On Songwriting, Suffering, & Survival: The Practical Mysticism of Bill Mallonee (Interview, Part 2)

What’s it like to be regarded by critics as one of the “Greatest Living Songwriters” in the English speaking world, to produce 2 or 3 well-reviewed albums a year for two and a half decades, and to be looked up to by songwriters from Gospel, Country and general Americana traditions as a legend?

Well, for Bill Mallonee, it’s a saga of selling instruments to pay rent, of moving from a bustling music city to a remote mountain town for inspiration and thrift, of house shows instead of large clubs or stadiums, and of constant productivity. It’s a life of economic uncertainty, depression, a dubius future, and relative obscurity with mainstream audiences despite fame and respect among critics and performers in every genre he embodies. It’s also a life of  artistic honesty, loyal friends and fans, and a hard-won yet isolating freedom that Mallonee has both chosen for himself and endured as a direct result of being the kind of “Built to Last” musician he feels driven to be in a culture that seems increasingly shortsighted and unable to savor anything but the flavor-of-the-month.

Over the past few months I have had the privilege of being on one end of a long and fascinating conversation with Mallonee. Like so many songwriters in “roots”, “folk” or “Americana” circles, I’ve been inspired by Bill’s music and life for years. I am also proud and fortunate to call him a friend. Mallonee has 75 albums to his name. After leading the successful alt-Americana band Vigilantes of Love for more than a decade under a fairly mainstream label, he embarked on a long and unusual new chapter as an independent solo artist praised for his songcraft–particularly his lyricism. He recently released a highly acclaimed new album, Slow Trauma, and over the past few months he’s been busy producing a new album for Muriah Rose, an extremely talented country folk singer who happens to be his musical partner and loving wife. And for the first time in two years, Bill and Muriah will be taking their songs on the road again, one house show at a time, starting sometime this summer.

 

Over the course of our pen-palling this year, I’ve been asking Bill about his take on just about anything I can think of concerning music, history, faith and politics in the US, and his personal reflections on how all of the above relate to the life he lives.

 

In Part 1 of our interview we talked mainly about the connections between faith, politics, and music in the modern US landscape, and Bill’s own journey in all that as a troubadour singing hard songs and sharing tough stories while trying to bring honor and offer hope to the working, struggling folks he meets on the road.

slow traumaMallonee’s latest album, Slow Trauma, 2016.

In Part 2, below, I asked Bill if he’d share more of his own insights into songwriting as a craft, how he does what he does, what it looks like to be an independent artist in the digital age, and how he processes suffering, his own legacy, and the future.

 

SM: Great to be talking with you again, Bill! Please feel free to go any direction you wish to with these questions. In this interview I’m hoping to hear your thoughts on songwriting as a craft-more specifically, what songwriting means to you, how you go about making songs, and what inspires you to do so. I’d also love to hear more about your relationship over the years with the “industry” side of music in the US, and your evolution from front-man in a successful band with a label to self-marketed, solo artist producing your own work and planning your own performances.

Let’s start with songwriting: how do you do it?

BM: Thank you. Well, I’ve always written about 50-75 songs a year. I started late in the game. Although I was a drummer for years, I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 31. And I mean that’s when I was learning my first 3 chords. 7 years later, I had my first record deal, in 1991.

Being a songwriter is quest—a journey—on two fronts.

First, it’s a journey into the external world. You’re always attempting to improve your abilities on your instrument—to increase your knowledge of history and of the folks who excelled on the instrument. Who are the legends & virtuosos of your instrument? That would include the great records of the past, as well. It would include techniques, knowledge of gear and recording. All externalities.

But it is also a journey into an inner world. As a lyricist, I think that’s the most important aspect. Songwriting ought to be a journey within. I think that’s where the best songs live or are in the process of forming.

Anyway, early on, after Vigilantes of Love garnered the deal, I realized that “one record every year or two” was all labels wanted. That just wasn’t going to work for me. Too much to say and explore, and that leads me to the heart of your question.

