Lands and Peoples
Bill Mallonee & the Big Sky Ramblers
In the Platonic cinema of the forms, there’s an epic movie called something like Americana Melancholia, which chronicles all the interior, wide-sky woe of the great American narrative from Dust Bowl to Rustbelt. It’s about the brokenness that’s been in the American dream from the very beginning. It’s a heart-breaking, gorgeous film, whether or not it exists. But it has a soundtrack that definitely does, and that’s the music of Bill Mallonee.
When I graduated from high school, an older guy I looked up to in my youth group gave me the record/EP combo that pushed Bill Mallonee to the margins of fame: Audible Sigh/Room Despair. It was a breath of dusty, whisky-tinged air into my CCM world of Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call, and company. Mallonee sang about something earthier, richer, and somehow deeper– certainly something more real, desperate, and beautiful than the other groups I was listening to at the time. He didn’t provide tidy answers. He didn’t wrap his lyrics in a neat bow of faith. He left them raw and bleeding. Those songs were the soundtrack of my last summer before leaving home, open roads, and the dashboard of a midnight blue ’99 Firebird.
Then he disappeared. Or I lost him. I’m not sure what happened. In college I picked up his next album, Summershine, despite the fact the cover bore an embarrassing pink flower instead of the angsty derailed locomotive of Audible Sigh. (I was, after all, an insecure freshmen.) The magic was still there, though the earthiness was mellowed with glimpses of an almost opalescent brilliance in lyrics like (still among my favorite): “Moonlight be a friend tonight / we’re all wrecked upon these dreams. / Holding on a bit too tight / I’ve got splinters from these moonbeams.” (That line has inspired short stories.)
But something happened. As I said, I’m not sure what. Part of it may have been that Mallonee’s music was simply too heart-felt. I wasn’t the sappy crooning of country, yet it was too genuine– too non-ironic– for the world of CCM or popular alternatives. Perhaps he simply needed more irony. Mallonee’s band was called, after all, “The Vigilantes of Love,” and if this was a bit tongue-in-cheek it was hard to tell. If I had to pick a literary analogue to the situation, I’d fall back on R. A. Lafferty (mentioned often on this blog), the “science fiction” writer from Tulsa whose words and worlds were simply too wide and weird to find a home in the publishing world of the 1980s.
And like the Laffertian renaissance I’ve written about here, there is perhaps a Melloneean renaissance underway as well. Over the past few years Mallonee– living and working now in the American Southwest– has been faithfully writing and producing at the edges of the industry, living on the faith and goodwill of the fans who continue to support his unique voice. I was reacquainted with his work when Noisetrade offered a free download of his EP Victory Garden, putting me in the orbit of his regular email missives with project updates and– painfully– occasional offers to sell guitars and amps to make ends meet.
The desert life is harsh, it seems. But the desert flowers as well. Beginning with last year’s Amber Waves, building to anticipated release of The Winnowing, Mallonee’s recent work culminates with Lands and Peoples, the latest product of this desert efflorescence. And it’s the same Mallonee I remember: a voice of dust and whisky. Mallonee paints pictures in his music of dying towns, dying crops, and wounded dreams with a pained beauty that makes you want to weep and enjoy the weeping. Mallonee’s voice belongs to a lost yesterday. If someone (and I’m sure someone has) collected all the ballads of American cowboys– real cowboys– and wanted a singer to record them to preserve for posterity the voice of the American West– well, Mallonee has that voice.
Yet his sound is his own and doesn’t belong to the West alone. If his voice is from yesterday, the music that envelops it is of today. Lands and Peoples is sonically rich, with a depth and texture showing an organic growth from the albums immediately previous. You hear it from the initial track, “At Least for A Little While,” which hooks immediately with quiet, desperate guitar fingering. It builds into “Hide Me in the Darkness,” a haunting piece that along with “Little While” forms an especially strong beginning into standard Mallonee fare: haunted guitar, haunted voice, haunting lyrics. The clouds Mallonee promises may break “At Least for A Little While” in the first track of course gather again, building over mesas and long roads, steeped in dying light. It’s a familiar ache, but none the less gorgeous. They clear completely though in “Sangre de Cristo,” a piece of lovely blue sky that sits like a bright beacon in the album’s heart. Then they gather again, toward a fitful sunset in “It All Turns to Dust,” with Mallonee leaving us only that whispered promise at the record’s conclusion.
