Rocketown recording artists
Alathea has been unfairly typecast by some in the music industry as a bluegrass
band when in fact they sound much closer to country with the lilt of pop
influences lurking in the background. The women's trio consisting of twenty-eight
year old Mandee Radford, Carrie Theobald (30) and Cristi Johnson (31) released
their debut album What Light Is All About in 2003. "Indian Creek,"
the first track, is a good example of why this eastern Tennessee threesome
should not be so narrowly defined. Sure a dobro and banjo were used to
produce the magical notes found in "Indian Creek," but they also used a
cello on this track and we certainly aren't about to typecast the group
as producing classical music. Alathea is simply too innovative and talented
a group to be categorized by one narrow genre of music.
At any time you may find
Mandee Radford playing acoustic or electric guitar or sliding over to her
Fender banjo (yes Fender does make banjos) or Carrie Theobald may pick
up her flute or harmonica. Combining the trio's abilities with the sounds
of a string section, fiddle, clarinet, marimba, mandolin, accordion and
recorders, their producer Michael Aukofer (drummer for the late Rich Mullins)
helped Alathea develop a fuller bodied sound than you get with most albums.
I may be wrong. but I donít see anything on the liner notes or hear anything
in the music to suggest that preprogrammed music was used. The instruments
you hear on this album appear to me all hand-played.
They admit that as songwriters
they are heavily influenced by people such as Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris
and Shawn Colvin. Stylistically their music is an interesting weave of
pop that reflects Carrie Theobald's leanings; Alison Krause. which all
three of them enjoy; Johnny Cash; and David Wilcox. Throw in their own
penchant for mountain music and I challenge you to slot them into just
To date Alathea's music
has reflected their surroundings. Until the recent marriage of Carrie Theobald,
the three of them shared a cabin in the mountains of eastern Tennessee
nestled between Lower Stone Mountain and Unaka Mountain. Mandee Radford
and Cristi Johnson still live at their 1920's era white log cabin with
their border/collie-cross, Thumper. The song "Broken Down" was inspired
when their refrigerator broke down. Radford explained, "We live in the
Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee and we joke how most of our neighbors
have some sort of broken appliance on their front porch. I was making that
observation while I was writing for that album and then our refrigerator
broke. We put it on the front porch and it was like, hey, we fit in. We
thought now that our refrigerator is broken we are real hillbillies.
I started journaling about it and I realized there was a lesson about my
heart to be learned about all that. I think for me and for everybody when
your heart is broken and when your spirit is broken it is easy to leave
that inside and put your smile on like everything is okay. You walk around
like everything is okay and I think the lesson to be learned from the appliances
on the porch is when our hearts are broken we have to leave all these broken
things out, share them with our friends and share our hurts with our families.
I believe that Jesus gave us friends and families to help us carry our
burdens when they get too heavy. I think we need to come to church in all
of our brokenness and all of our mess because that is where we are going
to get healed. If we can't be brave enough about when we hurt we are going
to miss the healing altogether."
What Light Is All About
is a relaxing album with lyrics that paint deep impressions upon the canvas
of your heart. In my mind, however, the trio's best song is featured on
Rocketown Record's 2005 Christmas Album Gloria a Christmas Celebration.
Written with Taylor Sorenson and Steve Mason (Jars of Clay) and performed
with Sorenson, the song "Love Came Just In Time" is by far and away the
best track on the album. The song recounts the stories of Simeon
and Anna who were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. The song is a departure
for the group as Sorenson and Alathea combine for some magical blues moments.
When contacted, Sorenson
had this to say about working with Alathea, "The girls know where they
come from, and with my rock 'n' roll, we got together in a room with some
guitars, a banjo and our voices and made a swamp of a Christmas song. Alathea
might be one of the few who get the way that co-writing works, playing
to each other's strengths."
Mandee Radford and Cristi
Johnson are in agreement that their foray into co-writing was an intimidating
experience. It all started when Don Donahue of Rocketown Records approached
them and the other Rocketown artists to create a Christmas album. He split
the artists into teams with some artists that were invited to guest on
the CD and then dispatched them to different rooms to sit down and write.
