When performing for troops at USO bases, the setup is nothing like what Hootie & the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan is used to in traditional venues. But once the music starts, it doesn’t matter.
“That all goes out the window,” he said. “You are just there for the moment… When [the service members] in the audience are watching, for them, it’s a moment of escape. There’s so much intensity when you’re overseas and stationed there, and that’s your job.”
From Bryan’s vantage point, it’s “pure joy.” And a joy he’s seen since the late 1990s when Hootie & the Blowfish started its relationship with the USO, playing in Hungary, the Balkans and the Persian Gulf, among other areas – and in the 2000s for one of the first homeland USO tours in decades.
On Thursday, Bryan will give his first solo USO performance at the MGM Resort & Casino National Harbor in Maryland to honor the 2021 USO Service Members of the Year:
- Sgt. Breanna J. Jessop, USO Soldier of the Year
- Sgt. Seth A. Dewey, USO Marine of the Year
- Hospital Corpsman Petty Officer 2nd Class Johnnharley S. Delacruz, USO Sailor of the Year
- Staff Sgt. Ryan T. Daggett, USO Airman of the Year
- Petty Officer 3rd Class Gerrod J. Britton
- Sgt. Francisco Javier Luna, USO National Guardsman of the Year
“You have no idea how honored I feel,” Bryan said. “To be able to do anything for our military on any level for me, it just feels like one of the best ways I can possibly give back with the gift that I’ve been given.”
In addition to playing some Hootie classics, Bryan also plans to perform a rendition of Radney Foster’s “Angel Flight,” which tells the story of the airmen who bring fallen service members back to the states.
“It’ll intensify the moment a little bit, I think,” he said. “[It’s a] juxtaposition to the pop songs.”
USO relationship begins
Bryan’s first USO concert was in Bosnia and was memorable, in part, for the fact that the flight from one base to another kicked his motion sickness into gear.
“[The pilot] just did this really hard up turn, and we went up so fast that my body, it never adjusted, and I was like the equivalent of seasick or motion sick for the next six hours… [I was] playing for the troops and trying not to puke,” he said with a laugh.
But while in that helicopter, the band saw the Bosnian countryside in the aftermath of the Bosnia War that lasted from 1992 to 1995.
“It was right after the crisis they had gone through,” Bryan said. “We saw a bunch of warn-torn towns. Seeing that firsthand was chilling.”
Connecting with families
Over the years, Bryan said he has gotten a feel for how involved the USO is with families and ensuring they’re connected.
“When we were in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim, I really noticed a lot of the families were living over there in Korea,” he said. “We were staying on bases, sometimes meeting the families that were there, and just those relationships that came out of that was really cool.”
To this day, people reach out online or tell Bryan in person that they first met at a USO show.
“The bigger picture aspect [is] getting to serve with whatever gifts I’ve been given,” Bryan said. “To me, this is some of the highest level of doing that. Also, those relationships over the years. Every time you go do something like that, you create a new story, a new bond with fans.”
‘Attitude of service’
That bond also extends to his solo work. “Midlife Priceless” debuted last April. The album is “a little all over the map,” he said, with some tracks that might sound like a Hootie song and others that are a little harder rock.
The single, “Let Your Soul Light Shine,” was a tribute of sorts to frontline health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also is in line with the “attitude of service” Bryan said he carries, much like with his relationship to the USO.
“For me, that song is about overcoming whatever hardships – everybody has them – and converting them into positive energy,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a vague enough message it can mean whatever to whoever the listener is.”Read comments