Songwriter for the Heart: MKB reflects on musical journey
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
• Today Magazine received an SPJ award for this story in 2021 — it was first published as a cover story in our October 2020 edition and is still timeless and relevant today
By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
SONGWRITERS play an essential role in human hearts and lives because songs are woven into the fabric of the human narrative. While every generation features gifted songwriters, some notable American songsmiths who began their musical careers in the 1970s are now in their 70s. This tuneful 70-something crew includes Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder.
Let’s add a Farmington Valley songwriter to the list: Michael Kelly Blanchard, aka MKB. His new 2020 album is "Twilight Mostly in E."
Blanchard, 71, is quick to say that he is far from a household name in the American songwriters pantheon. The Unionville resident even ventures that he isn’t especially well-known in Connecticut or the Valley, though his fans would demur — and those who know his music will affirm that the quality of Blanchard’s songwriting places him in the rarefied air associated with the most renowned songwriters of his generation.
One such fan accepted a recent Facebook challenge to name the 10 most influential albums in his life — and cited artists like Browne, Springsteen, Wonder and Canadian tunesmith Bruce Cockburn. This fan’s #1 album? Michael Kelly Blanchard’s "Love Lives On."
Asked to explain in 10 words or less why he writes songs, Blanchard replies: “To express the joy, longing and loss of the heart.”
Perhaps every genuine songsmith writes songs that move the human heart, yet describing Blanchard as a songwriter for the heart is emphatically fitting. His lyrics and melodies, and their artful blending and interweaving, aim to circumvent and penetrate the walls we humans sometimes construct to protect our hearts … though the opposite too often occurs. Rather than guarding our hearts, our self-protective walls can become prisons — “self-dungeons dark and cruel,” to borrow a Blanchard phrase from his classic song "There Is Still a King of Hearts."
His songwriting offers a merciful antidote to this sad dynamic.
Blanchard’s songs and their cogent stories seek to reach the heart and soul with a lifeline of honesty and grace in the face of life’s sorrowful side. His lyrics and story subjects acknowledge the presence of pain in the heart’s quest for true love — pointing to the necessity of vulnerably enduring such pain as a pathway to ultimately discovering true joy across the spectrum of relationships … friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives … and human beings with God. All the above find an illuminating place in Blanchard’s musical catalogue.
Greta, his wife of 48 years, identifies a short list of her favorite MKB songs — and they address these universal themes:
Love After All — “Love in these times is a gamble at best / On the front lines without a bulletproof vest / Riddled with crimes that infect and infest / Love is a gamble at best / Chorus: But still I believe in Love after all / Though to have it you’ll bleed, to find it you’ll fall / Every soul needs to be caught by its call — caught by Love after all.”
Lance These Wounds — “As I hid my bitter grief / Back turned, pride spurned, would not speak / Day and night ran into one / Rage in ruins — soul undone / Chorus: Lance these wounds, let the anger drain / Till there’s room for something more than pain / Cast out this gloom, banish blame / Lance these wounds, Lord — let me love again.”
A View Out the Window — “The view out the window is just a piece of the sky / Sometimes you hear the gray geese go but you can’t see ’em fly / Sometimes your heart aches inside so you feel you could die / And the reasons, well God knows, but He don’t tell you why / Cause the view out the window is just a piece of the sky.”
Holy Land of the Broken Heart — “No conditions but the truth, all the shackled shame let loose / Forgiveness the living proof … that Your love is real / Oh, the eyes of humankind, show the pain that numbs the mind, search the sorrow for a sign of mercy in the maze.”
Thy True Love — “Thy true love, hiding in my snowbound winter heart / Breaking from that hard ground Your flowers start their timeless art as death departs.”
Recorded on 20 albums over a career that spans 50 years, Blanchard’s songs and stories serve as dance partners in the distressing yet also delightful realm of human existence. Yes, in addition to our shared heartache, a certain divine delight is a favored Blanchard motif.
His signature classic "Be Ye Glad" — he calls the song his “flagship anthem” — reflects the paradox of jubilation in the midst of desperation: “In these days of confused situations, in these nights of a restless remorse / When the heart and the soul of the nation lay wounded and cold as a corpse / From the grave of the innocent Adam comes a song bringing joy to the sad / Oh, your cries have been heard and the ransom has been paid up in full — Be Ye Glad!”
Greta affirms, “Every time I sing it or hear it, there is something new that has transpired, giving new meaning to his lyrics.”
"Be Ye Glad" has been recorded by Noel Paul Stookey — of the legendary folk group Peter, Paul and Mary — among others.
Blanchard’s whimsical tunes elicit smiles and laughter via winsome humor, reflecting life’s lighter side and celebrating serendipity.
Here’s a sample from "Coppertop" — a song about his red-headed son’s toddler stage that gives a nod to a vintage ad campaign: “All through the morning he runs / Bouncing off couches and chairs / Obsessively looking for fun / And finding it most everywhere … Chorus: Coppertop, Coppertop, Coppertop battery / Will not stop, will not stop, will not stop — that is he / But he’s a wonderful, wonderful joy / Our Coppertop battery boy.”
As his website says, Blanchard “tells stories with a tender touch to help us laugh and cry at both the human condition and the renewing power of God’s unconditional love.”
THE UNIONVILLE CONNECTION
Born in Hartford in 1948, Michael Kelly Blanchard was raised in Unionville (a distinct section of Farmington) from the get-go. A graduate of Farmington High, he attended the iconic Berklee College of Music, attaining the dean’s list.
His first and middle names signal the Irish ancestry on both sides of his family. “My father was three-quarters Irish, my mother 100%, so the green gene is pretty predominant,” he says.
