Pam Mark Hall: the Christian music singer ostracized by divorce is back at it in her 60s
As baby boomers enter their 60s and 70s, they may wonder if their lives still matter in an age of Social Security. They wonder how to deal with the bitterness that life frequently doles out.
No musician embodies that question as much as Pam Mark Hall, who was a rising music star until a divorce. Christian fans deserted her, sending her into poverty and causing her to give up performing for about 30 years. Several years ago, she returned to her California roots and released a seventh music album long past the age when most singers dare to do so.
Called “Mangle the Tango,” it’s an encouragement to the over-50 crowd that “it’s better to fall than never dance at all.” She was 65 when it was released.
“Maybe I’m crazy,” she said, “because while many people my age are eager to retire, I’m inspired to rise from the ashes of life’s fiery challenges to share from my resources and experiences.”
A multi-talented gospel artist, Hall was the new fresh female face of contemporary Christian music (CCM) in the 1970s and 80s. At only 15, she was selected to sing with “Up With People,” a famous touring singing group where one of her cohorts was a then-unknown teenager named Glenn Close. Her career then took her to Portland, Ore., then to Nashville where she composed and sang with the best-known musicians in the country.
In her early 20s, Hall was mentored by John Fischer, the contemporary Christian music (CCM) pioneer who founded the Discovery Art Guild at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto. Her 1975 album “Flying” was released on Aslan Records, the guild’s music label, and was one of the first records to be reviewed by Campus Life magazine.
Her marriage took her to Portland, where she became a local celebrity, especially when her second album, “This is Not a Dream,” came out in 1977, the same year that Record World magazine hailed her as their top CCM Female Artist of the Year. [I was a college student in Portland at the time and saw her perform at many events.]
Hall was one of a handful of young evangelical Christian female performers making a name for themselves. Evie Tornquist, Jamie Owens, Debby Boone and Nancy Honeytree were some of the other popular musicians of the era.
That was also the same year that a 17-year-old named Amy Grant would come out with her first album. Grant would turn out to be the game changer for CCM; redefining it from more folk treatment by artists like Hall to a flashier pop music sound. Hall changed her style to incorporate more jazz and rock along with folks for her 1980 album “Never Fades Away.” When two of Amy Grant’s managers approached her about being part of Reunion Records, their new record label, she agreed to move to Nashville in 1981 along with her husband and four-week-old daughter Emily.
Hall’s career soared as she released more albums, sang background vocals for “Age to Age,” one of Grant’s gold records (“gold” signifying more than 500,000 in sales) in 1982 and produced a popular album of lullabies (“Good Night, Sleep Tight”) in 1983 that is her best-selling album to this day.
Behind the scenes, her marriage was crumbling amid the conflict between her public role as an independent singer and record producer and her domestic role as a woman forced to be submissive to her husband. In an era when Marabel Morgan’s “The Total Woman” was a best seller, female submission was part of the evangelical Christian framework for marriages. In 1987, Hall filed for divorce, citing infidelity and misogyny as reasons.
“We had a pretty ugly messy marriage,” she said. “Would I do it again? Well, I got my daughter out of it and I’d not trade her for anything.”
The CCM world was unforgiving. Reunion Records dropped her (“They couched it in, ‘We don’t think God wants us to do any more records with you,’ ’’ she said), which deprived her of a label, the must-have platform for any Nashville-based artist.
“There wasn’t any kind of support for divorced women out there,” she said. “My divorce happened before Amy’s and Sandi Patti’s.” (Amy Grant got divorced from Gary Chapman in 1999; singer Sandi Patti was divorced from John Helvering in 1992. Both women got severe blowback from Christian fans but their divorces weren’t career enders like Hall’s was.)
Within a year, Hall went from singing at concerts in front of thousands to being a single mom cleaning houses and hanging wallpaper. Like many musicians, she hadn’t put much thought into personal finances.
“Frankly, I thought I’d be doing this the rest of my life or until Jesus comes,” she says. “And back then, we were looking for Jesus to come again. So we weren’t thinking about getting through retirement. We were thinking of saving the world.
“But the divorce took away my earning capacity. Invitations just died. I didn’t have an agent. I was so, so angry at how I was being treated; how a woman in my position were treated by men in powerful positions in the church and the Christian music field. I came to a place where I didn’t want to sing in a church. I am still there. I don’t want to sing in a church. It makes me feel I have to contort myself to say the right things to be heard and accepted.”
Many of her church friends abandoned her.
“I was involved with a megachurch that a lot of musicians went to and I was part of a women’s Bible study,” she says. “The woman who led it defended me leaving my ex because he was screwing around. That was his pattern throughout the whole marriage. The church wanted her to hold my feet to the fire to say I shouldn’t leave him. Then the elders of the church were accusing her of being a lesbian. They disfellowshipped her.”
Stunned, Hall sought out others who cared.
“There was a little United Methodist church around the corner where a lot of Vanderbilt University professors went,” she says. “The pastor was Bill Barnes and they were totally about inclusivity. They were black and white, gay and straight. (Pop/folk singer and songwriter) Gene Cotton and his wife, Marnie, invited me there. That gave me a glimpse of where Jesus would hang out.”
She wrote a song “Angry Woman,” an anthem for trod-upon, fed-up women. It is not on any of her albums. One verse proclaims:
Baby, don’t need too much, but don’t be too strong
Be sweet, compliant, and just ride along –
Don’t you be an angry woman, angry woman.
