Rocketown recording artists Alathea have been unfairly type cast 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 type cast 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 playing acoustic or electric guitar or sliding over to her Fender banjo (yes Fender does make banjos) or Carrie 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 don’t see anything on the liner notes or hear anything in the music to suggest that preprogrammed music was utilized. 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’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 one category.
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 and Cristi 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. Mandee explains, “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 and Cristi 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. Mandee says, “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.”
Mandee explains 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.”
Christi describes 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 adds, “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 and Mandee at Milligan College while Cristi 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 Mandee 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 jokingly suggests 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 Cristi, Mandee and Carrie. Mandee 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 musician / singers with a lasting word of advice. Mandee says, “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 some how 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 Mandee and Cristi 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 and Christi’s own words terrifying. Christi describes one of those times, “For one of our first concerts we went to play for this youth group in Indiana.” She sets the scene and you can still hear the astonishment in her voice, “We were just literally hillbilly girls from Tennessee and there were girls with dog collars, fishnet tights, leather and studs. It was a bit intimidating.” Mandee interrupts laughing, “And we are there to bring a folk message.” Christie: “(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 recalls 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 laughs again and chimes in, “They all looked like they were from (the movie) Dead Poets Society.” “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,” Cristi says 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’s faith really started to grow and her music was birthed one Christmas when she received a guitar. She remembers, 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’s fondest memories are still repeated today. She recalls 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.”
You can hear her voice warm up as she describes, “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 (my 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 about life. ”
This year Cristi 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 who wants to test the fudge! To emphasize her point Mandee pipes up mischievously, “I’m all for you starting early!” Mandee attributes in part the great harmonies that Alathea enjoy to Cristi’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 says, “They (Rocketown Records) goal is to shop it (the new CD) to mainstream labels.” Mandee adds, “They are hoping to release the new project in the Americana Folk world and also release it in the Christian market.”
Cristi observes, “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 section — that is just good enough that people want to listen to it and our faith is going to be there.”
Copyright © 2005 Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved. This material may not be redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague. Joe Montague is an internationally published freelance journalist / photographer.