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A ‘Tragic Hero’ in Small-Town America

Dec 04, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Zack Wright and Ryan Maxey

Willcox, Arizona. Population 3,500. “It's not unlike many other towns one might pass by on the freeway while driving around the American West,” the filmmaker Zack Wright told The Atlantic.

Driving by is exactly what Wright and his co-director, Ryan Maxey were doing when they happened to tune into KHIL, the town’s country-music station. “Were treated to a half hour of great, obscure country music as we passed through Willcox,” Wright said. The station soon fell out of range, but the filmmakers were fascinated by what they’d heard. They wanted to know who was responsible.

“When we met up with Mark, he was not at all what we expected,” Wright said. “We were picturing an old-timer cowboy type—some kind of great champion of old country music. But he was not that at all.”

Mark Lucke, it turned out, was the station’s only employee. A single parent who lived out of the office with his son, Lucke explained that he had a complicated relationship with Willcox, the townspeople, and country music in general. “In fact, he has a traumatic past with the genre,” Maxey said. “He's a bit of a tragic hero, a lone cowboy who happens to prefer metal and horror films over Rex Allen movies and country tunes. But he finds meaning in connecting with other lonely souls over the radio.”

“I’m trying to reach out of that radio and say to older listeners, ‘Hey. You can feel good again,’” Lucke says in Lonesome Willcox, Maxey and Wright’s short documentary, a wistful portrait of the town, its radio station, and the local pariah who runs it.

In the film, Lucke describes Willcox as has-been. “It’s gotten lost. The world has moved on,” he laments.

But Maxey was surprised by the impression the town left on him. “After spending a week there, the culture of Willcox really seemed larger than life,” he said. “It has a rich history and a very strong identity, and the folks in town have a lot of pride in their way of life. There is a tremendous sense of community, connection, and concern for preserving their culture.”

“It can be easy to pass by these small towns and write them off as void of culture or history,” he added, “but the reality is quite different.”

Maxey’s affinity for the radio initially drew him to telling Lucke’s story. “I love the communal aspects of listening to a station—knowing that there is someone curating a soundtrack for a time and place—and that there are other people out there listening together,” he said. “It may be a moment when I am all alone, but I also feel a tremendous sense of community and connection.”

Lonesome Willcox is ultimately the story of one man who was failed by small-town America. Instead of leaving, however, he leans into it. He finds strength in the ability to help others feel less alone.

“Mark's story is a very human story,” Maxey said. “It's a tale of broken dreams, resiliency, and redemption. Most of us don't end up living out our lives the way we would have imagined as a youngster. Mark's narrative acknowledges the pains of life—the unwanted turns—but also the ways in which we can find our little ways to keep going and find meaning.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.