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Bonnie Casey talks about the resurrection of her folk music

Adventist fans across the country have missed Take Three and Bonnie Casey & Daystar. Now the music is back. Bonnie Casey tells Spectrum the story.

As a student at Pacific Union College, Bonnie Casey was lead vocalist in a folk music group that performed in the style of Peter, Paul and Mary. Calling themselves Take Three, the group toured frequently, giving concerts at most of the Adventist colleges and numerous Adventist academies in North America. After a couple of years as a folk trio, Take Three turned exclusively to gospel music, recording two albums of original songs. After college, Casey continued giving concerts and recorded another album of original and traditional gospel music. In the early 1980s, she recorded a fourth and final album of gospel music with a group called Bonnie Casey & Daystar. Casey and Lauren Smith performed together on all four albums, lending a consistent sound throughout.

Many Adventists across North America, and even in Australia and parts of Europe, grew up listening to Bonnie Casey’s music. They hoarded old records, cassettes, and 8-tracks, because for many years her four albums were not commercially available.

After being out of wide circulation for almost two decades, these albums have now been digitally remastered and are available in CD and mp3 formats through Dryad Music, LLC (http://bonniecasey-takethree.com), an online music publishing company recently formed by Casey and Evert McDowell.

Question: Why did you decide to make these albums available again?

Answer: A few years into the new millennium I began receiving a trickle of emails from old fans wanting to know if my music was still available. Most were people I didn’t know personally who had tracked down my email address in ways that were mostly a mystery to me. Some confessed to having phoned Pacific Press in Nampa, Idaho for information on my whereabouts. I wasn’t hiding out or in Witness Protection, but I only shared my email address with friends in those days, and neither I nor my bands had websites. I was impressed and humbled by the persistence of these people who cared so much about 20- or 30-year old albums.

The trickle of emails swelled to a steady stream after I published a memoir and started blogging, because then I was “Googlable.” At first I responded to each query with personalized messages of thanks and regrets, for our music had been out of print since the early ‘90s. But as the number of these entreaties increased, and I started sending boilerplate replies to “Dear [fill in the blank],” I realized two things: a) I was getting really tired of repeating myself, and b) there was clearly still a demand for those four old records. Why, I wondered, couldn’t some commercial outfit in a position to do so start reissuing our albums in updated formats? How hard could it be?

Well, a little investigation revealed that most of the copyrights to individual songs and all of the publishing rights to the albums were held by individuals and entities located in two western states and remote regions of Eastern Europe, making such an enterprise hugely complex. Lauren Smith and I didn’t even own the songs we’d written for the Take Three albums, having signed them over to Pacific Press when we were barely 20 and still in college. I explained this dilemma to several sympathetic parties, but none of them wanted to take on the legal, financial, and practical challenges involved in getting all those far-flung ducks in a row.

But ironically, something about turning 60 empowered me, and instead of plotting retirement and saving for a facelift, I began thinking, “Why don’t I just start a business and publish the music myself?” So disregarding my complete lack of experience in Internet commerce or music publishing, I set out to get back the rights to my own music plus the publishing rights to all of the albums. I had no idea what I was in for. Sparing you the details, I’ll just report happily that, in less than three months, with considerable assistance from a savvy business partner and a big-hearted legal advisor, I had acquired all the rights necessary to reissue the four record albums as CDs and mp3 downloads. Our new website, Dryad Music, LLC now offers individual CDs and complete sets, as well as downloads of whole albums or single songs.

Question: What has been the response since you launched your commercial website in August?

Answer: We made the initial announcement of Dryad’s launch on social media, where it can take time to build momentum. As new entrepreneurs, my business partner and I also faced a significant learning curve. Nevertheless, the response from fans has been deeply gratifying, a common theme being, “I’ve been searching for your music for so long! I’m so glad it’s back!”

Our biggest disappointment has been the lack of interest from Adventist bookstores. What we’ve heard from them is that their music CDs are not moving like they used to, so they’re not interested in adding to overstocked inventories.

Question: Why do you think your music has remained so popular over the years?

