Award-winning Gospel singer, songwriter, and producer Mark Bishop will be releasing his new album Some Distant Mountain (September 24). On this new record, Bishop explores the roots of American music and its origins in Celtic, European, and African traditional music.
Driven by an overarching theme of perseverance, the album itself resonates with the power of the moment we are in. Having emerged shaken and transformed by life in a pandemic, each track on Some Distant Mountain reads like a love letter from the past, steeped in wisdom and experience from those who came before.
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Q: Mark, thank you so much for doing this interview with us. Congratulations on the upcoming release of your new album. For this new record, you decided to explore the roots of American Music. Why did you decide to explore this avenue?
The idea to explore the roots of Gospel music and that unique time in American history when the old music from across the ocean found its way into the Appalachian hills had been percolating in my mind for a few years. It's just a fascinating sound where old Celtic and European music had to be translated by the pioneers of this new country. I had conversations with Greg Bentley and Roger Talley (both from Crossroads Music) on different occasions about the concept and they said, 'yeah... let's get everybody together and talk about it." From there, we were off to the races.
Q: How did you go about exploring and re-exploring American roots music?
Well, I have to admit that I wasn't so interested in the "academic" side of where the songs came from as much as I was just trying to pin down a certain sound and feeling. There is, in actuality, a mix of old songs and also some new songs that sound old. We went more by feel than historic accuracy. My co-producers Jeff Collins and Mark Fain knew what we were going for from the start and the three of us working together were able to find the right balance. Both of those guys are AMAZING in what they do. The three of us together brought different strengths.
Q: Why did you name the album "Some Distant Mountain"?
"Some Distant Mountain" kind of has a three-fold meaning to me. First, it represents a distant time. Second, it represents a different geographical place. And third, it's a Gospel music album. As a Christian, there is a distant "hill" or "mountain" that defines our salvation. I was saved by the actions of Jesus on "some distant mountain."
Q: You have recorded songs from quite a diverse pool of songwriters. Tell us who some of them are.
We really ran the gamut on song selection. Robert Lowery wrote "Shall We Gather at the River" during the Civil War. The Isaac Watts song "Early My God Without Delay" is from 1719. "Were You There" is an old African American Spiritual from the turn of the century, along with "One Wide River." There are some songs that are newer by writers like David Marshall, Julie Miller, Bob Neuwirth, and T. Bone Burnett. I have songs on the album too that sound older than they are. All of them work together to set a certain mood when listening.
Q: Talk to us about your single "Like a Songbird that Has Fallen."
I hadn't heard the song in years when I had put out the call to some of my "old-time music" friends for song suggestions. A friend of mine, a great fiddle-player here local by the name of Wanda Barnett sent me a video link to the song. I loved the unconventional lyrics and how much they sounded like poetry. They are accessible and yet symbolic at the same time. I don't really write that way and so the song appealed to me because of the feelings it evoked. Topped off by great harmony vocals by Ally Griggs and it just came together beautifully.
Q: I really love the a capella rendition of "Were You There?" What inspired you to do an a capella take of it?
One of the great traditions of old-time mountain music is the a cappella call to worship in the old mountain churches. I've heard it in church all my life here in the hills of eastern Kentucky. Our family used to sing a lot of a cappella music. There is just something very intimate and lonesome about it that feels earnest to me.
Q: What were some of the highlights in the making of this record?
Well for one thing, I love the communal process of making an album with other creative people. There comes a point where the artist's vision is laid on the table and other voices and insights contribute to the finished project. To some, that control is hard to give up, but to me, whatever might be "lost in the translation" is more than made up for by the great surprises that come out of the communal contribution. I tell the guys in the studio that working with them is like Christmas morning for me. Each song is like opening a new gift. On this particular album, we had fun exploring new instruments and what they could do. My friend and studio engineer Scott Barnett had a blast just trying to figure out the best way to mic a hurdy-gurdy! Scott loves new challenges anyway.
Q: What lessons do you want your listeners to take away after listening to this album?
Maybe that the "old, old story" is still as relevant today as it was generations ago. Even though these songs are very old, the themes they explored still hold up and speak to us in our world today. God's promises of hope for the future resonated to our great-grandmas and great-grandpas back then and they still give the same hope today. Those folks back then lived through some hard times. We are living through hard times today. Music has a way of speaking directly to our hearts about how we are feeling. When a song validates how we are feeling, it makes us feel less alone. As a Christian, my hope for any of our music is that God will keep it in his toolbox and then at some point, when it's needed and can be useful, He'll take that song out and get it to the right place.