Here’s the trick: You get to become excavator of your own soul and its perceptions. In the process you also become a conjurer, a healer, a shaman, preacher, jester and prophet.

It’s all Big Fun. Too much fun to be legal, really.

I sincerely believe that part of becoming a good songwriter just getting actively involved in that quest to find your own voice. After you learn a chord vocabulary and listen to some fav records it’s not really hard to write a song. What’s hard is writing a song that’s real. Something that’s got humanity, vulnerability and uniqueness oozing from it.

I think Nashville is full of paint-by-numbers type writers who can cough up a song in 10 minutes And get it heard on the radio. It all sounds a bit calculated to me. That’s cool for them. I’m glad for anybody’s success.

Honestly, it’s not my thing, although I think my work is very accessible.

But, writing a song that lays something vulnerable and true on the line, or a song that takes you to a different world, even if just for a few minutes? That’s a humbling endeavor. I think that’s harder to do.

And I think it’s harder to do because it involves “being” the song itself on some level. Your soul is invested in it. I’m not sure that’s something that can be taught or learned.

 SM: Are you speaking about a kind of mysticism, then, Bill? A sort of “practical mysticism” that guides or drives your songwriting? Certainly you are talking about working with factors that go beyond technique.

BM: Well, I think it’s more like I was saying: It’s finding that voice and that subject matter that possesses your soul. And you get to be the one to conjure it and give it voice. A song is the making of a world that was veiled before you heard it. You, the songwriter/singer, get to reveal it and bring it to the light. Those are the songs that interest me.

That answer will tick some folks off.

SM: Why’s that?

BM:  I’m sure that there are some folks out there who want the tidy formula and who write songs and have massive followings. For the most part, I have no interest in those kinda songs.

I’d say banish the tidy formulas, or at least hold them loosely. I admit the aesthetics I’m declaring here is taking us to the place where words leave off or are shaky, at best. But, that does not mean it’s “subjective.” To each their own. There is music that is heart-felt and from the soul, and other stuff that just kinda feels contrived.
SM: Has it always come natural to you, or is it a process that has gotten easier over time? And do you have a very set routine, or a personal regime to push yourself along?

BM: Song-making has been a journey like anything else. I am totally self-taught.
Drums were my first instrument and a stack of records kept me busy learning “how” they did it. Ringo, Charlie Watts. Later it was fellas like Ginger Baker & Cream, and Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix’s drummer.

I bet I wrote near 100 songs in 1985, the first year I really started taking writing seriously. Not saying they were great. I was learning on the fly. The songs themselves may have had much that was “derivative.” I was young at it.

But I will say the sheer exuberance of creating a song, its lyrics, its sonic textures, and then peopling it with characters who all had their own dreams, losses, motives and struggles was an overwhelming realization to me. And that initial exhilaration? It still feels that way to me whenever a song shows up. I love “chasing” all of it! Every aspect of writing a song and seeing it through to its fruition excites me. From the lyrics, to the chord progression, to the arrangement with the other instrument parts that will augment the song.

SM: Do you see yourself as more of a melody writer or a lyricist? Or is that a false distinction?

BM: I’m known, more or less, as a “lyric guy.” For me, a song has to reveal.  A good song really is a lifting of the veil of our human condition. Ideally, it has to “birth” a feeling that wasn’t there before.

 My songs still tend to have 4-5 verses instead of the “acceptable” 3 verses, though I have written as many as 10 verses for a single song on occasion. “Pristine”” off of the Permafrost album is a good example, as are many of the songs off my very first album, Jugular. We’re talking early Dylan-esque, the Blonde on Blonde through Blood on the Tracks era.  But now I pare things down when I write the lyrics.

 

jugularJugular. 1991.
permafrostPermafrost. 2006.

But back to the “routine” side of the equation. Yes, there is an element of discipline. There is editing and there are tricks to the trade. I seem to have to have a guitar in my hand when I write. I’ll keep journals and write lyrics from the passenger side on the road tours and then consult them later. But there’s no substitute for exploring with a guitar and seeing what shows up. Big fun!

