Think of pioneers, and you might imagine TV-spawned images such as "Little House on the Prairie" or "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." When contemporary Christian music pioneers come to mind, you may think of Larry Norman, perhaps Phil Keaggy, even Amy Grant--and (although he somewhat begrudgingly admits it), Randy Stonehill. "I guess I do have some sense of having a body of work, and the impact it's had on people. But I don't get up in the morning and put on a little sign that reads 'Randy Stonehill, Pioneer of Contemporary Christian Music.' This is the '90s; there's a whole audience out there that wasn't even born when I started."
That might explain in part why in mid-1993, the 43-year old verteran of nearly a quarter-century in Christian music found himself without a home for his tunes. Even with a body of work which includes acclaimed albums such as Welcome To Paradise, Equator and Wonderama, Word Records ended it 17-year association with Stonehill. Randy says he greeted the news with a mixture of fear and exhilaraton. "I guess I had come to a place where I understood that it's not a personal thing. It's the old story of commerce overshadowing art; the tail wagging the dog." Even so, Stonehill admits, "I did consider other record company offers. But I got the impression that I wouldn't be receiving any real sharp focus or serious momentum to help me bulid more of a ministry and a career."
And so Street Level Records was born as an artist-oriented partnership between Randy's long-time associates Holly Benyousky and Mike Scandland and Christian music entrepreneur Gavin Morkel. Heading up the posse was Stonehill in the president's seat. "Yeah," Randy chuckles, "I really wanted to be the president of a record company, because I've always wanted one of those swivel chairs. No, seriously, we're trying to return to basics in emphasizing the impact of a simple, powerful idea, executed correctly. I think people know what I've always stood for as an artist--someone exploring the mysery of their own humanity and how that relates to the journey of faith."
Last month, Street Level released its initial offering, The Lazarus Heart, by some guy named...Stonehill? That's right, just Stonehill. So Randy, what gives? "Well, I toyed with 'Madonna', 'Cher' and 'The artist formerly known as Randy.' After making 17 or so albums, it seemed silly to overstate the case. So, it became, 'Stonehill, as in Randy - tall guy, long nose, curly hair.' It was just a way of acknowledging a kinship with the audience."
The truncated moniker wasn't the only change for Randy, either. For the first time in several years, Stonehill traveled to Nashville to do the bulk of his recording. And how did the life-long Californian find his return to Music City? "Frankly, I found it rather touching that my history had meant something to a lot of these people. It was like the jungle drums were announcing that I was in town and wanted to open the doors to new working relationships." One of the first to sign on for The Lazarus Heart was Jimmie Lee Sloas, who's produced outstanding albums for the likes of PFR and Whitecross, but never anyone quite like Stonehill. Randy admitted to an initial bit of skepticism in the hiring of Sloas. "Jimmie was an unknown quantity to me. But the other partners said, 'This guy brings a lot to the table. Beyond his musical abilities, he's not going to come in with a pre-conceived notion of what your artistic boundaries are.' I thought, 'Well, I know I need to stretch. So I'm going with the group vote.' As it turned out, working with Jimmy was one of the high points of my career in terms of creative experiences."
The highest profile guest on The Lazarus Heart is Michael W. Smith, who sings and plays piano on the moving "In Jesus' Name." Randy says the appearance was a kind of thank you for the encouragement offerend when Smitty was still in high school. But Randy says he was wary of what might seem like exploiting that friendship. "There's a difference between inviting your friends to be part of this new beginnning and crassly saying, 'I'm going to do anything and everything to prop up my sagging career.' If I felt like that, I'd just go be 'The Singing Beachcomber,' you know? 'Polish your driftwood while I sing you a sea chanty, ma'am?'"
Something else one might find surprising about the album is that Stonehill--who's not konwn for sharing songwriting duties--collaborates with other writers on six songs. "I was ready for experimentation," admits Randy. I"I came to town with more than 20 songs and I ended up leaving more than half those on the shelf. I didn't just want to rely on songs that people might think 'Oh, this is his signature kind of stuff.' So, the criteria was a variety of songs that felt like they belonged with a body of work. Also, a number of songs were actually finished in the midst of the sessions, which gave them a real sense of immediacy."
Before the sessions even began, however, Stonehill found himself calling in a marker from old friend Gary Champan. "An airline skewered my trusty Martin D-18 with a fork-lift, and ther I was in Nashville, getting ready to record with no guitar. So I asked Gary if he'd loan me one or two instruments that would record well. And he offered me a half-dozen guitars! When I left his place with all these cases under my arms, I was expecting someone to shout 'Stop, thief!' Later, he and Amy graciously invited my wife and daughter out to the ranch for a visit, and that allowed us some time as a family that we don't normlly get during these kinds of circumstances. Your family is a treasure from God--this is the real stuff of life. Music is terrific and it's a privilege to play it, but I'm constantly checking myself to make sure Sandi and Heather know they're always first in terms of my heart and my priorities."
The centerpiece track on The Lazarus Heart, and one of the most poignant and haunting Stonehill has ever written is "That's Why We Don't Love God." The song had its beginning in the simple question Randy asked of himself and several others--"Why don't we love God like we know we ought to?" The answer that would summarize the feelings of many who responsded to Stonehill's question came from Pastor Scotty Smith of Christ Community Church in Nashville. "Scotty and I were discussing it over lunch and he said, "The problem is that grace offends our fallen humanity. The very grace that could save us from death at once draws us and repels us.' When he said that, it chilled me to the bone because I realized how tragic and true that was. Why don't we say, 'God, we don't love each other, and we don't love you very well at all.' The irony is when we finally own up to that, God says, 'I know you don't love me. But I love you. And that will never change.'"
With 17 albums and 24 years in the ministry under his belt, you might think Randy would opt to play it safe. But Stonehill says quite the opposite; recording the flagship album for a new label was a tremendous challenge. "I really wanted to reinvent myself, to find that balance between being true to my past while putting a fresh spin on things. I think there's a subconscious rising to the occasion that evolves out of having ownership of your work--'this is my company, I live and die with these decisions.' By God's grace, and with those thoughts propelling me, I was able to create a record that I think is one of my best."