Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Two Songs That Changed Lives  

By Rand Bishop  

September, 2002. Lexington, Kentucky. Rupp Arena — home court of the legendary Kentucky Wildcats. Eighteen thousand country-music enthusiasts have just granted divided attention to an opening set by a trio of up-and-comers called Rascal Flatts. Now, headliner/genre superstar Toby Keith is blasting through eight, consecutive, driving, up-tempo numbers, accompanied by gut-pounding drums, electric-guitar power chords, and a horn section. The crowd’s attention is no longer divided. Every eye and ear in the building is focused on the bigger-than-life figure in the cowboy hat at the center of the stage. 

A mere fifteen minutes into his program and Keith already has his audience whipped into a frenzy. He has yet to shout out a single word — not even the obligatory, “Lexington, how ya’all doin’?” But these songs need no introduction. His fans know them all by heart. Every selection has enjoyed its three or four months of heavy, 50,000-watt rotation, while bulleting to the top of the charts. Yes, country radio loves Toby Keith. But not half as much as these fans do.  

Above all else, what Keith’s followers admire is his unapologetically defiant swagger. He has achieved and sustained this level of stardom for one primary reason — not movie-star good looks, not exceptional musical virtuosity, or a vocal instrument blessed by the gods. Toby Keith is a huge star because he knows his audience, what they expect from him and, even more importantly, what they’ll accept from him. 

He also knows how to pace his show. He’s gotten eighteen thousand hearts pounding at maximum clip. So, he abruptly downshifts, offering his audience their first chance to catch a collective breath. The glare of the swirling stage lights dim and a soft glow envelopes the cavernous space. An immediately recognizable sitar-guitar theme plays over a descending fingerpicking, acoustic-guitar pattern. In the crowd, male arms snake affectionately around partners’ shoulders. Ladies smile tenderly at their men, snuggle into armpits, and plant kisses on stubbled cheeks. 

I’m standing in the midst of it all, in the very center of the tenth row. My wife and I are holding hands and she’s gazing at me adoringly. My other arm is wrapped around my teenage daughter’s shoulders. The involuntary grin on my face is broad and genuine, and extremely proud. Because the song the star of the show is about to render is mine. 

Only a minute earlier, these folks were stomping feet and pumping fists. Now, everyone is swaying en masse. Yes, Toby Keith knows exactly what his fans expect from him. He liked “My List” the first time he heard it. As the song’s co-publisher, he had every reason to like it. Still, he doubted it was the right song for him. But he couldn’t persuade any other artist to cut it, so he decided to give it a go. When the label brass heard his rendition, they recognized an opportunity to reveal a more sensitive side of Toby Keith, to potentially expand their cash cow’s fan base. The gamble paid off — for the label, for the artist, and for me. “My List” spent five weeks at number one, and ended 2002 as country radio’s most-played single. 

In spite of the song’s wordiness, these fans have committed every single syllable to memory. I’m reminded of an interview with Hall of Fame songwriter Richard Leigh, recounting backpacking through Europe and coming across a concert in progress — an entire stadium singing along with his Crystal Gayle megahit, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” I had always imagined what it would feel like to hear thousands chanting one of my compositions. Now I know. And, wow! Standing here with my wife and daughter in the midst of all these people joyfully singing “My List” has to be among the greatest gifts any tunesmith could possibly ever hope to receive.    

I began my professional music-biz career in 1969, signing with Elektra Records as bassist/harmony singer in a rock band called Roxy. For the next thirty-some years, I busied myself as a journeyman jack-of-all-trades: recording artist, musician, studio singer, record producer, A&R rep, and music publisher — but always primarily a songwriter. By the turn of the millennium, my credits exceeded two hundred and fifty cuts, more than a few by iconic artists, even Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. My studio walls displayed platinum albums, alongside a Grammy nomination and a BMI award. A handful of my tunes had risen to the top in Canada, Japan, and several European markets. I’d shared the peak position on the Billboard 200 with other writers and publishers on album collections. But still, as I entered my fifties, I had yet to see one of my songs atop an American singles chart.  

Then, miraculously, in April, 2002, it happened. Timing, they say, is everything. Although Tim James and I had co-written “My List” two and a half years earlier, our lyrical theme — prioritizing family and everyday living over career and busyness — struck a resounding major chord with the post-9/11 country-music audience. Then, the thank-you emails, cards, and letters began showing up. It appeared that — for folks facing serious health challenges, weathering family crises, rebounding from heartbreaks, or even enduring incarceration — our song’s message had provided comfort and strength. 

But that was seventeen years ago. The euphoria I felt upon receiving the glorious news that my song had hit number one has passed. The ego boost of depositing six-figure BMI checks is a lovely but faint memory. Those royalty bucks, in fact, are long spent. However, the fulfillment of having written a song that positively affected so many people’s lives remains undimmed. 

All too often, it takes a crisis for us self-centered humans to gain fresh perspective and re-evaluate our priorities. So it was for so many Americans after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Purely by accident, the simple, personal, life-affirming lesson of “My List” hit the airwaves just when it was needed most. 

With the arrival of 2017, it once again felt like this nation was in crisis. This time, however, it was a crisis of our own making. The election of a new president had awakened and galvanized an impassioned resistance movement. This already fractured union was plummeting into a deeper trench of division. As inauguration day approached, it was all too easy to believe that Lady Liberty had turned mean. We’d already been bogged down for two decades in hyper-partisan gridlock, with rival tribes lobbing verbal grenades, blaming the other side for the ongoing stalemate. Meanwhile, a myriad of serious shared problems were left to fester and worsen.  

