Review: Mark Bishop, Fields of Love

Fields of Love
Mark Bishop
Crossroads 2008
ALI: 40% (with caveats)

Down on the family farm, the saintly matriarch dies in childbirth. The tiny fractured family that remains – the good pious son trying to keep his mother’s memory alive, the grieving father aggrieved at God for taking his wife too soon – struggles to cope with their loss and the suffering that ensues until finally they are delivered from crisis in an anthemic burst of triumphant song. And it all unfolds against a pastoral backdrop presided over by God the impressionist painter of downhome sunsets and fields of plenty and shooting – or is it falling? – stars. Welcome to Fields of Love, Mark Bishop’s new … what? Album? Project? Drama? Pageant? (Remember: you can still download the  entire thing for a discounted price.)

Bishop has described this somewhat unconventional album this way:

Instead of a song that tells a story, [imagine] an entire album that tells a deeper more epic story where each song is a chapter in a larger saga.

On this evidence, it’s tempting to call Fields of Love a Christian musical. After listening to it, I’d say maybe more like Christian Disney. Like most Disney productions, Bishop’s album mixes music, lyrics, and spoken dialogue to a tell story whose main emotional meaning and spiritual significance are conveyed through dramatic song.

The central conflict of the story involves the crisis of belief that the father plunges into after the death of his wife (whose part, spoken from beyond the grave, is played by Debra Talley). The stoic, emotionally unavailable father seems to have experienced faith vicariously through his religious wife. When she dies, he turns spiritually sour and projects his bitterness onto their young son. Here is the son, in the first verse of “What’s So Bad About Believing,” explaining things:

Dad told me once that Mom believed
That every shooting star we see
Is an angel with an answer to a prayer
But somewhere along the way he found
Faith is best kept on the ground
And not to place your trust somewhere up there

Even though the father demands to know with bitter sarcasm “what’s so great about believing,” the son is less cynical:

But tell me what’s so bad about believing
Tell me what about believing is so wrong
Kind of like the thought that someone’s watching … over
Kind of like the notion we are not alone

The father and son trade choruses to dramatize their different perspectives and explain the deeper clash between them, a clash keyed to the way the change from “bad” and “great” changes the hook’s meaning, which boils down to something like “Tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

This is the album’s High Disney moment, using alternating solos between stock characters in conflict to develop the cast and plot, and soft-pedaling theology in an easy-to-swallow eco-pantheism built around falling stars, guardian angels, and somebody watching over us here on the good, green earth. Imagine Tanya Mousekiwitz singing “Somewhere Out there” in An American Tail and you’ll have the right idea.

True, An American Tail wasn’t technically a Disney Production – it came from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (the same shop from which ET emerged) – and neither is Fields of Love, obviously. But structurally, conceptually, and expressively, they’re both descendants of the Disneyification of the American imagination and entertainment. Often hokey and lame? For sure. But sometimes pretty good stuff nevertheless? Also, yes.

For those who already doubt Bishop’s theological purity, the Disneyfied moments nearer the beginning of Fields of Love will only solidify those concerns. But in adapting narrative structures and lyrical strategies from American musicals, Fields of Love only makes explicit the longstanding but mostly implied similarity between much of gospel music and the musical theater tradition: namely, the way both characters in a musical and gospel performers engage in related forms of role playing, impersonation, and the use of songs to metaphorically explore deeper questions of identity and personality on stage.

Theological purists, never fear, though. In the third quarter, the album embraces a much more doctrinally orthodox worldview. The father acknowledges his sinful doubts and has a conventional evangelical conversion experience. It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that the return to theologically familiar ground near the late middle of the album is also where it gains strength musically. Mark Bishop is a self-professed storyteller in song, but he’s clearly experimenting formally and conceptually during the first half of the album. Here, he doesn’t always seem to be in complete control of his ideas or material, and the result is a certain stylistic and musical unevenness. The pace feels herky-jerky, and there’s too much time given over to narrative spade work early on.

The album could have used a more obviously developed leitmotif (think Andrew Lloyd Weber) and an expressively bigger song nearer the beginning to get the album’s pulse off the flat line quicker and thereby musically foreshadow the ending. As it is, there’s only “Fields of Love” at the beginning and “Love and Faith” at the end bookending the album. It’s not that the style is incoherent; in fact, it has a fairly coherent stylistic feel – whatever the musical equivalent of southern Christian pastoralism is. But there’s no identifiable theme that repeats itself, holds the whole production together, and leaves me humming it after the last big salvation chorus has ended (”Tell Me What You See”).

