HAPPY DAYS

Riding high with "19 Something," Mark Wills romps through childhood memories

Story by Bob Paxman * Photo by Phil Cicero

Mark Wills hurries into a Nashville photographer's studio, chatting intently on his cell phone, when an unexpected sight captures his attention. He stares at a beat-up green couch, parked conspicuously in front of cheesy wood paneling and a hideous electric clock on the wall - and he can't help but crack up.

"Oh, my gosh, this takes me back," laughs Mark, shaking his head. "When I was a kid, we had a room in our house that looked just like this."

Lately, Mark finds himself reflecting on his childhood of the '70s and '80s - hardly surprising, since his new hit, "19 Somethin'," mentions such period icons as Star Wars, MTV and the mind-boggling Rubik's Cube. The rollicking tune is on Mark's just-released Greatest Hits CD, featuring Top 5 tunes like "Places I've Never Been" and "I Do (Cherish You)" and the No. 1 smash "Wish You Were Here."

"Nineteen Somethin' " is the fastest- rising hit of Mark's career - and that doesn't surprise him. "I felt good about it from the start. The first time I heard it, I thought, 'This is my life rolled into three minutes.' I was into the Dukes Of Hazzard, Stretch Armstrong toys, all those things the song talks about," Mark recalls. "It was easily relatable, not just to me but for a lot of people of my generation."

Mark - who just turned 29 - can also relate to the timely last verse, where the carefree days of youth have given way to "mortgage and responsibility." Not that he's exactly complaining.

In November, Mark and wife Kelly celebrated their sixth wedding anniver- sary. The happy couple and 4-year-old daughter Mally make their home just outside of Atlanta.

"I love my life now, I couldn't be happier," he says earnestly. "But every now and then, you miss your childhood because it was just a simpler time."

Times are about to get even better for the Wills household - there's a new baby on the way! Mark and Kelly expect to welcome their second child by the first of next year.

"We don't know the sex of the baby, and we really don't want to," says Mark. "I can't tell who's more excited, us or Mally," he adds with a warm grin. "Mally's so ready to become a big sister."

After a few minutes, Mark stretches out on the studio couch and thinks back to his own Georgia boyhood. "I remember my folks having a green couch, kind of like this one. The back leg was broken off, so we propped it up with boards. We never did try to fix it," he laughs. "I have great memories of little stuff like that."

He vividly remembers seeing, as the song describes, "the stuff they put inside Stretch Armstrong," a popular action-figure toy that could be s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d to ridiculous limits. "I stretched it too far," Mark explains, "and this red gooey stuff on the inside started falling out, all over our green shag carpet. Let me tell you, it was pretty nasty."

But his mom let it slide. "She was pretty cool about things like that," says Mark. "That's how I am at home - I don't want my kids to be afraid to play in their own house or feel like they can't touch anything."

Mark leaves little doubt that family touches every part of his life. "The first thing I do in the morning is take Mally to preschool," says Mark. "I walk her right into the building until I know she's OK. At night, we read or color together and play her favorite games. I think it's important for her to know that when Daddy's home, she can have my full attention."

Mark turns his eye to the wood-paneled-wall, on which now hangs an unmistakable symbol of the '70s: the sexy poster of Charlie's Angels TV star Farrah Fawcett. "Yes, I had one, in my room," Mark confesses. "But I had to be real careful about it. Dad was a deacon in our church."

The flashback draws a smile from Mark, who's clearly had a blast with this trip down memory lane. But at the same time, he's keeping his sights fixed on the future.

"I decided this year that it was time to restructure my career," he says. "I want to get away from this spit-and-polish image that I've had for a while, and I also want to branch out musically."

Mark flashes a mischievous grin as he thinks of one more thing he'd like. "That Farrah Fawcett poster over there," he says, pointing to the wall. "Think I can have it?"

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