GEORGIA ON HIS MIND

Story by Bob Paxman - Photos by Tim Campbell

Mark Wills looks out over his suburban Atlanta neighborhood and takes in the sights and sounds. Children are playing nearby, car pools are revving up and friends shout greetings from across front yards.

Mark's broad grin reveals that there's no place like home - as long as it's in Georgia. "It will always be my home," he declares without hesitation. "It's where I started in music, it's where I've lived all my life."

Life is certainly sweet for the Peach State singer. He maintains a healthy balance of a tight-knit family - with wife Kelly and 3-year-old daughter Mally - and an equally solid career, which includes the chart-topping hits "Don't Laugh At Me" and "Wish You Were Here." His current hit, "Loving Every Minute," is on the charts, and a new album is to be released soon.

Despite his success, Mark shuns any trappings of a celebrity lifestyle. He's determined to make life as normal as possible. "That's why I chose to live in this area," says Mark. "This is where we feel comfortable."

And this cozy neighborhood offers something money can't buy: a sense of grounded, everyday living. "Out here, I'm not 'Mark Wills the singer,' but just the guy who lives at the end of the street," explains Mark.

And a handy guy at that. As everyone gathers in the kitchen, Kelly proudly points out his contributions. "Mark did all the trim work on the shelf tops, which is a pretty detailed job," she says. Mark playfully flashes a "tell-me-about-it" grin toward Kelly as he admires his handiwork.

Mark also helps out in the kitchen. "Kelly is the real cook of the family," he reveals. "I'm more of a griller, an outdoor chef."

"But we switch off a lot of the time," Kelly quickly adds. "Mark's really good about that."

Suddenly, Mally, who's been quietly occupied watching The Lion King - "for the 200th time," Mark jokes - enters the kitchen, and hands Mark a half-full juice cup. "Is this for me?" he kids Mally, who lets loose with a giggle. "Oh, you'd like some more juice."

Mark gives Mally her refill, then heads downstairs to his home studio. It's a small but well-equipped room with recording machines and speakers that could wake the dead if pumped at full volume.

"This is where I listen to songs when I'm getting ready to put out an album," he says. "Sometimes, I'll actually record a demo in this room, just to give me a better sense of a song. I'd like to bring in even more recording equipment, because I spend a lot of time here."

But he also takes time to relax in his favorite room. It's his getaway area, with every "guy" feature imaginable - a big-screen TV, a comfy couch. "I call this The Dog House," he jokes. "This is where I go when Kelly's mad at me. No, really, it's a great place for watching ball games when some of my buddies come over or just when I need some downtime."

And whenever time allows, Mark jumps at the chance to play a round of golf. "I love to play, especially when a good cause is involved," says Mark, who hosts the Price Oil Plainsman Celebrity Tournament in Alabama, which raises funds for the American Heart Association. "I love the mental and the physical aspects - and yet I can't seem to get good at it."

Still, the game has its rewards. Mark has played in enough celebrity events to come away with a vast collection of complimentary golf bags. He holds up the crown jewel of his collection: a bag autographed by the sport's reigning superstar, Tiger Woods. "He signed that for me at the Buick Challenge in Georgia last year," notes Mark proudly.

Though it's a sunny spring afternoon, Mark won't be teeing off today - because it's time for tea! Mally has arranged a tea party for Mark and Kelly in her room. Mark and Kelly take their seats on the floor and wait for their hostess - Mally - to serve them. They sip their imaginary tea from the tiny cups that Mally has set out.

"Ummm, did you make this yourself?" asks Mark. Mally nods and smiles, then looks to her mom for further approval. "Oh, I think this is your best yet!" Kelly agrees with an amused, loving smile. "I'll have some more, please."

Mark is totally drawn into his daughter's world, and, in the words of his new single, he's loving every minute.

"I enjoy making records and performing," he says. "That's what I've always wanted to do, but it's not my whole life. Kelly and Mally are everything to me."

And everything he needs in life is right here at home.

"People ask me why I don't live in Nashville, but that would be really tough on our families," says Mark, gazing up at the blue Georgia sky. "Kelly's mom lives about 10 minutes from us, and my parents are about an hour away.

"It's important for us to keep those ties," he adds. "That's why I have never desired to live in Nashville. Or anywhere else."

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