I’m being no spoiler by telling you how it ends. Like all formula driven drama, you know where this one is going almost from the beginning (it’s Fields of Love, remember; not Fields of Go To Hell). Gospel music purists and strict Christian literalists like to insist that the destination is all that matters, but in Fields of Love the means is treated at least as seriously as the ends, and the reckoning between the self and the soul is writ large enough in the album’s center to rival the salvific conclusion.

This is true of most good gospel songs, but the larger canvas Bishop is working with him gives him a chance to develop the problematic middle – where, it’s worth noting, most of us live most of the time – more fully and with more interest and care than is possible in a single song. Bishop takes the doubting dad seriously (sometimes too seriously: the spoken word portions of the story between the father and son are excruciatingly stilted and hopelessly amateurish and no one has a sense of humor) and that allows him to portray doubt and skepticism as more than oversimple sin or just the work of the evil one corrupting the heart with selfish, willful recalcitrance.

“Every Memory” flatly declares that “every memory ain’t necessarily precious.” Amen to that, mister. It’s a refreshingly honest sentiment from a southern gospel song, even if it’s clunkyly delivered. And despite his humorlessness, Bishop’s farmer is on a balance a likeable guy, mostly because he’s not afraid to speak plainly (“no angels ever worked the back forty”) and because he tests beliefs the way most of us do if we’re honest – by judging, as William James put it, whether they “bake any bread” (or, as our man says: “God never paid a banker’s note that I can see”).

It’s this deeply human middle of the album where the best songs are: One is “He Never Sleeps,” part prayer, part lament, part confession of despairing need met only when we let ourselves be vulnerable enough to admit neediness. It’s gripping, gorgeous stuff. Perhaps my favorite. The over-exposed quality to Bishop’s voice, which often grates on my ears and cries out to be softened with harmony, infuses this particular tune with the felt pressure of lived experience.

Another: “The Prayer,” which serves as the dramatic center of the story. I like it for the quiet song near the beginning. But the number will probably be remembered as the album’s three-hanky special for anyone who emotionally invests in the characters and the story, thanks to the the moment near the end when the father bottoms out, turns to God, and prays the sinner’s prayer. For the record, I didn’t invest, mainly because I couldn’t get beyond the hokeyness of the spoken-word prayer. Bishop as the father saying his sinner’s prayer here is more convincing than the scripted bits between father and son, but I felt like a voyeur reading somebody’s diary and that in turn felt vaguely manipulative.

You need not agree with me. The more important point here is that good songs often get hobbled by bumpy transitions between key moments, and the relationships between one song and the next are too often mangled.

The album could have used fewer songs that labored over advancing the plot or setting up the context for the next tune, and more numbers like “Take Another Step,” another song from the album’s meaningful late-middle that uses the image of walking down the aisle – for religious conversion, for marriage, and for a final glimpse of a dead loved one’s face – to explore the sustaining centrality of community traditions in rural evangelical life. The imagery is crystal clear here, and yet the song works by maintaining a certain ambiguity about the larger meaning of things. As portrayed in the song, to “walk down the aisle” matters – it means – on multiple levels for different people, for different reasons.

Publicly, participation in religious rituals binds a community together as individuals share common life experiences. In this sense, it matters to walk down the aisle not just because it signifies you’re like everybody else, but also because it gives everyone a shared vocabulary of feeling and living to use in ordinary life. Personally, though, these rites of passage mean very different things to the people involved. For instance, whatever significance is attached to orthodox religious conversion by his son, his neighbors, and the church, the father in Fields of Love seems motivated to walk down the aisle at the end of the show story for somewhat less unorthodox reasons: mainly out of a grieving hope that religious conversion will reunite him with his dead wife in the afterlife.

In turn, the father’s repentance connects them to the wider network of Christian fellowship in their religious community. Most important, the father finds sufficient resources of strength to ward off despair and repair the breach between him and his son. Debra Talley’s disembodied mother-voice presides over all this a little too mystically for my taste, but that doesn’t diminish the larger theme: Her survivors need the objective reality of organized religion to make sense of life after her death, but religious belief matters for them only through the lens of their own experience.