Answer: This is a question better answered by fans than by me. However, I think that following the pioneering work of The Wedgwood Trio in the 1960s, Adventist young people were hungry for gospel music that expressed their faith in a style that reflected their world and their generation. That’s what Take Three stepped in to provide—gospel songs in the popular folk style of the day, with singable tunes and lively rhythms. I’ve also gathered from fans that they responded favorably to our authenticity.

As Take Three, we decided early on to record only songs we had written ourselves, giving Adventist youth an acceptable alternative to their parents’ Sabbath music. Bonnie Casey & Daystar also recorded original music, as well as some traditional gospel songs arranged and updated in our own style.

Finally, I think our fans appreciated our dedication to musicianship. I had the privilege of performing with some of the finest guitarists to come out of Adventist colleges—and I’ve been told the vocals weren’t half bad either. Since the republication, I’ve heard from many fans who tell me that even after all these years, the music still moves them.

Question: Do you think your music is relevant to new fans, or is it more nostalgic?

Answer: When I set out to republish our albums, I expected it would be purely an exercise in nostalgia, because that was the overriding theme of the messages from people who tracked me down on the Internet. They seemed anxious to hear once again the background music of their high school and college days. One younger fan even confessed that her father would rock her to sleep to the strains of Take Three when she was colicky.

I don’t expect our albums to be a big hit with pop music fans or with young Christians raised on a diet of praise music. But an unexpected bonus of living in the Washington, DC area has been discovering that it is the epicenter of bluegrass music, especially in terms of broadcasting. WAMU’s “Bluegrass Country” is broadcast on FM, HD, and streamed online. One of our albums recently got some airtime on WAMU. I was almost asleep one evening when I heard the opening lines of “Celestial Railroad,” a song I’d written in honor of my train-loving father almost 30 years earlier. I hadn’t heard myself singing on the radio for decades, and I was so excited for Dryad and all the guys in the bands that I cranked up the volume to the max and danced on the bed! WAMU reaches millions of listeners worldwide. So although our type of gospel music may have a niche market, that market is substantial, and we hope eventually to reach a good portion of it.

Question: What songs were your biggest hits? If someone were to listen to just one of your songs, which one would you recommend?

Answer: That’s almost impossible to answer. For one thing, songwriters can pick their favorite composition about as easily as parents can pick their favorite child. A song that springs from a well of personal joy or pain can feel very much like one’s child.

Second, the fact that we sold only albums, not singles, makes it impossible to know if any particular song or songs were driving sales. Furthermore, musical hits are commonly judged by the amount of radio airplay they receive, but even at the height of our popularity in the 1970s and ‘80s, the only airplay our albums got was on a few SDA college stations. Finally, I would never recommend that someone listen to “just one” of our songs. Where’s the fun in that?

However, I will try to draw some conclusions based on experience. Our first effort, “Jesus, This Is for You,” is probably still our most popular album. That recording, which features two twelve-string guitars throughout, set the tone and style of everything that came after, and seems still to generate the most nostalgia with fans. The first song on the album is “Born Again,” which opens with a distinctive guitar riff. We almost always opened our concerts with that song, and as soon as the audience heard the first notes of that introduction, they would respond with applause or an audible “Aaahh!” We got the same reaction from Lauren’s song “The Road,” which has always been an evocative favorite.

Many of our songs, such as “Where I’m Bound,” “Steal Away,” II Corinthians 4,” and “Where Does God Live,” evoke an almost melancholy longing for spiritual communion and the notion of a spiritual home. As songwriters, Lauren and I worked diligently to make the music evoke the same sentiment as the lyrics of a given song, in order to heighten its emotional impact. Since faith is mostly a matter of the heart, I think this approach worked to endear our music to listeners.

But I have to say honestly that, given the cultural conservatism that dictated so many aspects of young Adventists’ lives in those days, our generally youthful audiences saved their strongest response for the songs whose upbeat rhythms stirred the body as well as the spirit—songs like “Rockabye My Soul,” “Say Good-Bye,” and E.J. Irish’s “Campmeeting Time” and “Dry ‘n’ Dusty.” Once in a while some dear old fundamentalist would rush to the foot of the stage after a concert to wag his finger in our faces and denounce us for playing “the Devil’s music,” or to scold me for swaying my hips or tapping my foot as I sang. I noticed, though, that none of these scandalized saints ever left during the intermission to avoid temptation.

