Maria Muldaur's road to transcendental Christianity
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It was the summer of 1983, just before I entered the fourth grade. My mother’s boyfriend had the television on Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Network, which it often was in our sphere. The woman on the screen, however, looked and sounded unlike anything I’d ever seen on the station before. With her mass of black hair that fell down her back and her bracelets, she looked like she might be the subject of a Stevie Nicks lyric, or so I thought at that moment as a nine-year-old. The sound was soulful, brazen even. “I don’t want to know what should be, would be, could be...All I wanna do is keep my eyes on you,” she sang. When the host said her name, I didn’t forget it. Maria Muldaur. On our next trip to the Bible bookstore, my mother refused to buy Maria’s 1982 gospel release, There Is a Love, when I asked (“She looks worldly” was the reason), but I snuck the album into a stack she was buying and hid it when we got home. Thirty-nine years later, it remains one of the most important albums I’ve ever encountered.
Most people remember Maria Muldaur for, what she deems in concert, her “big three:” “Midnight at the Oasis,” “I’m a Woman” and “It Ain’t The Meat (It’s The Motion),” all culled from her first two solo albums in 1973 (Maria Muldaur) and 1974 (Waitress in a Doughnut Shop). While those tunes were considered by many as novelties in the pop world, the albums they sprang from reveal an artist with wide ranging musical interests and deep insight into the ways that American musical forms were connected. Folk, vaudeville tunes, country, bluegrass, jazz, gospel, soul and rock all found themselves represented on the five albums she released for Warner Brothers between 1973 and 1979.
It wasn’t the result of trying to find a sound that stuck in the public’s eye, but, rather, keeping sounds and stories alive. Muldaur was also intentional about who her collaborators were. Many were from the prior generation, the creators of these, now fading, musical forms. One critic, accustomed to pop’s slick, one dimensional packages, complained, “Maria Muldaur gives you many straws to grab at, but none to hold.” Another critic though, more keenly observed the larger point of Muldaur’s work: “Muldaur has continued to showcase respected unknowns…What’s [Linda] Ronstadt got that Muldaur hasn’t? I say ‘commercial sensibility.’”
Record companies, however, are not concerned about cultural preservation, but bottom line. Shortly after her 1979 release, Open Your Eyes, was released, she was dropped by Warner. The album was produced by David Nichtern (who had written “Oasis”) and Patrick Henderson, a gospel musician-writer-producer whose credits included Leon Russell, the Pointer Sisters, and the Doobie Brothers. “It was some of my best work ever,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 1981. “Musicians like Stevie Wonder and Junior Walker played on it. But the record company pressed only 40,000 copies and never promoted it.” “Even my staunchest fans barely knew it existed,” she lamented to the Burlington Free Press. “Forget Rolling Stone, it didn’t even get reviewed in the back of Laundry Workers Daily.”
Coinciding with the termination of her agreement with Warner, her daughter Jenni had been in a severe car crash in the fall of 1979, sustaining critical head injuries that required surgery. As Muldaur waited at the hospital during her daughter’s surgery, the lyrics to her friend Bob Dylan’s recently released gospel album, Slow Train Coming, played in her mind. “My relationship with God hadn’t been that solid, but I found myself praying. I hadn’t prayed since I was a child. I guess the Lord answered my prayers. The operation was successful and my daughter lived.”1
Shortly afterwards, while working a series of engagements at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles, her Open Your Eyes collaborator Patrick Henderson took her to West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where he was minister of music.
“When it came around to the invitational, I came forward. They did a laying on of hands and I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and started speaking in tongues. It was almost as if my body became a tube of light and when the light traveled all the way to my feet and came back up to my vocal chords, it loosed my tongue from my own control and I started to speak in another language. I felt like all my sorrows, all my lifelong troubles and problems and sins and guilts and worries and the whole bag of it had just been cleansed by the light and I felt like I had a new start.”
That her conversion experience occurred by way of the Black church sets Muldaur apart from the droves of entertainers who were embracing Christianity, and entering a subculture dominated by a particular brand of white evangelicalism. In addition to Dylan, Donna Summer, Barbara Mandrell, Dion DiMucci, Deniece Williams, Teri DeSario, Joe English of Paul McCartney’s Wings, Leon Patillo of Santana and others had all made (or would soon make) public statements regarding their faith and many were weaving themselves into the growing industry of Contemporary Christian Music.
