Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Nashville tribute to Tammy Faye

To see why Phil Madeira (songwriter, artist, session player and humorist, though I doubt the last one is on his resume) is more a hero to me every time I read/hear/see him in action, see this unlikely and touching tribute to the late Tammy Faye. As we say in the South (in that condescending but kindly tone), "bless her heart."

While you're at it, go to his main myspace page and listen to the songs, especially "If I Was Jesus" and "The Ghost of Johnny Cash."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

My domestic challenge

I’m moving. Again. The apt. building I chose as my new home just last year has been sold for condos, after having been owned & operated for about 20 years by the same folks. And I don’t see myself paying over $100k for this tiny place, regardless of the great location. If I could afford that I’d buy something bigger, better, etc. But I can’t at this point, which brings us back to the original point: I’m moving.

And I mean that in the sense of “I’m in the process of planning to move and taking stabs at actually doing stuff in between the vital activities of working, sleeping, eating…and blogging.” And not in the sense of “I’m at this moment making progress to my next destination.” Because the latter sense would not seem to be accurate at this point—as I write, and at this point in my life. But then, motion is relative, and you don’t always feel it when it’s happening, and since we know so little about what’s around any given corner or bend in the road, now and in the future, it’s hard to be definite about one’s progress or lack of it at any given time.

I do know I have to have my stuff out of my current place by Aug. 1, and as usual I’ll be depending on “a little help from my friends.” And Budget Truck Rentals.

I’m not moving very far (apply that any way you want); just up the street, to a location in the venerated Hillsboro Village neighborhood, next to Belmont U. My new landlord is an acquaintance of mine, formerly in the music publishing biz. To save him some work and me some money, we did an “as is” deal on the apt. But of course I managed to procrastinate my big plans to renovate until recently, so the pressure’s on. Remodeling is one area where progress is fairly easy to measure and results are easy to assess. This is why Bob Hall, the director of the Baptist student ministries at UTK, liked to work on his house, to get that sense of closure and accomplishment. People are "never quite finished,” he said. I can relate.

Kay Arthur once introduced me to the audience while I was running camera at Precept Ministries, noticing I was back (I had worked there for awhile and gone on to other things). She said, “That’s Mark, he comes and goes. He moves with the cloud!” and everyone laughed, including me. When she’s right, she’s right. That was longer ago than I care to admit. Not sure where my earthly version of the Promised Land will be, if I have one…apparently I still have as much to learn about being home as I do about making one.

The pics show to what level I’m already committed. I’m no handyman and I have a strong aversion to jumping into new territory in many areas, but spackling, sanding and painting I can do, thanks to years of mission work for the painting experience and a college architecture class that required all 3 for our 9-square grid model base. The pictures show where I am at the moment. In a word, “behind schedule” (OK, 2 words). But not without hope. And you can apply those terms any way you want, as well.

Monday, July 16, 2007

“Timeless” but not flawless

I attended a live DVD recording last week featuring "classic" contemporary Christian music (CCM) artists performing the smash CCM hits of yesteryear (mostly the 80's). The DVD release will coincide with a CD package called "Timeless." One thing was evident when Dallas Holm ("Rise Again") took the stage: he and Steve Carell ("The Office," "Evan Almighty") could pass for being twins. Uncle and nephew? CCM pioneer and secret love child? Worth investigating.

Larnelle Harris, the Imperials, David Meece, Bonnie Keen (of First Call), Bryan Duncan, Russ Taff, Crystal Lewis and more were also "in the house" (as the kids used to say, until their mothers picked up the phrase)...artists who don't quite have the current name-recognition of Steven Curtis Chapman or Amy Grant, but whose impact is still felt. The not-so-classic but extremely talented Allen Asbury made several major contributions to the evening as well, as did the Nashville Choir.

The evening was a very interesting mixture of hits and misses (mostly hits), performance-wise and otherwise. The audience missed an applause “opportunity” here and there, such as when Allen Asbury stepped on stage, and we weren’t sure who he was (“ that Michael English? Am I happy to see him?”). Comic Chonda Pierce did double-duty by hosting the event and singing a duet with Bonnie Keen. Some of Chonda's off-the-cuff jokes landed and others fell short, and Bonnie's vocal on one song was clearly out of her usual power range. But both made up for their shortcomings elsewhere: Bonnie in the remainder of her impressive performances, and Chonda by holding together a staged reminiscence of life as a preacher's kid with Russ Taff, who definitely needed a little help from his friends that evening (I can't imagine they'll be using his portion from that night).

It was tough to witness a fellow believer and vocal hero display his fallibility so clearly and with so much potential long-term damage. I’ve hesitated to mention it to anyone who wasn’t there, for fear of being guilty of gossip. But it was not a private event, and I was equally uncomfortable how the elephant in that room was tiptoed around for the sake of “the show must go on.” Besides, given the small readership I estimate for this blog, I’m trusting that what little fallout that might result would be negligible compared to the potential redemptive effect of the truth. And for what it's worth, Christian artists generally assume an extra amount of accountability as a balance to the extra rewards of “stardom” as a matter of course.