Radford said, "I like to write songs with my door closed and everyone else
far away so I was a little nervous about sitting down with somebody and
writing with them."
Radford explained the origins
for the song's title, "Before we had the (songwriting) meeting I was thinking
about Advent and I kept coming back to the phrase (from the song) ' When
everybody's looking for a sign / Love came just in time', and it reminded
me of the story of Simeon and Anna. The whole idea of Simeon hanging out
at the temple and refusing to die before he saw the Messiah fleshed that
lyric out for me. Anna was a widow for eighty years and every day she was
at the temple praising the Lord. She got to see the baby as well. That
temple connected to me because I am single and would like to fall in love.
I can't imagine falling in love, losing your love and then having the faith
to go to the temple every day and praise the Lord."
Theobald described writing
the song as, "One of those beautiful surprises that happens every now and
then. We all got so excited and it just happened really easily. We recorded
it on a little cheesy tape recorder in the middle of the room. When everyone
else heard it (the song) they said that song is going to be on the album."
Mandee Radford added, "We
wrote it in thirty or forty minutes. It was just one of those miracle things."
The three friends met seven
years ago while attending college and university in eastern Tennessee;
Carrie Theobald and Mandee Radford at Milligan College while Cristi Johnson
was enrolled at East Tennessee State University. They were involved in
a ministry to high school students known as Young Life. They were assigned
to the same group of high school students and in the process of building
relationships with the students Radford hauled out her guitar. They started
to sing and that became the bridge not only to the students' hearts but
to their music careers.
After they started playing
a few church gigs someone introduced them to Rich Mullins who happened
to be in town for a conference at Milligan College. Mandee Radford jokingly
suggested that Mullins was just trying to get out of setting up the sound
equipment. "He came and sat on this hillside with us and we played our
music. He really encouraged us. He loved it. They performed that night
and after the show he said, 'Let's all go hang out at the Waffle House.
I want my band to hear you all play.'" After a little while Mullins insisted
that the band listen to the three young ladies. Radford sat down in the
parking lot with her acoustic guitar and the three of them held an impromptu
concert. It was on that night that they first met Michael Aukofer who produced
the first CD.
It wasn't long after that
first meeting with Mullins that he tragically died. Mullins did, however,
leave the budding musicians/singers with a lasting word of advice. Mandee
Radford said, "He told us, 'Ya'll have to define what success is for you
now because pretty soon people are going to be telling you what success
is and then everything is going to get confused.' We realized then and
now that success for us is getting to play honest music and somehow making
it connect to people where they are. A lot of times that doesn't really
translate into a bunch of record sales. For us that is what success is."
Folk music and Bluegrass
are often associated with another era or a very small niche of the listening
public however, as I learned from talking to Radford and Theobald, Alathea
has a broad base of fans that cross a number of generations and demographics.
They told me that young children, seniors, college students, teenagers
and those ages in between all attend their concerts and appear to be plugged
into their music.
They recalled for me two
concerts they now laugh about but at the time were, in Mandee Radford and
Christi Theobald's own words, terrifying. Theobald describes one of those
times, "For one of our first concerts we went to play for this youth group
in Indiana." She set the scene and the astonishment was still in her voice,
"We were just literally hillbillie girls from Tennessee and there were
girls with dog collars, fishnet tights, leather and studs. It was a bit
Radford interrupted laughing,
"And we are there to bring a folk message."
Theobald: "(At first) there
didn't seem to be a lot that we could connect with but the amazing thing
is once we started playing the girls that we were terrified of sat down
and engaged and listened. I think as long as we are prepared to be honest
and drop all the pretenses and ignore the differences then we are all very
much alike. We had this great hour of time with these girls with whom it
first appeared that we shared nothing in common with. Afterwards the youth
minister told us the year before they had a punk band and the kids were
in and out the whole time. He said this was the first time that the kids
actually sat down and were engaged the entire time. It was pretty
humbling. Regardless of our backgrounds we all have this connection that
makes it work."
Cristi Theobald recalled
another interesting performance, "We played for an all boys' boarding school.
We got out on stage and there were all these high school guys in suits
with straight faces."
