Friday, January 09, 2015

MERRILL WOMACH, the Toast of the Christian Music World, 87

Among the tragically hip, Merrill Womach (February 7, 1927 – December 28, 2014) has a cult following for his "incredibly strange" belief in God and over a dozen albums that feature his burn-scarred face. "Ha ha, ho ho, hee hee," chortle the hipster/"lounge" music fans, here's a guy who THANKS GOD for disfiguring and nearly killing him on Thanksgiving Day, 1961.

Back in 1961, Womach was a handsome fellow with a wife and three kids. What Muzak was to elevators, his "National Music Service" was to funeral homes. He offered instrumentals, and his own vocals on hymns that could be heard on tape during wakes and services. His voice was heavenly, and as you'll hear on "Ten Thousand Angels," he was capable of registering sincere emotion, not just an impressively strong operatic tenor. With a hectic schedule of concerts, and a new business that he needed to promote by visiting funeral homes all over the Wes Coast, Womach flew his own small plane.

The man who brought comforting music to death scenes, was nearly burned alive in Beaver Marsh, Oregon. Cold weather caused engine trouble, and the plane conked out as he tried to find a safe place to land. He clipped a bunch of trees, and when he landed a gas explosion seared his face. He staggered from the wreckage with a head that, by his own admission, looked more like a giant toasted marshmallow. Most people in such condition die of shock, but to keep himself from sinking into a coma or possible death, Womach began to sing. What else did he know besides his hymns? It's no surprise that among the cynical, the thought of a crisply burnt man wheeled into surgery bellowing songs about God seems like very black humor.

Only a few weeks later, he faced his congregation at church, wearing a grafted mask of skin. He was lucky to be alive, and like so many in a situation like this, he chose to thank God rather than curse God. He somehow believed that the years of pain and reconstructive surgery were setting him up for greater things. His music would not only comfort those grieving; he felt his concerts now would show anyone in pain, that the pain and suffering could be overcome.

This isn't to say that being burnt up didn't mean hell for him, and even a loss of faith. To be literally grounded just when his concerts and his business were taking off, drove him to despair. The long recuperation, the constant skin grafts, and the pain both physical and emotional were a trial for him and his wife and family. "Scriptures," he admitted, "that before that time had buoyed our spirit and made us feel better, made me feel worse."

In 1964, Womach's business finally was making enough of a profit for him to incorporate. A dozen years later, and he was voted "Spokane's Outstanding Citizen of the Year." From a struggling singer who performed at local funerals of all denominations, he was now average over 100 concerts a year.

Among the "So bad it's good crowd," the main thing was that Womach was still an appalling sight. They sought out, and enjoyed an ironic laugh at albums titled "Happy Again" (1974) and "Feelin' Good" (1983).

Womach's albums became snickering collector items to hundreds of people beyond the Christian music market. The high prices reflected that these small label items weren't easy to find. It's doubtful even a Christian record store would put one in the window. Womach wasn't easy to find, either, since his scarred face didn't make him welcome on "The Lawrence Welk Show." I don't think he guested with Pat Robertson or on other evangelist TV talk shows. Not everyone was prepared to use Merrill Womach as an example of how the Lord works in wondrous ways. Still, he made many local concert dates despite (or because of) his unique appearance and story. During his prime recording years (post-accident, 1973 through 1983) he issued thirteen albums. One of them, "In Quartet," featured Womach over-dubbing his voice three extra times, and, yes, featuring FOUR shots of the burn victim on the cover.

"He Restoreth My Soul" a documentary about his ordeal (based on his paperback "Trial By Fire") was not competition for "A Charlie Brown Christmas," nor featured on the counter at Blockbuster video rental stores. At one time it was highly prized by geeks and nerds who bought bootlegs at record memorabilia conventions. Now it's free for all, courtesy of YouTube. It has interview footage with his wife (they would divorce in 1980) as well as graphic images of how he looked right after he withstood the force of the fuel explosion. Some secular viewers are more horrified by the scene where Womach comes to "cheer up" patients in a hospital. There's no question that a happy burn victim can inspire...a wide range of conflicting emotions in people.

In 1989 Merrill was leasing his funeral music to over 6,000 funeral homes around the country, and he was adding video, as well. Customers who provided photos, VHS or 8mm of the deceased, could have it custom-made in a short movie that could be shown during the services, complete, of course, with musical soundtrack. New ideas, hundreds of concerts, and new recordings  — Womach seemed to be busier than ever, losing himself in his work. "I'd rather burn out than rust out," he said, perhaps with a straight face. It was also in 1989 that a fire destroyed his home. "I'm alive," he said, "My possessions? So what, they can be replaced. Bodies cannot be and no one was hurt.”

In 1997 the New York Times interviewed Womach about the "funeral video" phenomenon, and he confirmed that his company was making about 50,000 tribute funeral videos a year for clients all over the country. The shuffle of photos and home movies seemed to include very predictable music. The Top Ten songs to be played with these video slide shows? They are:

1. Amazing Grace. 2. My Way. 3. He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother 4. Anniversary Waltz. 5. How Great Thou Art. 6. In the Garden. 7. The Old Rugged Cross. 8. And I Love You So. 9. Hands of Time (Brian's Song). 10. I Believe.

Womach's "National Music Service" company is now run by one of his daughters, and called "Global Distribution Network." For the digital age, the firm offers downloads of the inspirational music as well as CDs.

Merrill Womach died in his sleep "surrounded by family and friends." Somehow the story didn't make it to the national news outlets. They were instead giving viewers a look at Justin Bieber showing off by skateboarding down four steps and falling, or Miley Cyrus's latest bare nipple pose. Only the local TV station KREM gave their beloved singer some air time or tribute. The January 10th memorial service for Womach at Fourth Memorial Church at Baldwin Avenue and Stanard Street in Spokane will be open to the public. The service begins at 2:00 p.m. Open casket, I assume.


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