(Based upon true events.)
I come from a very rural part of East Tennessee. It ain’t exactly what you’d call the “sticks” ’cause there is a large city about 20 minutes away but you could still get lost on the winding country roads surrounding the house I grew up in and it would take someone familiar with the area to help you get out and back on your way to civilization.
Behind my house was a steep incline and at the bottom of that incline was an old sawmill run by Elmer Nicely. The train tracks ran right along side Elmer’s sawmill and when a train would come through about once an hour all the windows in our house would tremble for about 10 minutes. Elmer also slaughtered hogs at his place so it was awfully nice when the train came by and masked the horrible squeals we’d sometimes hear from his small wood slaughterhouse.
There was a one-lane gravel road that cut between our house and the sawmill. I’d see cars pass through there at all hours of the day and night but when I was a kid I’d never been far down that old road. It just looked scary down there to me. The trees and kudzu was overgrown and the road looked like a path into a dark tunnel of leaves, vines, sticks and dust. I knew some people lived down that gravel road but I didn’t know anyone personally. They were mostly reclusive country people who liked to keep to themselves and I wasn’t one to go messing with them.
When I got older my parents would let me walk down the old gravel road by myself. I remember the first time I went down past the sawmill, past the slaughterhouse, and found where the old road bent to the left and crossed the railroad track. At that point I couldn’t recognize any surroundings. It was like I was in some small backwood village. There were old, broken down, rusted trailers that people still lived in, nestled back in the brush. There were so many old houses I’d never seen before and they looked like they’d been pieced together with scrap wood and plastic and cardboard. There was an old creek that ran behind the houses I had no idea existed. Every other house it seemed had an old, mangy dog tied up to a tree or a rotting dog house. Something about the whole atmosphere made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.
Just past the shacks there was an old cornfield overgrown with weeds and brush. Hanging on a wood post was a pitiful looking scarecrow with only one arm raised. Like he was trying to hitchhike his way out of that place. For some unknown reason, the scarecrow’s owner had dressed it in a burlap kilt with an old piece of corn cob stuck on it as a kilt pin. Next to the corn field, sitting way back off the road was a decrepit, white, three-story wood house. All of the windows on the house were broken out and you would need a machete to get to the front door, but it was still a pretty impressive house among the dilapidated shacks. The old house looked like it had been quite something in its time and it made me want to do some research on it to find out its history.
The next day, after seeing the old house, I was telling some of my school friends about it. One of my friends said, “That’s the old Lockhart house.” Then he said with a smile, “I’ve heard it’s haunted.” Neither of us believed in ghosts or haunted houses but we’d both seen how creepy the place looked. I wanted to find out more information about it but I wasn’t sure where to go for it. I’d seen some of the Lockharts at the school and I knew they couldn’t live in that house. Or could they?
A few weeks later I was discussing the house again with school friends when I heard someone laughing at me. It was Chris Mullins. Chris was was a muscular, good-looking guy with more than a little Native American blood in him. He was one of the stars of the football team and a pretty nice guy and one of the few jocks who would actually spend any amount of time talking to someone like me. “That’s a great make-out place,” he said. “Get you a girl down there, she gets all scared, you tell her you’ll protect her… she’ll do pretty much anything you want.” Personally, I don’t think Chris Mullins ever needed a scary house to get a girl to do whatever he wanted but it was a nice tip anyway. “I’m taking Jenny Quarles down there Friday after the game,” he said. “The only scary thing she needs to worry about is in my pants!” he said. We all laughed.
The football game that Friday night was on the night before Halloween and it was against one of our biggest rivals from the next county over. We won the game easily and the celebrations went on way into the night. But I decided to head on home a bit early. It was dark and blustery outside. There was a full moon’s light that would appear and disappear behind fast moving dark clouds. I thought about what Chris Mullins said about taking Jenny Quarles to the old Lockhart house. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I thought maybe I could just drive right by the place and look over and see if I could see them there. I wondered if he really had the guts to go there or if he was just all talk. So I decided I’d drive past the Lockhart house and then circle around and come back home.
I hit the old gravel road right about the time I heard a train horn sounding in the distance. By the time I got to the part where the road curved around and crossed the track, the train was coming fast so I sat and waited for it to pass. When it was gone I listened to the silence for a few seconds. There’s nothing like the deep, dead silence of the country after a train passes through. I drove on past the trailers and shacks and up to the corn field when I noticed something very strange. That old scarecrow was gone. I could see his weathered old post still standing there in the field but the scarecrow was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it had fallen down I thought. Or maybe Chris was using it as part of his plan to get Jenny all scared and clingy. Up ahead I could see a car parked off the road in front of the house. But no one was in it. I drove past it slow and looked inside and the front and back seats were empty. Surely Chris Mullins wasn’t brave enough to take her inside the house. Or stupid enough. I pulled my car off over to the side of the road and turned off the engine and the lights. I rolled down the window to see if I could hear any voices. The air smelled like dead leaves and dirt and dogs and old engine oil. The light from the moon was starting to spend more time behind the clouds leaving everything in a deep indigo darkness.