Some of the themes in the books I mentioned in our last interview still serve to invigorate my way of seeing the world. Pablo Neruda (a poet), Maynard Dixon (a painter), Steinbeck & Kerouac (writers) are all inspiring to me personally and to my craft. At this stage, however, it’s mostly drawn from the “raw data” of my years and experience. Life and the people we meet and live among. What more do you need? A strange, sad, beautiful, broken world. And the stuff of good songs.

I just try and “keep my ears open and my nose to the ground” when exploring that world.

Sitting down with guitar in hand is like talking with an old friend, but one who is frequently still “revealing” something new about him or herself that I never knew before.  It could be a new chord voicing, a new pattern of chords that suggests or unlocks a vibe or feeling deep within.

That’s really what writing is, for me anyway, in a nutshell: it’s a dialogue, a conversation going on between the guitar and the deepest parts of one’s own spirit.

So when I say a good writer finds his/her own voice, I think that really what’s going on.
You’re slipping into a stream of all that’s grand & good, broken & sad about this mysterious thing called Life and making it manifest for a moment. The stream is already there within you and around you. It’s the giving of voice and expression to those things the way you (and likely only you) can say it.

That’s why we should do all we can to tune into the songwriters of the past. That’s the eternal stuff. Their motivation and vision was not getting the cover of Rolling Stone or a write up in Pitchfork. Their hearts were truer and more unencumbered, I think. What I’m saying is there’s a vast differential between “Pre-pop culture world” and “Post-pop culture world.”

circa

Circa (“field” recordings), 2007.

SM: Who are a few particular artists and lyricists that most inspire you as a songwriter—any folks you’ve taken cues from over the years while developing your craft?

BM: There are so many unsung heroes. The better known ones are far too many to mention, but I’m going somewhere with this: Robert Johnson, Ralph & Carter Stanley, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie; and think of all the incredible cowboy songsters like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers. And folk artists like John Fahey and Leo Kottke. Far too many to name. Just incredibly gifted artists.

But here’s the kicker: to a person they were all formed in the crucible of poverty and deprivation. Loss and hardship. All of them immersed in a world of incongruities—of doubt & faith; of pain & joy; of win & lose; of do or die; of poverty & simple joys. Those were the raw ingredients of their lives and thus their songs. I want such authenticity in my work.

It was the deprivations and hardships they each endured that made their songs authentic. That place of loneliness and feeling forsaken. Those songs are still with us because they touch something universal. They sound like some ancient text from the lips of a beleaguered prophet. That’s beautiful work, the stuff that deals with the deeper issues.

I’ve also always been attracted to “modern” songwriters with strong character voices and very singular ways of doing what they do. They’re unique. Folks like Neil Young, Dylan, Jay Farrar, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Waits, Mark Knopfler. And Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon, the late-great Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. All create worlds of lyric, mood and texture. All of them amazing to my ears.

SM: When is a song “finished” for you? Do you typically know or feel with some clarity that a song is complete? That it’s ready to share?

BM: Some songs “show up” almost fully formed. I think that’s a Spirit thing. At least it feels effortless, almost as if the song wrote itself. Those are the “in the moment” gifts. And they really are gifts.

It happens a lot for me, but I also attribute it to years of developing a sort of internal “knowing” how a particular song should go. You learn to trust your gut, so to speak. But it’s still rather mysterious to me and I am glad that’s the case.

I strive for a certain economy in the lyrics now. Usually, I’ll allow for no more than 4, maybe 5 verses. There’s a bit more editing going on these days. But, I honestly rarely second guess my lyrics.  I will spend some time fitting the words into a cadence and vocal delivery that serves the song, but that’s about it. Ultimately, I think I’m striving for believability, for the authenticity that a good song should carry.

