i wrote this song on an old guitar
under the influence of a million stars
and with a head full of heaven and a heart full of hell
with an audible sigh and a cry for help
-Bill Mallonee, “Purgation“
(both pictures from https://billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com/)
Bill Mallonee just released Slow Trauma, a stellar new album, and one of over 70 works he has created in the past few decades. Named by Paste Magazine as one of the Top 100 Living Songwriters alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Mallonee is a critical favorite with a devout following, though in the larger mainstream world, he’s more or less unknown.
It’s been that way for a long time, and it’s hard to figure out why. Or maybe it isn’t.
Never keen on creating for a particular market, and occupying the difficult yet important position of a socially critical and deeply religious writer and singer sharing stories of spiritual and political depth in an increasingly polarized cultural landscape, it makes sense that Bill’s music doesn’t make for easy listening, or gain a mass appeal. It makes sense, but it’s a shame. Add to that Mallonee’s decision many years ago to leave the musical-industrial complex to pursue his passion independently; he has produced a staggering amount of work, with a voice and quality that might just not have a place in the musical mainstream. For Mallonee, freedom has been costly: despite being a legend among critics, on numerous occasions in recent years he’s resorted to selling his instruments just to pay bills. Maybe the freedom and self-determination his music comes from, and the messages of the sacredness in everyone just aren’t what most people want to hear. But ask anyone who has heard him before, and I’ll be willing to place my bet on them swearing that’s not the case.
Mallonee is a lyricist’s lyricist, a poet troubadour, and his songs are unforgettable, dealing repeatedly with the losses, hopes, failures, and heroic struggles of everyday American people. In the 1990s he fronted the popular Athens indie-rock band, Vigilantes of Love, and since the early 2000s he has worked primarily as a solo artist.
Slow Trauma is a full-band album, and it serves as a great intro to Bill’s canon.
As Mallonee states on his website, “Sure, it’s an Americana record. And an ‘honest-to-God’ Rock & Roll record, too. It’s also very much a record about Death.”
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of having a long conversation with Bill. I asked him about everything I could think of to ask, as a younger musician looking for advice, as a person of faith often at a loss on how to talk about religion in the current Imperial context, as someone deeply worried about the current social state of the US, as a fan of his work, and simply as a friend deeply interested in what Mallonee is thinking these days in light of 70 plus albums, a long journey through many subcultures, and a new album “about death.”
With no attempt at impartiality, I share the following interview as a long-time friend and admirer of Bill’s life and musical legacy, in the hopes of more folks hearing what he has to share.
So give Slow Trauma a listen. Then let it play again as you read the interview. And in the reading I have interspersed links to recordings from different “eras” and “voices” in Bill’s catalogue. I hope they serve as deep rabbit-holes for you to start down.
Below is part 1, in which we discussed history, faith, politics, Bill’s childhood and early years as a musician and relationship with the music industry.
Part 2, to be released soon, will focus primarily on songwriting as a craft, and Bill’s thoughts on the process.
INTERVIEW: BILL MALLONEE, PART 1
S: Can you tell me a bit about how you got started as a musician? I heard that you began as a drummer, not a guitarist and lyricist. Over 70 full-length albums later, and still going strong. When you look back, how did all of this start for you?
B: Started playing drums when I was oh, 11 or 12. My dad was a semi-pro jazz drummer with a decent jazz record collection. This came later, but when I realized that folks I admired as a young kid like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts were heavily into jazz drummers like Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich, and Joe Morello you can see how their ability to work the whole kit dynamically as opposed to just “thrashing” was perfect for The Beatles & the Stones.
Later on I moved into the power-trios of Cream and Hendrix. I got pretty good fast. I surrounded myself with lots of great vinyl and lived in the basement of our house in Chapel Hill, NC. Digested every style I could get my hands on. Rode my bike 5 miles to the K-mart, which had decent record collections in those days, and then home with my new treasures under my arms.
S: I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a late-bloomer. What do you mean?
B: “Late-Bloomer,” totally. Didn’t start learning guitar ‘til I was 31. I hit it with a great exuberance, as they say. Wrote 75 songs the first year. Not saying they were great…but it was as if a floodgate to my little spirit had burst. Had a record deal at 37.
