Craig Bickhardt: Walking Through Fire
A dusty six-string in an attic corner marked the beginning of Craig Bickhardt’s long road to success as a musician and song writer. The year was 1968, a time when the guitar was coming into its own in the hands of Eric Clapton, John Fahey, Jimi Hendrix, and Muddy Waters. Craig studied the styles of these and other pioneers and then turned to the streets of his hometown to find other young musicians who were drawn to the same sounds. These included guitarist and songwriter Michael Sembello (“Maniac”).
The Philadelphia music scene was lively and diverse in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Clubs like the Electric Factory and the Main Point brought the best talents in the music world to the neighborhoods where Craig and his friends spent their after school hours.
His mind made up to pursue music, Craig passed on college and instead formed a band with two talented young singer-songwriters, F. C. Collins and Rick Bell, who were performing as a duo on the east coast club circuit. With the addition of a rhythm section the new band, calling themselves “Wire and Wood”, began performing original material and immediately gained a strong local following opening for artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Stephen Stills.
In 1974 Craig abandoned the Philly scene for Los Angeles, where he hooked up with his high school friend Sembello. The two struck up their old song writing relationship composing songs that would eventually be recorded by Art Garfunkel and others. As regulars at the Topanga Canyon Corral, Craig and a re-aligned version of Wire and Wood worked on their sound and experimented with song writing until they finally caught the ears of J. C. Phillips and Albert Grossman, who were forming a new partnership called October Records.
The band was poised to step into the spotlight with Grossman and Phillips behind them when suddenly, just before dawn on a February morning in 1975, Craig was awakened by voices shouting in the hallway of the small Mission Hills home they rented.
“I was half asleep, but I remember them saying ‘Don’t panic- the house is on fire. Just get up and get out!’ I put on my jeans and casually looked around for my boots. I guess I was a little too calm about the whole thing.”
As Craig opened the door into the hall, he saw the thick, black smoke and menacing flames already engulfing the walls and ceiling.
“I choked and fell down. Luckily there was still oxygen at floor level so when I caught my breath I was able to scramble under the smoke and flames until I made it out the front door of the house. The roof fell in a few minutes later. I probably said once that I’d walk through fire to be able to play music, but I never figured I’d really have to!”
Broke, burned out of everything they owned including musical instruments, the band turned for aid to the American Red Cross. They also faced the daunting obstacle of getting across the country to Albert Grossman’s studio in Bearsville, New York without money or instruments in order to fulfill their recording obligation.
More music to explore: Charlie Elgart
A few gigs with borrowed gear, a small advance from Grossman and Phillips, and their troubles seemed to be behind them. Although the recording session at Bearsville went well, the Lp was never completed. The new label folded after one unsuccessful release on a talented young keyboard player named Jonathan Cain (Journey). A few months later Grossman was dead. Lacking the money to return to LA and without the guidance of their label head and producer, the group finally hit a dead end and disbanded in 1979.
More determined than ever, Craig turned his full attention to song writing. Over the next few years he landed cuts with Anne Murray and others, sparking the interest of EMI publishing in New York where he was signed to an exclusive song writing contract in 1982. Craig was immediately asked to write a song for a movie that veteran director Bruce Beresford was about to make. The screenplay, written by Academy Award winner Horton Foote, was about a down and out country music songwriter. Robert Duvall was cast as Mac Sledge, the film’s leading role. The producers flew Craig to Nashville to record his song “You Are What Love Means To Me” with hit record producer Brent Maher (The Judds, Kenny Rogers). It became the movie’s closing theme. “Tender Mercies” went on to win two Academy Awards.
“I received the best red carpet treatment any unknown writer ever got in Nashville,” Craig says. “It was like I stepped into someone else’s life for a few days.”
On returning to Philadelphia Craig quit his job, sold or gave away most of his possessions, packed everything else into a trailer and headed south down interstate 81 to an uncertain future in Nashville, Tennessee.