And over the last 8 years, since learning my way around a small home studio, I’ve also started to develop a particular “musical vocabulary” as to how a song should be augmented—how the guitars weave and interplay and speak with each other. As an arranger/producer, you realize that one instrument doesn’t have to bear the weight of the entire song.

That being said, for me it still all starts with a simple song, usually guitar centered.

 SM: And what do you do with the stubborn songs—the ones that seem to have something golden in them, but they just never seem quite ready or finished? Do you have a safe full of those kinds of songs? Do you recycle them and use them for “parts-songs” when you’re building new melodies and writing new lyrics?

BM: Do I “recycle” on occasion, you ask? No.

Themes & concepts? Well, those are the things folks identify with you as an artist precisely because they hear certain things they relate to. Almost all genres have certain aspects that define them. Color too far outside the lines and it’s not that style of music any more, you know? I have my sounds, tones, voice and ways I approach a song.

My unfinished songs? Tom Waits once said in an interview that those songs of his that don’t get finished he dubs his “orphan songs.” He joked and said he’d send them out into the cold, unfinished, But they always seem to come around to the back door wanting admission. By that he meant that there was likely some aspect of those “orphan songs” that he eventually used or incorporated into some other song. I very much like that idea and have found it to be very true in my songwriting. It also means “write and keep writing!” Nothing is lost. Nothing is wasted.

Seriously: I try to not think too much about it. You listen “inside” first. That’s where the visceral organicity comes from, I think. You want that in a song. It’s gotta flow with a life of its own.

…and see? Now, we’re right back into the mystical.

bill mallonee big hat

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 SM: And staying alive? Without a label and agency of some sort to publicize you and your work, how do you survive financially?

BM: Well, it hasn’t been easy. My wife & I pretty much live in poverty. It’s very rough and uncertain. It’s been that way for 12 years now. Of course, there will never be “retirement.” Often, I’ve had to sell vintage amps and sometimes a guitar just to make the rent.

But, at the end of the day, sometimes a carpenter has to sell a hammer. Emotionally and spiritually, I guess you shake hands with poverty, keep doing what ya’ do, and let the chips fall. It’s been an historical given for so many great artists. Mozart, jazz artists Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Folk artist John Fahey.  Again, too many to name. It was their vision and sound they followed first. The bank account was secondary. And that’s where I’m at after 75 albums over 24 years.

What to say? While I’d love a scrap of security, I’m not sure I’ll ever see it.

I try think this “life issue” through on a number of levels and make a certain peace with it, to tell the truth. Here’s as much as I’ve come up with:

FIRST, the “biz”, the “industry”, or whatever you want to call it today is set up for the short-view and the short-run. Longevity is out of the formula. No artists are developed anymore. That’s why there aren’t any new Dylans, aren’t any new Springsteens, or emerging Tom Pettys, or the next Neil Young.

Artists, if they’re lucky to be on a label, seem to get maybe 2-3 records and then their careers are over. Now, it seems, you come “ready made” with 50,000 fans in tow, or the powers that be take little to no notice.

audible sigh

Audible Sigh. 1999. From the VOL “label” days, produced by Buddy Miller, and featuring Emylou Harris.

SECOND, the music consumers of today don’t really listen to rock & roll the way they used to. It’s not “imbibed” anymore. I hung on the edge of my seat for the new Beatles or Byrds, the new Who album, Cream or Hendrix. I’d get on my Spyder bike and hit 5 miles to the K-Mart in Chapel Hill, NC (I was 14 at the time) to grab up the Lp of my favorite artist and digest all of it, the music, the album cover, the liner notes.  I wanted to know what was going on in my musical heroes’ heads. How did they see the world? What made them happy? What did they celebrate? What did they disdain?

I don’t think “kids” listen that way anymore. A song is most likely a virtual backdrop to their virtual lives and their virtual integration into what’s cool as dictated by bought-and-paid-for media. There seems (to me anyway) a certain self-satisfied numbness that’s infected our kids today. Scary. And sad. Sad because their lives and their spirits are untapped. Our kids are so much more than what the media feeds them.

