It’s been a few years since the passing of James Brown, but the title of Hardest Working Man in Show Biz has not gone unused. In fact, if there’s an heir apparent, an artist who can aspire to that high bar, then there’s a good chance that individual may be one Bill Mallonee. Who, you ask? There’s no simple answer to that question. A singer/songwriter of considerable merit, Mallonee’s been plying his thoughtful Americana musings since the late ‘80s, first as the mainstay of the band Vigilantes of Love, and later, on his own. While the Vigilantes achieved some measure of critical acclaim and even some major label cred, they never managed to pierce that elusive barrier between a buzz and a breakthrough, and as a result, the recognition that was so clearly their due never came their way.
Nevertheless, the disappointment might have resulted from that state of affairs never managed to deter Mallonee’s ambitions. For the past decade or so, ever since the release of his first individual outing, the EP Locket Full of Moonlight, he’s released a steady stream of independently produced solo albums, under his own auspices and in the company of his wife, keyboard player and vocalist Muriah Rose. Although he occasionally resurrects the Vigilante of Love banner, he also uses the handle of WPA/Works Progress Administration (not to be confused with the ad hoc combo featured Glen Phillips) as an umbrella for his demos and miscellaneous musings. Nevertheless, all his efforts, regardless of handle, reflect his singular vision. With his output reaching into the dozens – a visit to his website VOL sounds.com reveals nearly 60 offerings bearing his identity – he never lets up, continuing to record several albums and EPS a year, all of which are available for download on Bandcamp at a reasonable cost.
“I am so heartened when I hear about folks who are still passionate about music,” Mallonee told me recently. “It’s a vanishing breed in many ways in our flavor-of-the-month ways of hearing music now. The digital revolution not only made everyone an artist, but in my opinion it also over stocked the pond. My tutelage in music was the wonder of being on the road, out in a van with no real plan and falling into that place where passion and hard work are met with a degree of deprivation. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. I’m not sure younger artists these days (and there are so many good ones) get that sort of school of hard knocks dynamic that help refine and define their art.”
And that brings up the point that’s most remarkable about Mallonee. He was making memorable music throughout the ‘90s with VOL, songs so riveting and resolute that it defied any sense of logic that the band wasn’t bigger. In fact, it seemed to defy all the odds that he’d be able to maintain that high bar, much less surpass it. Yet, he’s managed to do just that. Simply put, the man’s never made a bad album, much less song. It’s hard to imagine that that amount of skill and savvy, that ability to craft such memorable melodies, could be sustained so consistently in the work of one man. Simply put, Bill Mallonee’s more than earned his continued stream of hurrahs, not because he’s a media darling – while one national magazine placed him at number 65 in their list of the 100 Best Living Songwriters, he’s all but unknown among the masses – but because he has the talent to merit it.
“The sense of accomplishment and growth as an artist was as you say, priceless,” Mallonee continues. “It makes the art better, I think. It was always bands like REM, The Replacements, Guided By Voices, Let’s Active & the dbs that tweaked our interest. Throw in Dylan and Neil Young’s ever evolving career’s and I came upon the realization that one just keeps at one’s craft. Art, audiences, labels and outward circumstances will change, so you be the constant.”
Proof of that fact can be found in the newest addition to Mallonee’s extensive catalogue, a nine song set aptly entitled Beatitude. Coming a mere year after his last magnificent opus, Amber Waves and 2011’s , it retraces a singular sound that occasionally brings to mind such forebears as Neil Young and John Mellencamp by emulating and not imitating. With each entry extolling his plaintive, world-weary stance, each tune sounds like it was plucked directly from the heartland and those that occupy more rustic rural environs. Like most of Mallonee’s work, the content is built on faith and reflection, but never confined by any particular dogma or designs. Unceasingly melodic and consistently compelling, these stirring vignettes are filled with diehard devotion and dogged determination.
“Sure, it would be great if one of the 50 albums would hit, but I’m never holding my breath anymore, Mallonee concludes. “But as long as I can continue to find a few new fans, and connect the dots for some tours, we seem to be hanging on.”