The flight from Atlanta to Seattle takes about 5 ½ hours, time for the airline to offer a movie to those who purchase the headphones. On a trip there this fall, i decided to read a new book rather than watch the film. i found myself though, as i often do on the cross county flights, watching the images on the screen and trying to figure out the story line of the movie. From time to time, the ones with the headsets would laugh in unison. A lady beside me wiped tears from her eyes and was obviously drawn into the story being told, as were the others who could hear the words being spoken by the actors. It struck me that, while i watched the same images as the headsetted passengers, i was at a disadvantage because i didn’t have the words. It inspired a song which i sang once i landed in Washington state. “You miss the entire story if you haven’t got the words.” You can hear it on the song and a story page of this site.
As i’ve sung the song a time or two to holiday audiences, i’m struck that the song is one about Christmas.
Isn’t life much like that airplane experience? We are inundated with pictures, images, experiences, headlines, stories that catch our attention but are hard to make sense of … unless we have ‘the words.’ And God, the Author, is gracious to give us what we need to adequately, if not totally, understand how the pieces of life somehow fit together.
Of Jesus, we read, “in the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and He was God. … (T)he Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.”
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”
It is difficult to do, but i have tried to imagine how different the world would be if Jesus had not been born of the Virgin, if God had not come to visit us with words we could see and understand? Our world, to quote CS Lewis, would be “always winter and never Christmas.”
Imagine the music that would never have been written (Bach, Handel, Beethoven, the hymnbook, the carols, the spirituals, the folk songs, the symphonies);
Imagine the masterpieces not painted had the themes of redemption not inspired the minds of artists through the ages;
Imagine the cathedrals, the statuaries, the honorific buildings and sanctuaries everywhere, the stained glass, the gardens which would have been unbuilt and unplanted;
Imagine the schools which would be absent, those places (even Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard) which were founded to advance learning as a worship of Christ, and even the schools today which train the minds of young people to live life purposefully and humanely;
Imagine the missions, the works of charity which exist even in our day, even in our town, to care of the homeless, the abused, the hungry, the battered, the defenseless, the marginal of society;
Imagine the hospitals which bear the name St. something, the healing institutions which are the product of Christian influence and charity, and the efforts to eradicate hunger, poverty and suffering which occur all around the world;
Imagine the work in prisons around the world, the outreach to care for those who are cut off from society;
Imagine the influence of Christian men and women on the social causes of the past two thousand years, of those who stood against slavery, of those who have stood against oppression, of those Christians who have exerted the ennobling influence of the Gospel in the political arenas and in the cause of justice;
Imagine the philanthropy of Christian people who give to a multitude of projects as an expression of their faith in the world;
Imagine the influence of Christ’s disciples in the marketplace, the yeast of integrity and fair dealing in the world of commerce on a daily basis.
And these great contributions are just the ones of which we have knowledge, the ones that we can read about in history books and in the daily newspapers,
What about the anonymous gifts given, the prayers spoken, the pleasant words, the meals shared, the hugs and touches of comfort, the “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love” done by the millions everyday who wish to fill this world with the spirit and knowledge of Jesus Christ? The ‘noiselessness and invisibility of the Kingdom” make it easy to miss the fact that Jesus’ leavening effect around us is ever present, ever active, ever wonderful.
This is not to applaud Christians, but to underscore the miracle of Christmas, to amaze us at what came out of that little bundle of swaddling clothes.
That abuses have been done in that same name of Christ cannot be denied, but those pale in comparison to the benefit that the Gospel, and its faithful disciples, have brought to this fallen world. Even those who hate the Christian faith and who disown Jesus can little imagine their debt to His name; He shines on the just and the unjust, and all of us live in the reflected light of His goodness.
He has given us the ‘headphones’ for life.
