NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Nashville songwriter and singer Marie Bellet accepted an invitation to sing at St. Joseph's Church in Danville, Pa., last October. The small parish wasn't disappointed with this largely unknown 38-year-old mother of seven, who praises family and faith.
“I don't think there's another Catholic or Christian singer who touches on Catholic family life or the sacrificial nature of it the way Marie does,” said Joan Stromberg, an organizer of the event and the mother of six herself.
The previous month, Bellet performed two of her songs at the annual Crisis magazine dinner in Washington, D.C. She was commissioned by the influential Catholic publication to write a song for its dinner honoree, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).
The song, “The Man of the House,” left few in the room with a dry eye. She paid tribute to the venerable pro-life leader with a smooth voice and easy guitar accompaniment in a manner reminiscent of the best ballad singers.
But Bellet is different. What sets her apart are the lyrics which convey a sense of deep faith. They extol the joys of marriage, family, and the struggles which characterize everyday life. “If there is a common theme to my music,” she told the Register, “it's the day-to-day stuff that speaks to you. That's the real mark of the person.
“All I want to do is highlight what is redeeming. The struggle of being married and raising children is very redeeming,” she said.
Although she has had only a limited number of musical engagements, she recorded her first album, What I Wanted to Say, in December 1997. It's a collection of 11 of her songs that appears under her own label, Elm Street Records.
Bellet was raised on Elm Street in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., one of eight children. According to her biographical sketch, “she grew up loving the ‘warmth and confusion’ of life in a large family. The experience would come in handy.”
She attended Rice University and received an undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College. She then earned an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which is located in Nashville, the heart of country music.
She had a long-time interest in writing and performing, and saw Nashville as a perfect place to pursue her avocation while working full time in the health care field. By 1984 she was doing demo tapes, jingles, and even sang with Alan Jackson, who was not yet a country recording star.
But it was a trying time, a time when she was uncertain of her future. “When I was around music people,” she said, “my stomach was always in knots. I also found that I wanted to write, but I didn't yet have anything to say. I was told that I was not a star singer, but could communicate.”
Much of this began to change in 1987, when she married her husband. “I wanted to find a man to build a family,” she said, and that's what she found with Bill Bellet, who she describes as a “psychologist with sense.”
The following year they moved to Singapore, where they spent three years, and then went on to Spain for another year. These years would prove critical in building the foundation for her music.
A sense of isolation from family, friends, and home encouraged her to write songs. Often the words created an opportunity to talk to herself, to help resolve problems. This was especially important with the birth of her first three boys.
The time overseas also was important spiritually for her. She grew up a practicing Catholic and one of her brothers is a priest, now at the North American College in Rome. But, she notes, the isolation in Singapore allowed her time to study Catholicism in depth for the first time.
When the Bellets returned to the United States, they experienced a cultural shock. Unlike Singapore, the America of the early 1990s seemed a less welcome place for children.
This was antithetical to a young woman who says, “I always thought building a family is the most beautiful thing you could do. The ripple effect on society is amazing.”
Bit by bit, she began to develop a music career which addresses this feeling as well as the beauty of sharing marriage. And, throughout it all, she writes of the need to accept God and his will.
She adds, “My writing began mostly as an alternative to rearranging furniture. It has become my way to encourage those who want to rebel against the self-centered misery of our time.
“To make sacrifices for marriage and children is not stupidity or victimization. It's the noblest thing we do.”
Her songs are full of double meaning, in the purest way. The tribute to Congressman Hyde, for example, also is a paean to husbands and fathers for their sacrifices and strength.
In one stirring part of that song, for example, she writes, “And he fights the good fight ‘cause there's wrong and there's right; there are things worth losing for.
These ballads also are filled with emotion. “What I Wouldn't Give” was written for her sister after a family reunion. Another song was written for her dying grandmother.
“Sometimes when I'm singing my songs, I get choked up because of the suffering that went into them. That's everyday stuff,” she said.
Some of the songs also have a whimsical quality. In “What I Wanted to Say,” Bellet sings about bringing her seven children to the grocery store and the looks she receives. “I wrote that one on the way to the store,” she quips.
She also sings about the differences between men and women, and the opportunities for the misunderstanding they create. And she writes about God in an uplifting, not preachy, way.
“Thy Will Be Done,” for example, was written after she experienced a miscarriage. The song speaks of the need to accept God's will. In “Will You, Too, Go Away?” she sings of a man who has exhausted all excuses to accept Christ in his life.
Bellet says, “I'm not doing this for the sake of having an album out. I'm doing it to convey the truth.” Joan Stromberg said when the singer came to Danville, “it was obvious she wasn't into self promotion.
People around the country are starting to take notice of her message and her enchanting voice. Scepter Press, a Catholic book publisher in Princeton, N.J., carries her album. And on Feb. 4, she will perform on EWTN's “Life on the Rock.”
Still, Bellet remains a stay-at-home mom. She is likely to be the person who packages CDs or cassette tapes for those who place album orders.
“My witness is really just to show up with my kids at the grocery store,” she argues. “For me, that is where the culture war is fought, surrounded by glossy magazines that promise happiness if you shed pounds and obligations.”
She also sees a mission to her singing. She said, “My music is about the drama of everyday life — staying In love, going through the day's routine, ‘One more time, with feeling!’
“I want to tell other mothers that they are not crazy or alone. If my music can do that, it will all be worthwhile.”
Marie Bellet's album can be ordered from Elm Street Records, P.O. Box 50052, Nashville, TN 37205; telephone: (800) 611-7180. Her web site address is www.cathoIicity.com/market/marie bellet/
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.