My mother was a poet. She was a stickler for proper spelling and extensive vocabulary. I’ve loved the power of great oratory and lyrics ever since. So, as a kid, when folks like Dylan and Leonard Cohen showed up, I was smitten. With words one can make worlds, conjure new realms with and without, or most often as in my case, expose the one inside.
S: Your WPA recordings are among my favorite songs and recordings. Each release seems to capture a very vulnerable and nuanced set of emotions. In particular, songs like Purgation, Warm-Up Act, and Adagio all possess a dusty and beautiful “voice” and perspective that seems to tap into many of the same barren yet somehow hopeful emotions found in the voices of writers like Steinbeck and Guthrie. What inspired you to start the WPA installments?
B: I’m very glad you like the WPA releases! It’s some of my favorite work as well. WPA stands for Works Progress Administration, one of the relief measures that Roosevelt created during the Great Depression. It’s a moniker for some 20 albums of work, all recorded on the 4-track device. They’re very immediate and visceral. Very “story and mood” oriented. Writing in that way actually taught me how to nuance my voice more as an instrument. You learn how to rein the listener in, sit ’em down, and befriend them by sharing your heart. That’s the core dynamic in all the WPA recordings. It also opened up a whole new aspect of guitar playing for me. The parts got better, more emotive, more inventive. The 4 track “limitation” forges a different way to approach and deliver a song.
I have never been able to write for any particular audience in mind. I have always and solely written to “save myself”. It’s an effort (sometimes a desperate one) to make sense out of my own depression and deep inconsistencies. It’s an effort to bring some order to the internal chaos that never seems to leave really. Those songs you mentioned are something like “faith-crisis” songs, but without the foregone conclusions or “happy-endings,” you know.
I think most of my work has that as its underpinning, as its basic reference. Lot’s of folks seem to identify with it, so I guess it’s helpful to wrangle these things out of one’s self and give it some nomenclature.
S: Yes, but I also still love the older VOL recordings, too—they are so energetic, they embody deep roots-rock grit, and many of the songs feature unique, poignant lyrics that hang in the balance of hope and great anxiety and sadness. They also seem to come from a different place culturally and spiritually than many of your more recent works, particularly the WPA publications. Can you describe your journey from VOL front man, in an Americana rock subculture, to a more solo-based ballad writer these days?
B: Whew! Big question. I try to keep all my recordings very organic and visceral, Seth. Like I mentioned with the WPA stuff, it’s the “limitation” of only having 4 tracks that—I think—lends to the recordings’ appeal. I wanted them to sound old-school, with some of the soul and passion of an old field recording.
I was a history major in college. The period in America from the around 1880’s to post-WWII has always fascinated me. Post-Civil War, westward expansion; atrocities like the genocide against Native Americans. WWI, this rise of the fundamentalist/religious right, Prohibition, the greed of the business moguls and robber barons, the Great Depression, repeal of the 18th amendment, the dust Bowl, and WWII itself, the rise of the military industrial complex—all of it was moving fast.
Being a suburban middle class white kid, I think I was always conscious of just how little “real history” I had experienced. It was the mid-90’s. But being in a rock and roll band changed all of that. We got signed in Austin at SXSW in 1992. It was a heady experience. After the album Welcome to Struggleville, we toured constantly and had lots of albums on the emerging Adult Alternative Album (AAA) radio format.
Here’s the deal: I saw the country a million times and saw a good bit of the world over a 10 year span. We (Vigilantes of Love) worked hard. Put out something like 15 albums over 10 years. The albums got great national press and reviews. We also had our eyes opened.
BUT: it’s also legendary just how many strokes of bad luck we had. The truth is even though it was the height of “indie-music,” the industry was still full of hucksters, fools and just plain incompetent folks we worked with. We were first, foremost and always about the music and the spirit behind it. We were not “business people.”
I think we were victimized by the industry and the clowns in it on a regular basis. After a spell, it’s just not funny anymore. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were so good and making new fans every night, we’d have not lasted as long as we did. Our swan song was Summershine, a very trippy, jangle-y guitar, neo-psychedelic sort of record. Great reviews. But the label refused to promo it.
