6. Welcome to Paradise – Randy Stonehill
WELCOME TO PARADISE (1976)
I was eleven or twelve years old and at a “Family Camp” with my Church in Big Bear, CA. My parents always gave me spending money for candy, maybe a T-shirt or for any activities that might cost money like horseback riding. I learned over the years to eat enough sausages for breakfast not to need too much candy, bring enough clothes not to need another T-shirt and I have an inexplicable fear of horses.
So, with all that extra money I would usually buy a tape or two from the camp’s bookstore. I bought my first albums from Servant, Darrell Mansfield and Parable at that store. But the very first tape I ever bought there was Randy Stonehill’s “Welcome to Paradise.” I bought it because the guy on the cover had long hair and a really cool Jesus T-Shirt.
I was completely unaware of Randy Stonehill at the time. I later discovered a decidedly lo-fi, half-live album called “Born twice” had been previously released.
Recorded primarily before a live audience and a few songs produced in the studio all on a budget that shoestrings ridicule. Once asked when the album would be released on CD, Stonehill responded something to the effect it would happen when someone in charge makes a grave error in judgment. As seriously troubled as the production is what the album does provide is a glimpse into the early faith of a legend in Christian Music.
The album also shows glimpses of the humor and on stage persona that would cause hundreds of thousands to become fans. Part comedian, part musician, part street preacher, the Randy Stonehill introduced on “Born Twice” was and remains utterly unique in the music business whether Christian or not.
That was 1971 and it would be another five years before he would release another album. Those years were filled with growth, both spiritually and artistically. He would co-star with Laverne and Shirley star Cindy Williams in the sequel to the legendary B-movie, “The Blob,” the not-so-memorable, “Beware! The Blob” which is known better as “Son of Blob.”
During that time he also was writing a lot of music with new found friends Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy and Keith Green. In fact, one of the real “classics” of the Jesus Music era, “Your Love Broke Through,” would be recorded by Keaggy, Green, Russ Taff and finally himself over a decade later.
There would also be the recording of the mysterious “Get Me Out of Hollywood” that would not be released for several decades though cassette versions of the album and some limited vinyl pressings were said to be in existence. That album would contain two songs that would later become Stonehill favorites (Puppet Strings, Jamie’s Got the Blues), but with distinctly different arrangements. There are probably several good reasons why the album never saw the light of day, including the production quality and the quality of a few of the songs.
But it was 1976′s “Welcome to Paradise” that launch a career that would last over 30 years, untold concerts, several record labels, an equal number of producers and a catalog of brilliant and enduring albums. Despite a legacy that is rivaled by few if any, it is the first truly nationally released album that demands our attention here. “Welcome to Paradise” would remain the definitive work for Stonehill through is more than 30 year career. It combined the genuine innocence of a new convert and the songwriting of a skilled craftsman.
Walking bravely between James Taylor like ballads and Eagles oriented AOR, this “debut” bring several years of honing his songwriting skills to a fountainhead of poetic expression amidst heartfelt acoustic rock. The album serves as a gateway between the days of the Jesus Music innocence of the early 70′s to the more industry driven CCM. The album also marks the finest production of Larry Norman’s career. Larry may have made better albums but has never produced such a fine work that sounds good now some 30 plus years later.
If some one only listened to the opening track of “Welcome to Paradise” one might get the impression this a nice little acoustic folk album along the lines of James Taylor and Jim Croce. But I can’t imagine another song on the album being a better way to open the album up. “King of Heart” is the albums evangelical call to accept God’s love set the lyrical tone of grace that permeates the record.
Aside from that it is also a beautiful song that Randy still plays. It begins with this common ailment of mankind to realize that we all have a place in our heart that can only be filled by Jesus.
All alone drifting wild
Like a ship that’s lost out on the ocean
Everyone’s a homeless child
And it’s not hard to understand
Why we need a Father’s hand
There’s a rainbow somewhere
You were born to be there
You’re just running in circles
Till you reach out your hand to the King of hearts.
The other important point to note about the song is the very simple, yet effective acoustic guitar work of Stonehill. This would be a trademark style for Stonehill over the decades; simple yet dynamic guitar work. It could be said that he is actually quite an underrated guitar player.
Next up is what I firmly believe is Stonehill’s finest song, “Keep Me Runnin’.” This song rocks harder than most acoustic driven songs ever do. In a very Eagles type Americana/Blues driven groove Stonehill tells of the heart that refuses the Gospel message. I believe those familiar with the song will also agree it may contain one of the very best acoustic guitar solos recorded.
KEEP ME RUNNIN’ FROM THE SHADOW OF MY LIES
LIKE A GYPSY WHO IS NEVER SATISFIED
ONCE YOU COMPROMISE YOUR SOUL
YOU SPEND A LIFETIME DODGING THE DEVIL’S TOLL
BUT YOU KEEP ME RUNNIN’
KEEP ME COVERIN’ UP MY TRACKS
KEEP ME RUNNIN’ SO I’M ALWAYS LOOKING BACK
ALWAYS RESTLESS IN MY DREAMS
AND TROUBLE’S NEVER TOO FAR BEHIND IT SEEMS
KEEP ME RUNNIN’
KEEP ME MOVIN’
KEEP ME ALWAYS ON THE GO
KEEP ME MAKIN’ SURE MY FOOTPRINTS NEVER SHOW
The Eagles sounding acoustic rock continues with “The Winner (High Card),” a song that, like the above” tells the story of someone who finds any all excuses to avoid the truth and the reality of the Gospel. The closing of the song really shows Stonehill’s strong and diverse vocal abilities. But the heart of the song is the conviction with which Stonehill delivers the lyrics.
