Bill Mallonee began making music in Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s, when bands from that scene like R.E.M., Widespread Panic, and the B-52s were exploding on the national stage. In 1990 he formed Vigilantes of Love, and for a decade they skated right along the edge of breakout success in the growing alternative and Americana music scene. Their 1999 album Audible Sigh included collaborations with Buddy and Julie Miller and Emmylou Harris and earned stellar reviews.
His songs have been covered by the likes of John Mellencamp, and in 2006, Paste placed him at number sixty-five on their list of the Hundred Greatest Living Songwriters. Despite this résumé, his career has been marked by disruptions and near misses.
His obsessive devotion to the craft of songwriting has kept him in the game, sometimes scraping together just enough money to make and distribute homemade records to fill the gaps. For the last decade and a half, he’s lived an ascetic life with his wife Muriah Rose in the New Mexico desert, recording an album a year and working a grinding tour schedule that takes him from small venue to small venue across the United States.
He was interviewed by Mike Cosper, who played pedal steel and dobro as a sideman for him off and on during the aughts.
Image: I have a memory from first night we played together that’s always stuck with me. During sound check, a guy walks in off the street, drunk, smelling up the room. You were playing “High and Lonesome,” and he interrupted you and said, “Hey, why do you sing like that? Why’s your voice sound like that?” And he mimicked your inflection. You didn’t miss a beat. You just said, “Well, that’s the only voice I’ve got.” After sound check you invited him to sit at a table and talk music, and you talked about the singers you loved, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Bill Mallonee: I remember this exchange. We were at the Dame, in Lexington.
Image: I think about it any time I listen to one of your records. This same generosity of spirit is in the songs too. I can see and hear the Dylan influence in your work, but unlike him, you’ve got a real vulnerability in your songs.
BM: I once talked to Buddy Miller about this. It was right after Dylan’s first memoir came out, and I asked Buddy what he thought of it. He said, “He’s just as much a mystery now as he ever was,” and it’s true. You just don’t know anything about him. The funny thing about Dylan is, people tell me, “I bet you really like Dylan’s Christian period,” but that’s actually my least favorite stuff. I’ve gone back and listened to some of those records and thought, man, that was a kick-ass band he had going, but the songs sure are easy to unpack. It sounds propagandistic. The stuff on either side of it’s the good stuff.
Image: Was he one of the first people you latched on to?
BM: Yes and no. I was born January 1, 1955. My parents were big-band and crooner fans. Their weekends were devoted to steaks on the grill, martinis in their hands, and Sinatra in the background. I watched them from the sidelines, and it was all so good.
When the Beatles hit the shores in 1964, I was nine. I was ready to find something transcendent, and they were it. I felt like whatever that was, I wanted to be a part of it. Dylan came later, through the Byrds. I was just starting to play drums, and I remember hearing songs like “My Back Pages”-Roger McGuinn chiming on that Rickenbacker through a Vox AC30-and I thought, “I want to know what this is about.”
Later, it was Dylan and Neil Young who tweaked me to lyrics. I’d hear people like them or Joni Mitchell and realize, “Wow, what just happened in that four minutes? I went somewhere,” even though the music itself was very basic. They started with a guitar and a song and a voice, and by the end of it, I was happy or in tears. Moved in the heart. I felt like a better human being, and I wanted to do something about it.
I didn’t go out and buy a guitar, though. Not remotely. I played drums in bands all through high school and thought I might go into music. But my parents put the squeeze on and said, “You really need to go to college.” So I went to the University of Georgia.
They let anybody in then, and it was one panic after another for me. It was a good-old-boy institution heavily influenced by the frats, and yours truly just thought, “I have no idea who I am or what I’m supposed to do here.” I was a fledgling believer by then.
I was raised old-school Roman Catholic, so I had that umbrella over me, but in college I found the Navigators and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and it was beautiful. I loved it. I was a book nut too, and I got a job working at a Logos Bookstore. I was buying all kinds of stuff and looking for a deeper experience of Christ on the printed page, John Stott and that sort of thing.
Image: Tell me more about your parents and your Catholic background.
BM: My dad was hardcore. He had high marks when he went to school, graduated from the University of Virginia and served two years in Berlin. He was one of the inventors of indoor/outdoor carpet, which became AstroTurf and stuff like that. We weren’t necessarily blueblood, but I grew up pretty comfortable in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My mom came out of Southern Baptist circles, and she had a fine-tuned nose for hypocrisy-saw it around every corner. So she put religion down for a while. She prayed, she loved reading the Psalms, and over the years came back to it.