Our mistake for even signing with them in the first place. You learn all this stuff on the fly. We called it quits as a band in 2002, although the amazing Jake Bradley (bass) and equally amazing Kevin Heuer (drums) and I continued to work with me on my first solo records.
What did I walk away with from the national scene after these experiences? Simply this: If you’re an artist, you don’t need the industry’s permission to write, record and bring your art to the people.
So I bade it all good day, worked on diffusing some of the anger over the betrayals, and carried on, making more records. Songs were coming in at the rate of 4 to 5 albums a year. That was about 60 albums & EPs ago.
S: What about home these days? Where is it? What is it?
B: Home these days? My wife, Muriah Rose, and I moved to the high deserts of New Mexico 6 years ago. I left Athens, Ga. I’d been there 30 plus years. We live up in the mountains called the Sangre de Cristos (The Blood of Christ). The land is a spiritual “thin place.” New Mexico: the land, the topography is stunningly beautiful. The people, for the most part, are very poor.
We live a bit like hermits out here really, when we’re not touring. But, it has been inspiring. Kinda like finding your real home.
It has been an incredibly creative time for me. I think I’ve written and released something like 22 albums since we’ve been here.
S: And what role has and does your “faith” play into all of this? The writing, the moving, the processing?
B: Faith? I’m a person of faith. In some ways all people are. My coming to Christ in my teen years was not really spectacular. It was more a sense that I’d found realness & hope. And Christianity claims that such real-ness & Hope are found within a Person. Pretty amazing claims when you think about it. No other religion in the “cafeteria of religions” makes anything like those seemingly audacious claims. But, I have found them to be more than true in my experience.
We live on Hope, languish without it. In this day and age, people are starving for Hope.
My Christian faith is very personal, very hard won. It’s about a relationship with the risen Christ. Jesus is my Savior. I think He’s “alive & well.” But, no. “It ain’t easy,” as they say. I wrestle daily with what it means to try and follow Him as Lord.
We’re all beggars, you know? Grace is all you get and what you deserve the least. That’s Christianity.
But, aspects of that faith (like “evangelizing,” or “witnessing” or whatever) are not and have never been part of my agenda as a singer/songwriter. I know there are folks “out there” who got into my work because they thought we were some hip, cool Christian rock band. I find that amusing.
Please follow me here. There this whole weird subculture called Contemporay Christian Music. When placed in the “vending machine” context of pop music, I think it reduces His message to something like propaganda. It cheapens it, narrows it. So, I stay away from that side of things. As far away as possible. Honestly, I think my records go deeper, in a different way, if you wanna know the truth.
I enjoyed, somewhat, being the front-man with Vigilantes of Love. Sure, they were my songs but the delivery was all band. And it was cool.
The odd thing is that when the issues of faith arise in one’s work, there are always “those folks” think you know more than they do. They think you have “answers” for them. You get ushered into some “guru-like” status. I suppose it’s seductive on some level. But, it’s quite the illusion. One straight from hell. We’re all made of “not such stern stuff.” We’re all beggars.
Vigilantes of Love, while having some fans from “that market” also had a fairly high national “secular” profile. We really were birthed out of the Athens music scene. Atlanta was far more embracing, but Athens was home.
Enough of the categories, though. At the end of the day there ought to just be good music that’s real, and music that’s just bad.
S: How about the relationship between music and politics? You are a man of faith, and also you often write songs featuring characters dealing with grave and systemic injustices. What role does your thinking about politics play in your music and your approach to writing and performing?
B: Political records bore me. Anyone can rant. It’s just a bore and some of my favorite artists have released records like that. For me, it’s less “politics” and more common sense & compassion, you know?
Of course faith ought to inform one’s politics. I’ve tried to “step up,” be versed, state opinions artistically and eloquently, not as a polemic, but as a response to how I think we should be going about enacting Christ’s Kingdom’s values in everyday life.
My opinion? We’re in a new dark age. It’s an age of corporate greed with votes “bought and sold” in a way that’s unrivaled even by the robber barons and industrial magnates of the early 1900’s. “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” said Dylan. And it’s never sworn more filthily or loudly than now.