If he exploits you, just suffer long…
Give up all your rights, even when he does wrong.
But don’t cha be an angry woman, angry woman.
She got some gigs writing jingles for some top food brands until a Screen Actor’s Guild strike ended that. Then she was a personal assistant to singer Rosanne Cash. She put out one last album, “Paler Shade,” in 1993, but its label went out of business. She went to work for the Salvation Army earning $5 an hour and worked her way up to doing public relations. She then took a job with an advertising firm in Nashville, which paid the bills until the 2008 recession. Back on the street in 2009 looking for a job, she found her advertising know-how was out-of-date.
“Everything was going digital and young kids were coming out with marketing degrees,” she said. “I was 58 and nobody would hire me.”
She got into life insurance but quickly tired of dunning her friends for business. Eventually, she could no longer pay the mortgage on her home. Meanwhile, her 84-year-old mother, in Oroville, Calif., needed support. Hall’s daughter, Emily, had moved elsewhere and the musician decided it was time to leave town.
[I was living in west Tennessee at the time and my daughter had an appointment at the hospital connected with Vanderbilt University. I learned that Hall was giving a farewell concert at a café a mere two blocks from our hotel on the date when we’d be in town. So, we showed up on that freezing January night in 2013. Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt, Hall, then 61, sang a few songs in front of about 30 people. She seemed dispirited and it was obvious this was not quite the exit from Nashville she’d envisioned.]
Putting her belongings in storage, she moved back home to Oroville, Calif., living with her parents for a few months until her stepfather asked her to leave, saying she needed to get a job. She lived with an Anglican priest and his family for another year, then with various friends. Once she hit 65, she started getting Social Security and bought herself a mobile home.
“I never imagined I’d be living in a double wide, but here I am,” she said. “My mom has dementia. I wonder: Is that my future as well? That’s not just my journey; it’s that of a large percentage of the boomer population. We have demented parents and we are facing potentially that same future.”
Meanwhile, Emily had started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Hall to move her household goods from Nashville to Oroville. Friends raised $7,050 to help her move her Steinway piano – and other belongings - to California in mid-2016. Once that arrived, the singer began to create anew.
“Over my 35-year career, the songs, recordings and projects that have been most successful, have been the ones that I just gave myself over to as a conduit for what was there,” she wrote on her blog. “Of course, I did rewrites and tweaking. But I did not try to manage the muse. I listened and I transcribed.”
By this time, she had found part-time work with insurance brokerage firms that hire her out as an employee benefits enrollment consultant with various businesses. During open enrollment periods, she helps workers figure out their benefits. Most of the people she meets, ranging from truckers to police officers, struggle to make ends meet.
“So many people I talk to are in worse situations especially people - like me - who had these ministry careers that didn’t pay into social security,” she said. “I don’t have very many answers for people these days. I still believe in God but I’m not comfortable with giving spiritual platitudes and reasons for things.”
Once she turned 65 in November 2016, she chopped off her long hair and decided she had at least one more album in her. She chose “Mangle the Tango” for the title song.
“How many times have you thought of something you’d love to learn or do only to be thwarted by that internal voice that warns you are too old, too out of date, you’ve had your turn, you aren’t that smart, you aren’t pretty enough, you’re too fat or out of shape, people will laugh at you, your family thinks you are weird and a loser?’’ she asked in the program notes.
Along with lush color acrylics of women’s faces, there’s an eclectic play list that includes a song based on the best-selling book “The Shack.” There’s also a tribute to Harriet Tubman, a composition about a summer spent on Martha’s Vineyard and a piece about Judgment Day.
“It’s true I can’t sing like I used to,” she said, “but Joni Mitchell can’t sing the same way either. How can you move ahead in life and be creative and productive, not based on the past but who you are and what you can bring to the table now? I have a responsibility to do and create while I’m still breathing.”
Old friends Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow of the 1960s music group “Peter, Paul and Mary” agreed to lend their voices. Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn sang his classic “All the Diamonds in the World” on the album as a duet with her. Two Nashville friends: Jerry Chamberlain and T.J. Klay, played guitar and harmonica. Many other friends offered help. Since there was no famous record company backing her, she turned to GoFundMe to raise $26,000 to do the recording and oversee the mixing, mastering and manufacturing of the CDs. Supporters donated $29,310.
She did a series of 12 concerts promoting the album up and down the West Coast – where her artistry fan base is concentrated - at secular venues or in friends’ homes and since then has done a series of benefit concerts for fire victims in the Sonoma area. Her anger and hurt toward how many Christians treated her back in the 1980s has subsided to where she’s open to singing in progressive churches that never held her divorce against her.
Now 67, she is philosophical about the disappointment many baby boomers like herself feel when life has not turned out the way they’d dreamed.
“As a generation, we are at a spot where we have such high expectations of our lives and pressured to make something happen,” she said. “We spend our lives driven to accomplish things.
“I’ve been talking to myself about acceptance, then moving to gratitude and forward from there,” she added. “I am in a transitional period right now with this acceptance thing. I am what I am and have on my plate what I have on my plate.”
She still has many songs that have not been released commercially.
“OK, so what’s next?” she said. “I am at the beginning of renaming what I want to do. First you get a vision, accomplish it, then you crash and then reinvent.”
The author wishes to credit a 2016 research paper on Pam Mark Hall by Tim Dillinger for some of the material in this article.