm only 30. There is more I want to accomplish, like winning awards. The night I won the ACM for Top New Male Vocalist [in 1998] was one of the proudest moments of my life, and I want to feel that again."

But longevity is the real key. "I did not get into this to be a five-year artist," he says earnestly. "I patterned my career after guys like Merle Haggard and Ronnie Milsap, who are still entertaining people after all these years. And I believe it can happen - as long as I stay true to what I am and what I want to do."

Story by Bob Paxman

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