The war machine is cranked, always hungry. Our kids are dying for global corporations’ conquests that have little to do with democracy or “our way of life” and more to do with their interests. Domestically, violence here in the good old USA is rampant. Our kids aren’t safe. The gun freaks who would mis-interpret the 2nd amendment have made violence into an art-form. The disparity ‘tween the rich & poor is beyond belief. These are some of the issues I dealt with on last year’s “Lands & Peoples.” And the life of the unborn still languishes without protection. Lots of praying and lots of work to do. I pray the spirit raises up new leaders who will challenge the oligarchy. That’s true patriotism.
Me? I’ll do my part.
Bill Mallonee: “Resplendent” with Emylou Harris
S: Do you see your songs, yourself, and the work you do as belonging to a particular cultural “lineage”? What larger story, or stories, do you see yourself as most closely belonging to? What or who do you see as your taproots?
B: My songs seem to work on two main levels, I suppose.
First, they are very personal, very interior. True, I put most of those interior musings in the mouths of other characters, whether they be second or third person creations. My aim is for honest, believability, and vulnerability.
Second, I probably see myself as more as troubadour of the 60’s and 70’s style of songwriting, at least when it comes to topics & cultural themes. Given my belief that we’re all made of “similar stuff,” so to speak, I think that makes the songs as current as today. You learn to speak your mind and step down, you know. A show for me these days is like standing up at a town meeting a saying one’s piece.
Maybe, what I do is something like “Post-Modern-Falling-Through-the-Cracks-Americana-Mystic-Folk Music.”
S: Speaking of the power of stories, there is a legend about you meeting Woody Guthrie when you were a young boy. Can you tell me about that incident, and any meaning you may have taken from it then, or significance you see in it now?
B: (Laughing) No, of course I never met Woody! Hey, I’m not that old! That’s some lie that someone laced into the Wikipedia profile on me. We just left there because we thought it funny. Utter foolish-ness.
S: Okay, then! For some reason it seemed believable. Maybe because it’s a story that makes good folk-legend sense. I think I’ll just go on believing it.
These days, what books, albums, and other works of art most inspire you?
I always love Frederick Buechner’s books. He’s a national treasure. His work is always defined by a whole-ness and tenderness that I find like no other. Simply the best author out there for describing what the terrain of faith looks like in a world where God may seem largely absent. Buechner’s novels and sermons are all wonderful and I think I’ve read almost all of his many books. I still drop back into Godric, The Hungering Dark and Brendan yearly. Just sea-changing work. And just as arresting as someone like a Luther, or Paul Tillich or Karl Barth.
John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. The best American novel ever composed, in my opinion. I’ve probably referenced it in over 15 albums. The soul and zeitgeist of dust bowl circumstances playing themselves out in the macrocosm of a nation’s greed and expansion and in the microcosm of the broken but heroic individuals he created.
Pablo Neruda. Chilean poet. The leading poet of the 20th century. His “Isla Negra” and Residence On Earth are stunning. Good places to start. Muriah gave me a bio on him a few Christmases back. Amazing, passionate life.
Timothy Egan: The Worst Hard Time is hands down the best book I’ve read on the Dust Bowl. Well-written and beautiful.
Studs Terkle: Hard Times: An illustrated Oral History of the Great Depression.
Jack Kerouac. Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels are my favs. Not for everyone. Often mis-read as the “beat generation’s hedonist prophet,” JK was far more spiritually aware and wanted to be considered a religious writer. Kerouac was a displaced, French-Canadian Catholic looking for his soul in America’s post-war era. His word-energy leaps off the page at times.
You know, I rarely listen to much rock & roll much anymore, Seth. I check out a few of the “flavor-of-the-month” artists just so I can say I heard them. But for the most part, I keep the static down. I write probably 40-50 songs a year still. No time to dial into other stuff, I guess!
Muriah & I keep a few of the Pandora stations we’ve created in the background of our day-to-day. Nurturing music. Stations musically centered around artists like folk legend John Fahey or another around Django Reinhart; a few more around genres of Cuban music, 50’s & 60’s old-school jazz artists like Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Desmond and Dave Brubeck (my dad’s favorite!). Then I have a few more wonderful stations, dialed into Indian sitar music, cowboy songs, and Mexicana folk. We love it all. Keeps it fresh when I pick up the Gibson J-50, or the Rickenbacker and “do what I do.”
I acquired this old 1947 Gibson ES-125. Very “woody & plinky” sounding but it’s been a huge part of my writing process! Instant vibe.
Many personal favs, too many to mention. But, one can never go wrong with a Ken Burns documentary.
I’ve been reading his bio and viewing as much of Maynard Dixon’s work as I can. He was a Southwest artist, from the SF Bay area. He lived out here and roamed these parts. His attraction to the spirit beneath the landscape throughout New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, California and Utah captures it all.
S: So, writing and living as a troubadour of sorts, working with the stories of ordinary and exceptional, hard-lived lives in the US, you’re work is bound to always carry in it deep religious and political themes. It comes with the territory.
If you don’t mind, before we wrap up Part I, I’d like to go back to the earlier question about faith and music, and then another question about politics—and hear a bit more from you about how you grapple with issues religious and political in your personal journey, and as a musician.
First, can you tell me a bit more about your own journey of faith over the past few decades? How has it changed, how has it stayed the same? I don’t know how you prefer to be described these days, religiously speaking, but your work certainly runs deeply with themes of faith and hope, and notions of redemption. You started as a musician within a fairly unique American Reformed Christian subculture, right? And now, all these years later, you identify as Catholic? Can you describe that journey a bit more?
B: Well, your readers are more than welcome (if they’ve made it this far!) to skip over this part. It’s just my journey. Oh, yeah I’m a Christian. No shame at owning that there. As far as beliefs go? Let’s just say I believe all the creeds of historic Christianity. I don’t mistake them for faith or that non-static relationship we should strive for with Jesus. But the Creeds? Good starting points.
I’ll try and keep it short on this, Seth. It’s not likely my journey is much different from others’ journeys to some kind of faith, and as far as “making it real” for ones-self goes.
I was raised Catholic at a time when Mass was still said in Latin. Even post-Vatican II the Church was still trying to figure what to save and what to jettison as far as practice went.
For me, the early experiences were cloaked in unexplained rituals, mystery and darkness, and was all kinda alien and scary. Catholicism had—in the early ’60’s and perhaps still today—a conveyor-belt sorta way they’d groom you and spit you out. That was my experience, a sort of “you touch all the external bases and we’re good.” And of course, it’s all heavy with a top down institution. I got all the fear and very little of the joy, I’ll just say that.
My coming to faith happened in a very small, bible study atmosphere. And that carried on into college. A small house-church setting in Athens, Georgia, was where I started to grow and question and wrestle with Biblical truth. The church was called The University Church. It was given “mission church” status on the UGA campus. It was about 40-50 strong on any given Sunday, pastored by a very scholarly man named Dr. Alan Dan Orme. That’s where I cut my teeth, so to speak, in Biblical truth. And I did so for the next 30 years, right into me starting Vigilantes of Love and making a splash with its first forays nationally.
So, there I was in basically what they call a Reformation-based church. Never took the bait on some of its crazy Calvinistic theology, but because it was interdenominational status, we could all dwell in peaceable-ness. Good years.
Yes, I identified myself as a Catholic for a few years. I did an incredible amount of “homework” to reconcile what I thought were historical flaws in the church’s position on things. I’m just that sorta guy. But, yes, I made my way back for a spell. If I’m subscribing to something, it has to be cogent.
Things were fairly smooth, but in 2005, I went through a divorce. Suffice it to say, I’ve not been allowed to Communion for going on 7 years now. On most days, I don’t really care. It does feel like a shooting-the-wounded situation, but hey, I’m sort of used to top-heavy, out of touch “religion” exercising itself in grace-less ways.
Anyway, we’re sort of without Community at this point. On a more practical note, my “mystic side” keeps me in the daily prayer life & readings of the Church calendar. My own beliefs about “how it all works” are, more or less, very Lutheran and I’m probably, more or less, a universalist.
See, I told you it was boring!
Of course the two most evident ways that whatever “world-views” I’ve gleaned from Christianity have affected my perceptions and writing are that we’re a fallen, sad, wounded, tainted lot. But the world can offer no panaceas, no spiritual bromides or anodynes that seem to “fix us.”
