Bill Mallonee – Eternal vigilance
Watching Bill Mallonee perform solo one evening at Eddie’s Attic in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, it’s hard not to conjure obvious comparisons to his two heroes, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Peering out from his round glasses and down over the harmonica rack dangling from his neck, he regards the audience with a beatific smile and strums his way through another verse.
“And some will shake off the sloth of faithlessness,” he sings, stomping his foot in a staccato marching cadence, “while others simply languish in their sleep. Me, I just fight to stay awake. Yeah, I’ve always had this black cloud over me.”
Packed tight to the edge of the stage in this intimate, acoustic club that’s been home to the Indigo Girls and Shawn Mullins, most of the crowd nods along as the Athens, Georgia, singer-songwriter reels off a string of tunes touching on subjects as far-ranging as baseball, 1930s Dust Bowl, the nature of evil and the persistence of grace.
For the past decade, Mallonee has recorded and toured in the guise of the folk-rock band Vigilantes Of Love. Over that time he has often written 50 to 100 songs a year. “It’s amazing how much he writes,” says Buddy Miller, who produced the latest VOL recording, Audible Sigh. “It’s overwhelming to me, because none of them are throwaways; they’re all good.”
Audible Sigh is the eleventh VOL release and is being regarded by many as Mallonee’s most fully realized work to date. Though Miller says he exerted a light touch, Mallonee says the wisdom and encouragement of the veteran musician, who’s so intuitively (and literally) at home in the studio, permitted him an energizing degree of creativity.
It didn’t hurt to have Buddy’s wife Julie Miller harmonizing on several tracks, as well as many other “honorary Vigilantes Of Love,” including drummer Brady Blade, organist Phil Madeira, fiddler Tammy Rogers and singer Emmylou Harris.
The result is a series of ringing vignettes, loosely tied together by Mallonee’s musings on his life as an endlessly touring musician. The hard traveling translates to multiple metaphors for his longer spiritual journey. Without overt preaching, Mallonee explores faith and doubt, failure and atonement, moving from abject despair “at a club called ‘the outta luck'” to reverently conclude that “love is a little bit of God, there for all to know.”
Musically, the sound is elemental rock ‘n’ roll with shimmering layers of Miller’s signature mando-guitar, filigreed bits of 12-string and Madeira’s gospel B-3 bubbling up through the mix. Ultimately, though, the focus is on Mallonee’s words, sung in a cutting register that underscores the searching, confessional nature of his artistry.
“I really think it’s a record that people should hear,” Mallonee says. “I’ve felt sometimes that the records we’ve made have been for the fans. But this album is definitely bigger than that.”
Sitting at the kitchen table in the Athens home he shares with his wife Brenda, his sons Joshua and Joseph, and an indeterminate number of feline friends, Mallonee is by turns meekly playful and acutely serious as he attempts to explain the rhyme and reason behind the Vigilantes Of Love.
“I got into the music thing pretty late,” he says. “I played drums all through high school. But I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 30 years old. And then it just kind of opened up this floodgate. I started tuning it all kinds of different ways, and I started writing songs.
“I’d always written poetry and prose, but when I finally started writing songs, I think I found a voice pretty quick. I have a lot of influences, but I think there’s a big difference between influence and imitation. For some reason I think I was spared that. I just knew you don’t imitate; you might borrow the soul if you need that.”