Along those lines, one of the most rewarding aspects of launching our website has been the chance to offer Daystar’s recording of Sydney Carter’s anthem, “Lord of the Dance,” a lost cut that has never previously been published. Our rendition was recorded for our final album, but was pulled by Pacific Press at the last moment. We had received test pressings of the album for our approval, and the covers were in production at the press when some printers working on the line noticed the word “dance” and complained to their supervisors. I have no idea if these people had even listened to the cut, but their objections were enough to have the song deemed too controversial. It was pulled from the album, even though that meant Chapel had to pay to fly us all back to the studio to record a replacement. We were angry and heartbroken for a long time, but fortunately, I’d kept my test pressing all these years, and one of my first executive decisions was to put “Lord of the Dance” up on our website as a bonus single. From the start it’s been our most downloaded song.

As part of our promotional efforts, Dryad posted Lauren’s “Songs of the Morning” on YouTube, where it has been well received. Also on YouTube, a talented fan has posted a cover of one of my songs, “Where Does God Live,” with an edgy, modern vibe that I really like. Of course, I think each of our recordings is full of outstanding music.

Question: The image on the cover of your first album, “Jesus, This Is for You,” is practically iconic. It’s probably what comes to most people’s minds when they think of your music. How did that cover come about?

Answer: I find the staying power of that image amusing and somewhat ironic, since we never wore matching outfits if we could help it. That photo was taken during the summer of 1972, when Take Three was the musical core of a group of twelve students from PUC who had been recruited to spend the summer doing Christian outreach across California. I’m fairly certain that that summer was the only time any of the guys in Take Three wore seersucker jackets. I know I never again wore pink gingham, but there you have it. We’d just finished recording our first album in a small Adventist church sanctuary, connected by cables to a mobile studio parked outside in the parking lot.

Chapel’s photographer showed up one Sabbath afternoon after a potluck at a church member’s home that backed onto a golden hillside. Ed sucked on a piece of straw, Steve and Lauren struck manly poses, I scratched my ear, and an image was born.

Question: Did you hope for a long-term career as a singer? Do you still do any singing? If not, why not?

Answer: My lack of ambition to pursue a career as a professional singer was a source of real heartbreak for my father, who harbored an ardent wish to see me in sequins and poofy hair as a member of “The Lawrence Welk Show” ensemble. I understood that this would have represented the height of musical success for a man of his generation, but it just wasn’t going to happen.

The truth is that by the time the various members of my band(s) had graduated from college and were starting marriages and careers, the world of gospel music was changing dramatically, becoming much more slick and commercialized. We had sung at some large gospel music festivals that featured professional singers about our age, pros with entourages handling wardrobe, makeup, and stage production. We were just college kids singing from the heart in whatever clothes were clean and ironed. It was clear that going to the next level would mean taking something we did out of love and joy and turning it—and ourselves—into a “product” under the management of producers and image handlers. None of us wanted that kind of future.

When I moved to Maryland in 1981, I sang now and then with my dear friend Dennis Hunt and his musical friends, who staged legendary Christmas concerts at Sligo Church (really—people still talk about those concerts). But by the 1990s I could tell that something odd was happening to my voice. I figured I was just out of practice, but gradually it became a struggle to produce a clear sound or stay on pitch. The tone and vocal control that used to come so easily to me gradually disappeared. These days, I can’t even count on a clear speaking voice from one day to the next. I’ve learned that years of chronic neurological problems have altered my vocal chords, making any personal decision to keep on singing moot.

Sometimes I feel an aching nostalgia for singing, like when I listen to Emmy Lou Harris or Mary Black, but those times are rare. Rather than dwell on the past, I focus on my profound gratitude for the gift I was given, the wonderful experiences and memories singing gave me, and the tremendous privilege of having touched people’s hearts through music. These days I channel much of my creative energies into writing, which I think of as singing in another voice.

Question: Your 2009 memoir, Growing in Circles, is a very personal account of your struggles with organized religion and Adventism in particular, a disappointing marriage, a son with a variety of challenges, chronic pain and depression, and the legacy of a dysfunctional childhood. Many of these things were going on during at least part of your singing career. How were you able to continue singing about faith when you were dealing with such painful issues behind the scenes? How were you able to encourage others when perhaps you felt spiritually empty?