Since my teens, I’d tried to do whatever I could on behalf of peace, justice, and equality. I couldn’t sit idly by while this country, my country, turned into something I no longer recognized. But how, I pondered, could this one individual, now long-in-the-tooth musician/writer make a difference? 

It seems crazy in retrospect. But being supposedly of sound mind, at the age of sixty-seven, with a history of chronic knee and foot problems, minimal camping experience, and nary a clue about long-distance hiking, I willingly made the choice to embark upon a nine-hundred-mile pilgrimage, walking from Southern California to the Central Oregon Coast. 

I knew the trek would be a test of stamina and will, that I would have to drill down deep to find heretofore untapped strength and resolve. Too, I expected to suffer some very real physical pain. Those expectations were realized. 

I also dared to envision myself as a sort of restorative force, encouraging folks to shed their biases, urging them to unearth those too-long-buried square inches of common ground. And while, in some small part, my pilgrimage may have had a healing, perhaps even inspiring effect on some of the thousand souls I encountered along the way — whether for the moment, or for the longer run — at the end of the trail, the life most positively affected was that of the pilgrim himself. 

I was on the seventy-fifth day of my ninety-day pilgrimage, trekking through hardscrabble North Bend, Oregon, when I met John Carpenter, sunning himself in his wheelchair on the sidewalk outside a smoke shop on Highway 101. 

“You got a dollar and twenty cents?” he asked. I rarely give handouts to street people. However, I found the specificity of this request unusual and therefore intriguing. 

“I think I might,” I responded, fishing into the pocket of my cargo shorts for a buck and two dimes. 

The man in the wheelchair was compact and wiry — probably, I figured, in his late fifties. Sporting a white, neatly trimmed beard, he wore a U.S. Navy Veteran ball cap, a down vest, and jeans. It didn’t escape my attention that his bare chest and flat belly were perfectly bronzed by the sun. 

For the next twenty minutes, I put my journey on pause, while John, speaking in a Big Lebowski, Dude-ish vocal cadence, launched into describing a litany of injuries he’d suffered. He showed me scars on his badly dislocated shoulder, from taking a header on his mountain bike. He laughed about wobbling that same two-wheeler home over the treacherous McCullough Bridge, blotto, after a night of hard partying. He recounted mishaps on day jobs and accidents during trips up and down the coast. He told me about getting arrested in Pueblo, Colorado — they accused him of stealing his own car — how he spent four months in jail before a judge finally dismissed the charges. Catholic Charities provided him with clothes, a haircut, and transportation back to North Bend — his stomping ground for forty years, except for when he was in the Navy, or locked up in Pueblo. 

It was approaching late afternoon. I told him I’d probably see him tomorrow and trekked onward toward my motel. 

“Hope so,” he called out, with a smile. 

The following day, John Carpenter was once again outside the smoke shop on Highway 101, bronzing his chest and belly in his wheelchair. As I approached, a wry smile wove a wrinkled spider web around his eyes. Spying the gig bag slung over my shoulder, he rasped, “You gonna play me somethin’?” 

“I can do that,” I responded. What selection to share with this man was the question. 

I was unpacking my acoustic when my heart told me the song John needed to hear. I just hoped he’d be able to hear it above the din of highway traffic. 

Sitting on the curb, I played the placid intro to one of my most intimate compositions. John leaned down from his chair, bringing his head within inches of mine. His eyes were gripped closed as if he was focusing every bit of his sensory energy an all-too-rare act: listening. Yesterday, for those twenty minutes, at this same spot, I’d given him my complete attention. Now, he was returning my gift. I began to sing… 

Beat down, weary, beast of a day 

Everything aches, I’m a balled-up tangle of pain 

Sunset fadin’ over the hill 

Turn on the porchlight, I’m runnin’ on nothin’ but will 

Gonna need some healin’ time 

So keep on throwin’ me that line 

I know it’s gonna be all right 

Long as you give me some healin’ time 

Load gets heavy every once in a while 

But I know you’re waitin’ for me with a hug and a smile 

All God’s children got crosses to bear 

You can hope all you want but don’t expect life’s gonna be fair 

That’s why I need some healin’ time 

So keep on throwin’ me that line 

I know it’s gonna be all right 

Long as you give me some healin’ time 

As I plucked the arrangement’s spare, restrained instrumental break, John took hold of the ivory cross hanging over his tanned chest, pulled it to his lips, kissed it and, with his eyes still clenched shut, murmured, “I love My Lord.” 

I was belting out the song’s final chorus, straining to hit that iffy high “A,” when the dam broke and tears began streaming down John’s white-whiskered cheeks.  

I’ve been a professional in the music business for nearly fifty years. In all of my thousands of performances, over those five decades, I’ve never had a more attentive, rapt, emotionally invested audience than John Carpenter. 

Yes, I’d seen one of my compositions rise to number one. I’d fetched impressive royalty checks from my mailbox along with thank-you notes from folks whose pains had been soothed by a song I co-wrote. I’d stood between my wife and youngest child, while an entire arena sang the words to that song. But no experience thus far has been more fulfilling than sharing “Healin’ Time” with a homeless man on the edge of a highway.  

As I played the arrangement’s final instrumental cadence, the man in the wheelchair once again felt moved… 

“I love My Lord,” he murmured.  

Rand Bishop is a Grammy-nominated, BMI Award-winning, Million-Play songwriter, with more than 300 credits by such music icons as Heart, Indigo Girls, Tim McGraw, and the Beach Boys. Bishop plans to publish his fifth book, a memoir, TREK: My Peace Pilgrimage in Search of a Kinder America in 2019. He is also developing a one-man musical, multi-media performance piece entitled TREK on Stage. Both the memoir and the stage show are inspired by the 90-day, 900-mile pilgrimage Bishop took in 2017. Facebook: @randbishoppage 

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