Famous songs you’ve never heard #3 – John Austin
This is probably going to be a series I work on literally for the rest of my life, at this point. I’m averaging six months per post.
But, because it’s July 4th, a story came to mind.
My first Cornerstone Festival (RIP) was 22 years ago this year. It may not be what you think of when you think “bachelor party”, getting together with old friends and driving to a Christian rock festival, but it was mine, and I enjoyed the music more than a small bit. And I enjoyed the company more. Some of my favorite people from my just-completed undergrad (and a couple of dear friends from Franklin College) came along with me for the trip, we camped on the grounds, we saw more people with piercings and punk hair and tattoos for Jesus than we had ever seen in our lives; it was a moment in time I’ll always be grateful for.
The debate of the week had to do with John Austin’s debut record, recorded for Myrrh/Glasshouse Records – one of the new major Christian imprints of the moment that was going to be all about the artistic singer-songwriter, but artistic with INTEGRITY because after all it’s a Christian label. Austin had recorded a couple of demo tracks that my friend Dave got when he went to Cornerstone in ’91, “The Embarrassing Young” and “Island Girl” – and he couldn’t stop raving about those tracks, and he was excited for the full album. But when he got it, he was deeply disappointed because of the overproduction that went into several of the tracks, most notably “Island Girl”, which he loved.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Glasshouse was still too beholden to the Christian music apparatus of the era, which lacked any sort of creative edge whatsoever. There were creative artists on Glasshouse, but precious little of what was recorded registered – and what did register with the ears of people like me got too little love from everybody else. Glasshouse Records didn’t last nearly long enough, nor did John Austin’s major label deal.
But a bunch of kids who were bound for grad school and advanced degrees (and one who was bound to find his car battery had gone dead over the weekend) still enjoyed a show on July 4, 1993, one of the last sets of the festival. And Austin brought the goods. I know I’m a nerd who likes cheesy stuff, but lines like “Could’ve been a legend if I’d died in my prime/Could’ve been a poet if I’d known how to make the words sound alike” and “I don’t know the language, but I’ve got the accent down” have a permanent place in my brain; Austin’s witty songwriting and the tight music made me a fan.
And while I’d listened to the demo tracks Dave had and REALLY enjoyed them, when I heard the fully-produced stuff, I never really found myself missing the stripped-down quality. I’ve kept the album – and those songs – front and center in my CD rack, and then on my mp3 player, and then in iTunes, for a couple of decades now. Austin never has gotten the attention he merits, and it’s a shame.
“It’s the Fourth of July”, John Austin said towards the end of that set in Bushnell, Illinois 22 years ago. “Here’s our national anthem.”
Forever not knowing the language; forever having the accent down. Thanks for the tunes, John.