My conversion was one of those overzealous things. The first thing I tried to do after coming home from UGA was save everybody, and they told me that they weren’t interested in that sort of thing. My dad wondered, “How do these people gain access to the dorms?” We were worlds apart, so I didn’t talk too much about it. A Catholic priest told me one time that the loudest gospel was the one you preached with your life. I thought, “Yeah, that’s how it will work between me and them.”
Image: You graduated from UGA in 1977. Was music what kept you in Athens?
BM: I stayed because of a local house church. There was this pastor-Alan Dan Orme, who’s passed on now-an ordained Presbyterian minister living in this sprawling house, and I rented a room there. I was working at a hippie restaurant called the El Dorado, living on sixty-five dollars a week, and we were all so broke that I was actually lending money to people. My plan was to stay there for four or five years. Then, all of a sudden, there was this independent music scene. I ended up being there thirty-five years.
The music scene was a moveable feast. There’d be a club somewhere one week and gone the next. Even the 40 Watt-one of the famous ones-probably moved a half a dozen times in its early years. Back then, somebody got some money together, bought a keg, and next thing you knew there were three bands playing. R.E.M. got started in a church right off Broad Street. It’s gone now, but I think they’ve saved the steeple as part of their iconography.
There was a lot of energy in the air. I was working as a baker’s assistant, on the late shift, getting the mixes and doughs ready. One night, I got off work in the middle of town in the middle of the night, and I walked out of the bakery and heard this music down the street on the next block. I went up some stairs, paid a two-dollar cover, and I don’t even remember who the band was but I remember the energy was fabulous. Around that time I started marketing myself as a drummer.
Not long after, I remember eating in the El Dorado when Bert Downs walked through the door and showed me an album with a blue cover and a gargoyle on the front. It was R.E.M.’s Chronic Town. And Bert-he ended up being an advisor to the band-he was so ecstatic. They were a band about energy. Every song was 120, 130 beats a minute, taking no prisoners. I love the record and still love it. And I wanted to be a part of what was happening.
Image: When I hear artists’ origin stories, I almost always think about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, where he essentially says, “If you can do anything else with your life, you probably should.”
BM: Real deflating, isn’t it?
Image: Indeed. Did you have that feeling then? What drew the songwriter out of you?
BM: A little bit. Mostly, I just wasn’t hearing what I wanted on the radio. So I set about writing my own stuff. The first foray was Jugular, recorded with an incredibly accomplished keyboard player named Mark Hall. We went to church together, and he played this French impressionistic accordion all over it. I still get letters saying, “Man, I really love that Jugular record.” I write back and say, “Yeah, I peaked early.”
My wife says those songs are earnest, and I know what she means. They walk up and slap you in the face a little too hard. No subtlety whatsoever. But I got enough affirmation to say, “I’ve got something to say. Let’s work on this.” And I had enough of a safety net at the time to see what would happen.
I’m overwhelmed when I go back and listen to those first three records, Jugular, Driving the Nails, and Killing Floor, and hear how much our sound changed in such a short time. The jump to Welcome to Struggleville-this big, noisy, electric record-was even bigger, but it all started with guitar and accordion three years earlier. It was dizzying.
After Killing Floor, we went to Austin to play South by Southwest and got signed to Capricorn Records by Phil Walden, who discovered the Allman Brothers. Two months later, we were in the studio with a fellow named Jim Scott, who was also engineering Tom Petty’s Wildflowers with Rick Rubin. He got a Grammy for that record.
Between Killing Floor and Welcome to Struggleville, the band members all changed. I had a falling-out with Billy Holmes, though it didn’t have anything to do with egos; it had to do with other stuff. He’s a genius musician-keyboards, mandolin, guitars, you name it-and was the backbone musically. But by Welcome to Struggleville, the guys were going in different directions, and we made this big-sounding record. When we heard the final mixes, I said, “I think you guys need a singer. I can write the songs, but I don’t know that I’m the singer for this band.” But somehow it worked. John Mellencamp gave that record immense kudos.
Image: The next two albums-Blister Soul and Slow Dark Train-are another sonic departure. They’re heavy, with the guitar way more forward, like a lot of nineties records, but maybe out of character for you. Was there pressure to go in that direction?