He was in less-than-stellar condition—right there in church!—but the truth is that, ultimately, his condition was no lower than (and probably not as low as) that of many artists who have delivered perfect performances, musical and otherwise, on many stages (including church platforms) but were far from experiencing an attitude of grace themselves, or even living out the truth they proclaimed so clearly. Myself included—except for the "perfect performances" part. So, no judging here. And the audience seemed ready to offer understanding and support as well, or at least to make the best of the situation. When Bryan Duncan and Larnelle Harris delivered "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" later in the concert, the words had seldom had such immediate application.

Frankly, assuming the issues have been addressed and no permanent harm was done to anyone's career or personal life, no doubt the shock has given way to laughter (as it does) among those involved, many of whom have had their own frailties to confess publicly (even though that can be a lucrative career move in itself, it's still not an enviable way to earn a living). I would pay cash to hear Chonda, Bryan and Bonnie give a behind-the-scenes recap of that night, knowing the sense of humor of each, and that they've each "been there" in his/her own way. Unfortunately I have a feeling that WON'T be an "extra" on the DVD.

Even beyond the drama, I had mixed feelings about the whole evening. Maybe it's the crust of cynicism starting to form after having been in Nashville for 5 years (and in the church all my life), but I couldn't help being a tad suspicious of the idea of putting these artists and songs out there again...maybe to see if there were any more money to be milked out of them? The combination of spirituality and showbiz is often not pretty seen up close. The creative side of me tends to be frustrated with business people and audiences who reinforce each other’s preference for rehashing memories over celebrating the current. Even when the memories are good.

On the other hand, I'm happy to see these artists be able to reconnect with audiences and show how "they've still got it" and that they're not, to use Chonda's phrase, "almost dead." I'm a fan, too, and got a thrill from hearing the old songs again live. As a believer I was reminded of where I've come in my spiritual walk in the years since the songs were new and the artists had fewer wrinkles, and I’m thankful for the songs and the people that brought them to life to edify me. I'm glad to see that I'm slower to judge when my expectations aren't met. I like to think it's because I'm not only older but a little wiser as well. A little.

I’ll be interested to see how the “Timeless” project (CD, DVD, tour) progresses. Regardless, when it comes to my listening habits I think I'll be sticking to the original versions (re-released on CD) when I have a choice. After all, these kids today...whadda they know about music!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

And we didn't even need the DeLorean

Had a great 4th (and the 3rd was good, too!)! A "old/new" friend flew in from Austin for a midweek working vacation, to get away from the Texas rain (that's a remarkable statement in itself) and to fulfill a longtime goal of visiting Nashville. I think I can assume that experiencing the pleasure of my company was a high priority on her list of reasons to come, but I don't want to compliment myself too highly...I prefer to leave that to others. You can start anytime.

I hadn't seen Elizabeth since high school (never mind how long ago for now), and didn't know her well then, but she had left a lasting impression; this was despite competition from my major crush on another girl (revealed to all at our previous class reunion in a sketch idea I stole from Conan O'Brien). Of course, since I was handicapped by a lack of confidence or transportation in those days, the "competition" was more theoretical than reality-based.

Anyway, being the communicator and people-gatherer that I am, I responded to Elizabeth when she updated her info, and I encouraged her to attend the next reunion this Fall (thinking only of class unity, of course). This led to an e-mail conversation, which included discussing possibilities for the reunion...which led to her visit last week. Since she is one of my few readers and since there are some cards even I am inclined to keep close to my chest, suffice it to say it was a good visit for both of us.

Highlights included the Tuesday Opry (featuring the almost-lifelike Porter Wagoner and the smooth-as-ever Restless Heart), a quick tour of the Opryland Hotel, the obligatory but enjoyable review of the high school yearbooks, and (for me) having someone to cheer me on before, during and after I & Joni Bishop did our music at Lyrix. She didn't even complain when I kept to our stated policy of "hugs only" for the duration; yep, I can be tough on a woman that way, but clearly she's one who can take it! Ya gotta admire that kind of character; maybe all that time in Texas had its effect.

Back to the real world.... Despite our vastly different life experiences both during and since high school, we have found plenty of common ground to discuss. One thing we agreed on was how foolish it is to categorize and make assumptions about people, and how much we miss out on when we fail to make an effort to get to know those who are outside our usual circles. One of many bits of wisdom you gain as high school becomes more & more a distant memory. Nice to give those memories a current spin, though.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Battle of the Beasts in South Africa

This was no walk in the park...for anyone.

A fight between a pride of lions, a herd of Cape Buffaloes, and 2 crocodiles at a watering hole in South Africa's Kruger National Park.

Judging by the experience of my friends and fellow missionaries to South Africa, a trip through a game park is not always a guaranteed time of excitement and wonder, though most considered it worth doing at least once. But THIS I would have paid to see!

Battle at Kruger