Ironically, the book that i chose to read on the airplane was one entitled Glimpses of Truth by Jack Cavanaugh, an easily readable bit of historical fiction about the early translators of the scripture from Latin to English. John Wycliffe is a prominent figure in the story. In the 14th century, it was illegal for common folk to possess copies of the Bible. Efforts to translate scripture was a punishable crime, costing violators their freedom or their lives. The clergy of the powerful Roman church did not believe it safe to entrust God’s word — the ‘headset’ — to common folk and feared the threat which informed faith might be to their power. Wycliffe’s students and coworkers defied the law at great cost, believing that, just as Jesus had spoken in the vernacular so that people might hear and believe, they too could trust the Spirit of God to use the words of God in even the simplest minds. Wycliffe, and others like him, gave us access to the Book, unfiltered and undiluted, so that we could make sense and connect the very disparate parts of the drama that daily unfolds before us. … i finished the novel rather ashamed of my own indifference to and ingratitude for the blessing of the Bible. How different this world would be without the words, the work, the heart of Jesus that Christmas ushered in?
i’ve also been singing/telling a story a lot over the holidays of “the land where people walk backwards.” Many of you have asked for copies of it so we’ve put it on the ‘song and story’ page too. It was written as a Christmas song in 1999.
Since my last letter:
i had the great joy of playing a concert with my pal, Bebo Norman, at Covenant College, near Chattanooga. Thanks, Bebo, for sharing the stage with me. … i played a song that a couple of you have asked about. It’s about being single, called “love to give away.” i’ll put it on the ‘song and story’ page in the next couple of months.
And then, in Knoxville in early December, i had the double joy of playing a Young Life Christmas party with both Bebo and Ed Cash. Off the charts. Ten thousand thanks to Adella Thompson for making it possible.
Good friend Dicky Barlow, and one lovely Betsy Thomas, got married the Saturday after thanksgiving. Thing of beauty, all around.
Our annual candlelight service at the farm, in our little chapel, was a packed house under a cold, clear Georgia sky. i spoke from Jesus’ words in John 13, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Two operative words there, know and do.
Home for a couple of weeks before travel work resumes in mid January. Much to do while i’m here.
Well, since it’s almost year end, i’ll go ahead now and thank you good souls who have done so much to make 2000 so much a blessing. Cyberhugs to all who’ve let me play in your hometowns, to all who’ve let me sleep in your houses, to all who’ve shared levi songs with friends, to all who’ve prayed and written notes or shared words of encouragement, to all who’ve sat and listened, to all who’ve been examples to me of life well-lived, and to all who are the ‘most of my heroes’ that i often sing about. i hope i get to see all of you in 2001.
October 22, 2000
Since some of you have asked about my concert last night, and since I want to try to put something in writing anyway to remind myself of the event, I thought I’d jot down some lines about it.
I am sometimes asked if there is one particular musical event that stands as my most memorable ever. While I get to play for wonderful groups and with some wonderful musicians everywhere, after last night I will have no problem answering the question. I’m just in from Buford, GA where I played a concert (“Harvest Jam”) with David Wilcox, my favorite ever singer/songwriter.
A bit of background.
As an aficionado of National Public Radio, I heard an interview one morning in the mid 80’s, when I was still in law practice, with a hammer dulcimer player named Jerry Read Smith of Black Mountain, NC. (Ironically, I had a song that appeared on a compilation last year with Jerry; the record company is Silent Planet Records.) I was to be in Asheville, near Black Mountain, not long after I heard that interview to do a weekend program with writer Philip Yancey. During an afternoon off that weekend, I drove to the shop where Jerry made dulcimers and sold his music. I bought some vinyl albums (!) of his dulcimer songs and also put my name on his mailing list.
Sometime later, I received a flier in the mail which advertised new releases on Jerry’s “song of the wood” label. The flier included mention of a guitarist/vocalist named David Wilcox. On a hunch that it might be a good listen, I ordered “Nightshift Watchman.” It stayed in my car tape player for months. The song “do I dare” is still, to me, one of the most beautiful and simple bits of poetry ever written. I stayed on the lookout for other music by David after that but never heard of other releases.
In the early to mid-90’s, when I was doing part time law practice and part time music, I was teaching a Bible study to high school kids in Columbus, GA. One evening after our gathering, a kid asked me if I’d heard of David Wilcox. I told him I had, and had always wondered what happened to him.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that David had new recordings with A&M Records, which I promptly purchased. One of those, “Big Horizon”, might well be my favorite CD ever. They lyricism was, for my tastes, masterful and since then, I’ve bought everything he’s recorded, 8 CD’s in all. (He just recently released “what you whispered,” another lyrically rich feast of singable songs.)
It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to meet and spend time with David. I jumped at the invitation to play at a private gathering held by Ralph and Lisa Taylor in Buford when they told me that he would be the featured, and only other, musician performing that night. I was the more delighted to learn that, after the outdoor concert, we’d both be staying at the Taylor house.