BM: It was the label. Jeff Cook at Capricorn said, “Bill, we want a guitar-driven version of ‘Real Downtown.’ Radio stations have told me they’d play the heck out of it if they got something a little more guitar heavy.” The Struggleville-era band and I disagreed, but that band was gone by then. The new band came to me and said, “We just want to go into the studio and jam on some tunes and have you come in and sing,” and I got pissed off. I said, “No, there’s no way in heck I’m going to do that. I’ve already got fifty songs for the next record.”
So I went to the studio with John Keane [producer for R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Uncle Tupelo, and many more], pretty much just myself and the songs. John played a lot of the guitars. Chris Donahue and Matt Donaldson played bass and drums.
During that record, we kept approaching Capricorn for budget to do a video, because in the old MTV days, you could spring a band if there was a good video, but Capricorn wouldn’t give it up, and we were penniless. Our van was constantly breaking. So the band languished in part because we didn’t have a video in a day and age when videos were what made a band happen.
Image: Throughout all of this, you were still deeply immersed in your church. Did the Christian Contemporary Music world affect where you went as an artist?
BM: Early on, I didn’t even really know it existed. Once I saw it, I was pretty skeptical and have been ever since. CCM bands back then were being advertised as the sanitized version of the Cowboy Junkies or the sanitized version of Rage Against the Machine. I thought, “Forget that.” I don’t know if it was the kids who were making that music or the puppet masters at the top driving it. I just didn’t want any part of it, because I saw how it shut down creativity. They tell you what to play. I remember Mark Heard gravitating away from that scene because even his songs were starting to get called out for not having enough “Jesuses per minute.” JPMs, that was the going phrase.
We’d play Cornerstone Festival as a place to make friends and see friends. But even that may have been too much. Once you get the CCM label, it’s hard to get it off your skin. The next thing I knew, our name was being dropped alongside bands we didn’t have anything in common with. We were on the radio alongside Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and the Jayhawks, and that’s where I felt like our friends were, where we belonged.
Image: That kind of marketing was a disservice to everybody, especially the bands who were actually making good music in that scene. Take Luxury, who came up near your scene. There was no way CCM was going to understand these guys.
BM: I thought Luxury was a triumph, but the stuff on their turntables and CD players wasn’t Christian. They were listening to the really deep stuff, Daniel Lanois and the Cocteau Twins and Radiohead. Ethereal stuff. And they were blistering. I thought, “This is where it starts to get good.” But that didn’t matter in that scene. You got brownie points for toeing the line.
I’d always thought that music made by Christians should reflect the saints-and-sinners dynamic between the artist and the world, the way Hank or Johnny or the old-school country rockers-Elvis or Pop Staples-were on both sides of that. They had an experience with the risen Christ, but there were dark paths before they got there. Frequently they were on the path and strayed and came back again and again. That’s the stuff that interested me. It seemed true to life, unsanitized.
Image: You can hear that sinner/saint tension all through your music.
BM: I was tortured, especially then. By doubts about my salvation. About my ability to measure up to anything.
Image: Audible Sigh came next. You’ve talked about it as a turning point-for good and ill.
BM: I’d made friends with Buddy Miller at Cornerstone, played drums with him when he and his wife Julie and Lucinda Williams and Victoria Williams were putting together this ragtag band. Mark Olson from the Jayhawks played bass. Buddy sent me a tape, and I learned eight songs. They didn’t play any of them. Buddy just started throwing songs up, and I told Mark, “I haven’t played drums very much over the years,” and he just laughed and said, “I don’t play bass at all.” We had a great time though, and Lucinda, Victoria, and Julie rose to the occasion.
So when it came time to make Audible Sigh, I called Buddy and he said he’d love to produce it. We recorded right there in his house, and it was beautiful. We’d been on a tour and had two days off, so we came in. The record was the live set we were doing at the time.
It came out on Pioneer Records-pretty much a brand-new label-which went south about fifteen minutes later. But when that happened, they just gave the record to us. Our attorney said, “Bill, they’re a Japanese DVD company. They’ve decided that’s what they’re doing now.” We spent six months shopping that record to the major labels and couldn’t find a deal. So John Thompson helped us get it out.
It was blowing up in the UK. We blew through the copies we had there, came back to the States, and somewhat skeptically signed with Compass Records. I wish we hadn’t. We needed some push. We’d saturated our fans. We needed to be playing in front of bigger bands. I think we could have held our own with any of those Americana bands, but we didn’t know how to get through the glass ceilings. I know it sounds cynical, but it really is about who you know: you’d better be a good band and you’d better pay the dues. We had a record on the charts in England but were still playing in front of thirty to fifty people here.