It’s rare that a southern gospel lyric holds all these experiential complexities and interpretive nuances in tension without collapsing. Rarer still when they are joined to a melody in which the rhythms of a certain way of religious life are almost perfectly matched, tone for tone, with the feelings those rhythms elicit: grief and grace, love and happiness, age and loss, death and dying. A song like “Take another Step” is a fine thing for any gospel album to achieve, and a powerful reminder of experimentalism’s pay off, even if Fields of Love has trouble sustaining its own best yield most of the rest of the time.

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Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Expanded Thoughts: Mark Bishop - “Fields Of Love” « Burke’s Brainwork on 28 May 2008 at 11:03 am

    […] 28, 2008 by burkesbrainwork I posted a comment on AVFL’s review of the new project from Mark Bishop with my overall thoughts on the album.  This really is a great […]

  2. SouthernGospelBlog.com » Marketing Groups (and CD Reviews) on 09 Jun 2008 at 7:01 am

    […] bass guitarist Steve Perkins, who contributed to Mark Bishop’s Fields of Love project, proposes the question: Either way, what can we (artists and record companies) do to better serve this SG internet […]

  3. Musicscribe Blog » CD Review: Mark Bishop (The Fields Of Love) on 24 Jun 2008 at 12:58 am

    […] avoid re-plowing some of the same ground by refering you to other bloggers for the synopsis.  Go HERE for Doug Harrison’s extensive dissection or if pressed for time, HERE for Daniel […]

Comments

  1. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    Are we getting to a point of out reviewing ourselves?
    Current trend of reviews on multiple sites might makes the some of the viewership feel like saying when I see a review, I might pass over you.
    Reviews are good to educate the viewership but not a baker’s dozen variety.

  2. quartet-man wrote:

    That sounds really interesting. I haven’t really been a Bishop fan although there were a couple of songs by the group I liked and one or two of his solo songs.

    With that said, even though part of the story sounds like the Oaks “Sometimes the Rain Won’t Let Me Sleep” or the GVB’s “Knowing You’ll Be There”, this explores a lot more detail from the sound of it. Of course it could since it is told in many more songs. It does sound interesting that the father reacts like many might react. It is also a fairly unique idea to make a full album tell a story. It isn’t the first time it was done, but unusual in this type of setting.

    It would be cool if Lillenas or someone did a cantata on this, but cleaning up some of the things Avery mentioned.

    I wouldn’t have gotten this had I not read about it, but I believe I will now. I will likely wait and get the CD itself and probably from Springside when they will probably run it on their weekly discounted special.

  3. lilinsider wrote:

    I have heard the album and it is a great new way to get a greater message across. I wonder if you have lost the spirit of the greater message in your review, but at least you took the time to do it. Mark’s career has always consisted of striving to create an image in the listeners mind. Think of all the tunes he has brought to the scene in his solo career. “Got Here as Fast as I Could” comes to mind. this project seems like a natural progression for him. I hope the Disney comparison drives people to this epic project because folks really don’t want to miss this. Who knows, Mark may be paving the way to a new formula with this one.

  4. Anonymity wrote:

    Is he planning to release any of these songs to radio? I’m understanding that Crossroads just released a song from his last album. Can’t wait to hear how this album sounds..

  5. Jim2 wrote:

    Doug,
    Thanks for the thoughtful review. It reminded me of how I felt when Nicole C Mullen’s “Sharecropper’s Seed” came out - impressed by the whole album concept, but wondering if more than 2 songs would ever do anything at radio.
    Time will tell

  6. Charles Brady wrote:

    So is this the new southern gospel “Field of Dreams” marketing approach? “IF YOU TRASH IT… THEY WILL BUY… LOL!!!!

  7. Mickey Gamble wrote:

    First, I would just like thank Doug for being willing to participate in this experiment. A good number of AVFL readers have now downloaded the album and we are eagerly awaiting your responses. At some point today or tomorrow, Mark will be responding here with his comments. If anyone is interested, there is a short (2 min.) video of Mark talking about the album at http://crossroadsmusic.com/video/.

  8. CVH wrote:

    I didn’t realize the project was going to be a concept album. That, along with your review, make it more intriguing to me.

    As far as radio airplay is concerned, unless there’s a standout (and standalone) song that can work for radio, a single from that type of project usually doesn’t get much airplay, if the company even releases one. As Jim2 mentioned, Nicole C. Mullen’s last project did nothing at AC or INSPO radio, although it was a decent project overall. The songs from concept albums that have gotten radio airplay were usually from a project that was comprised of ‘individual’ songs that were woven together for the project, rather than working organically from the inside out.