There’re some bright spots, though. For example, the resurgence of vinyl and the bands that make records on 8, 16, and 24 track tape machines is something of a Truth Quest for many young record buyers. I love that.

My old band, Vigilantes of Love, was on a major/minor label and had very consistent radio airplay from like 1994-1999. We lived in a van 180-200 days a year. That was our commitment to our art. But, incompetence and sluggishness ruled the day among the labels, managers and agents we were attached to. And yes, as it suggests, we did feel quite powerless. First you get sad, then you get angry. Healthy responses, I think.

End of the matter? You go back to the reason you picked up a guitar in the first place. For me it was never to master the business or to become rich and famous. It was to be a songwriter and a singer. It was simply to put the inside on the outside in the form of a song.

As far as the “purity” of my art goes, it’s great to be “indie” again. And, as you know, it means wearing many hats. Most of which have nothing to do with the art itself. It also means, at least for me, not being able to reach as many folks.

But I think perhaps the whole process has been a necessary winnowing. The “real” fans have hung on.

Spiritually, what does all this mean? Well, on the “bad days” one fights depression & bitterness. But, on the “good days” you celebrate the fact that you offered the world authentic “art from the heart” and made no compromises with a system that tends towards mediocrity and hipster-ism.

What does that mean in real practice, in the day-to-day? Well, it’s not easy.  I just try to continue writing and recording honest, authentic, very personal music. It has to move me or I don’t release it.

Logistically, with no real entity (no manager, label or public relations) to profile and promote my records on a national level, I’ve had to re-think the wheel. What I mean by that is now I treat what I do as more of a cottage industry. Bring the cross-bar of expectations down a bit. That does not mean a lessening of quality. Artistic freedom means more quality. More grit, gravel, dust & diesel in the songs. More authenticity.

The “cottage industry” motif is not governed by the short view, or a hipster “flavor of the month” dynamic anymore.

Been there, done that.

There’s a great deal of liberation and satisfaction in doing what I do the way I do it.
It’s all driven by the greatest fans a fella could wish for. These are folks who still listen to music as if it mattered. To them, it does. This train is driven by my output of 2-4 new albums a year, and their enthusiasm and word-of-mouth. I’m very dependent on that handful of great fans to make the train run.

SM: Have you ever wanted to do something else—to completely change hats? If so, what are other” professions” or callings you’ve considered or felt drawn to? And why have you always stuck with music and songwriting? (For the record, I’m glad you have!)

BM: You know, I could have attempted to be a college professor. My love of American history & movements from, say, 1900 through the 60’s, might have been put to some use that way. Or perhaps a prose writer? I’d probably fail at both of them. So yeah, it had to be music.

SM: As an independent musician, Bill, you have worked extensively with numerous social media formats, such as bandcamp, billtunes, and facebook, to make your music available and to set up shows—as well as to make a living. Can you share a bit more of your thoughts on being an independent artist in the digital age? Has it gotten easier to “make it” as a musician without a label? If so, what does that mean today?

BM: Well the whole social media seems tired and weary now. It’s not new anymore. Everybody is on it. And here’s the one thing folks didn’t think about: much of the music and almost all of the presentation of digital media seems stricken with a soul-less-ness.

Why is that? Clearly there are talented artists “out there.” But, with a few exceptions, the work often strikes me as having a paint-by-numbers quality to it, like I mentioned earlier. Where’s the inspiration gone? Where are the new ideas? Social media just reinforces the notion that music is trivial, a commodity, some information to load into your device.

Lately, I’ve started to think the social media conduits were always over-rated. None of it has produced real community. None of it has produced longevity.

SM: Then do you think the old system—with huge labels—was better?

BM: The old superstructure had its bad, bad points. However, so many of those artists who were nurtured under the “old industry” are still here; still making great music. They’ve adapted, to be sure. But, there’s no denying that the old record industry super-structure sprung them and nurtured them first. Then, when all that comes from the internet did arrive, they had that to sustain them. Often, I see new flavor of the month indie artists breaking into the limelight from use of social media. But I don’t seem to hear about them 2 and 3 years later.