If you’ve never heard the music of David Wilcox, and if you like songs that are thought-provoking and intelligent, you’ll love his writing. He’s a phenomenal guitar player who is highly celebrated and strongly influential in the present generation of folk-Americana players. His voice is a warm baritone which has been described as ‘like flannel.’ I rarely talk to musician friends who don’t consider him one of their mentors.
The lyrics of David Wilcox’s songs are beautiful, stand alone poetry, a ‘verbivore’s’ delight. They can be lighthearted, painfully honest, probing, inspiring, everything that, to me, good songwriting ought to be. His images of things Christian are not overt, but are profoundly clear for those who’ll listen closely and think about what’s being said (like reading CS Lewis). Set to music, his songs are indescribably rich evocations of reflection, laughter, tears, joy.
Tonight I heard him tell a girl named Anna Katherine, herself a songwriter who wondered how to stay inspired as a writer, that, to find inspiration, she should find people who need to be inspired. It’s great advice. … David writes for people like that; people who are hungry for the deep stuff, the real meaning, the joyful Love of life.
All that said, you can imagine how excited I was to meet and spend time with him last night.
The event was outdoors. The night was perfect for lawn chairs and blankets. The game plan was for me to open for David, who would do a full set.
Before we began the concert, as folks were showing up and visiting, I had an opportunity to visit with David in the Taylor’s living room, to thank him for the blessing which his music has been for me, and to swap songs with him. Do you get the idea that I was like a kid on Christmas?
Just before we were to sing, David suggested that rather than play separately, we put two stools on stage and alternate songs, trying to create a long connected storytelling, a ‘volley’ he called it. For the next two hours plus, we swapped songs and stories. I cannot begin to describe the experience, but I’m certain that no one enjoyed the exchange or the evening more than I did. … And then when it was over outside, we sat on the living room floor and played for a couple more hours. .
Visit David at www.davidwilcox.com … I like all of his music but am especially fond of ‘Big Horizon’ and ‘What you whispered.’
Thanks to Ralph and Lisa, and to kids Leland, Sam, Nell, and Henry. What a memory …
All for now. Be back soon.
October 1, 2000
i’m changing strings, packing bags and trying to get some things done before heading out on the road again. After my time at home this summer, i’m enjoying my re-entry into travels and am really looking to things on my calendar these next few weeks. Special thanks to those in Memphis, Tazewell (VA), Houston, Austin, and Columbus (GA) for making recent engagements in your towns so pleasant. i love what i get to do.
This past week, we completed production of the new project which we’re calling “change for the better.” i worked on it this summer with Matt Huesmann in Franklin, TN and am really pleased with the final product. We are working on the cover design just now and hope to have the disc available in the next month or so. (You might be amazed at how much thought goes into the details of these things.) if you’ll check the site in a couple of weeks, i’ll have some samples up for you to listen to.
Since i’m a little short of time, and thoughts, just now, and since i’ve promised my webmaster (the honorable Ben May) that i’d have a new letter to him before leaving town, let me share an article which someone (Ben May!) recently shared with me. It’s from the pen of Ravi Zacharias and is reminiscent of the thoughts i tried to capture in “where the people walk backwards” (which you can still listen to on my “song and story” page.) It also addresses some of the concerns that i expressed in my notes to the song “happy lightning” on the “song and story” page this month.
Defining Life Backwards
By Ravi Zacharias
Growing up in India, I recall taking part in a strange event called the slow cycling race, during a community sports day. The goal of the race was not to take off as soon as the gun sounded, but to move as slowly as possible. In fact, it was even better if you could remain standing still on your bicycle with your feet not touching the ground. The goal of the race was to cross the line last. Some were so adept at staying stationary that the distance of the race was only a few yards.
I can picture a confident visitor from another country noticing the cyclists at the start and thinking, “I wish I could join this race and teach these novices about cycling.” Imagine his astonishment when at the sound of the gun he sped off and breasted the tape seconds later, only to turn around and see the rest still at the starting line in a test of balancing a motionless bike. To his shock he would discover that he was last for having reached the finish line first.
In a much different context, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard
reasoned that he had learned to define life backwards and live it forwards.
