HENDERSONVILLE, North Carolina. In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s galleries covering smaller bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s, you’ll find McKendree Spring featured for its innovative folk-rock music that included early use of electric violin. Today, however, founder Fran McKendree lives on a mountaintop in the southern Appalachian Mountains and produces mainly solo albums of traditional hymns and ballads about Americans’ search for spiritual meaning in tough times.
His work is perfectly suited to our American journey exploring values that divide and unite us. McKendree, now 63, performed for years on the rock circuit, once as the opening act for an Elton John tour. Today, in stark contrast, he’s a troubadour usually equipped with an acoustic guitar and his specialty is leading crowds at church conferences, revivals and retreats to sing along with him until they are tapping into the power in our country’s rich heritage of religious music. Imagine Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger with progressive Christian themes added to their social conscience and you’ve got a rough idea of McKendree’s work.
After a day of mixing music in his first-floor studio, McKendree greeted us for a sunset conversation on a second-story deck behind his home surrounded by dense woods and a lively array of birds. For his contribution to this national conversation, McKendree already had selected a gospel song, “The Storm Is Passing Over,” from his latest album, “Awake.” That song about enduring faith in the midst of life-threatening turbulence captures what he wants to say about our country right now, he said.
We also invited him to respond to the questions we’ve been asking at nearly every stop along our 9,000-mile trek.
QUESTION: What does America mean to you?
MCKENDREE: We’re still a country of amazing spirit, hopefulness and promise. But, as a musician and writer, what frightens me most is our loss of civility. That shift, even in the language we use with each other now, creates a toxic environment that’s really a critical problem for our country. I’m very concerned about this Supreme Court decision to open up the gates to corporate spending in political campaigns. We’re already losing our ability to listen to each other. Think about the stalemate in Congress. And now, by throwing all this new corporate money into the mix, we’re pulling the lid off a great big ol’ can of whup-ass political advertising, rather than trying to figure out new ways to bring diverse voices to the table for genuine conversations. At our core as a nation, America has this amazing ability to be generous and we’re still full of potential and promise, but it feels like we’re deliberately sailing into dangerous waters.
QUESTION: Are you worried about the future for yourself and your family?
MCKENDREE: Yeah, I am. We’re pretty comfortable in our own home in the mountains here, but in a larger sense I do fear we’re going to keep wallowing in this ugly stalemate that divides America. I look back to other civilizations that had established these huge empires and then started a downfall. What caused the downfall? Often it was internal strife. I want to be optimistic and hopeful, but I’m fearful we’re not going to be able to get out of this present stalemate.
The best I can tell you about “The Storm Is Passing Over” is that it’s where I hope we are in America right now. When I’m fearful about what’s happening, I’m not too sure the storm really is passing over. Maybe we’re just climbing up on the roof to try to survive the roughest waters that are just about to rise around us. But when I’m feeling more hopeful, I think maybe we’re further along. Maybe we’re rounding the corner to safety. I think the song allows for both interpretations, but in the end the song is an affirmation that we can survive. It’s the song that comes to my own mind whenever it feels that things are really dangerous and I don’t see much promise. I do know this: For me, the song is healing.
You can listen to The Storm Is Passing Over here on Fran’s website. It’s part of the new album, “Awake,” and you can learn more about Fran McKendree’s music at his own website. Fran added a cool, short little video to tell his own readers about this interview and ReadTheSpirit. It’s worth checking out.
(Today’s photo and story by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)
We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook,Amazon, Huffington Post, YouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.