If you’ve never heard the death scream of a hog at midnight it’ll send shivers over every inch of your body. And it’s worse when you’re far away from anything you recognize. It’s even more terrifying when you realize that the scream you just heard wasn’t a hog at all but its human and it’s coming right toward you. Jenny Quarles tried to open the passenger door while she screamed but it was locked. She jumped onto the hood of my car and pounded on the windshield like she intended to go right through it. It took me several seconds to recognize it was her and when I did I jumped out of the car. In one leap she jumped on me and her legs gave out from under her, all the while she still screaming. I tried to calm her down best I could and ask her what was going on. She couldn’t speak but she grabbed my hand and pointed toward the Lockhart house. She could only say “Chris” and pull me toward the house.
A small path had been trampled into the weeds and brush in front of the house and Jenny pulled me along the path. It was all happening too quick to think about it but now days I can’t even believe I went into all that jungle. We tripped and stumbled our way to to the side of the old house where there was a clearing under some tall, twisted trees. Jenny pointed to one of the trees and again let out a shrill scream. On the dirt, under the tree, was a scattering of straw covered in blood. Hanging from one of the trees was Chris Mullins. His throat cut from earlobe to earlobe. Stuck right in the middle of his neck, was a corn cob kilt pin.
I grabbed Jenny’s arm and ran back toward the car as faster than I’d ever run before. It was a good thing Jenny was a small girl because when we hit that tangled path of vines, I drug her along behind me even after she tripped and fell several times. We got into the car and sped off to my house where we called the police and Jenny’s parents.
It was several months before Jenny Quarles was able to fully relay the events of that night to anyone. She and Chris Mullins had left the school after the football game and drove to a convenience store where Chris’ brother was the manager and would sell them some beer. Chris told Jenny he wanted to take her to his house and then he drove to the old Lockhart house, jokingly telling her it was where he lived. They parked the car, sat on the hood and drank a couple of beers under the moonlight. After they made out for awhile, Chris suggested they walk up to the house. Well Jenny didn’t think that was such a good idea so Chris made a bet with her. Jenny had to agree that she would go up to the house if Chris could hit the old scarecrow with all four of their empty beer bottles. Even in the darkness Chris proved to be quite the athlete as each bottle landed squarely on target, the last one almost taking off the old scarecrow’s head. Jenny reluctantly went up to the dark old house with Chris and after they got up under the trees Chris began trying to scare her by pretending to run into the old weedy cornfield and then running back out. At one point he didn’t come back out and Jenny thought he may have snuck back to the car just to spook her. She wandered her way back to the car through the maze of the thicket and, not finding Chris, she sat on the hood of the car and drank another beer. When the light of the train cut through the blackness, she once again made her way to the side of the house and it was at that point she found Chris Mullins hanging from a tree.
On Halloween night, few people let their kids go out Trick or Treating and no one was in a Halloween party mood. Everyone was terrified there was a murderer on the loose so people stayed home and locked their doors. It was the first time in 18 years I’d seen my parents turn the locks on their own doors. Around 9 o’clock Halloween night one of my friends called to tell me that several guys from the football team had plans to drive to the old Lockhart house around midnight and burn it down. So a little bit after 12, I drove down the gravel road and I could see the sky glowing orange far in front of me. I crossed the railroad tracks and I could smell the smoke and I could see flames flickering high into the sky. I passed by the shack houses and rusty trailers and I could see the old wood Lockhart house was fully engulfed in flames. There were no cars and people to be seen anywhere around. And to my surprise, there, silhouetted against the bright orange light of the fire, hung that old scarecrow; kilt around its waist, arm stretched out and head held high.
©2016 Rick Baldwin. All Rights Reserved.
(COPYRIGHT NOTICE – This story is under the full copyright of the author who gives permission for royalty-free performance/readings of the story for non commercial purposes. This story must not be changed or altered in any way without permission of the author. Any performance of this story must credit the author, Rick Baldwin. This story may not be reprinted without permission of the author.)
Anyone who knew me from my mid-20s to my late 30s would know how attached I was to the Christian Music scene (FYI: In the 80s and 90s we officially referred to it as “Contemporary Christian Music”). For the most part, it was the music of my youth. I attended a small, Southern Baptist college in the early 80s and embraced CCM after first being exposed to it through a campus concert featuring the mighty RussTaff. It soon became the music culture that most influenced my life. Like many young music fans of the 80s, I was into “new wave” and “college alternative” bands but as a young Christian, I would always be drawn more to bands like U2 or The Alarm that had something of an added spiritual dimension to their music and lyrics.
I wasn’t a musician so the closest contribution I could make to Contemporary Christian Music was through art. In 1987, I created a comic strip called Outta Toon which ran for 20 years in CCM Magazine and Christian Musician Magazine. It was a parody of the personalities and attitudes involved in Christian music in the late 80s through the early 200os. More than anything, though, it was my love letter to a genre I loved almost obsessively.
I was recently thinking about my former obsession with Christian music and how today I rarely listen to it. There was a time I could tell you who produced or played keyboards on any random Christian album but today I can’t tell you a single band or artist currently in the Top 10. I grew up, grew apart and lost touch with the old and the new bands. At one point “Worship Music” became very popular and it pushed out the alternative bands. It also seemed (to me) that commercialism succeeded in taming creativity. Or maybe I just got old, cynical and out of touch. Yeah, that’s probably it. “You kids get off my stage!!
I don’t participate or subscribe to any organized spiritual activity anymore but, just for fun, I thought I’d revisit a few of the bands that were most influential in my growing-up years. Missing from this list are solo artists I regularly listened to like Charlie Peacock, Mark Heard, Margaret Becker and Russ Taff. I’m focusing here on the bands. These bands were my R.E.M. and The Police. Okay, I listened to R.E.M. and The Police, too, but in some ways I actually thought these bands were way cooler.
So, here’s my top 5 list of Best Alternative Christian Bands of the 80s/90s.
#5. The Choir
My introduction to The Choir was 1986’s Diamonds and Rain and I admit was due almost entirely to the fact I thought Derri Daugherty’s orange mullet was over-the-top cool. I figured the whole band must be awesome as well. Fortunately, I was correct. The smooth Charlie Peacock produced alt-pop of Diamonds and Rain rarely left my tape deck during that time but it was 1988’s Chase The Kangaroo that lifted the band to “superstar” heights in my eyes and ears. Etherial, atmospheric music with guitar solos straight out of The Edge’s playbook produced the closest thing you’re going to get to Christian Psychedelic Music. The follow-up Wide-Eyed Wonder was more mainstream and less experimental but helped give The Choir a more firm foothold as pioneers in the Christian alt-rock scene.
The Choir is the only one of my early favorite Christian bands I’ve never seen live. I can’t even find many early videos or performances on YouTube. So, for now, this video for “Someone to Hold On To” from a documentary for the album Wide-Eyed Wonder will have to do.
#4. Chagall Guevara
Chagall Guevara only released one full-length album, their almost perfect, self-titled, 1991 collection on MCA Records. I’m including them here also for the significance of guitarist Dave Perkins and, of course, Steve Taylor, the godfather of Christian Alternative Music. I saw them perform live three times, including a show at Knoxville’s now defunct “The Library” on a stage barely big enough to hold 5 people, yet still spacious enough for a Steve Taylor cartwheel.
Like everyone, I wanted more Chagall Guevara. Unfortunately we were left to scavenge for elusive singles like “Tale O’ The Twister” from the Pump Up The Volume Soundtrack. I’m not sure planet Earth is big enough to contain what could have been.
#3. Adam Again
Adam Again provided my first real “Holy Crap!” moment in Christian music with the release of Ten Songs by Adam Again. A masterpiece like nothing else that has come out of Christian music, I first listened to it driving home one night and, for an hour, had to resist the impulse to pull the car over, get out and dance. All I could think was “What is going on here??” while being slapped around by wonderful funk, soul and experimental jazz saxophone. At times it was Prince. Other times The Talking Heads. Even soundtrack composer Bill Conti is in there. I still can’t tell what all is going on in that album and it’s why it’s one of my favorites. It’s more like a sensory painting than any album I’ve ever experienced.
Adam Again was a band that, for me, was always about the music. I’ve listened to them for 30 years and still probably couldn’t pick a single band member out of a line up. Maybe the late Gene Eugene. Or Riki Michele. That’s pretty much it.
I was one of the lucky “East Coasters” who got to see Adam Again perform live. Here’s a shaky video of a live performance of “Tree House,” the first cut from Ten Songs by Adam Again. It’s about some gritty subject matter not often addressed on 80s/90s Christian music which was pretty much standard for Adam Again.