Image: You had your cheerleaders, though. People like Paste magazine were pushing it.
BM: I don’t even know what to say about Audible Sigh. I recently wrote some liner notes for the rerelease on vinyl, and I just thought, “Man, that was magic.” That band could play those songs in any venue, on any Fisher-Price PA system-and wow. But we just could not find the break. I had to be honest with the band and say, “You know what? I don’t think next year is going to be any different from this year. It might even be worse. I don’t think we’re ever going to get out of this.” After Vigilantes broke up, that sense of despair showed up on Dear Life and Friendly Fire.
You start to ask yourself what you’re going to do, and where you’re at inside your skin. Some things were thrown under the bus. My first marriage ended. A lot of hard stuff happened. For a few years, the only thing I could make music on was a DAT player with a single mic and a stomp box compressor-as noisy as all get out. I think I wrote 120 songs over a year and a half, and those went out the door to really hardcore fans.
Image: In the Christian world, the end of a marriage can be a career killer. How did you experience that?
BM: Nobody ever asked me what was going on. I think some people were just sad. And on one level, I get it. But it felt like being told, “You’ll never play this town again.” I remember the singer-songwriter John Austin writing on a chat board where people were talking about it, “Listen to this guy’s songs; his feet are made of clay. What do you think he was singing about all those years?”
The ink Vigilantes was getting back then was ridiculous: Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, USA Today-all the big rock magazines were raving. And I wondered why I was broke, why I couldn’t keep a band together. I couldn’t even break even. Discouragement was definitely one of the components that led to my fall. There was more to it than that; nobody will ever know, and I’m not here to give any kind of big reveal. But I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t made of such stern stuff, as the poetry goes.
Image: A friend of mine once talked about how pastors live under the weight of a church’s projected expectations. They get idealized, even idolized. That’s an occupational hazard that isn’t totally unexpected for pastors, but most Christian artists never signed up to be role models.
BM: Yeah. Check all of the above. And a lot of Christian musicians aren’t churched at all. They’re on the road six months a year. Where’s church? Church is the Gideon’s Bible in your hotel room on Sunday morning. There’s a loneliness to it.
I think part of the roots of it are in the old Jesus Movement. If you were a singer-songwriter, you were expected to become a minister with a guitar. And that’s absolutely fallacious. We shouldn’t do that to people. I was never a huge fan of the band Kansas, but I once heard Kerry Livgren talk about his conversion experience. He said it didn’t take him five minutes of going down that path publicly to realize he wasn’t much of a preacher. I thought, “Thank you, Kerry.” Because that’s exactly right. Let your songs be your songs and leave it at that.
Image: Often when Christian artists have a public moral failure, you see them outright reject their faith. Was that ever on the table for you?
BM: No. I regret the way things came about, though I think my marriage would’ve eventually ended anyway. But I’ll say this: I’ve never had a doubt about the core, cradle specifics of the faith. Honestly, I don’t understand the deconstruction thing. When I see it, I think, “Why are you doing that, throwing it all out?” I don’t know what they’re getting out of it. I wonder if some take that route because they think there’s no way back in, that the door to the Lord’s mercy is forever shut. Someone needs to tell them that it is never shut, that mercy is never-ending and new every morning.
Image: You basically lost everything, though.
BM: Yeah. Packed up and moved west.
Image: When I listen to the records you’ve made in New Mexico, like The Winnowing, I can hear the desert aesthetic. There’s something haunted about the lyrics and sounds. It feels resonant with an idea that’s prevalent in almost every religious tradition-that there’s a spirituality found only on the other side of loss or failure or suffering.
BM: I definitely experienced a realignment. Things are a little more open-ended for me now as far as where God’s love falls and who it’s for, but it’s not a deconstruction. I’ve always asked some of those stark questions. Am I lost? Am I saved? Am I damned? Is there any hope for me? I’m always trying to be honest, and I think you can go back through and see that in all the songs. I wrote a lot of pep talks to myself, including after Audible Sigh didn’t happen and the band went our separate ways.
I’m glad Kenny Hutson’s doing well in Nashville, and so is Jake Bradley. Kevin Heuer’s playing drums over in South Carolina, and I pray for their success. I hope they have wild success. I still love those guys. Audible Sigh is a freeze-frame moment for me, and I’ve often thought, “It’ll never be better than that.”
But the songs kept coming, and I just decided I’m going to keep writing. Had to keep writing. Write ’em till the pen runs dry. Eventually, we moved out here to New Mexico, and I’ve kept on making records. I call them the high desert records because they were made right out the door here, at six thousand feet.