Mandee Radford laughed again
and chimes in, "They all looked like they were from (the movie) Dead Poets
"We have just realized if
we don't get too worried about ourselves and just offer up whatever it
is that we have to offer then it won't be awful," Theobald said, laughing.
As we look forward to the
Christmas season I wondered if either of them had special Christmas memories
that they would like to share. Mandee Radford's faith really started to
grow and her music was birthed one Christmas when she received a guitar.
She remembered, When I was sixteen I got a guitar for Christmas and my
parents thought it would just go in the closet with the ice skates, tennis
racquets and stuff. They thought, it will be another phase with Mandee
but I got that guitar and felt like it was my friend. It was such a great
instrument for me. I played it all the time. When I wrote my first song
my dad said, 'Who wrote that Amy Grant?' I said, 'No'. I said, 'I
wrote it upstairs just a second ago.' He took me right to the store to
get me a real guitar and one that was the right size for me. I grew up
in an environment where my parents encouraged me a lot. I grew up in an
environment where I was always going to church. When I started to play
the guitar I also started to claim my faith as my own. My music and my
faith have always been intertwined. I started to express my own relationship
with Jesus through my feelings and my writing."
Cristi Johnson's fondest
memories are still repeated today. She recalled large family gatherings
with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces.
"I mostly grew up in eastern Tennessee (Oak Ridge), two hours from where
we live right now. We would get together for Christmas and we would eat
(she keeps emphasizing) lots and lots and lots of food."
Her voice warmed up as she
described, "We would eventually make our way down to my grandparents' basement
where there was an old upright piano at the foot of the stairs and my mom
or one of my aunts would sit down and play while everyone else sang. That
was always the way it was and I had no idea that every family didn't do
the same thing. I just thought that was normal. As I have got older I have
come to appreciate the fact that was one of the ways my family could deal
with whatever else was going. All the barriers would come down and that
was a way for us to express what we were feeling. It was a huge part of
my experience growing up and as I grew older I fell in love with different
types of music. It seemed to be my connection place for me when I could
express my feelings. It (music) was the place where I felt I could give
myself permission to feel things. I had no idea I would ever end up doing
music. That's probably the least likely thing that I would ever have said
that I would do. I feel honored to be a part of something that gives other
people permission to feel things and express their feelings and their thoughts
This year she is going to
try her hand at making peanut butter fudge for the family get together.
It will be her first attempt to replicate her late father's efforts. He
always made the fudge at Christmas. At the time of our conversation she
was thinking that she was going to need to start practicing soon and she
was getting lots of encouragement from Mandee Radford who wants to test
the fudge! To emphasize her point Radford piped up mischievously, "I'm
all for you starting early!"
Radford attributes in part
the great harmonies that Alathea enjoy to Johnson's heritage. "The great
thing about her family is you can barely hear the melody line of what they
are singing because there are so many people singing harmony. They are
all just amazing singers and they all sing different parts. That is Christi's
thing. She always hears harmony and is the one who gets all the harmony
going in our songs. It is neat to see that is where she gets it from."
The good news for fans of
Alathea and those yet to discover this wonderful women's trio is they are
in the studio now creating a new album tentatively named, My Roots Go
Deeper. This will be their first outing with producer Bruce Emmit
(Ginny Owens). "I think it is going to lean more towards the pop side of
folk pop. We are however going to continue to use all of our favorite mountain
instruments to color everything." Listeners will likely hear a sound more
reminiscent of a cross between Indigo Girls and Shaun Colvin.
Cristi Johnson said, "They
(Rocketown Records) goal is to shop it (the new CD) to mainstream labels."
Mandee Radford added, "They are hoping to release the new project in the
Americana Folk world and also release it in the Christian market."
Theobald observed, "I think
it is kind of ironic that you can go to a Best Buy and have folk music,
country music and Christian music (in separate sections) because Christian
is a faith (not a genre). I hope that we can make an album that is good
enough to be split into that folk sectionthat is just good enough
that people want to listen to it and our faith is going to be there."
By Joe Montague, exclusive
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer. His ministry is dedicated to the memory
of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18.
All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague.