The “Audible Sigh” Years: Vigilantes of Love 1997-2001. An historic record. A blistering band. A reminiscence…

The “Audible Sigh” Years
Vigilantes of Love 1997-2001
An historic record. A blistering band. A reminiscence.

They say life is risk. So here’s a life risked over a 4 year span.

First, it starts with a sound…or a combination of sounds and words you hear in your head. You pick up an instrument. You wrestle it; coax it till your fingers bleed, learn a song or two;
Build your knowledge by an algorithm of trial & error; Develop an expanding encyclopedia of your own likes & dislikes, strengths & weaknesses; note the approaches that “work for you.”
And over time, you become friends, you & that guitar. Deep friends, if you’re me.
She always teaching you something, unlocking new secrets and “takes” on a world within & without.

Songs. I’ve never written a single one with any particular audience in mind.
It’s a great road to poverty, but I’ve never felt like I’ve “sold out.”

Songs. I’ll take mine raw & unvarnished. Straight, no chaser.
The top-shelf stuff high on the “proof” column.

Songs. “Sobering Truths.” A pulling aside, if but for a moment, something like a veil between the here & now and…….who knows?
If you write, then you & your “friend” learn to tap the inside and turn it outward.
You find your voice, your “nomenclature” for telling your part of the story…and then (occasionally studying your pose in the mirror) you start to dream a bit….
How do you know when you’re making a bit of history?
18 years ago I made an album with 3 of my friends.
The album was “Audible Sigh.” Perhaps, a grim title in some ways. Still, the “American Experience,” when held under our history’s microscope, elicits deep sighs & sadness.
Sure, it’s the stuff of great songs. Our past ought to be a teacher we listen to, but we rarely seem to learn…But, that’s another story.
Audible Sigh, with it’s dark, plaintive, street-wise themes of abandonment, betrayal, dislocation, and vulnerability, when set along side the now famous “train-wreck” cover, played out with an almost prophetic ennui.

Such had been our consistent experience as rock & roll “band in a van” for the previous three years. A small label in Nashville gave us some coins to walk into the studio of national treasure Buddy Miller.
It was, as they say, a dream come true. What the listener hears on “Audible Sigh” was was pretty much the set we’d played every night for those previous years. I’ve always written incessantly. We took a near 75 song set list and narrowed it down to 21 songs.
In some ways the recording ritual itself, was “just another gig.” With incredible musicianship and song sensitivity from guitarist, pedal steel & mandolin player Ken Hutson, bassist Jake Bradley and borrowed drummer Brady Blade,
we seemed to deliver one flawless take after another.
(Drummer, Kevin Heuer, became our permanent album & road drummer shortly thereafter; I’ve never met a more song-sensitive drummer.
Kevin played on numerous recordings including the Ep recorded at this time called “Room Despair.”)

I think we made a great record; an historic record to some people’s minds
3 weeks. 21 songs. Killed it.
The album was intense, tender, suffused with world-weary insight, fueled with hunger. Genuine, authentic.
I call it Americana rock & roll.

Why do I mention this?
Many folks told us to expect great things. After all, we’d be stalwarts on the Americana circuit for years. Mis-management, label politics and poverty are things all bands deal with.
But, in many ways it seemed to be our common motif; not the occasional exception to the rule.
I ‘ gamely tell folks: “well, it’s life. It all goes back into the songs.”
And it’s true. The whole of it made my writing better.

Up to a point.

Deprivation & uncertainty are part of the job description.
Those can also the little lies you tell your sad self, the over-romanticizing you engage in, just to get through the pace of 200 days on the road a year.
Maybe we were on the verge, maybe the right time, the right place. Maybe what folks said was true.
But, like a boxer in the ring being worn down, you can only pretend it doesn’t hurt for so long…

I had the songs. We were an undeniable band with years of experience on the road..
And yet, and yet…
Critics went nuts over it. Fans bought multiple copies as we searched, in vain, for a “real” label to release it (our initial label having gone belly-up, just prior to the record’s release.)
We sometimes said to one another, while driving the next 300 miles to the next show: “Wow. This could really happen! This album could break big.”
Folks still talk about it.

The whole experience changed my life.
I’m sure it changed Ken, Jake & Kevin’s life, as well.
It’s still changing my life in ways I never imagined.
I won’t/can’t/should not go into the variables that forced us to call that chapter of the band “quits.”