Within a few months of arriving in Music City he made friends with several newcomers to Nashville including singer-songwriter Wendy Waldman, with whom he wrote his first top ten hit “That’s How You Know When Loves Right” recorded by Nicolette Larsen and Steve Wariner. He was also introduced to maverick record producer Allen Reynolds (Garth Brooks, Kathy Mattea), who took him into the studio to cut a few masters. The friendship that developed during the process was a key relationship for Craig.
“With Allen I felt I had met the person who could really see what I was getting at musically. He stripped the sound down to a live studio performance of me and my guitar, and built it back up from that foundation. He taught me that there’s a certain integration between my playing and singing that is essential to capturing the song as I’ve written it. I’ve been approaching my recording that way ever since.”
By 1987 Craig was on Music Row Magazine’s list of the hottest song writers in Nashville. His songs began appearing on records by many of country music’s biggest names. The Judds “Heartland” album featured three songs Craig had a hand in, including the number one Billboard hits “Turn It Loose” and “I Know Where I’m Going”. “You’re the Power”, recorded by Kathy Mattea, hit Billboard’s top five. Cuts by music legends Ray Charles and B. B. King followed.
But staying behind the scenes was never Bickhardt’s intention. Soon he began performing in a new live format created by friends Don Schlitz, Thom Schuyler and Fred Knobloch, who performed regularly at a local Nashville club called The Bluebird Café. The format, dubbed “In the Round”, consisted of the performers sitting “guitar-pull” style in the center of the audience to trade songs and jokes for a few hours. The four-man shows created a buzz in town and before long the tiny club was packed to capacity every time Thom, Don, Fred and Craig booked an evening there.
Schuyler and Knobloch liked the blend of the three part harmonies when Craig joined the In-the-Round, so when Paul Overstreet decided to leave their band SKO to pursue other interests Craig was drafted as Paul’s replacement. Within a year the newly configured trio’s song “No Easy Horses” was on the charts. SKB’s CD of the same name garnered critical acclaim and went on to yield the successful singles “This Old House” and “Givers and Takers”, with both songs featuring Bickhardt’s name in the song writing credits. The short-lived act made a second CD but their label, MTM Records, folded in 1989 and the three friends decided to go their separate ways.
Returning to what he loved most, Craig spent the next few years exploring his writing. The results included the number one hits “In Between Dances” (Pam Tillis, 1995), co-written with Barry Alfonso, and “It Must Be Love” (Ty Herndon, 1998), co-written with Jack Sundrud. He also landed platinum album cuts with “Where I Used to Have a Heart” (Martina McBride), “All the Things We’ve Never Done” (Martina McBride), co-written with Jeff Pennig, and “Even a Cowboy Can Dream” (Trisha Yearwood), also co-written with long-time collaborator Barry Alfonso. Another movie theme followed when Craig’s song “Where I Used To Have A Heart” was featured in the thriller “Switchback”
During this period Craig once again collaborated with Thom Schuyler on a twelve song CD titled “Precious Child” (Warner-Alliance, 1993). The project, a re-telling of the Christmas story through the eyes of the characters, included performances by Vince Gill, Janis Ian, Michael Johnson, Guy Clark and others.
Artists you may love: 4 Way Street
Late in 1998 Craig turned his attention to his long delayed solo recording career. Over the next three years he produced recordings of a dozen of his best songs that featured his trademark acoustic guitar playing and soulful voice. Finally in July of 2001 the CD “Easy Fires” was completed.
Now at home in the niche he has carved for himself, Craig continues to write enduring songs that artists around the world make room for on their recordings. Among his recent cuts are “I’d Move Heaven and Earth”, another collaboration with Jack Sundrud that Ty Herndon has included on his Greatest Hits CD, and “Quilt of Dreams”, recorded by Australian Pop star Gina Jefferies. Poco, featuring Sundrud on bass, has also recorded a song Craig and Jack wrote that will be included on their long awaited new CD.
“I don’t think about it anymore,” he says. “I’ve got nothing to prove. I just write what appeals to me and figure maybe it will appeal to someone else who has been down the same road.”
Craig currently lives in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife Eileen and their twin children Aislinn and Jake.
Find more at It’s About Music