Randy Stonehill is laughing. We are talking, a mostly serious conversation, but something I said mirrored his "Uncle Rand" alter ego's attention-deficit free-association tendencies and Stonehill can't help but be tickled at the tables being turned. "The corrective surgery will be good for both of us," he says.
And the fact is that it is the humorous side of him that occupies so much space in printed interviews is truly misleading. Like the way the murders are always an easy lead story for the evening news, the Stonehill nut case side is truly entertaining and tempting to put to print, but severely off balance of Stonehill in person.
In person, Stonehill looks at you, brow forward, and hears the end of your sentence before he responds. In person, in reality, he means it most all of the time.
Yet he laughs a lot.
"My wife says I'm like Peter Pan," responding to my eventual inquiry about how he escaped the disillusionment that plagued his peers in different career stages, some to this day. "I just never have gotten over the privilege of being able to do something I love and sense God's involvement in it ... the gift of that. It really oveshadows all of the other stuff that comes with the job: fickle audiences, coming in and out vogue, your place in the pecking order in the vast pool of artists ... the industry nonsense.
"I was talking with my manager [Ray Ware], who is also like Peter Pan, and he really understands the brutality and the casualties of the industry, yet retains this same sense of excitement of God's hand at work.
He said to me, you know Randy, when you started out, you could count the artists that defined the genre on one hand. And now, this is a multi-billion dollar industry; and Lovesong, Larry Norman, Randy Matthews, and you built its start. So for every time you look up the rungs at a new artist who is more successful than you, you need to took down the rungs at the people who would be thrilled to do exctly what You do, to travel to Vancouver or Miami or London just to play their songs.
One of my favorite [Frederick] Buechner quotes is, 'Life itself is grace, and every moment is a key moment.' Or like Tonio K. said one time, the bottom line is that you sort of whisper to each other, 'Ssshh, don't tell anyhody that we'd do this for free.'"
Stonehill's latest undertaking is easily his most ambitious, not only as a record, but as the beginnings of Street Level Records, a fledgling label where he is the C.E.O., as well as the debut artist. ("I'm the guy with the swivel chair ... and the Dramamine," he says.) And for an artist who spent most of his career as an employee of the industry's biggest label, with at least a modicum financial security, the move is far more odd than the actor who wants to direct. Stonehill and his business parners are at something of a crossroads, perhaps self-imposed, and taking the big leap.
"I just came to the place where the brutal mirror questions were, 'Life is not a dress rehearsal. What are you doing here? What do you want to do?' And I had always dreamed of working with a small group of like-minded people who would all say 'Let's be committed to creating fresh, great rock and roll that talks honestly about a life/faith relationship with Jesus."
And throughout the course of a conversation, Stonehill will use any number of adjectives to describe the label and its music: Christ-centered, personal, one that nurtures careers and visions simultaneously. But, for any such attempt at integrity, the real challenge is to rise to the task of being accessible to the public without compromising an individual artist's vision.
It's a fine challenge," Stonehill says. "It's a fine tightrope. But darn it, life is about challenge. All I can do is be the best steward I can be with it and free fall into God's arms."
There is a strong sentiment that the ideals of Street Level Records are ideals whose time has come. During G.M.A. week in Nashville, Stonehill with many of his partners in the label held a showcase at The Cannery in Nashville as the final moves were still being made to incorporate. Stonehill played some, along with Rich Mullins and Phil Keaggy, and explained his vision for his project, that of Julie Miller and perhaps two others who could "lock arms" and support each other's honesty, artistic edginess,and entertainment. And with Stonehill as chief apologist, and a tight partnership with Holly Benyouski (who been involved with Stonehill's music since 1974, enterered Street Level Artists, and rose to ownership, and who is the godmother of Stonehill's daughter), Mike Scanlan, and Gavin Morkel, as well as Ray Ware, the new Robin Hood and his Merry Men are attempting the heroic and having the joy of freedom within a realm of their own. Probably laughing some.
"You can get lulled by the security of a big record company. And you can get lost in the halls. After years of being with Word, I almost felt like I was ready for the gold watch, so it didn't sting when I was let go. I didn't take it personally, because that's the nature of it: a big company is impersonal. And there are a lot of nice people within that structure. It's just that after a while the tail can start waggin' the dog. But that's the nature of the machinery. It's commerce-driven."
Stonehill's first two releases were handled quite differently on Larry Norman's now-legendary Solid Rock label. And while long out of print, those releases are a powerful testament to how Stonehill's new departure also signals a more mature return to his roots.
"As artistically heady as the days at Solid Rock were, so free form, and as good as the ideas were on paper, the business end was always very loose-knit. And in the end, the music usually will somehow suffer that. The nerves do."
Stonehill's claims only one regret, a relationship casualty along the way, that he has never been able to right.
"Every so often, I'll hear some noise and approach the table, but at [sic] person turns and walks back off, like Greta Garbo into the mist. But I still have hope of reconciling. It's not over 'til Brune Hilda sings.
"We were young guys with good ideas but not a whole lot of business sense. So when I moved directly to the big boys, it was refreshing at first: a clean accounting of units, of royalties, a budget, an advance. We worked our plan and planned our work.
"But the downside is that the roster of artists is so big and the pace so fast that there exists a small window of opportunity to have the sales force catch the vision and advertise and promote it before it's on to the next thing."
The oxymoron is that the larger the label, often the more dependent that artist is on a grass roots for his/her best commercials. The majors are designed so that the sensible thing is for the broadest audience to get the attention, a tempting trend to dumb down while artists give blood.
"It can be frustrating as to how to galvanize the enthusiasm of a company after you spend a year working on songs, two to two and a half months in the studio giving birth through much travail, and you finally finish... and in three months it's over, kind of sent downstream, and we're on to the next batch of releases."
The first batch of releases, or rather, the first release on Street Level is Stonehill's The Lazarus Heart, again mirroring both new and old for Stonehill, with a purposeful shift into bright rock yet with terrifically focused songcraft that has been the slow-aging hallmark of Stonehill's otherwise over-the-map styles. Followers of Stonehill's music can't help but pick up on a stylistic trend in his use of producers: they tend to produce two projects in a row and then Stonehill moves on to a different collaboration. In fact, the rule stands nearly perfect, with Larry Noaman as producer on the first releases, then Terry Taylor, then Barry Miller Kaye for one release only [SIC!], Dave Perkins, Mark Heard ("the late great Mark Heard"), Terry Taylor following. And, on the new project, Jimmie Lee Sloas.
"Well, it was sort of always like I felt that the art was cheated if we just did one release. It would be too soon to move on. The sophomore year was more muscular and more tightly focused."
Which implies Stonehill's own views on the role of a producer (something for which everyone has an essentially different definition): "I view it as someone who cares with an overview of the work and abilities and who brings his opinions and abilities to the project. The job is to package the songs without overshadowing them.
"The change in production has kept it interesting for me. I've always had a sense of partnership with the producer, rather than having them just on the phone, with the schedules, and such. And I've always had strong individuals, gifted individuals, opinionated individuals." Stonehill pauses, approaching his next comment with the wariness of a musician who is well aware of the dangers posed by a press mentality regarding context.
"Sometimes a project may have suffered from those traits being taken too far in the production. But that's a chance you take."
And sometimes it doesn't quite work out that way. For example, Stonehill's 1992 release, Wonderama, sounds enormously of Terry Taylor's influence, yet has a lot to do with the near antithesis of such a sound in producer Mark Heard.
"The last time I saw Mark was at a U2 concert in L.A., post-Wonderama. Which, I should say, was the most fun I've ever had in the studio. In fact, when I was thinking about the production for that record, I asked myself when was the most fun I'd ever had in the studio, and I knew it was with Terry.
"Anyway, I remember sitting down and playing 18 songs for Wonderama for Mark at his house. And he sat with his eyes closed in his rocking chair with Chester the cat and a yellow legal pad. And as I'd finish each one, he'd make some notes. When I got to the end of the songs, I expected him to say, 'Well, I think these ought to go on the record, and this one could use a different bridge.' and things like that. And instead, he opened his eyes and said, 'Well, that's pretty good. We could make a record with that. But you know what you need to do, you need to go and work on some Randy Stonehill songs.' And I was kind of angry and exasperated, like, 'We're not far away from having to make this record here. Don't you realize that?' But he was right, so I went back and wrote some more songs, and all but three of the first ones were shelved."
Going into the new record, Stonehill knew very little about Sloas, but was impressed by his sonic touch, referencing the Pray For Rain records, "They just sparkled. The sounds jumped out of the speakers." And in the end, Stoneihll found in his producer and players in Nashveille guys that had a sense of history and respect for his work, but also the tools for a fresh spin on the music, a reinvention without lots of self-conscious trying.
It may be a new best. Although, given the back catalog, that's a tough call. It is an aggresive record for certain, "a joy in the midst of sweat," Stonehill termed it, and a joy in sweat from the energy. As rock, it strikes a rare balance between accessibility and honesty. Stonehill swears that not for a moment did he attempt to second-guess radio, that he never paced, and that the only lip-biting was that of anticipation. And with a fledgling label under his gaze, it is easily conceivable that there was no downtime in the proceedings.
"I was literally writing lyrics in the lobby of the studio. And I like the feel of rising to the challenge lyrically. There's something extra that comes from having your back against the wall, so to speak. But I don't really ever want to get that tight against the wall again; that was a little too close."
Yet stonehill speaks of the time calmly and with considerable inferences of success, a prerelease that proves candid. But no Maalox was ever referenced. "When I was young, I would go two or three weeks between songs or writing songs. I might write one in thirty minutes or an hour and a half and et so excited that I had broken through and could really start writing a lot now, and then it would just freeze up. And I panicked. 'The muse has flown!' I just knew I'd be down there serving burgers, working at Wenchel's. But it's usually just a matter of the input. I would need to just go and grow some, so that I had something to say. Two weeks later, I'd be in the shower blurting lines."
"That must be hard on your family," I said.
"My daughter Heather says I'm goofy 'in a sweet way.'"
But, as of yet, through grace and perspiration, the mouthpiece gets cleaned and the songs just keep coming, earning Randy Stonehill the respect of the likes of which grace his new record, Michael W. Smith and Jerry McPherson to name two.
Before a show, Stonehill is always alone. He prays, he focuses, and he "externalizes his angst under the unbrella of the Spirit." What a first sounds like People magazine's term for Seattle gone CCM actually has a depth-filled explanation.
"Part of me still feels like a geeky kid, the kid in the song, 'I Thirst For You.' I was skinny, curly hair, glasses ... acne. I always felt like a misfit. And I diffused that by making people laugh and playing the guitar. But it was always very real. And I still carry the ghost of that at my shoulder. And I think that's a microcosm of what my faith is about, deciding to be vulnerable to the Lord and the people around you. Hundreds and sometimes thouseands of people paid money and subconsciously want for you to take them somewhere by sharing your heart. And the tools you need to open the doors to where thy want to go are in being vulnerable. I've learned that that's easier when you recognize the license to enjoy this privilege and this plan. So that's why I have this psychological checklist and can be high-strung. It comes with the turf."
Stonehill's shows often are exhausting rides through off-the-cuff comedy strangeness and cathartic moments of epiphany. And for a while there, Stonehill was the Iggy Pop of his genre, leaving the stage voiceless and with blood on his strings.
"It escalated the aging process. There were some nights that I felt like I needed cranes to hold me on stage. Finally my wife told me, 'You've gotta pace yourself better,' and I've done that physically. I've learned that less is often more in terms of talking so I often only talk when there's something really worth saying. I've learned that it's better to play for an hour and fifteen minutes straight through and then let the audience tell you if they want more than to do two fifty minute sets, which is kind of like a five course meal, and an encore would be the equivalent of the dessert overdose. Those people would not need to see me play my music again for a long while.
"I've learned that I'm too old for ten one-nighters in a row. And I've gained an acute sense of geography.
"But you know, no matter where the gig is, if it's for two people, I know where the hope is, I'm still looking for a lot of other stuff, and getting there's more than half the fun. I stil have goals unachieved and things to try. The best shows are the sweaty, intricate, one-nighters in a church or a club when there are no tapes and no videos, and something just happens and I felt like I could fly. I just embrace those brief moments from touring. Touring is the emotional and the financial lifeblood. There's nothing like playing for the living breathing people that the songs are written for, and that connection is the most vital, invigorating experience."
I'm mulling over what I really want to ask any veteran of rock and roll that's still making music decades later, and whether or not to ask Stonehill. The sincerity of the man's expressiveness seems safety enough, so I ask if he'll get around to retiring.
"No. I've now got the responsibility of owning a record company, and that's going to take time to nurture and facilitate, so it will probably mean less time on the road. And I'll take more family time and release albums more sporadically, but I can't really imagine that.
"I should temper that by saying, however, that there are two things that would make me stop, and one would probably indicate another. One would be if one night I got on stage and it was one more. If I wasn't nervous, or excited, or struck by the privilege of doing it. The second reason would be if God told me to stop. I would, and be honored that for some reason He saw fit to use me in such a rare foundational place in the panorama of Jesus Rock..."
I stopped Randy Stonehill there with, "What does that mean?" But before he could answer, Heather approached him for a good night kiss, headed to bed a little early, and he called after her in a shifting accent, "May Gawd grant yew the sleep of ... a deep delta region, mah chald." Then, suddenly cognizant of the usanswered question, he returned to me, "While there is breath, verily, I shall rock, and indeed rock on."