As Maria was beginning to publicly discuss her conversion experience, much of the white Christian world was campaigning for Ronald Reagan during his 1980 presidential bid. Maria maintained her individuality. One critic wrote of her performance the day after the presidential election and quoted her as being “bummed out” by the results, dedicating the jazz tune “Wheelers and Dealers” to “the greedheads of the world,” and specifically to Reagan.
While many of the new converts were disavowing their secular pasts and beginning new chapters in Christian music, Muldaur was one of a handful, along with Donna Summer and Philip Bailey, who felt no obligation to uproot their positioning in the world. “I won’t be ramming it down people’s throats,” Muldaur told the Ottawa Journal. “It will be reflected in subtle ways.” The reality was, gospel music had always been a part of Muldaur’s repertoire as far back as 1974’s Waitress album, when she recorded the gospel standard, “Travellin’ Shoes.” Every subsequent album throughout the 70s was inclusive of gospel music and relayed a particular humanitarian ethic of love and concern for humanity. “I’ve been singing gospel for years and I’ve always sung songs with positive messages.”2 She did have ideas though. As early as April of 1980, she talked in interviews of wanting to record two gospel albums, one traditional and one contemporary.
In June, she recorded a gospel performance at Santa Monica’s McCabe’s Guitar Shop with The Chambers Brothers, who first emerged in 1967 with the psychedelic soul of “Time Has Come Today,” and The Burns Sisters on vocals. Her backup band included two-thirds of The Alpha Band (David Mansfield and Steven Soles) and a handful of the crème de la crème of musicians whose credentials reflected the same kind of musical diversity that Muldaur’s catalog chased. The result was a fusion of Black Pentecostal congregational songs, Appalachian mountain tunes and more recent compositions like Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Charles Johnson’s “Brothers and Sisters” (which Muldaur had recorded on her 1978 Southern Winds). T Bone Burnett (the third member of the Alpha Band) wrote the liner notes, which convey the lines that weren’t obvious to all listeners:
“This is a singer in touch with the source of rhythm and blues and country and western and rock and roll. Of Otis Redding and Hank William and Elvis Presley. Al Green and The Stanley Brothers. Sam Cooke and the Carter Family. Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones. Doc Watson and the Watson Family. Ray Charles and Curtis Mayfield. Mavis Staples. Reverend Gary Davis and Dorothy Love Coates. Not that she thinks she is any of those people. She looks in their direction and a break of fresh air blows in through a window painted open.”
The resulting album from the two nights of performances at McCabe’s would be released in October of 1980 by the small Takoma label as Gospel Nights. Despite continuing to perform the range of material she’d always performed and insisting in interviews that nothing had really changed in terms of her musical direction, the misconception that she had “switched” from pop to gospel spread. Somehow, recording a singular gospel album and talking about faith in interviews created the inverse of a moral panic amongst Muldaur aficionados. An Austin, Texas critic wrote that given these details, “a few local fans might have been forgiven a few moments of trepidation when it was announced that Muldaur would be making an appearance” in their city. He noted, with relief, “that trepidation lasted right up until the moment Muldaur sashayed on stage and began slashing her way through one of her trademark songs, ‘I’m A Woman.’ She wore a blossom behind her ear and a scarlet jumpsuit and she looked downright, uh, secular.”
She appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club in December of 1980, which added further confusion for fans and critics accustomed to operating in a binary. One headline about her appearance on the show (in the New York Dispatch) simply read “Maria Muldaur: Convert.” In the months that followed her first appearance on Christian television, her talking points in interviews expanded as rumors swirled of her “retirement” from the world. “I don’t want people to get the idea this is it. She’s joined a convent. She is just going to do gospel. My calling is still in this world,” she told the Statesman Journal. She talked to the Los Angeles Times about her listeners' misconceptions.
“They have funny notions about religion. They think I’m going to come out on stage and act like a saint. They think my music is going to be real sanctimonious and that I’m not going to be any fun. Well, I still like to have fun. Being religious doesn’t turn you into a drag. I haven’t turned into a saint or somebody who is condemning sin or trying to convert sinners. I don’t run around in a nun’s habit. Do I look like a nun?”
