Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: Mark Wills, “Don’t Laugh at Me”

“Don’t Laugh at Me”

Mark Wills

Written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

October 9, 1998

Mark Willis makes a pitch for empathy.

The Road to No. 1

Mark Wills scored his first No. 1 single with “I Do [Cherish You]” and kept the trend going for the next two singles from his sophomore set, Wish You Were Here.

The No. 1

It’s heart is in the right place, and for the most part, “Don’t Laugh at Me” delivers on that heart.

Wills’ restrained delivery is a big part of this record’s success.  It would’ve been insufferable if Collin Raye had gotten his hands on it, but Wills is smart enough to not get in the way of the lyric. It gives the characters he’s singing about more dignity, and keeps the focus on us to not take our pleasure from their pain.

Quite frankly, hearing a male country artist make a pitch for empathizing with bullied kids, the disabled, and the homeless felt ho-hum in 1998 but sounds revolutionary in 2022, when bullying the marginalized is a side hustle for some country musicians and their families.  Lately, it feels like we’re one or two radio cycles away from “I Don’t Care, Do You?” being the No. 1 hit on country radio.

I mentioned in my review of “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” how nothing ages worse than yesterday’s sentimentality.  How worrisome it is that nothing is aging better these days than yesterday’s kindness and decency.

The Road From No. 1

Mark Wills has one more No. 1 single on deck from Wish You Were Here, and we’ll get to it in the final year of this series.

“Don’t Laugh at Me” gets a B+.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Tim McGraw, “Where the Green Grass Grows” |

Next: Lonestar, “Everything’s Changed”

6 Comments

  1. I agree that this record would be revolutionary if it were made and released in this day and age. Not only that, I think Mark Wills would be accused of making a “woke” record.

    “Woke”–What a frigging lame-ass term the Far Right uses when it’s confronted with inconvenient facts and truths that contradict their own twisted way of thinking.

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  2. This is another one of my favorite entrees you’ve written in this feature, so far!

    Yep, this would indeed be a revolutionary record if it were released today, ESPECIALLY by a young male artist like Mark Wills, which I find to be quite sad. A beautiful song with an important message like this should not be considered so out of the ordinary when compared to what’s mostly on the radio, yet here we are. Sadly, when considering today’s climate, how much the mainstream country listening audience has changed since 1998, and that men are still mostly expected to release shallow, lightweight material to radio, I also don’t think it would be a number one today.

    The late 90’s was definitely mainly an era for sensitive, heartfelt songs that actually had something to say and made the listener feel something, pretty much the polar opposite of mainstream country from the past decade or so. That’s one of the things I love most about late 90’s country, because I’m admittedly a sensitive person myself, and I prefer my country with emotion and relatable lyrics (not to mention, beautiful, memorable melodies, which the late 90’s delivered in spades, imo). And what I also love is that even the men were not afraid to get emotional and tackle songs with heavy topics and important messages, with some examples being Tim McGraw’s “One Of These Days,” Kenny Chesney’s “That’s Why I’m Here,” and this tune by Mark Wills being examples. And if they weren’t sending heavy subject matter songs to radio, they still mostly released beautiful songs about love and/or loss. While I admit that I don’t follow modern mainstream country as closely as I once did these days, I still get the impression that most men are expected to record songs that don’t go much further than mentioning beer/whiskey/bars, hot women, and all the cool things that make one “country” like their truck, the roads they drive, the small town they live in, and how much they like to party. In other words, I still mostly hear songs that are just lazily listing different things and key buzzwords instead of songs that tell stories and actually express and depict real life emotions that many people still feel today.

    Mark Wills is one of the artists I fell in love with during this late 90’s and early 00’s period because of his beautiful, sensitive, and occasionally heavy ballads. He was actually one of the first artists whose cd’s I got into collecting when I caught the music collecting bug in 2000, with his Wish You Were Here album being one my dad got for me that year (and absolutely loved and played over and over :) ). I just really loved his voice, as well. Wills simply has the perfect voice for singing sensitive ballads with his smooth and easy going, yet emotional delivery. This review perfectly describes how well “Don’t Laugh At Me” works because of Mark’s understated delivery that shows just enough emotion to get the message across and make you sympathize with each character in the song. And it’s enough to let you know he sympathizes with them, as well.

    Another thing I always loved about Mark’s ballads were how clean and professional they were produced by Carson Chamberlain and how smooth and melodic they all sounded. “Don’t Laugh At Me” is no exception, and I especially love how effective Paul Franklin’s steel guitar is in each chorus. I even love the piano heard at the very beginning, which still makes me nostalgic.

    Of course, the most important and significant part of “Don’t Laugh At Me” for me is its message and lyrics. “In God’s eyes, we’re all the same. Someday we’ll all have perfect wings.” has always been one of my most favorite lines, along with “Don’t get your pleasure from my pain,” which hits me harder than ever now. As someone who has been “different” ever since I was little, and has experienced being bullied and picked on a lot, especially during my 8th grade year and into my high school years and even adulthood, I really grew to appreciate this song a lot. I’ve always had social anxiety, and I’m 95% sure I have at least mild autism, so I’ve been socially awkward throughout nearly my entire life, save for the times I was together with my parents, and a small period around 2012-2017 when I got better at acting “normal” and being more social. I still know very well the feelings of hurt and embarrassment when certain people have treated and/or spoken to me in a condescending and mocking way just because I was quiet, behaved differently than they did, wasn’t interested in or familiar with the things they were into, and was just seen as weird and uncool. And now after losing both of my dads, my SA has gotten worse again, especially since it feels like Mom and I have been “laughed at” and dismissed by certain people (including some family members) just for asking small/simple favors that we wouldn’t be asking if either of my dads were still around or if we at least had family living by closer. So yeah, “Don’t Laugh At Me” resonates with me now more than ever, not only because of my personal experiences, but also because we now seem to be living in a time where kindness and compassion is not as common as it used to be, especially in our area. However, I am now learning more than ever that it’s much more important to just be a decent person who treats others with kindness and respect than it is to be “normal” or “perfect.” I’d rather be laughed at for being myself, even if it still hurts, than be considered one of the “cool kids” for being something I’m not.

    “Don’t Laugh At Me” was at its peak on the radio at the beginning of my 7th grade year in the late Summer and early Fall of 1998, and I particularly remember it going through my head during my art class on one of my first days of the year. Luckily, 7th grade turned out to be another great school year for me just like 6th grade was, both in terms of grades and actually having some friends and not getting picked on as much. I liked this song back then, but not quite on the same level that I would in my following school years when they started getting rougher.

    During those rougher school years, country music was one thing I always turned to and loved even more because it was a place where sensitivity, empathy, maturity, and decency was still heard. Country music for me during those times was like an old friend always there to comfort me, especially after a bad day, and meaningful songs like this were truly a blessing. It was quite a big contrast to some of the toxic environment I dealt with in school sometimes, in which acting like a jerk to others and being ignorant, immature, and obnoxious was what made you “cool” (and this even includes a couple teachers I was unfortunate to have during high school). I heard “Don’t Laugh At Me” on the radio as a recurrent one afternoon during my freshman year in high school, and I remember it just really resonating with me at that time, since I had a classmate that just seemed to make it his mission to ridicule and humiliate me every chance he had. I also remember reading on the internet around 2001/2002 that Mark was planning to have this song played in schools all over the country. I admired and respected him so much for that, and I was thinking that I sure could use it at my school. I’m not sure if it would’ve worked, though, since a lot of students openly hated country music at my schools during those times.

    I just can’t imagine most modern mainstream country having the same affect on me as 90’s and early 00’s country did during those times. Nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the performers themselves in the modern country scene were/are the obnoxious bullies and “cool kids” who laughed at others for being “different”, judging by some of the songs they’ve released, the way they’ve acted in public, and some of the unfortunate posts on social media done by them or their family members. And seeing much of the modern mainstream country audience support that kind of behavior is truly sickening. “I Don’t Care, Do You?” being the next big hit, sadly, sounds about right. It’s certainly no longer the same genre I loved so much back then, that’s for sure.

    I’m just more thankful every day that I grew up as a country fan in the 90’s and very early 00’s!

    I’m also really looking forward to the next Mark Wills entry, which is another one of my all time favorites from him. I still love the entire Wish You Were Here album, in fact! :)

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  3. Jamie,
    Thank you for your thoughts on this song and for sharing such personal details of why it means so much to you. There are people very close to me who have exerienced such painful things in their lives as well, including one person who was bullied by their peers as well as their teachers who joined in or watched it happen without stepping in. Crap like that can really damage a person even long into adulthood. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers, so it was such a shock and disappointment to me to learn that there were and are teachers like that in the world.

    I agree that it seems that it’s so sad to feel like some of the current country singers would be the ones joining in on the bullying, as teens and adults. Like you, I was really into songs with messages of kindness. Some of those songs haven’t held up for me as an adult, but some of them still really stick with me and they’re the ones that hit my sweet spot the most.

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    • Thanks you so much for your kind reply, Leeann!

      Yep. High School is when I unfortunately found out that not all teachers/adults are always on your side, and it did indeed damage/traumatize me well into adulthood. Heck, I’ve been finding out more than ever than adults can be just as big, if not bigger, bullies than kids and teens! I really feel for your friend, as well. :(

      I’m not too surprised to hear you had nothing but wonderful teachers, as it seems that whenever my parents and I visited Maine, the people there have always been some of the friendliest and most down to earth I’ve ever met. Both Maine and Pennsylvania have some of the nicest people I’ve ever known, actually. :)

      • To clarify, the specific person who still struggles with their teachers joining in on the bullying was educated in Maine. There are so many wonderful teachers out there, but there are bad ones everywhere too. I should also say that I had wonderful teachers, but I did have one who did a lot of questionable things that I didn’t realize was unhealthy until I was an adult. It’s a long, complex story. So, I should revise my comment and say that I had wonderful teachers except for one who turned out to be problematic.

  4. I think I dismissed this song as weak and limp when it was released because so few other songs were explicitly and directly addressing the issues Seskin and Shamblin reference in their lyrics. At the time, I thought it stood out for the wrong reasons, that its tenderness somehow meant it was soft, sentimental pandering. It sounded more like contemporary Christian music than country. I had also already pegged Wills as a soft country, adult contemporary vocalist.

    As if so often the case, however, I shouldn’t have confused kindness for weakness.

    Jump ahead to parenthood, and imagine my surprise when I heard my two boys singing this song around the house when in elementary school in Toronto. Teachers were using it to teach compassion.

    Hearing it as an adult, I developed an entirely new appreciation for the courage and strength of this song. I still beleive the verses are stronger than the chorus, but the song now resonates with me in ways it hadn’t before.

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