I’ve always felt the “Good News” makes no sense unless you know how bad the “bad news” is first. And the “bad news” is pretty bad. A study of the heart of man across history, a glance at our current situation and a peek at our own souls, and it seems pretty obvious that we’re in need of some salvation, some deep reform, some liberation from our darker side. At the end of the day, I think that’s what Christ offers.
We have no room whatsoever for judging, for self-righteous prigger-y that too often represents the church. We are all beggars at the gates of grace and at the foot of the Cross. Christianity simply says: “What you could not do for yourselves, God has done for you in Jesus. Now, get on with becoming whole and spread the joy to your brothers and sisters. Live it.”
That’s all there is to it.
As a writer viewing Life and able to make pronouncements on it with guitar in hand, it means that even in its darkest hour Life and all of Humanity is still imbued with a hallow-ness. No one hopeless. No life a waste. I think that’s what the characters in my songs, even the drunks, the bedraggled and marginalized ones, should shine with.
We are all of that ourselves.
S: Thank you, Bill. What do you think and how do you feel about the political and social climate in the US these days? Can you tell me a bit more about how “the way things are today” influences your craft, and also how it affects your life as a songwriter?
B: Well, we’re a mess here in the US. No doubt. I think history will judge the Reagan & Bush administrations with great severity.
As a songwriter, I’m typically not a political “take-sides” person. But, there comes a time when you see that we’ve been duped. We’ve allowed the rich and powerful, who have historically have shown little concern for the poor or middle class, to seize a strange control.
For those who don’t know? A plutocracy: the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy. An oligarchy: government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few. Read it and weep.
What we have is really a case of “if the shoe fits.” Let’s hit some high points: We have a war-machine running at fevered pitch; an education system that saddles kids with enormous debt and then provides few jobs; a domestic culture weened on violence and easy access to weapons; and police brutality that is racially motivated and unaddressed. It’s all a form of madness. And sadly, this is how all revolutions get started.
When the defining hall-marks of democracy like justice, fair-ness, compassion, equality and equal opportunity are tossed blithely aside, such things should be addressed.
As I mentioned before, most political artists bore the hell out of me because all they can do is spout one side or the other’s propaganda. They address it with all the subtly of a jack-hammer.
My tact is to tell the stories of folks I’ve met (either directly or via good history books) and render their stories at the most personal level…where you the listener can find a part of him or herself in that story. Dolorosa, Winnowing & particularly Lands & Peoples, have their share of such songs.
S: When you are writing songs, do you feel a sense of responsibility, or calling? I mean, do you write with a premise or feeling that you have something important to say that people need to hear? Or is it something different than that?
B: Well, if it’s a “calling,” it’s been a calling to poverty and sometimes the anxiety that goes with it. It’s been a calling to being ignored by the mainstream.
I don’t have the resources to employ a manager, an agent, a real PR person to profile myself and attract their attention. And it is still an insider’s game. Glad to be on the outside, really. To my ears, anyway, there’s a lot of “paint-by-numbers” in ye olde Americana world today. But, I’d put my songs up against any of the best.
It’s very hard on most days. We’ll be out on tour and we’ll pass beneath a bridge. I’ll joke with Muriah: “Look, honey! That bridge looks like a nice place to spend our old age!” She doesn’t think it’s funny, but I swear, sometimes I think that’s where it’s all heading.
And, just to reiterate: I don’t write, nor have I ever written with a particular audience in mind. I do honestly think I’ve written near 1,500 songs, and while I’ve written a few things in the Capricorn Records (our first label) years with Vigilantes to get us on the radio, it was mostly about editing so we didn’t eclipse the precious 3:30 rule.
As I said, almost all of them were written out of a motivation to “save myself.” And, by that I mean just to make my skin a bit more comfortable to live in.
i have dug through my heart
like a plot full of weeds
something strangled by thorns
something crushing the seed
and the rose? it lies fallen
in the ice & the snow
i have reached out my hand
i have prayed every prayer
i have reached out my hand
to grasp the thin air
it was never a story
more like an unfinished note
by Bill Mallonee, from Heaven in Your Heart (a WPA production)
–TO BE CONTINUED with PART 2, soon…