By May of 1981, she’d inked a deal with Word Records’ Myrrh imprint, home to Amy Grant, and began work on the contemporary gospel album she’d been envisioning since 1980. She enlisted T Bone Burnett (who wrote the liner notes for Gospel Nights) to produce. Burnett’s history as part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, the Alpha Band and his own solo work (particularly 1980’s Truth Decay) established him as a different kind of Christian presence than those presented through the Christian media machine. LA Weekly described him as “a rock and roll ironist whose Christianity is tempered with more wit than irony.” His supervision of Muldaur’s album helped establish the intellectual core of what the work would aim to convey. This would not be an album intended to sit alongside the other Christian hits of 1981, but it would possibly convey what a contemporary Christian in the world might want to say about their faith.
The result of their collaboration, There Is A Love, is a visioning of contemporary gospel that fused blues, jazz, soul, funk and pop in ways that fit in no radio format in the white CCM world nor in the more traditional realm of Black gospel. Koinonia, made up of Abraham Laboriel, Bill Maxwell, Harlan Rogers, Hadley Hockensmith and Alex Acuña, formed the rhythm section, while the McCrarys (Charity, Linda, Sam and Howard—not to be confused with the Nashville McCrarys), Marvin and Vickie Winans, Kristle Murden and Dani McCormick provided fiery background vocals. Blues artist Delbert McClinton made a guest appearance via a harmonica solo on “Infinite Mercy,” and one newspaper article written during the making of the album indicates that there was a duet with Bonnie Bramlett, another then-newly converted rock star, that didn’t make the cut.
The songs themselves sprang from a variety of sources, all but one, from the pens of Black writers.
The title track, written by the legendary Motown writer-performer Syreeta Wright and Curtis Robertson Jr., was originally recorded (and co-produced by Wright, who also provided background vocals) by jazz-funk fusion band Ambiance on their Tight and Tidy album in 1981. Muldaur keeps her version true to the original recording: esoteric and experimental, adding a flute solo by John Phillips. That this track is the title track is significant. The lyric conveys the non-fundamentalist, universalist message that it seems Muldaur was attempting to share in the years since her conversion. “There is a Love” encourages the seeking of internal peace without naming a singular path as the way.
Life carefully wraps me in its mystery
Silent and strong comes the voice that brings no harm
I’m not afraid
My path is laid
Deep as the night
There’s a love to bring the light
Clear as the sky
There’s a love that reaches high
“I Was Made To Love You,” Wright’s second contribution to the album, co-written with Stevie Wonder (not to be confused with their 1971 composition “I Was Made To Love Her”), marries the love of Jesus with the love of one’s neighbor, their brother. The hook is utterly contagious and, of any of the album’s tracks, it’s the one most easy to envision as a radio hit in both CCM and adult contemporary formats. Myrrh only issued it as a B-side to the Burnett composition “Keep My Eyes On You,” which, to this day, seems like a missed opportunity given the gravitas of Wonder, Wright and Muldaur’s name recognition and the strength of this production.
Having said that, “Keep My Eyes On You” is an incredibly strong tune—that, unfortunately, does not live on in Muldaur’s live act today. Burnett’s contribution could have easily been inspired by Dorothy Love Coates’ most famous couplets (although I can’t imagine her referencing the Tarot!) and the blues-driven guitar gives Muldaur the space to display the steely bottom notes she’d been cultivating in the years since Open Your Eyes. While the most popular Christian music in 1981 perpetuated a rose-colored perception of “life in Christ” (See Amy Grant’s “Look What Has Happened To Me” from 1980), Muldaur was more realistic: “I can take the heartaches, the hard breaks and live with all of my mistakes...if you help me through.”
Following her penchant for championing the more obscure writers, Muldaur covered “I Do,” written and recorded by New York’s independent gospel artist Connie Johnson on her own album of the same title in 1980. Johnson’s version, recorded with New York gospel players like Jeffrey White and Derrick Schofield, with New York Community Choir’s Lady Tibba Gamble (mother of Coko from SWV) on background vocals, displays the same kind of determination to fuse gospel and funk that had no support on gospel radio, but worked underground to change the face of mainstream gospel. Muldaur’s version establishes more distinct breaks between the verses and chorus than Johnson’s, and employs Vickie Winans’ unmistakable voice on background vocals in call and response, making the hook stronger, more memorable.
