Country Singer Returns to the Main Line

This country songwriter calls Glen Mills his home, after a 30-year stint in Nashville.

Things just weren’t the same. The city had changed, and Craig Bickhardt hadn’t—and wouldn’t. He still wanted to write, to perform. But he had to get out of Nashville. 

Sure, there were personal concerns. But, mostly, it was how the city had become something he didn’t recognize. The exciting incubator he’d entered in 1983 was once filled with creative minds committed to writing great music and polished songs. Now, it was more of an assembly line. Need a four-minute ballad about lost love? Call so-and-so. How about a fun-loving stomp that name-checks a brand of beer? That’s so-and-so’s specialty. 

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In the end, Bickhardt wasn’t that so-and-so. “There was no longer a way for me to write the kind of song I wanted to write and fit it into what was going on down there,” says the Havertown native. “Everybody reaches an impasse at some point in their lives, and they have to make that change. It seemed like a reckless gamble. At the same time, it seemed like there was no other possibility.”

And if it meant some financial insecurity, so be it. “I need to do this, and I never really saw myself doing anything else,” he says of his occupation. 

Bickhardt settled in Glen Mills in 2006, and he’s been writing, recording and performing almost nonstop ever since. His latest CD, The More I Wonder, was released earlier this year to positive reviews. Not surprisingly, it’s in stark contrast to the prevailing Nashville sound. “The more I know, the more I wonder,” sings the 60-year-old troubadour on “There Is No Night,” that truism forming the basis for the album’s title.

Though he appears on the cover in a bolo tie and western hat, his folk roots are glaringly obvious. Or maybe it’s Americana—or a throwback to ’60s folk revivalists Tom Rush and Gordon Lightfoot? Best do yourself a favor, and don’t try to sort out Bickhardt’s sound. 

“Craig is a poet and a masterful musician,” says Thom Schuyler.

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Schuyler ought to know. Once the chairman of the Country Music Association, he’s written songs for more than 200 artists, including Eddie Rabbitt, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis and LeAnn Rimes. He also worked for RCA Nashville, where he signed major acts like Kenny Chesney and Lonestar. 

Over the years, Schuyler has recorded three albums of his own, including one with Bickhardt. “Craig hears chord progressions and melodies like no one I know,” he says.

Country troubador Craig Bickhardt at work in his Glen Mills house.

Songwriter Craig Bickhardt practicing his trade.

Craig Bickhardt didn’t actually grab his diploma from the principal at Haverford High School and head directly to California in 1973—but it was pretty close. He’d begun playing guitar at age 13 and, by 15, was writing his own songs. There was support from his father, Harry, a longtime production manager at WIP who also sang and played saxophone in a big band. 

Bickhardt and some friends eventually started a rock cover band called Down East. Another group, Wire and Wood, featured original tunes and played area venues like the venerable Main Point in Bryn Mawr. But Bickhardt wanted more, and that meant leaving for California. “At the time, it seemed like it was the epicenter of the kind of music I was interested in,” he recalls. “Jackson Browne was there. Neil Young was there. Crosby, Stills & Nash had recorded there and began there. The Eagles had just started.”

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Counting the aforementioned Rush among his influences, Bickhardt worked at crafting a sound in that literate New England folk framework. His original stint on the West Coast lasted two years. There were “a lot of promising nibbles,” but never a finished product. 

Undaunted, Bickhardt headed to Nashville, where the likes of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Radney Foster, Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith were shaking
up the industry with their Texas twang and Willie Nelson-inspired outlaw-country aesthetic. “That was an ideal place for me, because I felt like I was being thrown into this amazing nest, and the opportunities were amazing,” says Bickhardt. “It was a great time to be there.”

Soon after his arrival, Bickhardt was asked to write and perform songs on the soundtrack to the 1983 film, Tender Mercies, which earned Robert Duvall an Academy Award for best actor. From there, he spent 24 years crafting tunes for the likes of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Ray Charles and the Judds. He’s penned no less than four No. 1  country hits and nine Top 10 songs. 

And yet, Bickhardt never saw himself as your typical Nashville staff writer. He wrote for himself, hoping to land his own contract. “I was always a singer/songwriter,” he says. “From the minute I got to Nashville, I was trying to get a record deal.”

Bickhardt teamed with Schuyler and fellow songwriter Fred Knobloch for a project that produced a few Top 25 hits. “In the course of eight to 10 years, Craig and I probably composed north of 50 or 60 tunes together,” Schuyler says. 

Bickhardt also partnered with Jack Sundrud, the former bassist for influential Southern California country-rock band Poco. Sundrud still performs a few times a year with Bickhardt. “He and I hit it off quickly,” says Sundrud. “We’re similar in some ways, in that we take a long time to write. We’ve been known to sit and stare at the walls for hours. Sometimes, we’d work from 10 to 4 and have nothing. We held each other to a high standard, so we wouldn’t write something we weren’t proud of.”

Indeed, when it comes to the creative process, Bickhardt has tremendous patience and stamina. Every so often, he’ll complete one song in a day. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Crazy Nightingale,” from the new album, took a year to write. It’s his attention to detail, the desire to get it absolutely right, that contributed to his departure from Nashville. After writing about 800 songs there, Bickhardt decided to focus on creating 10 or 12 at a time—for himself. “I never felt a complete sense of fulfillment, even by having someone like Johnny Cash or Ray Charles or B.B. King sing one of my songs,” he admits. “It felt great, and it was interesting. But it was that thing where I felt, ‘Yeah, but I want to sing it.’”

And there was something else: Bickhardt and his wife, Eileen, have a son, Jake, with cerebral palsy. In Nashville, it was becoming harder and harder to find safety nets to help fund his care. “Tennessee was like a Third World nation for disabilities,” says Bickhardt, who dedicated the new album’s “Giant Steps” to Jake, a voracious reader who loves American history. 

Jake’s twin sister, Aislinn, lives in Nashville with her husband and child (another is on the way). She sometimes sings with her dad and is featured on The More I Wonder. When she joins him on stage, he likens it to having “two strings on the same violin playing harmonies.” 

Meanwhile, Bickhardt continues to struggle with the creative process. But he never quits, drawing from his own experiences, setbacks and successes. “You can’t be afraid to rip it apart, because the good stuff will survive,” he says. “It’ll still be there.”

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!