Image: I’ve seen the piles of notebooks you carry around; you do write till the pen runs dry. Hearing you makes me think of Jacob wrestling with God. You have this relentlessness that says, “I’m not letting go,” and like Jacob you’ve got the scars to show it. Did it ever cross your mind to throw in the towel and get a job at Home Depot?
BM: 9/11 happened not long after Vigilantes disbanded. The world was changing, and we didn’t know-were we going to war? Were we reinstating the draft? I think the uncertainty killed the industry for people like me, and I don’t know that it’s ever coming back. But I had to keep at it. I’ve put out an album almost every year, and each of those represent only a few of the hundred or more songs I write in a year.
I actually think I’ve written better songs since Audible Sigh-more honest songs-but I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t wish there was a band that had the firepower and elegance we had in that band.
God’s been gracious in spite of where I find myself, though. He’s been absolutely wonderful and intimate and reachable. I don’t even know how to describe it. I find him in Eugene Peterson’s translations and in the writing of Fredrick Buechner. Buechner’s probably the reason why my hand is still in the game.
Image: Your songs evoke this American spirit of the frontier and the journey west, but it’s often what Cormac McCarthy referred to as the “fading west.” I’ve wondered if McCarthy was an influence.
BM: I know people who love McCarthy and think I’d love him, but I’ve never actually read one of his books. Jack Kerouac was a big influence though. More the ethos than the imagery. He had that frontier spirit in a lot of ways.
The Beats came along when America was handing the car keys to a man in a lab coat, and what we got was big pharma and big ag and big oil. We trusted that they had our interests in mind, and now we’re addicted to opioids and eating food that’s grown in a lab. Kerouac saw it. Lamented it.
You know, it bugs me when I see docs and retrospectives about him and they miss how much a sense of deity shows up in his books. He dignified his characters, especially after he got out of the haze of alcohol and Benzedrine. You see it in Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. That came from his French Catholic roots, and he went back there later in life. He was going to Mass with a poet friend and living at home with his mom when he died. He’d destroyed his life, for sure, but people want to glorify the destruction, not the mystic side of him. I think alcohol was just an attempt to achieve some kind of transcendence.
As for the old west stuff, I love it all. Some of that comes from my college years, studying American history. I focused on the years from 1840 or so to 1900. The old west was going away then, but they were still romanticizing it with wild-west shows and women touring around doing shooting and trick riding. Rodeos, cowboys, all that stuff. The cowboy era didn’t actually last very long, but America made it a kind of mythology.
I think there’s some Woody Guthrie in me too. When I started writing songs, I read Woody Guthrie’s diaries. His world became very real for me, the dirt and dust and thumbing down the road. Something about it made him an everyman to everyone, and that’s why his songs are still powerful.
All of that’s in my own songs, though I guess it’s not going to make the disco.
Image: I can hear Kerouac especially in your lonesome strangers-people at the ends of their ropes, lamenting the fading worlds and harsh landscapes they inhabit while also reckoning with their own suffering and failure. Is there any separation between you and the characters in your songs?
BM: There’s usually something of me in the souls of the characters. The last song on Lands and People is about a hard-luck guy going into a bank to write a promissory note for his farm. He’s lived with deprivation, and he’s trying one last time, but in the back of his mind he knows it’s not going to happen for him. There’s a line in there: “She left me in September. To the east she headed back. She told me not to write her. I’ve tried to make good on that.” You realize then he’s not talking about the bank and the failed farm; the song’s really about the love he thought he had in the bag, but he was wrong.
Image: That outsider status marks your life, as well, whether it was among the frats at UGA, or being too Christian in some scenes and not Christian enough in others. Do you gravitate toward spaces where you’re a bit of a fish out of water?
BM: I don’t know. I don’t think I’m contrarian by nature. Brennan Manning asked himself all the time, “Am I at home in my own skin?” He clearly wasn’t, and his writing feels like a series of pep talks to himself about it. I do read Scripture that way. I still do a daily quiet time six out of seven days a week. It’s something I took away from the campus ministries I was in fifty years ago. I’m still asking myself, “Are you at home in your own skin?” These days I’d answer, “More than ten years ago,” and I hope people don’t have to wait till they’re sixty-seven to feel like that.