All the social media conduits are really a bit of a lie. Everyone is using them, so it really just makes it harder to be seen.

And the worst part? The worst part is the artist having to promote him or herself. I hate it. In a perfect world, we could just let the music speak for itself. The pond is quite over-stocked and past full.  There’re a million “Americana artists” and new ones manifesting every month.

SM: That’s true. But, in a way, doesn’t this also mean it has gotten easier to “make it” as a musician without a label? Isn’t that the good side to all of this?

BM: What to say? Yes, in some ways it is easier now. But like I said, I think the gains we (as Vigilantes of Love) made early on were forged under the “old superstructure” of big label dynamics.  Yes, we toured and worked our tails off. We delivered great sets under all conditions every night. And there was enough of a “new-ness” to the whole indie music thing that it was embraced by radio, MTV and a goodly number of folks. So, we made fans that are still there.

But now? Nothing’s really “new and amazing” anymore.  That’s what happened after the digital chip, MP3s and social media made everyone a star. When anyone can do it, everything’s reduced to triviality. As far as the recording standards go, I’m glad folks are pushing back against it. Like Neil Young, for example, with his Pono music venture. You buy the player and get superbly mixed and mastered recordings at higher bit-rate levels. I don’t own one, but I’ve heard lots of folks say they love what they hear.

And, I’m sorry this sounds harsh, but it really needs to be said. While the social media conduits have been a boon to many indie artists in getting their name & music out there, it’s also that same social media system that has tended to “legitimatize” everyone. Now every wannabe and hack is just as “legit” as anyone else. Nothing wrong with that at all. It’s a capitalist democracy. Sure, put your stuff in market place, whether you have anything to say or not. In my opinion, it’s just makes for a lot to wade through.

SM: The “bard” is an oft-romanticized but even more often misunderstood character in society. In your opinion, what are a few of the biggest misconceptions you face when it comes to people’s perceptions of you and your music? If you could set the record straight for folks who are curious about the life and work of an independent musician today in the US, what are few things you would share?

BM: Well, I’ve answered much of that already. I think folks in the US and in most western countries over the last 30 years have come to think of music as  merely a “commodity”: something to be consumed, a mere “adornment” on their lives. That’s what happens when there’s too much of anything. It becomes trivialized.

Listeners these days also tend to think that somehow music just magically appears and should be free or close to it. I really don’t think that’s the way “real” songs work. Like I said above, there’s tons of  rubbish out there. It being free doesn’t make it any less rubbish.

About myself, I would just tell folks:

Look, what I do as an artist isn’t for everybody. But then again, there is no one music that is. What I strive for in my work is an authenticity; an authenticity that’s not ‘borrowed’ or ‘mimicked’. It’s been born out of hard work, poverty, deprivation and more hard work. It’s been a dogged (and joyful) following of my own muse. If that’s the kind of music you like then I have plenty of it. And yes, it’ll cost you something. Nothing extravagant. But something.

I make each of the 75 records I’ve made available at a fair price, usually way less than a dollar a song, if one buys the whole album. But I take this seriously. There’s a “worker is worth the wage” theology embedded in how I do what I do. No shame in telling folks that if they want the “good stuff” they should be willing to pay something for it.

 SM: What does supporting an artist look like for you? What are the best ways that fans of your music can support you and the work that you do?

BM: Supporting an artist is, when it’s all pared down, really just a form a nurturing. It can also be a form of community. You see, it’s bigger than just the music. It’s Life, and we’re all in this together on the same planet.

You can never go wrong with good folks staying in touch. I have a fan-base comprised of some folks who’ve been there for over 20 years. That’s no small feat, in my book. We did it through relentless touring and releasing new albums every 6 to 9 months. To be able to garner folks’ initial interest and then have them follow you through your artistic journey is very flattering. And very nurturing.