If you’re a fan of rich, textured music with a strong narrative thread and an abiding sense of locality, check out this album. (You can find links and info on all of Mallonee’s work here.) There’s a sound here that deserves being more widely heard.
When I approached Bill about reviewing his latest album, he suggested a Q&A and was good enough to offer detailed responses to my questions. His responses, which I’ve posted below, give deeper insights into what’s going on beneath the surface of these songs as well as a glimpse into the mind and heart of the guy Paste Magazine has called one of America’s greatest living songwriters. (I agree with Paste, incidentally.)
Q: I don’t know much about the technical details of recording, but I feel a bit like I stepped over the edge of a sonic shelf in Lands and Peoples, which struck me as being deeper musical waters than some of your previous albums. It seemed audibly more three-dimensional. Can you help me understand what I’m hearing?
BM: I think your questions has two parts. First, the “audibly more three-dimensional” part. I have a few good mics, but after that I just use my ears. But, it might have to do with the materials the studio is made from. Muriah and I live in a small community in the high deserts of New Mexico. In every area you go with the materials that are there. In New Mexico, for centuries now of course, houses have been built out of dried clay and mud. We were fortunate, when we moved here four years ago, to be able to rent just such a dwelling. Yeah, it really is a hacienda. So, I think what you might be hearing is the the fact that the studio is housed in an almost two hundred year adobe casita. The walls are two feet thick all around of prepared dried mud. They are non-parallel (always a plus in studio recording) and the the exposed beams in the ceiling create a kind of baffling. It’s an easy room to get sounds in and to mix tracks in. So the fellas who constructed it unknowingly built a great room to record music in. Also, the room is just beautiful. Quaint and full of all that is inspiring about southwest architecture. Step outside and you’ll be looking straight into the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo chain of the Rockie Mountains. (Poor us!) Yes, hats off to the beauty of these wonderful, natural elements. I feel very blessed.
Part two of you question (the deeper musical waters part): I think my love affair with just how guitars can and should interplay with other guitars as part of the song structure is something I’ve been having fun exploring for the last five years. Many of the recent albums (and the EPs I’ve release under the moniker WPA) explore that guitar-to-guitar relationship. It’s about the right parts supporting one another. I think the last few records (The Power & The Glory, Amber Waves, Dolorosa, and last year’s Winnowing) have kind of a subtle, unobtrusive beauty. The trick was to make them sound sparse, but in reality there are many guitar tracks on almost all of these songs, weaving in and out of the musical tapestry. The trick, I think I’m learning, is that no one part necessarily has to carry the weight of the whole.
Q: I also hear continuity with what came before, specifically some of the songs in Audible Sigh (as well as lyrical nods to that album). You haven’t radically transformed your sound, but it’s certainly developed. Yet personally and geographically (and theologically?) you’re hundreds of miles away from where you were then. How does this come out in your music?
BM: I don’t know, really. I think it’s all the natural process of life. Yes, the songs are grimmer, darker now, to be sure. I don’t think that means they’re necessarily drawn from a different well. I do know more about how the country works and how the industry works for some and not others than I did when I first started out. Me? I just wanted to make songs that were authentic and honest. That’s all.
First the back story. Vigilantes of Love. We’d been critics darlings for many years running. We put out great records. Even music critics kept asking after each album: “Why are they not breaking bigger?” You have to remember that we started in a day when bands could break with a few resources marshaled to places like MTV and late night talk shows. In reality, we were broke, confused, increasingly discouraged. My band mates were just incredibly heroic, wonderful people all through this. We enjoyed playing together and hanging out together.
But, the reality is that Audible Sigh, produced by Buddy Miller, and the records in front and back of that release (Roof of The Sky and ‘Cross the Big Pond) were in many ways the beginning of the end. I can’t tell you how many folks saw that band “live” and said things to us like, “Why aren’t you guys playing beside Son Volt, Wilco, the Jayhawks?” All of those bands were big, big names in the early Americana ink that was high profile in the late 90s’ and early 2000’s. We worked hard. I use to joke that we could play on any Fischer-Price PA system any night of the week (and we often did!) and make magic. It was such a beautiful, kickin’ band. And we toured 180-200 shows a year in small college club world to generate a following. Vigilantes of Love became a “best kept secret.”
