Stumbling on open ground: An imperfect Christian life with Beatles confidant Ken Mansfield

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Ken Mansfield was a stoner with an Indian guru and ramshackle reputation who was privileged to be part of the Beatles’ inner sanctum as U.S. Manager of Apple Records. Feeling that his life sucked, learn how the producer of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Ready for the Country” was transformed by Christianity and overcame a seemingly incurable bone marrow cancer death sentence. Seen above is the Hometown Productions President posing by a phone at his infamous “Hangover House” estate in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, circa 1979. Mansfield produced such artists as Waylon Jennings, the Flying Burrito Brothers, David Cassidy, and Don Ho during the period. Image Credit: Courtesy of Ken Mansfield

Imagine you’ve had a clean bill of health for decades. Then a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment reveals the worst — incurable bone marrow cancer. For Ken Mansfield, a former stoner with an Indian guru and a ramshackle reputation led to Christianity by a ravishing Southern beauty who eventually became his wife, the ominous sentence felt like an invitation to his own funeral procession.

Best known as the U.S. manager of the Beatles’ innovative multi-media company Apple Records in the late ’60s, Mansfield was unequivocally floored. “Why did I have to get cancer?” was an oft-repeated cry to God during those days of pity and self-doubt. But throughout the bleak ordeal, the record executive-producer’s firm faith in something bigger instilled a deep belief that his race was not over, not by a long shot.

Given one to three years to live, Mansfield has incredulously beaten the odds. He is alive and kicking 22 years later and claims further distinctions among his diverse resumé — best-selling author and motivational speaker. Stumbling on Open Ground: Love, God, Cancer, and Rock ’n’ Roll painstakingly describes Mansfield’s remarkable passage through the valleys and back to the mountain tops. Anecdotes about hanging out with George Harrison and Waylon Jennings provide ample levity.

In Part Two of an exclusive interview dropping today — you can catch up with the premiere installment by visiting “Fascinated by Faraway Places…” — the Capitol Records promo man sheds light on his Christian conversion, maintaining a constant dialogue with God, never totally overcoming nervousness, and collaborating with Contemporary Christian singer–guitarist Phil Keaggy.

Fittingly, Mansfield zeros in on the concept of stumbling on open ground. In his words, “No matter how deep your belief is — if you hit a really heavy trial and you’re up against horses or you’re in the jungle — you will start stumbling.” Stick around for the ultimate remedy from the guy who “thrives when things come on the natch and from the heart.”

The Ken Mansfield Interview, Part Two

What happened the first time you spoke in front of a crowd?

It was strange because I never wanted to be a speaker. I started out as an entertainer but that was in a group. When my first book, The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay: My Long and Winding Road, came out in 2000, I kept getting these invitations to speak in churches. I always turned them down.

Finally, a giant church convinced me to come and speak. I thought, ‘Oh great’. To make a long story short, I felt like God told me to go do it. I told him, “I’m gonna go do it. If it’s terrible, you’ll never get me up there again. But if it’s great, I understand that I’m supposed to be in the ministry.” Well, I went and it was incredible. The whole experience just blew me away. We’ve been on the road ever since speaking at churches, colleges, conventions, etc.

I don’t get scared anymore. It’s interesting — there’s a certain kind of nervousness. If you say you don’t get nervous when you speak — especially when it’s a large crowd — you’re probably lying. When I was with Andy Williams at the height of his fame, he said one time, “After all these years, each time before I go on a stage, I think I’m gonna throw up. I’m so scared.”

I greatly envy your multi-faceted career. Is there anything you can’t do?

I guess sometimes I just don’t know any better [laughs]. A lot of it has to do with naiveté. I tend to decide I want to do something on the spur of the moment. I’m not really qualified to do it, but it ends up coming out okay.

The first record I produced was a hit [The Deep Six, 1965]. The first song I wrote was a hit [Al Martino’s “Wake Up to Me Gentle”, 1968]. The first book I wrote was a major book. But after my first production credit, it was a really long time before I had another one. The same credo applies to my songs and books. If I methodically pursue a task, it isn’t so good.

I could probably go and represent somebody in a law case tomorrow and probably do a pretty good job. I’m not a lawyer, though [laughs]. I thrive when things come on the natch and from the heart.

What is your perfect day?

Getting up in the morning and making it to bed in the evening.

What would you say to someone who does not have a personal relationship with God?

When I had an Indian guru and was struggling with the concept of becoming a Christian, I turned to him for advice because I had been under his non-denominational teaching for almost 10 years. He knew I became a follower of his when my life was really a mess.

He simply asked me, “How is your life now, Kenji?” His reasoning being that I would have to admit it was better since I started meditating and all that stuff so why should I change faiths.