Answer: Most artists would tell you that their best work arises out of pain. People who aren’t sinking feel no need to reach for a lifeline. I can recall the circumstances that inspired every song I wrote, and whether I was feeling buoyant and hopeful or burdened with unbearable sorrow, the poetry and music that expressed those deep emotions were both their purest expression and a form of self-healing.

I can remember a few occasions when I was so severely depressed I didn’t know how I could pull myself together to perform. But most of the time the concerts, the travel, the appreciative audiences, and just hanging out with some of the most talented, engaging, and entertaining young men I’d ever known was the best medicine for my own wounds. There were long stretches when I struggled to maintain faith in myself as a worthy human being and in the basic goodness of life, but I never lost faith in a Divine presence that sustains the universe and whose impulse is unfailingly benevolent. And I never forgot that the real purpose of my music was to share that hope with other hurting souls.

Question: You write a monthly blog in which you portray yourself as something of a recluse. How do you reconcile this person with the person who for years performed on stage before large crowds?

Answer:If you only knew how many performers describe themselves as shy! Extroverts are the life of the party because they love one-on-one interaction. Introverts go on stage because two people are vastly more scary than two thousand.

I suppose portraying myself as a “recluse” is a bit of exaggeration for effect. The truth is, I work full-time at a large institution and have a fulfilling social life. I love chatting with neighbors when I’m out working in my yard. I haven’t taped tinfoil over my windows, adopted 18 stray cats, or mortified my son and alarmed my friends with any of the odd behaviors associated with retreating from the world. I’ve merely discovered that at this time in my life I thrive on more solitude than others might enjoy.

So I write my blog from the perspective of who I am now: a single woman rapidly gaining on those coveted senior discounts. A woman whose life consists mostly of going to work and coming home exhausted, taking care of a house, a yard, and a body in various states of decline, and suffering occasional bouts of loneliness. But also, a woman who has a nurturing spiritual life, a vigorous intellectual curiosity, a circle of devoted, stimulating friends, and a commitment to live mindfully and gratefully, finding beauty and grace in life’s small moments, aging wisely with as many laughs as possible.

Question: You are no longer a member of the Adventist Church. Can you summarize the reasons why you left?

Answer: If my reasons for leaving could be easily summarized, I wouldn’t have had to write a book about it. But for the purpose of this interview, I will say that I did not leave in a huff. My intellectual and spiritual break with Adventist theology and culture evolved over a very long time, and had nothing to do with what is commonly called “losing one’s faith.” In fact, it was quite the opposite. While I could no longer embrace Adventist doctrine and theology, my desire for a deeper, more immediate experience of God had grown more intense throughout my adult life. Some might say I was looking for a “mystical” experience.

I just knew that I wanted to stop talking about God and start experiencing God wherever God was to be found—in solitude, in meditation, in other people, in beauty, nature, and acts of kindness, and especially in the ordinary, everyday graces that are so easy to miss. For me, organized religion offered no route to that experience. A picture of the kind of spirituality that would nurture me and lead me forward became more and more clear and compelling, until finally I had to do something about making my outer life be a more authentic expression of my inner being. I wanted to live what I truly believed, and for me that meant resigning church membership.

My memoir tells of how a friend and I founded a Sacred Circle for women. This group has become my spiritual home and community. We have met monthly for the last twelve years to discuss how grace infuses our everyday lives, and to support each member’s unique, creative expression of her inward journey.

This is what I needed to grow spiritually, but I appreciate the many ways religion and church membership can enrich people’s lives. Participation in the Adventist Church has been a profound blessing and stabilizing influence in my son’s life, for which I am deeply grateful (even though he remains singularly unimpressed with his mom’s celebrity in certain Adventist circles).

I have few regrets about my Adventist upbringing, and have never for a moment disavowed the simple faith and longing for an experience of the Divine expressed in the recordings of Take Three and Bonnie Casey & Daystar. Faith and hope are universal desires that each of us must uniquely embody. I continue to explore the riches of the spiritual path that calls to me, while honoring each person’s commitment to their own journey.

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