My fans, although few, are usually pretty good about buying the records, booking shows for us (I usually prefer the house shows like you & I have done in the past!) and then spreading the news by good-old-fashion-word-o’-mouth.


SM: Bill, your songs often touch on deeply political or religious themes, particularly the daily struggles of those without power to survive in contexts where there seems to be little hope or comfort. However, I have rarely heard you described as either a political singer or an overtly religious artist. What is your take on this? Do you see yourself as doing political or religious work? What are your thoughts on the relationship between art and politics and religion? These days in particular?

BM: Fabulous questions!

First off, if that’s the “take”, the perception on who I am and “how” I do what I do, then I’m happy. I don’t want to be seen as a religious artist because in my estimation we’re all religious whether we’re tuned into that or not. And I don’t want to be seen as a political artist either. So many religious and political stances start with the artist pontificating from some higher moral ground, from some place of judgement. It’s all a bore or propaganda or both.

For me, I think it’s best to loosen up one’s preconceptions about how a song will turn out. Go at it with fewer foregone conclusions about how one feels and thinks about the “bigger things” in order to write a more honest song.

That does not mean those songs won’t be suffused with one’s own views of Faith, Hope and how Love should manifest itself in the world. But to me, it suggests at least 2 things.

One, it means that you the artist also have the courage to speak of what it all looks like on the “bad days” as well as the “good days”. And two, it also means that whatever your perspective is, it’s not your “agenda” when you step up to the microphone or into the recording studio. It’s really just an extension of immersing oneself in ragged and hallowed humanity and talking about its dreams, its hopes, its sadness and its griefs.

SM: What advice would you give a new artist who feels dead set on pursuing music as their life’s calling? Are there general starting points, or “essentials”, that you would hope for them to consider and pursue?

BM: I think some of these have been addressed already, but I would just add a bit of a “pep-talk.”

Learn your instrument. Learn as many as you’re able. Play “live” when you’re able. Performing is a great teacher. Read music and artists’ biographies; understand what gave them their vision and what they were up against in their own days. Read history, especially that of your own country.  And listen to everything you can. Cross cultures and listen to the traditional musics of other countries. It’s amazing. You realize that you are not alone. And you will find the vestiges of their genius everywhere. Such “immersion” will make your heart bigger. And such knowledge will keep you humble.

And the home front: family first, always family first. No marriage or family is worth busting up over one’s “big chance” or “big career.” All that stuff is illusion. The real is always human, always hallowed, always the priority.

SM: After getting married, you relocated. How has life with Muriah–living together in New Mexico– influenced what you’re doing and thinking these days?

BM: New Mexico is beautiful, almost other-wordly in terms of its topography and the character of the land. It has something that makes one’s heart bigger, it seems to me. Many a visual artist has been coming here for 100 years because the light has a quality that is not found anywhere else in the US. I came for the land, the people, the climate, the inspiration—and the low rent. But NM is also very undeveloped in many ways. It’s a poor state with poor state problems. Unemployment and lack of education opportunities keep it as a kick-dog state.

We’re dirt poor. Muriah and I toured heavily the first 8 years of our marriage. It was grueling. I was still writing and releasing 2-3 albums a year during that time. We took the last two years off to just get some perspective. During that time I think I made 8 albums to get us by, including a Christmas album. But even then I had to sell some of the little gear I have left to make ends meet. Amps, guitars, stuff I thought I’d have forever. It’s all part of the ritual now.

We fight a big battle with depression over what seems like diminishing options. I’d like to produce more artists. I have a modest recording rig and lots of experience. I can get you that “Bill Mallonee” sound (laughs)! But, for the most part, I think folks are saving the money & making records in their own garages and basements these days.

 

SM: Do you feel hopeful about the future? Your future? The future of the American people? The world?

BM: I’ve never felt “hopeful” about my future.  You make a certain, uneasy peace with the uncertainty and poverty and just go from there. I don’t think the Lord guaranteed anything here except His nearness. And I think His near-ness and grace is enough.