I thought for a minute and said, “Now that I consider it, my life sucks!” I realized that living a life based on works and doing what feels good wasn’t working. Once I accepted Christ as my Savior, I found a peace that truly does pass all understanding.

So my answer to someone who would ask me that question is, “How is your life now?” If their life sucks, I can tell them I know a better way — a way of peace and a beautiful eternity to look forward to.

Why did you choose Mercy Multiplied as the charity to donate a portion of the book proceeds?

When I met my wife Connie I wasn’t a Christian. Nancy Alcorn, the founder of Mercy Multiplied, was one of Connie’s best friends, and they were going to church together. Here I was — this stoner with a guru and bad reputation — and I was really messed up.

Once Connie and I began dating, all her girlfriends were saying, “Get away from this guy. He’s trouble.” But Nancy, for some reason, was the only one who encouraged Connie not to dump me. She told her, “I think there’s something there.” Connie eventually brought me to the Lord. I’ll always remain eternally grateful for Nancy’s confidence in me.

I’ve walked down the halls of Mercy and seen the girls and lives that have been changed. It’s a pure ministry and every cent that goes in there is used to redeem lives. I’ve seen the hopelessness that has walked through the doors of that ministry and the heart of it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just powerful and beautiful.

And here’s Nancy, this little blonde girl, traveling all over the world redeeming these young girls. I’ve known her for over 30 years and every time she starts speaking, I start crying.

Would you consider writing a song named “Stumbling on Open Ground”, and is it true that you have been writing with Contemporary Christian singer-guitarist Phil Keaggy?

I might. I’ve had more than one person say, “Hey, ‘Stumbling on Open Ground’ is a great song title.” My wife and I were on vacation on the Gulf Coast with Phil — one of my dearest friends — and his wife, Bernadette. I sang “Between Wyomings” for him in the living room one morning after our devotions. A couple weeks later Phil sent me a tape with his arrangement of my song. He absolutely brought it to life.

“Between Wyomings” subsequently became the lead track on his album, The Cover of Love [2012]. In case you didn’t know, Between Wyomings is the title of my third book prior to Stumbling on Open Ground.

I rang Phil up and said, “I think I have a new song idea that I want to write with you. All I need is help with a melody and a few more lines, and we can go from there.” We met in Nashville, finished the song in an afternoon, and did a quick demo in Phil’s studio.

It was a song that I was originally working up decades ago for Ringo Starr called “Drums in Love.” We worked with the basic concept and turned it into “My Guitar’s in Love.” Once again Phil brought life into the whole idea. “My Guitar’s in Love” is officially part of Phil’s All at Once record [2016]. See if you can listen to that song without admiring Phil’s talent and walk away without a smile on your face.

What led you to pick the catchy title — Stumbling on Open Ground: Love, God, Cancer, and Rock ’n’ Roll?

I had the title in the back of my mind for many years — I’ve always got 10 or more concepts floating around. I wanted to write a book about a single thought, yet I didn’t know if I could stretch it into an entire book. So I actually started writing Stumbling on Open Ground more than once, but I could never take it all the way.

The Bible scripture in Jeremiah 12:5 always fascinated me — “If racing with mere men has wearied you, how will you race against horses? If you stumble and fall on open ground what will you do in Jordan’s jungles?” I interpret that to mean if you have trouble dealing with everyday life, how are you going to do when you’re really up against something stronger?

No matter how deep your belief is — if you hit a really heavy trial and you’re up against horses or you’re in the jungle — you will start stumbling. Maybe not much at first, but it will happen. When I was diagnosed with incurable bone marrow cancer in 1996, I thought, ‘Wow, this concept definitely applies here.’

I questioned God repeatedly about the situation — “Why did I have to get cancer?” People think, ‘If I question God that makes me a bad person. I’m supposed to have faith and trust. Oh gee, God’s not going to like me anymore because I’m stumbling and fumbling about here.’

But hey, we’re all human. It’s absolutely okay to talk with God, it’s okay to get mad, and it’s okay to ask him questions. I call that praying! You’re having a dialogue with God and that’s the point of the book — he wants to talk about it with you.

After much soul searching, I realized that I believed everything God says is true. I had his promises that he would be with me and never forsake me. He is my strength, and I learned to just trust him. My battle belonged to the Lord, and he pulled me through. I can’t praise him enough for his loving mercy.

Count on God, and you’ll remain on open ground. No matter what happens, you don’t have to stumble and fall because you have his promises. Simply put, God always has your back.

How do you pray to God?

When God wants us to pray, it’s not like he wants us to sit down and go through this formal ritual where you have to confess first, praise next, pray for other people, and finally towards the end ask for something for yourself [laughs].

Of course, this is all good if you do this, but I would encourage you to pursue a dialogue with the Lord. Thank God for the good things in your life, trust him during the bad times, tell him what you don’t like, and tell him what you would like.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2013, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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