When this magazine published its list of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters in 2006, the most obscure name on the roster was Bill Mallonee. As the leader of Georgia’s Vigilantes of Love and later as a solo artist, he had never sold many records nor played very large venues, but he impressed enough of the critics and musicians who voted in the poll to land at #65. Peter Buck and Buddy Miller were so taken with him that they produced the VOL’s Killing Floor and Audible Sigh albums respectively.
Mallonee, a skinny singer-guitarist with round glasses and shaggy dark hair, caught his colleagues’ attention by marrying the literary ambitions of his two biggest heroes, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, to the jangly guitars of his 1980s contemporaries from the Southeast: R.E.M., the dBs, Let’s Active and the Swimming Pool Q’s. Overstuffed with metaphors, ornamented with chiming guitars and informed by his spiritual quest for happiness in an unhappy world, Mallonee’s songs were not easily forgotten by the few who heard them.
His surprise landing on the list didn’t appreciably change his fortunes. He was still operating without a label, a manager, an agent, a publicist or a radio promoter; he and his second wife/keyboardist Muriah Rose were still doing everything themselves. But he remained amazingly prolific; between his 1990 debut, Jugular, and his new release, The Power & the Glory, Mallonee has averaged more than an album per year. The new disc is the first he’s recorded in a real studio since moving last year from Georgia/North Carolina, where he’d spent almost his entire life, to a small town between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.
“We had to get out of there,” Mallonee says. “More people were moving into the South, and they seemed more anxiety-ridden. There were more people on their cell phones, more near-accidents on the highway. We ended up in New Mexico, in the middle of a big organic farm scene. A lot of people who had burned out on the white-collar world decided they were going to grow organic food and came here to do that. What we’re doing is somewhat analogous; it’s a place to let the songs blossom. We’re working without a label and publicists just like these farmers are working without big machines and chemicals.
“This is high desert, so the landscape is way different than North Georgia, and that affected the new album. Sonically it’s more of an upbeat record because most of the days here are dry and sunny with blue skies. It’s a brighter record in a lot of ways.”
A lot of that brightness comes from the shimmering layers of guitar that Mallonee has multi-tracked. Songs like “Bring You Around” and “Wide Awake with Orphan Eyes” open with sparkling folk-rock licks that establish a hopeful atmosphere before the vocal ever enters.
“In the last two or three years, I’ve been up into the guitar a lot, learning more harmonies, more secondary and tertiary positions. It was a matter of necessity; there aren’t as many strong players here as there were in Georgia. If I’m playing a house concert with just me and Muriah or I’m recording at home on a four-track, my guitar has to generate a lot of the music. So I’m learning how to be more than a rhythm guitarist; it’s been a real joy. I’m a big fan of that psychedelic-folk era of the ’60s like the Byrds, those ringing arpeggios you hear on Neil’s ‘Powderfinger’ or a lot of Steve Malkmus’ songs. You hear a lot of that on this new album.”
Not many musicians reinvent themselves as instrumentalists at age 56, but Mallonee has always had a funny relationship with time. A longtime drummer, he didn’t learn the guitar or write songs until he was 31 and didn’t release his first album until he was 35. “I was just getting started in rock ’n’ roll,” he laughs, “at an age when a lot of people were getting out.” And he keeps going when almost everyone else his age is either famous or working a day job.
“I tried to get a Christmas job at Walmart once,” he recounts, “and when I filled out the application, I had to put down, ‘Musician for 20 years.’ I could see in their eyes what they were thinking, ‘Musician, drugs, irresponsible.’ What they actually said was, ‘Thank you for the application, Mr. Mallonee, we’ll call if we’re interested.’ I realized, ‘If I can’t get a job at Walmart at Christmas, I can’t get a job anywhere.’ This is all I can do. On the other hand, this is what I really love, so I have to take the famine with the feast.”
On “Carolina, Carolina,” the opening song for the new album, Mallonee creates a cascade of guitars and sings, “Ah, time, she’s such an elusive girl; she makes such bad eye contact.” She may be elusive, but she’s not unkissable if you’re persistent. In chasing her, the song’s narrator finds that his “straight paths got a little bent” but the pursuit led him to a “place of new beginnings.” Only by sweet-talking time, he implies, can you win the kisses of second chances—relearning your instrument or relocating your life. You still end up with gray hairs like the ones in Mallonee’s bristling beard, but you don’t go numb. “Winter takes you by the hand just to make you a li’l older,” he sings, “but that’s not such a bad thing.”
“That ‘li’l older’ line is autobiographical,” Mallonee admits. “I feel I’ve gotten better. I still feel like I have something to say and a good way to say it. Who I am as a person is fully integrated into the songs, and the person I was five years ago or five years from now is not the person I am now. So I’m saying something different now than I did before or will in the future. You do get smarter as you get older. You learn how to say no sometimes.
“Michael Stipe once told me, after R.E.M. decided not to tour behind Automatic for the People, ‘Bill, always remember to save something for yourself.’ Then he turned and walked away. I’ve thought about it ever since. He’s right; you have to save some coins for yourself. You have to keep a few embers lit for the next fire. When it’s not fun anymore, you can’t romanticize it. That’s why I finally shut down the Vigilantes of Love.”
Also on the new album is “From the Beats Down to the Buddha,” the latest in Mallonee’s growing collection of songs about Jack Kerouac. Mallonee, sounding even more Neil Youngish than usual, sings of Kerouac leaving behind “Lowell’s lonely factories” to travel “these asphalt vibrations” with “knapsack dreams.” Even when Kerouac ended up in Big Sur, drinking too much and losing his mind as he talked to the ocean, he still believed it would all make sense when he got it all down on his Underwood typewriter.
And that’s what made the new Southern rock of R.E.M., the Swimming Pool Qs, the dBs and the Vigilantes of Love different from the old Southern rock, Mallonee believes; these new songwriters had gone to college and read the novels of Kerouac, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. They cared about language, especially Southern language.
“The thread that ran through that music was more than just the jangly guitars,” he argues; “there was a Southernness to our music that I didn’t hear in other indie-rock scenes when I traveled around the U.S. It wasn’t the Southernness of the Allman Brothers; it was the Southernness of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. They were asking the big questions: Is this a world that makes sense? Is it a world where love has a place? If so, why is there adversity and suffering? Why does God seem so distant at times?
“Those are the key questions for both religion and art and where they converge is where the greatest art results. Faulkner and O’Connor were great with those questions. So was Kerouac. So were Tom Waits and Johnny Cash. I like to think I’m part of that. When you’re writing pop songs, it ends up being less a treatise or an essay and more a nudge in the ribs. But the advantage is you get to speak in a vernacular shorthand that the audience readily understands.”