Professionally?  Short of “being discovered” or finding someone to put the music in front of some shakers & movers, I suspect I’ll being living under a bridge somewhere eventually.

I wish it were different, but if anything great is going to happen for my work, I suspect I’ll have to die first. Even then, it’ll probably be seen as a fool’s errand.

But, like I said, I stand by the art. All of it. Every song. Every album. Every word. For all of the lack of resources I’ve had to record and preserve it, I’d put the work up against anyone’s.

America? We’re amusing ourselves to death. Numbing ourselves with devices and big pharma drugs. Our souls are drying up. Technology has emasculated us in many ways. We make almost nothing here now. And yet we have the brightest youth in the world. Gifted beyond measure. The best minds. And we’d solve many a-problem if we’d let them have the initiative again. Gotta let the horse run. What happened to good old American Ingenuity? Used to be, we could solve any problem. Corporate America came in & stole that initiative from the fella who could “build the better mouse trap.” Now where’s clean energy? Where’s the electric car, for example? Where are the jobs that give dignity and by which a man or woman could provide their families with a better life?

Who stole that dream? Who killed our imaginations? And why? How did the noble concepts of the “common man” and the “middle class” disappear? Why are we seen as, and encouraged to be, nothing more than consumers?

A sense of despair and hopeless-ness was the theme of last year’s album Lands & Peoples. It named names and attempted to hold a mirror up to our spirits. We might be living in the new Dark Ages. We’re an oligarchy, a plutocracy. Hard Times. Sure, there’re a few voices of dissent, a few prophetic voices. But for the most part no one’s really blowing the whistle on any of it.

bill m 2

Lands & Peoples.

You reap what you sow. We’re sowing the fruits of illiteracy, ignorance & fear. We are a people polarized by religion and politics. And thus we’re easy prey. Corporations are the least “patriotic” entities on the planet. Jobs vanish, sent overseas. “Bigger is best” and “too big to fail” are the mantras taken up by our media-hungry politicians. Thus, “big” everything dominates our lives. Big Agriculture, Big Coal, Big Oil, Big War Machine, Big Pharma.

Education seems to be reduced to “what I have to do so I can get a job.” And even that’s no guarantee. The notion of learning and studying to greater love humanity and then render some help to our most pressing problems is out the door.  It seems like “the 1%” insulate themselves from what appears to me to be cultural breakdown. It’s a failure of leadership. They lack integrity and we’re not calling them out on it.

Hey, when you’ve got states like Texas ruling  against individual counties even voting on banning fracking, then you know there’s some serious bought-and-paid-for politicians.

Charlatans and weasels. I don’t think that’s an isolated incident. Such corporate domination is playing out in many areas.

At the end of the day? For me I try to be about the things I can control. I try to write a better song today than I did yesterday.

I try to be a loving and real human being. I’ve got my hands full.

I suppose one can only really keep one’s own parcel of life in order. And even that’s a stretch for most folks, I know (Lord help us!).

~ bill mallonee

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To learn more about how you can support Bill Mallonee and his music, go to the  “Community” page on his bandcamp website (https://billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com/ ).

Also, Bill and Muriah are currently making plans to tour again, all across the US, and they are focusing on house concert venues. If you or someone you know is interested in hosting a show, contact Bill at : highhorsebooking@hotmail.com.

*All pictures taken from Bill Mallonee’s bandcamp page.

“We’re all made of the same stuff”: Interview with Bill Mallonee, Part 1

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

bill mallonee

(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?

B: Books:
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.

Music:
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.

Movies:
Many personal favs, too many to mention. But, one can never go wrong with a Ken Burns documentary.

Art:
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
Adagio
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
Adagio….

“Adagio”

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3044812598/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/track=4149360463/transparent=true/

by Bill Mallonee, from Heaven in Your Heart (a WPA production)

3/18/2016

–TO BE CONTINUED with PART 2, soon…