It’s not easy to see me I’m an influential
man / And I never needed anyone To
build my promised land
So don’t tell me about Jesus ’cause He’s just too hard to sell
And I never trust in strangers
that’s the first rule I Learned well
I’m the winner and I made it to the top
And I took it all just like I planned
I’m the man who holds the high card in his hand
“Lung Cancer” marks the initial foray into Stonehill’s more humorous songwriting technique. The musical expression works better here than in most similar Stonehill experiments because of lack of “novelty” kitsch that other songs of that variety posses. The anti-smoking song also works precisely because it never takes itself all too seriously while still trying to pass along a message.
Stonehill’s strongest ballad on the project (and one of his best ever?) is up next. “Puppet Strings” possesses a stunning string arrangement with a haunting melody which matches the message perfectly. Here we find the plight of rebellious man who is a willing victim to the fall. Here paradise is lost through rebellion and the desire to be the kings of our own kingdom.
Long ago He chose us to inherit all His kingdom
And we were blessed with light
But wandering away we disobeyed Him in the garden
And stumbled into night
And I can feel it in my soul
Now the end is getting near
I can hear the angels weeping
And it’s ringing in my ears
We are all like foolish puppets
who desiring to be kings
Now lie pitifully crippled
after cutting our own strings
Where “Puppet Strings” leaves man in rebellion and lost “First Prayer” provides the answer to that hurting and lost world. This song is the prayer of a young man looking for answers to basic questions of doubt and wonder.
I will follow if You’ll lead me
Help me make a stand
If You’ll breathe new breath inside me
I’ll believe you can
I’ll believe You can
Well I never really learned to pray
But You know what I’m tryin’ to say
I don’t want my life to end
Not ever knowing why it began
So if You’ll trust me I’ll do my best
and I’ll be trusting You for the rest
As side two of the album continues the struggles of sin, questions and doubt and refusal to accept the Gospel message is replaced by songs centered on the power of the Gospel and its impact on the individual. So, after the “First Prayer” the Gospel message is directly presented in “I’ve Got News For You.”
Ever feel as if your heart was whispering
Like a special Voice you never heard before
And something deep inside your soul was tickin’
As if someone was pounding on the door
I’ve got news for you this is not a game
I’ve got news for you are you listenin’
I’ve got news for you we are all the same
I’ve got news for you this is not a game
I’ve got news for you we are all the blame
And when that is understood we can start to live again
Once again here the authenticity of the message is carried by the transparency and passion of the vocal performance. Larry Norman’s influence is quite apparent on the arrangement and backing vocals.
“Song for Sarah” became somewhat controversial for all the wrong reasons. The song is about someone who loves another so much that he aches to his bones because she doesn’t know Jesus. He longingly calls for her to find the Lord and assures her that someone loves her more than he ever could.He so wants her to find value in her love through the one who loves her best.
Sarah Someone loves you
in a way I never could
He laid His life before you on a
cross made out of wood
Oh and in His hour of anguish
our dreams were given birth
I hope you finally realize
how much your love is worth
It is actually quite a beautiful song and one must wonder what the controversy. Stonehill’s first wife was named for Sarah and many believed that the song was written for her which Stonehill denies. So after the divorce people familiar with the situation were offended and bothered by him continuing to sing the song not realizing the name choice was not related to her. It is truly a controversy around a song that should have never been.
“Christmas Song for All Year ‘Round” is a Christmas song that talks as much about Easter as it does Christmas. It wisely reminds Christians that as important as Christmas is, it’s importance is only as a result of the sacrifice on the cross.
And I know that if Saint Nicholas was here he would agree
The Jesus gave the greatest gift of all to you and me
They led Him to the slaughter on a hill called Calvary
And mankind was forgiven
Mankind was forgiven
We were all forgiven when they nailed Him to the tree
So Merry Christmas
The album closes with the funky and driving rocker, “Good News.” As the album concludes and the Gospel is firmly established the album finishes with the popular Jesus Music theme of the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus Music was birthed at the same time as the rise in popularity of discussion of the rapture and Second Coming. Like the rest of the album it should be noted Jon Linn’s amazing guitar work. I have mentioned Linn elsewhere and I must admit his guitar work was utterly original and played a very significant role in the creation of some of the finest and most authentic rock at the time.
Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” and other similar books were quite popular and it was reflected in the content of the music form that was also growing in popularity. This mixed with the heavy emphasis of this particular view of the doctrine of eschatology at Calvary Chapel – another epicenter for the Jesus Music – made this a primary topic in the lyrics of Jesus Music artists.
This would remain a primary lyrical emphasis through most of the 1980′s as well. Recently this emphasis has diminished much to chagrin of some and the happiness of others. I point it out here because of the heavy emphasis in the music of Jesus Music artists that we will be discussing going forward on a few final albums to be discussed.
I still have that cassette I bought at a family camp over 30 years ago. I have had an LP and CD of this record as well over the years and haven’t needed to play the cassette. I am not ever sure it still works. I have my doubts. But I never plan on getting rid of it.