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The Franke Truth

In vivid storytelling, folk-based musician offers universal issues drawn from Christian beliefs.

March 26, 1998|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Searching for deeper understanding in this crazy world can sure be a pain.

But for 50-year-old singer-songwriter Bob Franke to skim through life is to stunt personal growth.

"It's all about reaching for the truth," Franke said by phone from his home in rural Massachusetts. "When you look into the great abyss, you have faith that at some point, you will encounter God."

Franke's work as a folk-based musician draws from his Christian beliefs but expands into universal issues.

"When I write, I try to aim thematically for a spot that's halfway between me and the audience," he said. "I look for things we potentially share with one another--like love, loss . . . humor and compassion. I think the more personal the work, the more it brings us together. I use fiction to get at the truth, but basically my truth comes from the truth I see in other people's lives."

Franke, who will give a solo performance Friday night at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel, has released six albums. Playing at venues including coffeehouses, folk festivals, street corners, living rooms and churches, he has earned a reputation as a songwriter's songwriter. Such admired folkies as Tom Paxton, Tony Rice, June Tabor, David Wilcox, Martin Simpson and Peter, Paul and Mary have recorded at least one of his songs.

Last year's release, "Long Roads, Short Visits" (Daring Records), offers 10 more folk- and blues-based "short stories," plus the tasteful guitar textures of special guest Nina Gerber. Highlighted by the dark, lonely "The Roads Are Long in Canada" and the earnest "In the Place of Trust," the album blurs the line between the spiritual and secular worlds.

Fans and colleagues praise his lyrical depth and imagination. The ballad "Thanksgiving Eve," for example, features this moving passage: "What can you do with your days/but work and hope/What can you do with each moment of your life/but love 'til you've loved it away?"

And in the autobiographical "Hard Love," about a father-son relationship obscured by alcoholism, Franke sings: "The hard times and the liquor drove the easy love away/there was love in daddy's house . . . but it was a hard love."

Franke brings balance and levity to his repertoire with comical tales, including ditties that use personal computers and bicycle repairs as metaphors for sex. "Fuji Blues" finds a frustrated protagonist snickering to a love interest: "Now you've got rust around your axle/and your wheel's a little bent/and there ain't no lubrication/where the lubrication went."

With such vivid storytelling, doesn't Franke fear alienating a good portion of his audience? (He will also give a sermon Sunday at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Parish Church in Corona del Mar.)

"In the Judeo-Christian tradition, one can't divorce that tradition from politics and humanity," he said. "Certainly, sexuality is a core part of humanity. The baggage that there is no sexuality in the church is not baggage I choose to carry."

Franke would rather see a backlash directed toward those who use the pulpit for less than righteous ends.

"TV evangelism is a relatively recent phenomenon that I personally find appalling," he said. "It trivializes what true faith is all about. To me, selling an ideology on TV has nothing to do with the gospel and only serves to dilute its holy message."

Armed with just his acoustic and National steel guitars, a trunkload of songs and a deep tenor, Franke attracts a small following. That's a reality he readily accepts.

"It's no secret that restrictions are imposed on this kind of music by the recording industry and radio," Franke said, "because they select [other] songs that are mass-appealing, which translates to being lightweight and snappier. They discard the full potential of what songs can do, in terms of connecting on any kind of deeper level.

"So I just don't worry about industry gatekeepers when I write. This is my vocation, and I've had the support of my peers, family and community. When others hear me sing and say, 'Yes, real things are happening here,' it means everything to me. That kind of feedback has been a substitute for fame and fortune. In fact, it's sustained me probably in ways that notoriety and wealth never could."

BE THERE

Bob Franke plays Friday at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. 7:30 p.m. (714) 364-5270. $14.

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