    Anonymity is correct - Crossroads, on their June comp CD, released “I Can Think of One” from ‘Abundant Sunshine’ just last week. No word yet on anything from the new project.

  9. John Jacobs wrote:

    I personally think Bishop had a novel idea here. Mark has always been known for writing “story” song and I’ve always been a fan of them because I can often relate to the character or the situation. These types of songs seem more “real” to me, rather than just something else to pass the miles in the car.

    That said, if you just use this CD as background noise while you’re driving to work, you’re going to miss the important pieces of the story and find yourself scratching your head. You have to invest some time to get to know the characters and to follow the storyline or you will be confused later on. If you didn’t hear the last two lines of Big, Big World, you wouldn’t know that the boy had wandered into a tent revival and Reggie Saddler’s and the Kingdom Heirs’ sudden guest vocals would be confusing to say the least.

    As for the “theological purity” concerns, I can’t think of a time Mark has ever flown in the face of the bible. He takes some liberties to create some “what if” scenerios. The best example is Son of a Carpenter. What if a child who grew up around Jesus was also there when Lazarus was raised from the tomb, was the same man who lived with the Samaratin woman, and finally was the theif on the cross. Yes, you could argue that is scriptually unsound. It didn’t happen and it wouldn’t have because yes, a boy who grew up with Jesus would’ve been a Jew and wouldn’t have had anything to do with the Samaratin woman but…what if? It is an extremely powerful song so don’t over think it. If we’re going to be THAT picky about being theologically correct, then we would have to remove every song from the hymn books that references “crossing Jordan” as a reference for death. Where in the Bible does it declare that we’re going to cross Jordan on our way to Heaven?

    I think the Fields of Love is an album that everyone should add to their collection. Mark, the musicians, the guest vocalists (Reggie Saddler, Kingdom Heirs, Debra and Lauren Talley to name a few) and everyone else who had a hand in it all did fantastic job.

  10. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    In this album, Bishop attempts what we have rarely if ever seen before in Southern Gospel, a concept album.

    This is something CCM has seen from time to time—for example, some of Michael Card’s projects and the 2nd Chapter of Acts’ Roar of Love comes to mind. But Southern Gospel hasn’t seen it.

    If anyone in Southern Gospel is in a good position to give a concept album a try, it would be Mark Bishop. He writes story-songs, and here he extends the effort to tell a story over an entire project.

    The album has to be listened to as a whole. That is the only way in which it can be fully appreciated. Few if any of the songs grab my attention individually, but after listening to the album a few times the overall storyline does catch my attention. And that, one could say, was the purpose.

  11. Bob Hughes wrote:

    I listened to the album. I’m a big fan of Mark Bishop’s music - he reminds me a lot of James Taylor.

    I have to agree with John at #9 in that you can’t listen to this as ‘background music’. I think most of us listen to music in the car, working out, or at work. It takes an especially catchy tune to make one listen more intently to the lyrics of a typical song. I’ve sung in Christmas and Easter musicals for several years now, and for each one listened to the rehearsal CD’s in the car on the commute. For me, it’s hard to put a series of story songs together into a bigger picture until you sit and concentrate on them in a run-through or dress rehearsal.

    That being said - I applaud Mark on this project. This is a perfect answer for those who would bemoan the lack of imaginative or creativity in Southern Gospel. I’d also like to see Fields of Love expanded into a dramatic musical for use in a special service.

  12. JT wrote:

    Knowing Mark Bishop for quite a few years, I have never been disappointed in him or his music. I marvel at his ability to continue to write songs that touch our hearts. He always manages to put a twist on his “stories” that catch us off guard. Every year I wait for his “new” project with great anticipation. I can’t wait to hear, “Fields of Love”, to find out where this new project and it’s characters will carry my thoughts and my heart. I’m sure being the Mark Bishop fan I am, I will love it!

  13. Trent wrote:

    Surely Mark and Crossroads have considered the danger of a disconnect with the SG audience in releasing such a project. Let’s face it; the average SG consumer just wants to buy a CD with some good songs on it. The idea that the songs would tie in with each other or that the album would follow a story line is not even remotely on the mind of the buyer, typically.

    That said, this record definitely stands a chance of being critically acclaimed in the SG world among bloggers like Avery, DBM or even over at sogospelnews.com. Perhaps (probably) it will get a great deal of attention at Singing News magazine. For what that’s worth.