He met Greta in the spring of 1970 on Boston’s North Shore and they married in February 1972. They’ll both turn 72 soon — he in late October, she in early December. Greta was born and raised in Detroit and later in Franklin Village, a nearby suburb, so her musical roots are in Motown. Her favorite artists include Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
Michael and Greta initially lived in Collinsville, right next door to Unionville, and moved in ’72 to Newburyport, MA, to facilitate his Berklee education in Boston as she taught at Memorial Elementary School in Salisbury, MA.
After returning to Connecticut, their daughter Esther and son Reuben arrived. The family lived in Harwinton, Simsbury and Torrington before moving to Unionville in 1992 — and Michael’s hometown figures prominently in many of his story-songs.
“The old adage — ‘Write what you know’ — applies to my love affair with Unionville,” he says. “It is where I grew up and probably will die and has supplied the background material for much of my writings.”
One anecdote that stands out: Michael, his brother and father recited (in different years) the Gettysburg Address at the town’s Memorial Day ceremony.
“A great honor,” Blanchard affirms, “as all of us had such a high admiration for Abraham Lincoln.”
A RIVER TO REMEMBER
“The evocative presence of the Farmington River that flows right down the middle of town will always be a warm source of remembrance for me,” he says. “Fishing with my father, autumn walks along it as a teenager … glassing for hawks and eagles from the three bridges [in town] that cross it.”
Steve Hawley has known Michael for five decades.
“Farmington High is where our friendship began — his pursuit was music, mine was visual arts,” Hawley says. “In those days, thinking of a career in the arts was far from popular.”
Michael graduated in 1966, Hawley in ’68. He cites a C.S. Lewis quote: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
“Michael’s songwriting opens the heart and brings forth the reality of God’s unending love that surrounds us all,” says Hawley, whose paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. “My friendship with Michael is a deep treasure to me lasting and continuing over 50 years.”
Michael and Greta likewise have a five-decade connection with The Master’s School, a private school in West Simsbury. She taught 4th and 5th grade for 30 years, and he was musician-in-residence when Master’s debuted in 1970. In 1985, after an ’84-85 return stint as music teacher, Michael established Quail Ministries, the nonprofit that has been the operational awning for his creative work.
The cover of Michael’s seminal "Love Lives On" album features a photo taken in the yard of Simsbury residents Rick and Lynne Schoenhardt, who met Michael in ’70 at Master’s.
“We met Greta soon after their wedding,” Lynne says, “and they were close friends as their family grew. They are now our closest friends.”
THE QUAIL CAME
Lynne and Rick, who moved to Simsbury in ’61, have served on Quail Ministries’ board since the beginning, with Rick as chairman: “The name Quail comes from one of Michael’s early songs and albums,” he explains.
“We see each other often and enjoy their love of the Lord and us,” says Rick, a retired architect who designed numerous landmark buildings in Simsbury and the Valley. “They are wonderful examples of sincere, honest and open human beings. We appreciate their artistic, vocal and creative talents, which are many.”
Michael and Greta will surely appreciate the kudos of their friends, yet they’re certainly also aware of their human frailties and imperfections — and his songwriting confesses this openly, such as these "Love of the Father" lyrics:
“I fumble and fail at Your call / Over and over again, I back my boast to the wall / Then broken and bruised in defeat and disgrace / You honor my loss with a long loving taste / Of Your eternal water that flows through this wasteland You’ve won / The love of the Father as seen in the face of the Son.”
"Michael tells stories with a tender touch to help us laugh and cry at both the human condition and the renewing power of God's unconditional love” — from MKB's website
In several six-degrees-of-separation convergences — MKB-style — Rick and Lynne have been connected for six decades to Simsbury’s Covenant Presbyterian Church, aka the Barn, where the Blanchards attended in the ’70s and ’80s. The Blanchards also lived for about two years in an extra Barn manse — “a necessary stopgap just when we needed it,” says Greta.
Two veteran educators at the Barn, both longtime Valley residents, were instrumental in establishing Master’s in ’70 — founding headmaster Ralph Mattson of Canton and Adelma “Del” Tomkiel of Simsbury. Mattson died in 2018, Tomkiel in 2012.
Death and loss are, certainly, two themes addressed in Michael’s music. The title cut of his "A View Out The Window" album, on the Diadem label, tells the heartbreaking tale of a daughter who loses her Mom to cancer, yet clings tenaciously to hope — the chorus is printed earlier in this article. Michael recorded three albums with Nashville-based Diadem from 1989-94, two more with the Goliard label from 1996-98, one with Koinonia Records in 1975, and one with Neworld in 2001 ("There is Love" — with Stookey).
His other 13 albums have been recorded on the Gotz label. What is Gotz, you ask?
To be grammatically correct, the question needs to be rephrased: Who is Gotz? Greta is the best source for an accurate answer to this query.
“Gotsie — or Gotz — was the nickname that my older brother gave me when I was young because he couldn’t pronounce Greta,” she says. “It became a name I was often called at home by my brother, sister and Dad. When Steve Hawley was designing our Quail album cover, he thought Gotz would look good circling the turntable — and of course I was all about that idea!”
Michael completes the story: “So we decided to make the name of the label Gotz Records.”
Music and mathematics, the academic gurus say, are inextricably linked. For songwriting fans galore, the following heartfelt equation is a no-brainer:
MKB + Gotz = match made in heaven
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an award-winning journalist
• This story received a second-place SPJ Award in 2021 in Connecticut's Arts & Entertainment magazine category • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists
• This article first appeared as the cover story in the October 2020 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication — along with an exclusive MKB Q&A