Could we have broken bigger? I think so, yes. Why we didn’t break, I think again, is simply because we were never very well connected. The folks we trusted, be they managers, or labels, or booking agents, all steered us into dead-ends. I have no “killer instinct.” I just wanted to write, perform, and make records. I think we waited as long as we could until it was time to say: “Ok, this is not gonna happen.”
But one has to grieve when a dream dies. And since I wrote all the songs and had poured so man emotions in it (we’d done something like fifteen albums in ten years) I was devastated. I went through this period where I felt personally let down and cast aside by so many managers and labels. Even our home town was detached. After comparing notes with many other singer-songwriter types, I heard similar stories. But the songs kept coming. Lots of them. I think I released four solo albums in 2001. Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t need an industry’s permission to be who I was.
That’s the backstory.
How does that dark experience play out in the last years and records? Well, Muriah and I moving to the high desert to live a more uncluttered life was one of the responses. One has to excavate from the previous experiences and reflect on the journey. I think there’s a certain haunted quality began to emerge in the songs, even a Southwest quality. I was (mistakenly, I think) lumped in with that whole weird “Christin artist” sub-culture thing for a spell. What I do, at the risk of sounding arrogant, is bigger than that. What I do is not commercial in the way such folks see it. I hope it’s more real than that.
Thematically, I tell folks that you can only write well what you know well. I’m a confessional type writer. (Maybe that comes from my rearing as a Catholic, where everything in one’s life is something of an inventory; something under chronic scrutiny by oneself and the Lord.) I believe the Faith, to be sure. It informs how I see the world and live in it. But, you have to learn how to live with the incongruities in yourself and even in your faith. Some days the world makes sense, other days not so much. So, that’s an undercurrent theme in the new work, to be sure. It comes out as a struggle, a wrestling. Too often darkness seems to be the loudest voice in my life. I do I feel I have been the undeserving recipient of Grace. I am loved. We all are. I see this life as precious, hallowed and a gift. But, those vital truths are also more eroded than ever in the onslaught of what we call modernity.
How does that related to the songs? Well, i have no agendas, no polemic to dispense when I write and sing. Whether I’m giving a new slant on a Dust Bowl ballad tale and investing it with something of my own journey or whether I’m just writing a song that has more of a first person haunted quality (“The Ghost That I run With” comes to mind), I feel my job is to make honest, authentic work. I tell folks: “I love my job. It’s good work, if you can get it!”
Q: I live and breath prose (though sometimes I dream in verse), so it’s hard for me to imagine what the process of writing a song might look like. What does a song sound like for you as it begins to coalesce? Does the sound come first or the words? Do you ever have one without the other?
I think you have to let a song tell you where it wants to go. No over-thinking it. I know that sound mysterious. It is. Songs have a way of “getting outta hand.” And that’s a good thing, I believe. Don’t be afraid of the where they wanna go. I think it’s part of being open to the Spirit, really.
Usually, I have to have a guitar in my hand when I write. I’ll keep a journal of lyrics going on the road when Muriah and I are touring and consult it for ideas later. But mostly a whole song, at least the heart and focus, comes in one sitting. (After that it’s adding hook lines, overlays that keep it living to the ears.) Sometimes a whole song will show up based solely on the cadence or syncopation of a phrase or a couple lines of lyrics. Melodies make the song memorable and that’s what I hope happens naturally.
But, to recap: I do very much think if you force something or over-think it, it’s probably not gonna be memorable.
Q: You sing on the margins, and you also sing about the margins: the margins of failure and defeat, despair, and hope. Maybe the margins of faith as well? Would you say this is part of what inspires your work: transforming the experience of these margins into beauty?
Absolutely. The trick is to make the margins clearer, more visible. We’re all so numbed and mesmerized by daily life. Yet, I think “Something,” or “Some One,” keeps pushing through, asking for our attention. Those can be what writer Frederick Buechner calls those “lump-in-the-throat” moments that take us by surprise. We’re here for such a short time. And yet we’re haunted, captivated, driven by this sense of transcendence, a hunch that Love really does means something; that no life is anything less than precious; that life has this hallowed quality and that each of us are beautiful mysteries; that there is something beyond the grave.
Sure, some think that ground of being is beyond words. And, being small and finite, perhaps it is. But, to me that’s what all great art attempts to do: To give a nomenclature to the Love that I believe is the ground of everything.