    However, how will Edith of Hickory, NC interface with the record when she pops it into her boom box at the house after buying it at Lifeway? That’s really the question at hand. A record (or movie or play) can receive rave reviews from an intellectual who likes something new and fresh, but how will John T. Consumer respond? That’s the question that Mark and Crossroads have to be asking themselves as the project hits Christian bookstores across the South.

  14. Mickey Gamble wrote:

    To Anonymity & Jim2 and anyone else wondering about radio. Yes, we do have plans for radio release(s) but I think I’ll wait and let Mark speak to that when he comments here a little later.

  15. Mickey Gamble wrote:

    Trent. I disagree. The SG listener wants music they LOVE. Not songs they just like.
    The problem is not whether Edith of Hickory will “get” it. It is whether Edith will ever get to hear it in its entirety. Or even hear about it. This is where you come in. If you love it you just might spread it. No magazine ad or single song on the radio can tell the story you can. And maybe Edith hears from you about something remarkable.

    If she gets to hear it, I trust Edith.

  16. quartet-man wrote:

    #11, a friend of mine was in the car with me when a Mark Bishop song came on and he thought the same thing. He is a James Taylor fan and caught the similarities.

  17. william wrote:

    I downloaded this album before Avery actually reviewed it, and it surprised me.

    I think Trent actually has a point - believe it or not. Some guys (me included) like to buy an album, pop it into the player, and “jam.” A few more “Cloud Nine Headed For Ten” songs really would’ve helped the “instant-hit” factor.

    I found there to be too many slow, seemingly incomplete, and/or melancholy ballads on the way to the conclusion. That said, was it a very well-done, interesting drama with a powerful ending? Absolutely. Was it an album I edited after the first listen to cut out all the talking, and to just get to the music? Well, yes, actually.

  18. Wes Burke wrote:

    I have to admit up front, I’ve always been a bit apathetic when it comes to Mark Bishop. That said, this is a unique idea for a Southern Gospel album, a true concept album. I tend to agree with those who say that there really is not much “radio-friendly” music here, and that it demands a certain concentration level to “get it”, but the album is very successful with regards to its purpose. I believe this is why Mickey and Crossroads are going after the “viral” type of marketing. An unorthodox album will need an unorthodox marketing plan.

    The album is very moving and powerful when taken as a whole, and the guest vocalists add a lot to the project as a whole. I especially enjoyed the Kingdom Heirs participation. Other highlights to me were “Blue Skies” and “Take Another Step”.

    While this project may not have made me Mark Bishop’s #1 fan, it has given me a new measure of respect for his abilities as both singer and writer. This is a very creative project, and I’m glad I have it. It is very moving and enjoyable.

  19. RDB wrote:

    Well this promo sucked me in, anyway, as someone whose never been particularly interested in Mark Bishop’s music.

    Can’t say I was hugely impressed. There were a few songs I enjoyed and will listen to again, though, and for 6 bucks I don’t really feel ripped off.

    Mark Bishop’s vocal styling I find unique and enjoyable actually - my issue was somewhat unimaginative melodic stylings on a couple songs. Considering how hard it is for an SG soloist to get the attention they deserve, I have to wish Mark Bishop all the best as he fights the good fight.

  20. Steve Perkins wrote:

    This is Steve Perkins, first-time poster to any blog. If you’ve seen the credits on The Fields of Love, I’m listed as “Project Consultant.” I’ve read Doug’s review of the recording and the subsequent comments, including Mark’s. So, I thought I’d get in the pool and see if the water is fine. I hope I don’t drown!

    For those who may not know, I am a former bass guitarist for The Bishops. While with the group, I slept very well knowing the not every Southern Gospel fan liked the Bishops. I sleep equally as well knowing that Mark’s voice, style, writing, hairstyle, or cologne is not everyone’s cup of tea either. Baskin-Robbins has 32 flavors and Heinz had at least 57 varieties at one time, so to each their own. I don’t see eye-to-eye with my wife and son on all things, so I certainly don’t expect to persuade the blogosphere to see things my way. When I was younger, I had more of an aptitude to push the rock uphill. Not anymore…

    What I would like to do is let you in on some of the thought process, conversations, and decisions that led to what you hear on “The Fields of Love.” Maybe this will address some of those more “nuts and bolts” questions that are in some of your posts. And no, this isn’t my “official” role or duty. Neither Mark nor Crossroads has dispatched me to put a spin on this. I’ve read your comments and your questions. Mark is more of the creative, conceptual type, and his post shows that. I’m not. I’m more of the logistical type. So, I’m going to try to address some of those logistics questions that have arisen. Also, I like the “behind-the-scenes” stuff and thought that you might too.

