A Little Help From Friends

Songs in the key of life: Singer-songwriter Cindy Bullens released an album inspired by the death of her daughter

Cindy Bullens has earned a reputation as an artist whose concerts are a one-of-a-kind experience, but the rock-and-roller's upcoming performance as part of an E-Town taping will have its own unique significance. The Denver area has played an important role in the development of her vision over the past year since she released her album about the loss of her eleven-year-old daughter, Jessie Bullens-Crewe, to cancer.

In the liner notes to her 1999 album, Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth, Bullens describes the devastation she experienced in the wake of Jessie's death. "I felt my own life end," the lines read. "I couldn't imagine that I could ever again be a productive human being. That I would ever again write a song, let alone record an entire album, was the furthest thing from my mind."

But Bullens had been making music all her life, at least as far back as age ten, when she took her older brother's neglected guitar away from him. She had toured with Elton John, singing and arranging his backing vocals (it is Bullens's work you are singing when you "woo hoo" along with "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"), and she already had three major label releases of her own: 1979's Desire Wire (United Artists), 1980's Steal the Night (Casablanca) and 1989's Cindy Bullens (MCA). She'd received two Grammy nominations, one for her lead vocals on the Grease movie soundtrack and another for Best Rock Vocal for the single "Survivor," off of Desire Wire. Always a hard rocker, Bullens's once shimmery sound had settled into a simpler, refined approach to songwriting over the years. Her supple voice also deepened and grew more forceful. After her third release, she performed with everyone from Bob Dylan to Lucinda Williams to Joe Cocker. Her songs found their way onto albums by blues artist Sarah Brown and R&B great Irma Thomas and went over well in Nashville, where they were performed by the likes of Radney Foster, Bill Lloyd, the Dixie Chicks and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

So it only makes sense that, a few months after her daughter's death, Bullens found herself "aimlessly strumming chords just to hear the comforting sound of the instrument." A song came out, seemingly from nowhere, about the death of her daughter. "I was at once energized and horrified," she says. "It took some time to reconcile the two feelings." But out of love for her daughter, she allowed herself to write the next song three months later, and another one three months after that. A number of her friends in the music industry (she particularly emphasizes Rodney Crowell's role in this process) encouraged her to make the album she was being compelled to make. She did just that -- with the help of Crowell, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Lucinda Williams, Bryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt, among others. In early 1999, she pressed a thousand copies of the CD, with all proceeds going to the Jessie Bullens-Crewe Foundation to benefit the Maine Children's Cancer Program.

What Bullens's friends sensed about the album, and what later led industry executive Danny Goldberg to re-release it as the debut CD from his new label, Artemis, was more than the knowledge that the music was important therapy for Bullens. Bullens artfully crafted her personal experience into a remarkable recording, and the sound that sprang from her grief work was brilliantly moving and universal ("I'd trade it in a second just to have you back," she sings in the album's closing cut). Heaven and Earth refuses to accept easy answers; in the most pragmatic terms, the music and lyrics express a need for faith and finding reasons to believe in life without ever letting the listener forget that hope exists in the cruelest, most unjust universe imaginable.

In the middle of marketing the release, Bullens, like the rest of the nation, was shaken by the news of the Columbine High School shootings. Just as she was compelled to create an entire album about Jessie's death, she also felt compelled to send copies of the album to the families who lost loved ones in the massacre.

The story she tells is a testament to what makes her music so important: "I wrote a letter for each one with a small description of me and the music," she says. "I wrote that I expected no response and an apology if I was intruding. I got an e-mail the next week from a mother of one of the boys who was killed, thanking me. She went on to tell me how much the music meant to her. I got another e-mail from a father of another boy. Though he tossed the CD in a pile at first, he told me it was the first thing he had gotten that really helped.

"Then we all started to correspond. They wondered if I was going to appear in the Denver area on my tour. I wasn't -- so I offered to come to Littleton and do something for them privately. They accepted the offer."

Last fall, Bullens drove to Littleton during a nine-week cross-country tour. She stayed there for two days. "I met with the two families I mentioned before for dinner the night before the concert. The mother took me to Columbine High School, where we walked around as she described every shooting in order and how it was done. We walked up the hill where the crosses were placed -- it was very hard, and I felt humbled.

"I knew why she had to tell me every detail. I had to do the same when Jessie died.

"The concert itself was the hardest gig I've ever done. Also the most profound. Those people, listening to my songs about the death of my own daughter, in agony with their own horror and grief. I knew that I had lived three years now beyond Jessie's death and that they were still so raw. I talked to them -- I can't even remember now what I said, but we were there, all of us with open hearts and raw emotion. I can't tell you how grateful I am that I did it. It was an extremely powerful experience for me."

"Open hearts and raw emotion" describe the very essence of what makes this music so special. With Bullens's voice always plainspoken and real and the stark music complementing that honesty, Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth may be one of the most uncompromising albums ever, and yet it strikes such universal chords that it is hard to imagine an audience that wouldn't respond to it. At virtually every one of her live performances, the sight of folks waiting around stage doors to have a few words with her is common, and Bullens is happy to take time out for those who want to talk.

Over the past year, Bullens has used her music to benefit cancer centers, hospices and local charities. She has even used her songs for workshops at the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Care Physicians Conference. But the Littleton correspondence and ensuing concert may be the most vivid evidence that the grief and healing this music tackles is charting its own path.

After all, Bullens doesn't really see it as her show at all. "I feel more and more like I'm just part of a bigger picture, a bigger plan. And Jessie's in control. I'm just showing up."

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