Mark Abernathy

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What Fair One Is This Gets Official Release

I can't pretend to know how to launch a record these days, but I'm sure I'm doing it wrong. 

Awhile back, I made a record with Bukka Allen and George Reiff--a gospel record of sorts.  Old hymns, with a great set of musicians. George played bass, sang, engineered and mixed the record, as well provided a lot of creative direction. Turned out great.  David Byrne, who received an advanced copy, even called it 'a damn good record.'  But the would-be release of the album What Fair One Is This coincided with a lot of change and a certain amount of strife in my life.  Releasing an independent record often entails retaining a publicist and spending gobs of money on dubious PR efforts, and timing that with tour dates.  The whole enterprise can feel very narcissistic at times , not to mention overwhelming.  I did a small tour out West and sold the disc at shows, but I never properly released it.  Part of me also felt uneasy spending that much time and money on something that at times felt so self-centered.  That and so many other reasons that aren't relevant right now.

Last week, George was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer in his brain, liver, right lung and adrenal gland.  I became dizzy when I read the news and it has occupied so much of my thoughts these past few days.  George is a big part of the Austin music community and has worked with a massive list of luminaries such as Joe WalshTedeschi-Trucks BandRingo StarrDixie Chicks, to name just a tiny few.  Beyond that, he is a good human being.

As I was doing a couple laps at Barton Springs last night, I wondered what value could come from an official release of What Fair One Is This.  George came to mind. We aren't great friends.  But this is something I can do with my limited resources to help him.  

So, I am humbly offering What Fair One Is This as an official release, with all Bandcampproceeds for August going toward George's medical expenses, which are very high.  

To purchase the record via Bandcamp: https://mark-abernathy.bandcamp.com/album/what-fair-one-is-this

Or, if you'd like to skip the record and contribute directly to George, go here:  https://www.gofundme.com/georgereiff

The rest of the album release stuff I will sort out later, but for now, I want the bounce to go to George.  Please share, and please help.  

God Bless You, Mr. Connick Jr.

I'm a little reluctant to share this story, but I have to publicly acknowledge this wonderful man, who surprised me with a phone call a few months back.  Sadly, it wasn't for a gig, but read on...

A little bit of backstory:  My younger brother--four years younger and the baby of the family---was killed in a traffic accident several years ago.  He was en route to Las Vegas to buy Phish tickets when the pick-up he was driving broke down on southbound I-15.  If I remember correctly, it was after midnight, and storming badly in the desert.  He was outside of his truck, trying to figure out what was wrong with the vehicle, or trying to flag someone down for help, but he was  close enough to the shoulder to get hit by a tanker at high-speed. It struck him in the head.  Life-flighted to University Medical Center in Las Vegas, he spent several days in a coma, but didn't pull through. It was devastating, and blew my life completely off course.  That's another story. 

But Christmas has been hard since.  Particularly for my mother, I think. She writes a column for her local paper, and near Christmas wrote a piece reflecting on that hard time when my brother died.  You can read the story here.  To the point, my brother was a solid Harry Connick, Jr. fan, and some of those early Connick records were personal favourites of both of ours.   He basically died with 'Here Comes The Big Parade' in the truck tape-player, and we played his music to my brother in a coma, hoping it would bring him back.

I bought Connick's first Columbia release in the late 80s, having been introduced to his music by my high school friend Taku Hirano when we were both at summer school at Berklee College of Music.  Connick's music brought me down a rabbit hole, where I discoverd Duke Ellington, Carmen McRae, Dr. John, James Booker, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, and too many others, whose shoe's lace I am not worthy to unloose. Before he was an American Idol judge or an actor, Connick was prodigy pianist and a genius arranger; multi-instrumentalist, New Orleans music repository, American songbook interpreter, and world-class performer and old school entertainer, and much more.)   He continues, on and on, to be a gateway to music for me. 

Shortly after my mother published that Christmas article, Connick's manager caught sight of the piece, and forwarded it onto the man himself.  A few days after Christmas, he personally tracked my mother's phone number down and called her up.  He spent a generous amount of time talking to her, commiserating and sharing. My mother mentioned to him that I was a musician, too, so he called me up as well.  He asked about my life, and told me that he was praying for me.  I am enormously moved by the compassion this man has.  What's more, a few weeks ago, I received an email from his assistant, inviting me to see his show in Austin, Texas, where we now live.   He left tickets and backstage passes so we were able to meet and chat in person a bit.  He was wonderful to my son and to my wife.  Put on a killer show, too. Beyond a musical hero, he really humbled me to be a better human being.   Thank you, Harry Connick for not only your music, but your example.  You continue to be a blessing to so many.  

 yeah, I cropped myself out of the pic...

yeah, I cropped myself out of the pic...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Sing. Some Thoughts On Church Culture.

A little bit about my checkered past: I once sang--in church--a piano/vocal version of ‘Put Your Shoulder To The Wheel’ that may have contained some four-note chords.  I may have even included some tri-tones (yikes!!), and (brace yourself!) a flat 9 and an augmented fifth, all of which raised the ire of my then bishop--many, many years ago. The first counsellor said it brought his mind to a nightclub (yay!) About ten years ago I sang 'Ave Maria' in church--some folks didn’t like that, either.  One complained that it was too Catholic.  But otherwise, the devil’s advocate should know that I’ve mostly only performed very middle-friendly versions of tunes like ‘If You Could Hie To Kolob,’ ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ ‘A Poor Wayfaring Man Of Grief,’ and the like, in a wholesome and reverent manner. I think almost all in attendance of musical numbers I've performed would attest to the same. And I've performed in dozens of wards all across the United States. New York, Dallas, Atlanta, San Diego, etc.--without any complaints that have come back to me.  So, let’s get that out of the way. I have tried to do right by folks and the feedback has been affirming and positive.  Sometimes the exchange has even been sublime, truly.  

I set up shop in Austin a few months ago, and shortly after settling into a new congregation in Austin, the church’s musical director asked me if I would perform a song for an upcoming church service.  To err on the safe side, I would sing a piano/vocal version of ‘If You Could Hie To Kolob,’ or ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’  However, Saturday night before the service where I was to sing, the music director called me and told me that the Bishop had asked her to rescind the invitation.  She didn’t know why, and could only say that the Bishop didn’t think it would be appropriate to have me sing. She was embarrassed. I was kind of embarrassed, too.  Apparently, he had heard my recording of ‘Kolob’ and didn’t think it appropriate.  This was how it was conveyed to me, without any extra nuance or explanation. Wow. What?

I arrived Sunday for church and my name was on the printed program, but a congregational hymn was announced at the spot in the meeting where I was to sing. It was our second week there, and, man, this was a massive, sad and painful culture shock coming from New York where we really felt a part of our church community. But this now felt like a cold welcome.  I can’t say I haven’t met wonderful people at church here and that even this bishop has otherwise been wonderfully kind and helpful. But this was really weird to me.  It felt bad and I told him after the meeting that I felt really badly about it.

The Bishop had approached me after the meeting to clarify and reiterate that he just didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to sing that day in sacrament.  That he felt prompted as such.  I hesitate to say it, but that really crossed me.  I worry about people feeling prompted to do things like that.  He was right that my song wouldn't have tied the meeting together, as it wasn't part of the theme of that meeting, but might he have suggested a song that might have matched his idea of the meeting's message?  Or he could've suggested to move the musical number to another meeting. No one had previously given a reason about canceling the number, other than it wasn't 'appropriate.'  

The Bishop offered that, perhaps, I could sing at a youth activity down the road instead but intimated that I wouldn't likely be invited to sing in regular Sunday worship service at any point in the future.  I have to say that under the circumstances, I'm not able to accept the well-intentioned offer.  This is a kind, warm-hearted man, and he wasn't being malicious, obviously. But, even if it was all simply inexpertly handled, I was certainly told that it was, foremost, a spiritual decision, and though I might be invited to sing in another format down the road, I would not sing in sacrament meeting.  

I understand that I don’t have a right to sing in church, but isn't just about everyone is invited to share their testimonies once a month if they want to?  It’s an open-mic for nearly everyone-- weirdos; long-winded weirdos; weirdos with confessions, etc.  And unless you say something truly freaked-up, you’re not going to get shut down or silenced.  An odd testimony-sharing might earn a few chuckles, a few raised eyebrows, and we all move on.  I told the Bishop that he lets the crazy man speak--while we collective share an awkward, maybe even amusing moment, but I am not permitted to sing. And so to spare the congregation, in his mind, a potentially outside-the-comfort-zone moment, I will feel awkward there for a very long time.  He insists that it was a spiritual decision.  What can I say to that?  I got trump carded.

As a brief aside, on a couple of cultural and historical points: did you know that in the early days of Mormonism, congregational singing was not the norm?  Mostly, the preacher opened a meeting with a solo hymn, a prayer and then sermonized.  While group singing existed, assembling choirs was controversial and was met with resistance.  Later in the 19th century, the church’s presiding officers gave a directive to missionaries traveling to Europe to convert and send to Salt Lake, musicians and composers-- that the church might be able to staff brass bands for worship services. My point is this: cultural differences and customs can factor heavily into what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable, and sometimes people just feel uncomfortable and that 'uncomfortableness' is not a spiritual warning.  Some folks just can’t feel the spirit when they are outside of their cultural comfort zone.  Once they are told to maintain, for example, a clean-shaven face, or wear only white shirts to church, they see that uniform as a symbol of godliness.  Those that are out of uniform are in error. Man, I don’t want to get started on culture, but this music issue is exactly a culture issue.  

Flash forward a few months. As I was leaving church last Sunday, a member of the bishopric pulled me aside. 'The Bishop wanted me to ask you if you would be willing to perform "How Great Thou Art" for a musical number sometime in the next few weeks?' For a brief moment i thought this was an awkward, but almost touching, goodwill gesture for asking me not to sing a few months prior. But he followed with this caveat, 'Just on the piano, though,' and with both hands mimed a pianist as he stipulated, 'He doesn't want you to sing it. Can you do that--perform a--like, a piano only version?'  'Like an instrumental?'  I asked, helpfully. 'Yes, exactly!' he replied.

I mumbled something about having to think about it.  This messenger is a nice man and I couldn't think of offending him.  It's not his fault.  

But, certainly, no. I cannot do a 'piano-only.'  For starters, I'm not sure what 'How Great Thou Art' is without the words, and I'm not an instrumentalist in that sense.  I self accompany. But also because, yet again, you are asking me not to sing. You are telling me, again, that my voice isn't appropriate for a house of worship; that, in my voice, an old hymn would detract from the spirit of the meeting.  It doesn't fit our brand and programming.  I've found that ecclesiastical leaders very rarely take the initiative to do anything different than what is perceived to be the norm.  I've heard bishops say that they were worried about the stake president 'coming down on them.' What is the worst thing that could happen if a musical number was unusual?  Is a bishop worried about getting fired?  What is everyone so afraid of?  How did this get so corporate?

I can't help but sense that the ideal musical number vocal style for church meetings are the like the voices of Disney princesses or the pop-operatic style of Josh Groban or Susan Boyle, performed as gentle ballads with just the right melodramatic crescendo at just the right moment. Maybe a pretty violin. But a wise friend reminded me recently that those sincere voices are as valid as any; that those singers are sharing their testimonies through song. And I agree completely--yes, they are and they have moved me. I am not disparaging anyone's musical tastes. 

However, I, too, would be raising my voice in a song of praise, in a song of worship; in commiseration or jubilation with those of us that might feel that conviction with me, in those old phrases and old melodies.  C'mon!


You might feel great looking out into that congregation and seeing all those clean-shaven faces, starched and pressed white shirts and, it feels like home. Like, 'What a great thing we got going on here.' But ask yourself why it feels good. Are there a lot of people missing from that congregation because they don’t feel welcome and they didn’t get the memo on the uniform?  Don’t let culture and cultural rules become your religion, I say.  What are you actually doing with your Christianity?  


I will probably delete this.


 

[Ed note:  This bishop and I spoke for at least a half an hour after the meeting that same day. I wasn't very clear about that.  But we did have a sit down discussion about it. Much of what I've written here, I shared with him in that conversation. He is a warm, sensitive individual who gives practically all of his spare time in service to others--as an unpaid volunteer.  He explained that he is trying to do what he thinks is best.  I do give him the benefit of the doubt.  I was stunned, though, when I was asked a second time to not sing.] 

News: Glenna Bell; Kickstarter CDs; Austin, TX

Thought I'd check in and share some updates.  I'm in Austin, Texas, producing a record with a one-of-a-kind singer named Glenna Bell.  We've brought in a wonderful group of players, including the rhythm section from What Fair One Is This (Rick Richards on drums and George Reiff on bass.) as well as guest spots by Tim Rice-Oxley from the chart-topping English band Keane, and noted blues guitarist Johnny Nicholas, whose work with Asleep At The Wheel earned the group their first of many Grammy Awards.

As for my own record, we are very close to getting all the Kickstarter discs out.  It has been tough being on the road, with all of our stuff still in New York, while we have set up shop in Austin.  All the discs should be out by the end of the month.  Next stop: T-shirts.  Stay tuned.

And last, but not least, please follow on Instagram!

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