    But first, one of Doug’s observations totally cracked me up. He wrote, “The spoken word portions of the story between the father and son are excruciatingly stilted and hopelessly amateurish…” You think? Anyone who has ever heard a Mark Bishop radio liner (“Hi. This is Mark Bishop and you’re listening to WXYZ for the best in Southern Gospel) would not be surprised that Mark’s “acting” isn’t going to win an Oscar. So, that observation was particularly funny to me, because I have an extensive background with Mark and his radio liners and our many years of re-takes.

    But, I’ve gotta give Mark “Daniel Boone” Bishop some major props for stepping WAY outside of his comfort zone! Even though he had a ton of help and input from lots of folks, it’s his name on the CD, so the target is squarely on his back for the response this recording elicits. You have to admire Mark’s willingness to take this creative risk, and Crossroads for their enthusiastic support.

    Those scripted bits between the farmer and the son deserve a closer look. I clearly remember the conversation Mark and I had on his porch about the dialogue between the farmer and his son that follows the Kingdom-Heirs’ song. Of course, the primary motivation for the dialogue was the bigger picture that this “music” album suddenly becomes a drama. There was also another layer to this. Mark was concerned about the son’s voice just popping up as his duet partner in that big song, “What’s So Bad About Believing?” That may have caused some cases of “musical whiplash.” It seemed better to us to have this new voice introduced through the dialogue with the farmer, than just drop him into the song cold, especially since Dennis Kuzmich isn’t a “name.” You can drop a Lauren Talley in on her song (“Every Memory”) seamlessly because of: 1.) Who she is, and 2.) The song itself. Dennis needed to be eased into the soundscape. So, in addition to the dialogue transforming this CD into something more than just the typical collection of songs, the dialogue also served as a courtesy to the listener to introduce young Mr. Kuzmich.

    One day, Mark came over with some rough tracks, sat down on my sofa and sang this album to me. “Take Another Step” absolutely blew me away for the many reasons that Doug and others have mentioned. It’s a solid song on so many levels. Gold stars to those of you that got it!

    The marketing questions are rather compelling. You folks are sharp, but honestly, “marketing plans” in SG? How are most SG “major label” projects marketed? Singing News ad and/or feature; two singles to radio; spotlight on “The Gospel Greats”; a package on Solid Gospel (spots, contests, listening party, etc.); hyped up press releases; the artists’ websites/e-news/newsletters. Maybe…maybe… Family or LifeWay gives it a decent spot on their websites or catalogs. And you can supplement any or all of this with artist phone calls, radio liners, postcards, promotional trinkets, and a contest of some sort. But I’ve only seen two prepared marketing plans for a recording in my 20+ years in SG. Remember, we’ve been with Eddie Crook, Homeland, Cathedral Records, and Crossroads. And I work with other artists that have called HeartWarming, RiverSong, Canaan, and Daywind home, too. I’ve seen two marketing plans. That’s not a slam on any company. It is what it is. Southern Gospel labels do what they’ve basically been doing since Jerrell McCracken and Marvin Norcross launched Canaan Records. And one of the best things they do is to provide a home base and support team for their artists so that the artists don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. We’re a small industry folks, and each group and soloist is an independent contractor trying to make a living. And while their business functions are foremost, you still can’t underestimate that feeling of “belonging somewhere” that a record company and booking agency provides to these groups and soloists.

    But formal, prepared “marketing plans” in SG may not matter much because for all but a handful of artists, the artist themselves are the number one sales outlet for their product. More than retail, direct sales, downloads, music clubs or any other outlet other than bootlegged product at flea markets. So, until there is some revolutionary breakthrough, as a Southern Gospel artist your best “marketing plan” is a strong radio single, exposure in Singing News, decent concert and church dates, a solid stand when it’s your turn to sing, and an effective product pitch right before intermission, because as an artist, you are your top sales agent.

