Friday, July 2, 2010

It's a Great Big Stonehill World (1991)

(As published in Brian Q. Newcomb's Harvest Rock Syndicate ... )

“This project has been the best recording experience of my career,” says Randy Stonehill of his newest album, the just-released Wonderama (Myrrh). “I’m not saying that all my other sessions were just shooting in the dark. But this one felt as if somehow God was at work, allowing the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.”

At this point, of course, there are many pieces to the Stonehill puzzle. Emerging twenty-two years ago with an underground Jesus Rock classic, Born Twice, he quickly became--along with Love Song, Andraé Crouch, and Larry Norman--a primary mover in the burgeoning Jesus movement, even landing a cameo role in Billy Graham’s celluloid tribute to the era, Time to Run.

Then came Welcome to Paradise, his first official album. Released in 1976, it set a standard by which the majority of Contemporary Christian singer-songwriter albums have been judged, Stonehill’s subsequent releases included.

Lots of folks, however, feel that Wonderama sets a new standard.

“One thing that’s really special to me about this album,” Stonehill says, “is that it holds together as a concept record more than anything else I’ve ever done.

“There’ve been times,” he explains, “when I wanted to make a concept record. And you can put a bunch of songs together and say, ‘It’s a concept record.’ But it
may not necessarily feel like one. This one does.”

Perhaps the most significant piece in the Wonderama puzzle is the all-important artist-producer relationship. Working with his good friend and fellow CCM legend Terry Taylor for the first time in ten years, Stonehill tapped into a creative vein that turned out to be a mother lode.

“All of us really looked forward to coming to the studio everyday, even when we were exhausted. And I’d go back into the studio tomorrow with Terry just to see what else we could do.”

And what is it about Taylor that Stonehill finds so stimulating?

“He has an idea a minute,” Stonehill says. “He’s very inventive. At the same time he’s sort of like a big little kid. I mean, here’s this gifted writer and producer who loves animated Disney films, children’s books, and whose favorite time of the year is Christmas. And he has a great sense of humor.

“Basically, we both have this skewed worldview, and we really bring it out in each other.”

Those familiar with Stonehill’s oeuvre know plenty about his skewed worldview. For years goofy satirical songs aimed at human foibles from cigarette smoking to excessive-makeup wearing have leavened his albums’ more serious numbers. What’s different about Wonderama’s “funny” songs is the way their wit gives way to wisdom, the way the jokes become more than comic relief for the pious.

“Great Big Stupid World,” for example, besides taking potshots at Elvis worshippers and New Age airheads, follows our obsession with sensationalized nonsense to its logical conclusion: Jesus on the Oprah Winfrey show.

“Once Jesus intervenes in your life,” he explains, “it can’t help but cause you to be an observer. You see how mutated things have gotten without Jesus as the central theme, that we can spin out into some really strange and ludicrous territory because what we’re actually doing, perhaps without knowing it, is looking for substitutes to give our lives some sense of meaning.

“So when you see this bizarre circus parade waltzing by you everyday, you have to say something about it. For me, a song like ’Stupid World’ comes from having these observations and insights build up to a place where I feel as if I’m going to explode.”

So would Jesus do the Oprah, so to speak?

“I think that the nature of the format would be insulting. So much of that is based on titillation, just to get you to turn the TV on long enough to see the commercials. I don’t know if that’s a format he would swing with.”

Wonderama’s other satirical song, “Barbie Nation,” lampoons the glamour industry. Like all satire, it’s open to charges of painting a complex subject with too broad a brush. After all, do fashion models, beauty queens, and leading ladies really deserve to get baked in the same shallow pie?

“I think women are victimized,” Stonehill says sharply. “The song is really about how culture and men in particular oppress women. We slowly but surely force them into a mold that has very little to do with God’s original intent for them.”

Still, one can’t help questioning how “forced” and “molded” leggy supermodels like Elle McPherson and Claudia Schiffer feel as they rake in money, fame, and adulation.

“I’m not saying that some of them don’t take advantage of the situation and manipulate it to their own benefit. But I still can’t help but feel that if you were to scratch a bit deeper you’d find that they were being wounded.

“Maybe some,” Stonehill continues, “would feel happy with their lives. But whenever you take the design of God and mess with it, you’re bound to do damage. The fact that some of them can feel attractive and accepted--that they can garner power or financial gain--probably lessens the sting of having to compromise the wholeness of their humanity. Nevertheless, I believe that’s what’s happening.”

Chief among “Barbie Nation”’s charms is its music. It’s a hooky, buoyant sort of folk-pop that’s arguably the most infectious music of Stonehill’s career. And like most of Wonderama’s songs, Stonehill and Taylor wrote it together.

“That wasn’t even intentional,” says Stonehill of the songwriting teamwork, “but it was really delightful the way it worked out. I’d have a piece of a song and say, ‘Tell me what you think of this,’ and we’d just start working away at it. It was really effortless.

“So anyway he kept on coming over to the house, and we’d kick around these ideas. And after we’d written about three of the songs--at the end of a session when he was going out the door--he turned around and said, ‘Man, this is great. And I have to tell you, I’ve never written with anybody before.’

Taylor--who founded Daniel Amos and the Swirling Eddies--had never collaborated?

“My jaw dropped. I said, ‘Now wait a minute. Didn’t you--?’ And he said, ‘Even with the bands I’ve been in, they would usually bring in a piece of an idea, and I would take it home, flesh it out, and come back. But I’ve never sat down, face to face with somebody, with two guitars and a blank sheet of paper, and said, “Now, what should we write today?” But I’m having a ball.’”

It was, in fact, Taylor who came up with the album’s title.

I’d always wanted to make a record with the word wonder in the title,” Stonehill says. “It’s a very powerful word.”

Albums such as Bruce Cockburn’s World of Wonders, Van Morrison’s A Sense of Wonder, and the Choir’s Wide-Eyed Wonder only fueled Stonehill’s wonder envy.

“Then Terry smiled,” Stonehill explains, “and said, ‘Yeah, but there’s never been a Wonderama.’

“The whole idea of Wonderama is that we can still retain some sense of innocence and childlike wonder, that s you look at life through the eyes of faith, you can see all the little miracles around you everyday.”

One of the not-so-little miracles surrounding the writing and recording of the album concerns Rachel Delevoryas, Stonehill’s real-life grade school classmate and the eponymous subject of Wonderama’s most plaintive ballad.

In the song, Stonehill describes Delevoryas as an awkward, unattractive girl whose gift for playing the violin is far from adequate to the task of defending her from the mean little boys who call her ugly. But as the song unfolds, she grows up into a confident woman who becomes a first-chair violinist “dressed in a beautiful gown, / standing onstage with the symphony.” In essence, it’s the Ugly Duckling story all over again, with a similarly happy ending.


“Shortly after I wrote the song,” Stonehill recalls, “I was playing somewhere in northern California. And Rachel’s sister, whom I’d never even met, came to the concert.

“It must’ve been like a Twilight Zone experience for her. She’s sitting in the audience, and all of a sudden I start singing a song about her sister!

“So she called Rachel that night and said, ’Do you remember a boy from grade school named Randy Stonehill? He was a musician who became a gospel singer.’ And Rachel said, ’Yes. As a matter of fact, I will never forget him because he was the only boy in my class who didn’t pick on me and join in with the others in teasing me.’ That just broke my heart when I heard that.”

Stonehill went on to learn that there was more to Delevoryas's childhood gracelessness than he could ever have guessed at the time.

“Her parents were classical musicians, and they were very conservative. They isolated her from the social mainstream. They didn’t even try to teach her to speak, I found out, until she was four.

“But even as a kid I could see past her gawkiness and that she was a special person who was suffering. I wish I could say I’d had the guts to go and punch the bullies, but I can’t. But I was always polite to her. I treated her like an equal. Later on, her learning skills really kicked into high gear, and in high school and college she passed everybody up.

“Anyway,” Stonehill continues, “her sister told her about the song, and Rachel said, ’You’re joking.’ And her sister said, ’No, Rachel, I’m not. Now, Rachel, it’s a beautiful song, but it really tells the story as it was. It’s a hard song to hear. But you come out looking really good in the third verse.’

“So Rachel sent a note backstage to tell me when I was playing in her area. It said, ’Well, you finally got my attention. Would like to talk. Rachel Delevoryas.’

“We talked for a couple of hours after the show in my car. And the pinnacle moment was when she said, ’I still carry a lot of the scars from my childhood, and it haunts me, even today. I really need to deal with it. So if you have any suggestions as to how I might do that, I would really like to hear them.’ And I thought, ’Yes, God!’”

So what has come of what had to be the easiest evangelism of Stonehill’s life?

“We prayed together and agreed to stay in touch. And when she finally heard the song, she wrote me a Christmas card that said, ‘It hurt to hear it, but it’s very beautiful. Please keep playing it. Perhaps it will speak to some of the cruel little boys and girls.”

Obviously, following up an album as rich with special moments as Wonderama will be no easy task, but it’s not something Stonehill worries about.

“This record has just come out,” he says, “and I want to see how people respond to it. I’m really enjoying playing the material in concert. I’m just in the middle of this record’s life.

“On the other hand,” he admits, “I really feel that Terry and I have just scratched the surface of what we can do and of what I’m hopeful we will do in the future.”

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