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No-hit wonder

Music | Critical acclaim and record deals didn't make Bill Mallonee a rock star, but that hasn't stopped him from making good music

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

Bill Mallonee is a guy who just doesn't know how to give up.

In the 1980s, Mallonee was beating around the same Athens, Ga., music scene that produced REM and the B-52s. And while Mallonee's music has some of the same red clay in it, his vision pointed in a different direction. REM was losing its religion, but Mallonee was singing about God in the bars by night and was an elder at a funky, L'Abri-style nondenominational church by day. Throughout the '80s, he hung out with Mark Heard and Buddy Miller, brought down the house at alt-Christian festivals like Cornerstone (before it went corporate), and everyone wondered why he didn't have a huge record deal.

Then, in 1990, as the front man of Vigilantes of Love (VOL), Mallonee signed with Fingerprint, a label Heard had formed, and it looked as if a new kind of Christian music might be a-birthing. (Fingerprint was the label home of Michael Been and the Call, a band that had already had mainstream success.) Heard's death after a heart attack suffered while on-stage at the Cornerstone festival in 1992 was a personal loss for Mallonee and a professional setback. "I still miss him," Mallonee told me.

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It didn't take long, though, for VOL to sign with Capricorn, the storied Macon, Ga., label that had been home to the Allman Brothers before it went out of business in 1979. The label was resurrected by Warner Brothers and signed VOL and another Athens band, Widespread Panic. "We thought this was our big break," Mallonee said. "But commercially things never quite came together."

Looking back, it's easy to see why. The '90s was the beginning of the digital revolution that has exposed the brokenness of the major label system. Warner Brothers never quite figured out what to do with the label: In addition to VOL and Widespread Panic, the label signed then-unknown country artist Kenny Chesney and the punk/ska band 311. So no one really knew what the label stood for musically.

Mallonee and VOL soldiered on, however, producing three critically acclaimed albums for Capricorn before the label dissolved a second time in 2001. Nashville's Compass Records quickly picked them up, but the album that was supposed to be their breakthrough project, 2001's Summershine, was released just weeks before Sept. 11-yet another monumentally bad break.

"We beat our brains out trying to make it work," Mallonee said. "We did 150 to 200 shows a year for 10 years, before finally saying 'uncle.'" That decade earned Mallonee glowing reviews in both Rolling Stone and CCM. Paste magazine even named him one of its "100 Greatest Living Songwriters." But the decade also left him financially broken, divorced, and with no natural home in either the Christian or mainstream markets. His lyrics were often too dark and raw for the Christian market, and too religious for the mainstream market.

So Mallonee did the only thing he knew how to do: he kept writing songs-as many as 50 a year-and he kept exploring his faith and what he called "the places I was broke." He converted to Roman Catholicism, the church he was raised in before becoming an evangelical in college. He's also remarried, to Muriah Rose, who travels with him, singing background vocals and occasionally playing keyboard.

Then a funny thing happened: Vigilantes of Love got back together for what was supposed to be a one-time reunion. But that show, in 2008, evolved into another, and then another. In late 2008 and early 2009, the band sold out small venues in Athens, Atlanta, and Charlotte. The band doesn't have plans for either a tour or a new record. "But when we lowered our expectations, the phone started to ring," Mallonee said. "I'm just going to keep doing what I know how to do, and see what happens."

Will Bill Mallonee, now past 50, finally become the rock star almost everyone who has seen him perform wonders why he's not? "I have no interest in being a star," Mallonee said. "I just want to make an honest living with my music. I still haven't given up on that."

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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