    So, for The Fields of Love, you’ll see print ads, hear radio interviews, and yes, there are at least two songs that stand alone just fine. If I asked Mark while he was in the writing phase of this about radio singles once, I asked two dozen times. In fact, that day he came over to the house and sang the album to me, I listened more for the radio singles than to his epic saga, dialogue, plot development, etc. I confessed to him that I was listening primarily for radio singles when he had finished his performance in my living room and asked me what I thought about it. Concerts and radio are our bread and butter. For better or worse, our industry is more airplay driven than sales driven. So while Mark was being Daniel Boone and Jerome Kern rolled into one, I was still being me thinking about what two songs Mark will make a living off of next year. I’m confident we’ll be just fine as far as radio is concerned because there are songs that stand alone outside the context of the recording. Most Music Directors don’t get to hear full projects anyway, so I don’t foresee airplay decisions influenced by the fact the CD is a concept album if they have a strong Mark Bishop song that is suited for airplay. Songs from this album will be sent to radio just like any other radio single, and they’ll compete for airplay with all the others, just like always. And just like always, they might hit, or they might miss. Jim Stover at Crossroads is an excellent radio promoter, but so much of having a hit song is out of his and his artists’ hands once it’s gone to radio. When I was with The Bishops, we had some songs sent to radio that we “worked” (calls, postcards, give-a-ways, etc.) pretty hard, and the songs didn’t do much. But then we had songs like “He’s In The Midst” (which was Number One for three months) that we as a group didn’t do anything extra to promote it. So, you send your songs out, do what you think is best needed to support those songs, and then wait to see where the chips fall. That’s how it will work for radio singles from The Fields of Love, too.

    Yes, it’s a concept album, but that won’t affect the marketing to our primary audience - SG fans, and specifically Mark Bishop fans. There are the tried and true methods of reaching them, and this album fits that template well. You can put it in an ad (print or online), and you can send songs to radio. But, we are launching a new website just for this recording. If it weren’t a concept album, I can’t say that we would be doing that. So, we’re giving that a shot, and we’ll see if it generates additional sales. Crossroads has a brief video of Mark introducing viewers to the album. It’s on their website and YouTube. We’ll see if that has any impact too.

    What’s funny is when my 80 year old Dad (who went to Vaughn Singing Schools and can remember seeing thousands of people gather in a field to hear the Chuck Wagon Gang when he was younger) heard this project, his first question was, “They don’t make videos in Southern Gospel, do they?” So there you go. Even he was thinking about marketing. And yes, I had this same conversation with him. I guess the initial reaction to hearing this type of production is you automatically think it’s so different it possesses a unique set of logistical issues for the SG marketplace. But if you back off from it a bit and not be overwhelmed by its “largeness” (for lack of a better word), you can see the forest for the trees and see that this recording fits into the SG landscape just fine. It just distinguishes itself from other recordings out there by giving you a different type of listening experience.

    Staging this CD in concert isn’t an issue either. When you do an album, you typically only inject your radio songs and maybe two other new ones into your set. Why? Because the vast majority of people who buy a ticket to see you perform want to hear songs they know – your hits. You only get 40 minutes the first round and 20 after intermission to sing on most concerts, so you can’t lay 10 or 13 new songs on an audience. It won’t fly. So, Mark will work some of the Fields of Love songs into his set with “Can I Pray For You” and his other standards. If people connect with him and/or the songs, they’ll buy the CD, if they have the money. They always do, without hearing him perform the other 8 songs on a typical CD before they buy it. I can’t see why this would be any different with The Fields of Love.

    We’re airplay driven, so you’ve got to have strong radio songs on each CD. After that, if you are in a group, your other songs on the CD serve to feature the various vocalists. And whether you are a group or a soloist, the remaining songs also serve to pace the recording, or fill a particular slot, much like a baseball lineup. I think it’s pretty impressive that Mark said, “I’ve got the radio songs, now here is what I’d like to do with the others.” It’s equally impressive that Mickey Gamble and Chris White said, “Okay.”

    What I get from Doug’s review and the comments are questions that I too have pondered: “Is there a secondary market for this since it is a concept album? Is there something inherent in this story that will open up other doors? Can it be performed as a whole in some fashion? It’s a different animal, so what does it or can it do outside of our fan base?” I honestly don’t know those answers. I guess I could speculate on it, but someone with more expertise in that arena would be much better qualified to address these “secondary” market questions. The first step was producing a quality recording. Our focus now shifts to getting this project to do well in our primary marketplace. After that, who knows what will happen with this recording or these songs?