I will share only this: I learned that Life is a game of “insider’s circles.” VoL never had that skeleton key that allowed us entrance into such cliques.
Those associated with those cliques made it almost impossible to gain traction.
What we DID have was the BEST fans. That and lots of pluck. It kept us going…for a spell.
But the sense being used & a being excluded from those insider’s cliques meant never being able to rise above a certain level.
It all contributed to something like a sad post-script one finds at the end of a book.
You do learn, over time, to integrate such experiences into your spirit, into your work.
My music has been a hundred times better for it.
After all, none of “that” was ever the reason I picked up a guitar in the first place.
It was never about that false measuring stick of artistic “Goodness” called Soundscan numbers of lack thereof.
It was always about the songs.
Which has made it a little easier to “lay it all to rest.”

I listened to this recording just before writing these notes;
Got inside the songs again and the rendering of them you hear on these 4 sides.
And I realize there are still places that ache within, where I will likely always be “walking wounded.
Produced by Buddy Miller & myself, it featured many a guest appearance by Emmylou Harris, Phil Maderia, Julie & Buddy Miller, & Brady Blade. Such wildly talented artists!
But at the core? It was always about “us” 4 guys.
Guitarist Ken Hutson, bassist Jake Bradley, drummer Kevin Heuer and myself.

The flotsam & jetsam of this record’s watery history?
“Audible Sigh” was celebrated by many a critic as one of the best Americana records of the 90’s.
It still continues to make many “best of” lists.

Me? I was probably too wrapped up in the future possibilities. That’s what happens when you “risk.”
Your heart loses perspective.
You become a walking target.

There were so many, many people to please and make happy. Too many, really.
Impossible schedules & demands & no resources or superstructure to guide us.
We were on the high-wire with no safety net beneath us.
What most folks didn’t know (not even my band-mates really) was that I was slowly crumbling under the weight of it all.
When we bottom out, we’re often the last to know. I know I was.
I have always been terrified of failing everybody.

The incongruity of it all. A great record. A band on the verge of it’s biggest break through.
We had laid the foundation via heavy touring and 2-3 albums a year;
The 100plus songs written during this period were visceral, raw, tough & tender, immediate;
But the “failure” the album to elevate the band and gain it a scrap of recognition was too much on my spirit.
My universe went numb.
It was in shambles…

Stupid me. I began questioning every metaphysical design one might frame the universe with to make sense of it any of it.
“Why?” I asked.
Through 5 albums & an EP, from 1997-2001, we delivered those songs passionately every night;
(I don’t remember an “off” night.)
Delivered them (sometimes) on great PA systems; on other nights on sound systems that might have been built by Fischer-Price.

There were so many promises made to us from people in “the industry.”
Folks who were suppose to be looking out for us.
In the end?
Sure: It was few lies, but mostly it was just a cocktail of industry incompetency & short views among our own “team” that carried the day.

What do you do when you realize that people with small views (and sometimes “tin-ears”) were dictating your future?

I don’t think any of us wanted fame, nor fortune. I just wanted to feel a bit safe from one day to the next…like we were being watched over a bit.
I wanted a future for the music and the songs that I kept writing.
Me? I tried to be the resilient band-leader; put the best construction on the story…but, in reality, it was all starting to border on a nightmare.
We soldiered on as a band a bit, post 2000, but, as I said above, but it felt like drowning by slow degrees.
Bands live in vans. I re-listened to the albums we made during this time. (Roof of the Sky, Audible Sigh, Electromeo, ‘Cross the Big Pond and Resplendent/Audibly “Live”);
I hear a band that is hungry & alive. Full of energy. Immediate, relevant, giving it’s all.
But, even better than that? I hear a band having serious fun.
And let’s face it: Rock & Roll can be serious joy.
A repertoire of nearly 100 songs is an amazing set for any band. Each of those those gentlemen were, and still are, my heroes.
We were on the road nearly 200 shows a year. There was never a “safety net.”
We laughed. We joked. Argued. We fought.
We looked out for each other as brothers.
We ate, drank, slept.
Fought weariness & depression.
Drank, told stories; Closed out a bar or two.
Hit the Super 8’s & Motel 6’s…
…and slept the sleep of dying dreams till we could romanticize it no longer.
Musically? I think we knew what we had was magic. Night after night we delivered raw, heart-on-sleeve music with passion & spirit.
Lyrically & thematically? I like to think that many of the themes we delved into were unique.
Because, ultimately, I think we’re all living in the same sad skin.
It all started from this premise: the world is cold, hearts are sad, and we all need nurture.

We all saw the “writing on the wall,” at least far as the outcome goes.
Life “owes” no one anything. And if there are too many “train-wrecks” and too much bad luck?
Well, i can only answer for myself: I just started to lose your faith in everything & everyone.

Living as a “band in a van,” we became immersed in the terrain of this wondrous country and it’s heroic people; You all became gifts to us.
Playing our rock & roll in bars & dives; in theaters and a church or two; against the backdrop & glory of this country’s four seasons, we bonded.

We looked after each other.
The perfect dysfunctional family.
And then it was gone…
SO: Here’s what I’m grateful for;
Here’s what I get to walk away with:

I got to spend 3 years in a van. Saw the world. Played my music with one of the best bands “out there;”
And above all?
I got to play on stages, big and small, with 3 of the coolest souls in the world.

They come no better than Kenny Hutson, Jake Bradley and Kevin Heuer.
This is the truth.
You pick up an instrument. You wrestle it. Tap the inside & turn it out. Find your voice, your nomenclature for telling your part of the story…
You “get good.” You start to dream a bit. Work against the odds.
You’re allowed brief reveries that lead you to feel, believe that “this could could all go somewhere.”

But, never forget: No one can do it all alone.

So many, many, many of you who bought the various renditions of Audible Sigh were out there pulling for us. It was humbling. We developed such deep bonds of trust with you folks.
Where the industry & “gatekeepers” tended to kick VoL to the curb, so many good hearts were “there” for us. You pulled for us; encouraged and prayed for us.
You bought our records. We felt your love & goodwill.
We’re deeply, deeply grateful.
Because, in the end, you were all we had.
They say life is risk…and so it is.
So there’s a life risked for a 4 year span.
The highest elation. Filigreed with some transcendent moments…
By the end of 2001 it was in shambles and all over.

To be honest?
As I look back over this piece, I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten over it.
I’ve never put so much trusting energy into work, people or anything in my life.
Vigilantes of Love?
Rest in Peace
Which brings us to, 18 years down the stretch, since Audible Sigh.
On the “bad days,” I’m never sure if what we do here counts much for anything.
I’ve been given to dark moods all my life.

But this was never a mood. It was a death. And every death deserves a proper grieving.

But, I’m also a blessed man.
Acts of affirming others, gestures of kindness, love & compassion seem to me to be what we were made for; perhaps all such gestures are the blueprint for the Kingdom Come.
I’ve received more than my fair share of such.

Sometimes, I wonder: Is it only in our youth where the days often seem like good dreams?
Harsh reality ushers in the thieves who break in and steal the dreams;
Debacles & sins that wear away our spirits, wear away at our faith, if we’re lucky enough to have any.

But what if the Good Dreams happen to be real enough?
Then they charge the “child within” each of us; Charge us with a sense of purposefulness and a recognition of the hallowed-ness of this world & of all people.
Those are the dreams I dreamt anyway;
In the end, that’s what VoL & Audible Sigh always were for me.
Vigilantes of Love
Never have I seen, or been part of something since, that was driven by so much integrity;
So much hope. So much fun. So much rock & roll beauty
I confess: I wept inside for years after it was over.
(“Perspective, old chum! For God’s sake man, pull yourself together!”)

Forgive me…

Well, sure. I got to write songs people still sing.
We made an album that, I think, is still breath-taking.
Lyrically, musically & sonically…

It was all so very “there.”

I mean really:
How often is one allowed to “open a vein;” to “say one’s piece” in this life?

As a band, we got to make magic, transcend a bit of time;
Maybe, once in a spell, even move our spirits (and yours) to the fringes of something bordering the Eternal. The Joyous.
I am such a very, very “lucky” man.

We’ve all heard of near death experiences.
Perhaps these were “near life experiences…”
Of course “gaining perspective”could also be a sort of thing where one cynically explains things in terms of the cold & hard, material reality of one’s senses alone. A “what you see is all there ever is” proposition. A “Life Good. Life Bad. Eat, drink, be merry for tomorrow we die” rendering.
Really? Really?/
I, for one, doubt such a “take’ on things. A materialist view is too shallow, too easy.
The senses alone, when in riot, seem notoriously spot on when interpreting rightly the heart of the universe. “Go with you gut,” is the phrase.

It sure works in songs.
Probably works in “religion.”
Instinctively we know that “It” is all so much more than that.
That’s why I write and why I play rock & roll.
if you learn how to excavate, it surfaces in something beyond words.

You really are chasing the Spirit.

And so: Here’s to that sad, stumbling, distorted but ultimately redeemed world.
The world is our orphanage.
One day Someone will come & claim us.

That’s some of what Audible Sigh was about.
Now-a-days? Songs keep coming. They keep me tethered to the earth.

But Audible Sigh? The album, the years of touring, the life inside a van with Vigilantes of Love?
I’ll recall it as a wondrous, beautiful, enduring “snapshot” of a ragged, glorious moment for all of us.
Maybe a golden/eternal moment.
Anyway, it was part of my part of the story.
It was part of what I got to tell.
I’m proud of it all;
Proud of VoL
Proud of my beloved, sacrificing band mates
They were good, good friends to me.
And I am proud of our generous fans….
I will always be deeply grateful.

Like the old standard says:
“Thanks for the memories…”
Bill Mallonee
Summer 2017



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