When someone asks, “Do you really believe in this doctrine or that one,” I just say I believe Jesus is alive and at loose and at large, and he’s after everyone, whether you know it or not. But it’s taken me a long time to get to that point. Some of that wrestling comes out in the songs. I think I’m more honest. I try not to sit on the sidelines and be a cynic after all the hard times and deprivation I’ve experienced.
Truth is, I’m in so much debt from all these years of barely making it, I was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple years ago, and that’s just the luck of the draw, the roll of the dice. I’m okay with most of it, although mortality, she’s a bitch. But even recognizing that it’s a bitch means realizing that underneath all of this, as T.S. Eliot says, we were meant for something more.
Maybe none of us feels at home. We all feel like we got to get out of here somehow, whether it’s figuratively or literally.
Image: I’d imagine your songs start with lyrics.
BM: Actually, it almost always starts with a guitar. Lately it’s been through these Gretsch hollow bodies and these old amps-an old Vox, a Fender Reverb, this funky little Supro. They all have little colorations, like crayons in a box. Truth be told, I’ve had to sell a lot of gear over the years just to keep the wolf from the door, but still, when I pick one of these up, the different sounds all draw something different out of me.
Image: That’s really surprising, given how well known you are for your lyrics.
BM: Yeah, it starts with a guitar. The melody comes next-no lyrics. Then some little phrase will emerge like, “You could see it coming,” and you know that’s the payoff line. “You could see it coming” shows up, and I start building around it. That song actually turned out to be about West Virginia and the deprivation they’ve had to deal with after companies coming in and fracking and stripping all of the land.
I just sort of intuit that stuff. I have no idea where it comes from when I’m writing it. I don’t see it until later.
Image: You’ve used the word deprivation quite a few times, and I know you’ve had to scrap to keep the music afloat. We’ve had this pandemic, which kept artists off the road for a long time, and you’ve been battling lymphoma.
BM: I’m still gobsmacked about the lymphoma, and there’s a part of me that’s probably in denial about it. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t wake up at three in the morning sweating bullets. I’ve told the Lord that I really want to live to be 103, because Psalm 103 is my favorite psalm. I’ve memorized it from top to bottom. I don’t know if we can make deals with God that way, but here I am.
He hasn’t responded. I will say that.
The lymphoma is in my abdomen. It started at twelve centimeters, and my oncologist said that’s pretty big. But it shrank twenty-five percent after the first regimen of drugs. Right now it’s probably asleep, but it’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which means it’s here for the long haul and there’s no going into remission.
I do think the Lord is a healer. I heard this preacher preach on Psalm 103 recently, and he said, “Think of the theologies that have been structured around the verse, ‘Bless the Lord, who pardons your iniquities.’ But what about the next verse, ‘who heals all your diseases’? We don’t really go very far with that.”
The Pentecostals deal pretty well with it, though. I’ve thought, “No, the Lord’s a healer,” and that’s where my prayers go. If anybody’s reading and wants to pray for healing, please feel free to. The Lord’s a healer. Whether he will do it for me or not, I don’t know. But I know it happens.
It’s showing up in the songs a bit. In “What’s Left of Me Now,” the closing track on Lead on Kindly Light, the last verse says, “Joy, she called. She said she’s coming late, but she’s bringing love too. So for now we wait. Whatever’s left of me now.” Someone’s already written me and said, “That’s got to be a song about checking out. You’re not dying already?” “I got cancer,” I tell him. But aren’t we all dying in some shape, form, or fashion daily?
Image: The early verses in that song also are about losing a farm and giving away the horses. There’s another promissory note too. Your performance feels visceral and vulnerable. But then there’s that thread of hope, which is consistent in your later records. The characters are down and out, but they’ve got their eye on judgment day and an apocalyptic sense that grace gets the final word.
BM: I don’t think God wastes anything, our victories or our failures. That’s true in King David’s life, so why not us? It cuts both ways. At some point I learned that we don’t really know what we’re capable of till we hit the bottom, so be careful about the estimation you have of yourself.
One night after my first marriage ended and Muriah and I were married, we walked into our favorite bar in Athens, the Flicker. It was mostly empty, except for a disheveled guy who’d clearly had one too many. I remember saying, “You know, somebody’s going to walk through that door and look down his nose at that guy at the end of the bar. But when you’re on the other side, when you’re at the bottom of the ladder, everybody’s your friend.”
Mike Cosper is a writer and podcast producer. His books include Recapturing the Wonder (IVP) and Faith among the Faithless (Thomas Nelson), and in 2021 he produced and hosted the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. He is senior director of podcasts for Christianity Today.