    I also don’t know where this experiment of putting it out there for the readers of this blog will lead. But, I’ve got to tip my hat to Mickey Gamble. He’s been giving a lot of thought and effort to this idea of effectively harnessing the power of the internet to sell Southern Gospel CDs. He’s done a lot of research trying to read the tea leaves. This was Mickey’s idea and at least he is trying something different. And since it takes two to tango, thanks to Doug Harrison. He took a risk of being perceived as selling out, or scrutinized more ways than I can imagine for doing this. But he stayed the course and gave the project his usual treatment. And since he isn’t really a Mark Bishop fan, I appreciate that he took the time to listen to an artist that he normally wouldn’t have. And, I’m married to a teacher. I don’t see how Doug, being a teacher, finds time to do this blog. My wife’s job doesn’t end when she gets home – there are always papers to grade, tests and lessons to prepare, school functions to attend, etc. Whether you are into blogs or not (like I’m not), you still have to appreciate his commitment to the blog.

    Lastly, I hope we learn some things. Foremost for Mark and the team at Crossroads, will this “experiment” create a “buzz” about this CD and produce a spike in sales and possibly generate new Mark Bishop fans and sales? After that, I wonder: Is SG ready to be a strong player in the cyber-age and be “viral”? Can we sustain our music as long as we are makers of albums when the music consumer is moving toward downloading single songs, or cherry picking songs from CDs? To what extent is the SG internet community a viable and influential segment of our market? Are there really thousands of viewers of these sites, or the same hundreds of people visiting thousands of times? Either way, what can we (artists and record companies) do to better serve this SG internet community and translate their passion for SG into revenue? Do reviews from anyone (no offense to Doug, SN, or other print and online outlets) really have any influence one way or the other on your music purchases? What would you say is your main reason for purchasing a SG CD? Is it your conection as a fan to particular artists? Hearing a song on radio? Hearing it in concert? Word of mouth? What about this specific experiment of getting a reduced price CD download, just by reading about it on this blog? Did the fact that it’s a concept recording influence you in any way, pro or con, to take advantage of the special pricing and purchase this CD?

    I look forward to seeing how this all plays out. Thanks to everyone for jumping in with us.

  21. Adam Kohout wrote:

    To Mickey Gamble & Chris White, let me say thankyou for believing in this recording. I think Mark poured his heart and soul into the album, he was not flying from the seat of his pants trying to just come up with with something new, This was a labor of love for him and his record company. As a songwriter you have 3-4 minutes to tell a story from start to finish then its on to the next story. What Mark did with this Album is BRILLIANT!! With this recording he was able to tell one story throughout the entire CD. I Believe Mark, Jeff Collins & David Johnson produced an Amazing recording.

    Every Mark Bishop Fan that goes to his concerts that would normally by his newest Cd they will buy this one and if curiosity kills the cat I expect this may be one of Marks best seller’s. As a fellow songwriter and friend let me say Mark I’m proud of you and I love the CD, Steve Perkins great post. Your the Best.

  22. JT wrote:

    Just listened to “The Fields of Love” and I love it! What a story and a message. Mark you have outdone yourself with this new project. There is much to gain by simply listening.

  23. Jim2 wrote:

    Steve,
    Wow, you said a mouthful! But I enjoyed your insight - it was great to hear from someone else on the “inside” of this album. Good questions and good answers.
    See, the blogospere isn’t all that scary.

  24. Barbara Harlow wrote:

    I am not good at writing but I just cannot help putting in my two cents worth. It is now 2010 and this beautiful project is still alive. I did not realize this was such a controversial subject until I went in search for the possibility of a sound track. In my minds eye I can see this as a dramatization. I can see how this will reach broken people, happy people, and the lost and or wounded. My husband and I have been listening to this project for well over a year and are not weary of listening. We love the message and can feel the spirit of God as we listen. Thank you Steve for such a thorough explanation of the inner workings of this project. The lovely endorsement by JT speaks volumes.( I have been loving JT since 1975) Then you have the Talleys, who are giants in their own right, who believed so strongly in this that they participated in its execution. I did not realize that I had bitterness in my own heart about some horrible things that happened to me. When I heard the Prayer, I realized I had set up barriers and kept out the people I love most. Especially God. This could be made into a very beautiful movie that would minister to thousands. There are so many people who need God and I think this could be a very affective tool. Just my opinion. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

  25. Barbara Harlow wrote:

    Here it is June 15 2012 and I have just listened to Field of Dreams in its entirety again. My husband and I work out of our home so we are blessed to be able to listen to music while we work. Our favorite music is Southern Gospel and Bluegrass. We listen to Mark Bishop’s Field of Dreams at least once a week and we haven’t grown weary of it. The story never gets old. I stick to my original comments posted above. This is a great Story and it needed to be told.

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