The album closes with what is, in this writer’s opinion, one of her greatest performances to date. Her cover of The Clark Sisters’ 1980 hit “Is My Living In Vain” shifts the center from the Clarks’ organ-driven original to a guitar-based arrangement that breaks the song down to its actual core: the blues. Muldaur slows the tune a bit and wraps her multi-octave range around every note. Not a writer herself, Muldaur’s strength is that of an interpreter, and “Is My Living in Vain” is one of her most shining moments. She transforms a song originally rendered by five people into a solo statement, not competing with the original, but offering a version that stands on its own as a viable alternate take. It is the first of a particular kind of blues in Muldaur’s catalog that has since become a staple. In 1986, she’d record Dr. John’s “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere” in similar fashion. She replaced it in her live show a few years later with Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” which she finally record on 2011’s Steady Love. These kinds of songs, in this writer’s opinion, represent the heart center of Muldaur’s work.
The release of There Is A Love would place Muldaur deeper in the evangelical world. She’d appear on Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club, perform at Heritage USA and be part of a Word Records artist’s taping there, More Than Music with her label mates Russ Taff, Leon Patillo and Amy Grant. A flyer promoting one of her appearances at Heritage also includes anti-feminist Christian author Marabel Morgan (author of The Total Woman). Muldaur continued to perform in clubs, which brought criticism from Christians, while her non-Christian fans continued to be confused. In a 1982 review of a performance in New Mexico, Pete Hamill quoted one fan as saying pre-performance, “I’m nervous...Ain’t seen her since ‘77 and I hear she went to Jesus. I hope she didn’t ruin the music.” Her shows calmed fans' nerves—she was including the hits and was introducing new jazz and blues tunes in her show, and remaining outspoken on political situations that countered the right-wing Christian party line. She’d begun performing Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,” and used the opportunity to offer commentary on the “little war in El Salvador.”
By the summer of 1983, Muldaur began to shift the conversation. There Is A Love received mixed reviews and the Christian world was never going to fully embrace her on her terms. “There’s been pressure on me to stop working secular clubs,” she told The Vancouver Sun in 1983. “Some people say now I’ve come to Christ, I shouldn’t. But look at what He did. I take my cue from Him.” She released a jazz album called Sweet and Slow that year and took the female lead in the touring production of the opera The Pirates of Penzance when Linda Ronstadt’s stint was finished.
By 1985, as Amy Grant was in the beginning stages of her crossover, Muldaur was distancing herself, not from faith, but from the Christian world. The Vancouver Sun wrote, “She is anxious to dissociate herself from what she calls ‘television preachers’ and New Right zealots, saying ‘They give religion and Christianity and God himself a bad name.” She told the St. Petersburg Times the same year, “I’m just doing my very best to have some kind of honest relationship with God and there’s no use telling everybody about it. They can check it out for themselves.” In a 2007 interview with Brave New Traveler, she said, “I call myself a transcendental Christian.” In that interview, she elaborated on the years following her conversion: “I saw that the construct of official Christendom was really rigid. I was able to absorb the spiritual power of the message without all the dogma.”
In the years since There Is A Love she has continued her own unique exploration of American music, recording albums inclusive of jazz, blues, gospel, jug band, country, bluegrass, cajun, and, what she calls, “bluesiana” music. She’s garnered four Grammy nominations in the last twenty years and a Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association in 2019.
Gospel Nights and There Is A Love are two of just a few albums from her catalog that remain unavailable digitally. Both are severely overlooked in the evaluations of her career. Revisionism writes them off as part of her “born again period,” but misses the importance of their connection to her larger body of work (1996’s Fanning the Flames feels like an unofficial sequel to There is a Love) and the innovative vision they offer theologically and culturally. Maria’s experience both within the world of evangelicalism and as an artist outside of the church, fusing faith into the totality of her art, point to the hard lines that fundamentalism has drawn that have caused ripple effects in the world at large. The hegemony of Christian tyranny, its rigidity, separatism and repression, is so set in stone that the simple claiming of “Christian” as an identifier sets off a series of alarms for those who aren’t aware of the multiplicity of streams within communities of faith that counter the stereotype that is sadly, largely, true. I’ll always admire her for being one of the artists who showed me the possibilities of believing and being in the world: the consistent assertion of the knowledge that her workplace was not to change, her integration of her past and present into a cohesive creative whole, and her ability to allow her faith and the way she represented it to morph provides a template for any of us navigating the similar paths.
For more information on Maria and her continued work, visit her website!
Ottawa Journal, August 22 1980, p. 23
Burlington Free Press, August 20, 1980 p. 29