Fair Oaks Records
On his eighteenth record, Edge Of The World, Christian music veteran Randy Stonehill may be returning to his roots musically and lyrically, but this thirty-one year veteran is definitely moving boldly and relevantly into the twenty-first century as well. Stonehill, whose discography spans over thirty-one years, first took to melding his honest lyrics of faith, struggle and hope with rootsy folk-rock music in 1970 under the tutelage of his friend and fellow Jesus Rocker Larry Norman. Alongside a small cadre of Christian artists considered too “Christian” for the mainstream and too “Rock and Roll” for the church, Stonehill blazed trails that are now easily traveled by Christian musicians, influencing countless young fans and future artists along the way.
The first decade of his career saw him release a string of records with Norman’s help, including the groundbreaking and massively influential Welcome To Paradise album of 1976. Stonehill’s deft touch with a lyric, his unique and engaging voice and his endearing wit and spirit made him an early and long-time favorite of thousands.
In the '80s Stonehill developed further as one of the premier artists in the emerging “contemporary Christian music” subculture via a long-term relationship with Myrrh Records and a string of critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, including Equator, Celebrate This Heartbeat, Love Beyond Reason, and Return To Paradise. Rock fans loved his commitment to guitars, hooks and classic sounds, and his lovingly subversive humor. Christian radio embraced his ballads and pop ditties for their spiritual meat and their irresistible tunefulness. Live audiences packed into churches, schools and theaters where the songsmith would leave them laughing, thinking and humming all at once, night after night. Compared favorably to veteran rock and pop artists like Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Paul McCartney and Elton John, Stonehill seemed to get better with age.
The nineties saw Stonehill stay his course as a thoughtful, organic singer-songwriter despite massive changes in the industry he had inadvertently helped to birth. Continued incessant live performances and a string of the most acclaimed records of his career dominated the third decade of the southern California native. With his 1991, Terry Taylor produced masterpiece Wonderama, and his 1998 Rick Elias-produced classic Thirst, Stonehill grew elegantly into one of the true statesmen of contemporary Christian music.
On the 30th anniversary of his music ministry Stonehill took another in a series of bold steps in his career. His irascible inner child came scampering to the surface in the persona of “Uncle Stonehill” via an independent concept album “for children of all ages” called Uncle Stonehill’s Hat. “Many people who started coming to my concerts years ago in high school or college,” the now officially “whacky” uncle explains, “are returning these days with their own kids.” Again, with the help of Terry Taylor, Stonehill challenged the status quo in Christian music, especially the kiddie type. “Children really seem to connect with the kid in me,” the singer adds, “so he’s coming out to play more!” The independent CD (released in limited quantities through his own Holy Sombrero imprint) did indeed capture the imaginations of young people and not-so-young people alike, and was even developed as a full production stage musical in the fall of 2002. “It was really exciting to see how well it worked in that capacity,” Stonehill enthuses. “We’re not sure how God might grow the vision for this aspect of my music, so we’re really casting our bread upon the water as it were.” Stonehill has spent the last four years creating the wonderful world inside Uncle Stonehill’s Hat and exploring just how far down the mythological pathway he can go. All the while, however, he has maintained a constant concert schedule, criss-crossing the country performing his classics, like “Shut De Do,” “King Of Hearts,” “Great Big Stupid World” and “American Fast Food.”
Finally, Randy Stonehill is back with a new album of original songs, his first since the acclaimed Thirst in 1998. At the dawn of his fourth decade in Christian music, Stonehill is launching one of his strongest records yet; one that simultaneously pays tribute to the early days, including an unprecedented number of key collaborations, and serves as a strong reminder of his continuing role as one of the most important artists in the business.
The musical aesthetic laid out for the album was a simple one. Every track, over-dub and embellishment would exist solely to enhance the song, the voice and the guitar. Stonehill explains, “People have asked me for years if I had a record that was more akin to my live shows: more acoustic based and intimate. I always had to answer, ‘Well, uh not really.’” Though the original plan was for the record to be exclusively comprised of Stonehill’s voice and solo acoustic guitar, Phil Madeira came along with a batch of vintage instruments and an innate sense of vibe and brought shimmering color and vibrancy to the tracks without drawing attention away from the core of the record. Madeira’s lap-steel guitar, string arrangements, Hammond B3 organ, sitar and slide guitar add beautiful ambience throughout the collection, giving it warmth and depth. “The record did bloom into something more fleshed out instrumentally than I had originally planned,” Stonehill adds, “but it was a very natural blooming.”
Edge Of The World finds Randy Stonehill in his best element. With all but the most delicate and tasteful production flourishes removed, the album draws special attention to the songwriting, guitar skill and vocal intimacy that has defined Stonehill all along. While the sonic textures have been simplified, the cast of contributors is more diverse than ever. The credits read as a veritable who’s who of early Christian music artists, with several of the more acclaimed modern artists on the scene showing up as well. Names like Phil Keaggy, Barry McGuire, Love Song, Annie Herring (Second Chapter Of Acts,) Noel Paul Stookey, (Peter, Paul and Mary,) Larry Norman and Russ Taff are listed alongside newcomer and Dove Award nominee Sara Groves, the ubiquitous multi-instrumentalist Phil Madeira and one of the most respected names in Christian rock, Michael Roe (77s, Lost Dogs.) The result is a collection of songs that pull the listener in, creating an intimate living-room ambience. The fact that Stonehill uses the opportunity to unveil another batch of songs rich with his characteristic eloquence, thoughtfulness and compassion is what makes Edge Of The World one of the high-points of his career.
Several songs stand out as defining moments. “Dare To Believe” captures Stonehill’s jangly roots rock side and features a gang vocal chorus destined to be a favorite at concerts. The bluesy title track churns and pulses with slow-burn intensity and features incredible slide guitar work and vocals. The atmospheric “Far, Far” (co-written by Terry Taylor and Stonehill and originally recorded by Riki Michele in 1994,) and the uplifting “Prisoner Of Hope,” add rich color to the overall sonic tapestry. Always a fan of duets, (Stonehill has had radio hits with Amy Grant, Phil Keaggy and others,) this collection turns up two duets with new artist and longtime Stonehill fan Sara Groves, (“Take Me Back,” “Hey, Pauline,” and a new gem with Keaggy, the tastefully Beatlesque “That’s The Way It Goes.” But the centerpiece is certainly the ambitious, nostalgic group effort “We Were All So Young.” Lyrically the song reflects on the early days of Jesus Music, recalling the sense of commitment, passion and fellowship that dominated those halcyon days. Vocal contributions by fellow veterans Barry McGuire, Larry Norman, Annie Herring, Love Song, Russ Taff and Phil Keaggy add to the living-room feel and take the song to a more universal level of relatability. Though the song was written by Stonehill, the story is the same for so many of those early artists.
Edge Of The World manages to strike the nearly impossible balance between contemporary vitality and historical significance. The contributions, the songs, the stripped-down acoustic style and the independent spirit that pulses through each track make it a significant marker in the long and important body of work created by Randy Stonehill. Since 1971 he has been standing on stages and singing in studios, pointing to the next world and offering guidance, hope and consolation to those struggling to get there. As one of very few remaining veterans, Stonehill has something important to offer to the Christian music community; a sense of history. Randy got his the hard way. He lived it. Through his music, his wisdom and his artistic generosity the rest of us can re-live a bit of those heady, radical and meaningful days.
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