#2. The Altar Boys
Back in the 70s and 80s, there was a Christian bookstore in Knoxville called Logos Books. It sat in the middle of Cumberland Avenue (“The Strip”) and catered to the students at the University of Tennessee. I would go there often because they had a good music selection and I’d usually buy whatever was in the discount basket because I knew that meant it wasn’t mainstream enough and, therefore, most likely good Rock. I found a tape called When You’re A Rebel by The Altar Boys with three punk-looking guys on the cover. It spoke to everything I wanted in music at that time. The music was raw, a bit punkish, a bit surf, edgy and unique. Later, Gut Level Music became my album. My life soundtrack. I still consider it one of the best rock albums of the Christian alternative genre.
I once saw The Altar Boys in concert at the small, Southern Baptist college I attended. The curtains opened and there, on a stage that would normally feature Amy Grant or Rich Mullins, stood three punk guys from Southern California in leather jackets, earrings and combat boots. Before the first song was over, half the audience had walked out. This was my kind of band and they did a fantastic show for those of us who stuck around. In my comic strip, Outta Toon, I paid the ultimate respect to The Altar Boys by naming the strip’s Christian punk band, The Altar Hunks, after them. To some, maybe that didn’t seem like respect, but it totally was.
Eventually, The Altar Boys added synthesizers to their line-up, took a different musical turn and lost me. Their lyrics became too preachy for my personal tastes (although Gut Level Music was lyrically no subtle album). Still, to the young Christian kids like me who didn’t have The Clash, The Altar Boys were our The Clash for awhile and we were fine with that.
#1. The 77s / The Seventy Sevens
I discovered The 77s much later than my other bands. I didn’t even like them at first listen. I had heard rumors about this band who was picked up by Island Records and supposed to tour with U2 and even be as big, so I bought the New Wave influenced Ping Pong Over The Abyss, gave it a listen or two and didn’t get it. I filed The 77s away under “alt bands I don’t relate to.” Later I found the live album, Eighty Eight, which gave me a handle on The 77s. After that, Sticks and Stones sealed the deal (A bit backward since Eighty Eight was mostly live Sticks and Stones, but, whatever…) and I was hooked.
The 77s are the only band from the “Christian Rock” genre I still listen to today. I don’t even like applying that label to them, it doesn’t seem fair. It’s like saying Prince is Soul or Lyle Lovett is Country. The 77s pushed, stretched and bent the boundaries of the labels applied to them with varying degrees of success but they were always fun to listen to. Whatever it was that were doing back then, and let’s just say it was good, old fashioned Rock and Roll, it still survives as being vital to my ears and what’s left of my “spirit” today.
The 77s have two songs I still consider as being my “Life Philosophy” songs, “The Lust, The Flesh and the Pride of Life” and the one performed here, “This is the Way Love Is.”
One summer my dad
worked at a city pool
he brought home items
left behind by the public
that’s where I got
light blue tie-dyed
bell-bottom jeans which
were the best pair of pants
I’ve ever had.
It was like they
were made for me
a perfect fit (It’s possible
they were girls’ jeans but I didn’t
care) Dad also gave me a bracelet
with the name Kelly on it
(I checked and Kelly
is a boy’s name too)
In bracelet and light blue
tie-dyed bell bottoms
I looked much older almost
sixteen or seventeen probably.
we all walked to
Knight’s Variety Store
I was wearing my
light blue tie-died
Mrs. Knight said I looked
older– my mom agreed.
Girls looked at me
differently that summer and
I prepared for the moment
one of them would
approach and speak
to me but they
I wish I knew what happened to
those light blue tied-dyed
—Rick Baldwin ©2018
Some will wake early
to witness a sunrise
but for me it’s the rain
tapping on the street
tapping on my roof
tapping on the leaves.
A percussive symphony
knocking against the
windows and electric box
like a thousand broken clocks
keeping stuttered time.
The crispy “swish”
fade into the dawn
inspiring streetlight painters
to swirl asphalt abstracts.
A breath and I return
to the silent music
of a perfect meditation.
—Rick Baldwin ©2018
He was born
a Kansas avalanche;
posing as savage
they both carried
like a virus fiend.
—Rick Baldwin ©2018
Murder at midnight. Orange light glowing against the Oldsmobile’s steel, green skin. Crickets hidden in a foggy, 1962 field, morbidly screeching like white noise in a black ear. Haggard men hoarding hate like old coins pause for gasoline then churn dust up from bald tires. Tomorrow at the bank, agency, classroom, factory, church and precinct, they will call Jesus a friend. —Rick Baldwin ©2018
To be you,
I didn’t know you;
one arm around my mother
the other hand on the wheel.
your side of the door
rarely heard on this
in a weird way.
didn’t belong with us and it’s
probably just as well.
But I would have liked to
have known you,
I might not have liked you
any more but
—Rick Baldwin @2018
One day I will flip out and scream, curse and bluster in frustration because I cannot for the life of me find my keys and when that happens please, please, please somebody remind me they are hanging on the hook behind the bedroom door. —Rick Baldwin ©2018