By that he meant that the destiny or purpose he sought became the dictator
of the direction taken. He started from the final state of life from which
to determine the present path chosen. That is the legitimate way to begin
Similarly, what this means is that there is a fundamental prerequisite for
defining any legitimate pleasure in life and that is to first establish the
purpose of life itself. All pleasure is built upon why you and I exist in
the first place. If only we could grasp this truth, how many hours and
years of grief would be spared us. God never intended for life to be lived
out on an ad hoc basis, taking each opportunity as an isolated choice.
Life is not to be regarded as a smorgasbord of appetizers before us from which
we can choose or reject with equal impunity. The undergirding philosophy of
life has to be the point of reference for all choices.
Thus, here is a sound principle: Any pleasure that refreshes you without
diminishing you, distracting you, or sidetracking you from the ultimate goal
is a legitimate pleasure.
May I repeat this? Any pleasure that refreshes you without diminishing you,
distracting you, or sidetracking you from the ultimate goal is a legitimate
pleasure. (Copyright (p)(c) 2000 Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM))
Something to think about. …
Hope y’all have a pleasant autumn.
Life is good.
August 5, 2000
True to my intention of resting a bit this summer, I’ve spent some wonderful weeks here at the farm since early June. Life on the road does not allow for much of a daily schedule (maybe because of my own lack of discipline) but being in one place has allowed me to live on something like a routine. Days have typically begun at 6 a.m. with coffee and quiet time on the porch. After breakfast, either here or at the Pastime Café in Hamilton, it’s to the studio where I’ve been writing and recording new and old material. After my daily hours in the studio, I’ve been working around the farm, visiting friends, and reading on a regular basis. It’s been a great time at home, even in hot, drought-stricken middle Georgia, and I’m ready for a busy autumn.
One of the main undertakings of the summer has been to complete a new CD produced by Matt Huesmann of Franklin, Tennessee. It has been a fascinating experience to work with Matt on 11 songs, some old, some new, slow/mid and up tempo. I have worked with a remarkable group of studio players from Nashville and am excited to finish the project later this month. I just heard some of the partially completed songs yesterday and it is a great piece of work; I’ve not been as excited about anything I’ve done to date like I am about this one. We hope to have it available by mid to late September. Stay tuned.
Though I’ve note read as much as I would liked to have, I’ve managed to get through a number of titles. I just started Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a collection which, I confess, I’ve never read before. It’s quite an exercise in the imagination. The more I read these, and other, ‘children’ stories, the more I enjoy and appreciate the genre. And just this week, I heard a story which formed the basis of a song I wrote yesterday and sang this morning at the funeral of a friend, Philip Byrne.
Philip was a father and grandfather who was a storyteller supreme. Here’s one example. Have you ever seen water reflect and sparkle on water? How would you explain the phenomenon to children? Philip who lived on a creek just a few miles from Levi farm, had named one part of the creek Elbow Bend, a place visible from his house.
According to Leslie, Philip’s stepdaughter, “He told the children that up from Elbow Bend once rode a solid gold freight train that crashed into the creek. In the morning, if the light is just right, you can see the diamonds in the water. He said that if he were rich, he would buy Anne (his wife) a solid gold diamond freight train.” The song I wrote and sang for Ms. Anne at his funeral is available by clicking here.
Bebo Norman and I have been practicing a bit this summer for the autumn mini-tour. If all works out, we’ll play in Auburn, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Greenville, Columbia and Atlanta. Looks like we’ll be doing the engagements in early November. Stay tuned to the web site for exacts dates, times and venues.
All’s well here. It really has been a wonderful summer. Kind of like a ride on a solid gold diamond freight train.
“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”
Every blessing to you. … thanks, allen
May 4, 2000
It’s that wonderful time at day’s end when afternoon shadows are stretching out across the pastures. The shades of springtime green look their best and their deepest, to me, on cool evenings just like this one. After playing for a group of elementary school kids this afternoon, and then grocery shopping for a picnic here at the farm tomorrow with a local group of second graders, I’m sitting on the porch while supper cooks on the grill, reading from To Kill a Mockingbird when I feel like looking down. I just watered the little vegetable garden that I planted last week. I go to Young Life club in an hour or so. The purple martins, which nest in the gourds just west of my house, are putting on a display of aerial ballet. A Carolina wren is feeding her nestlings nearby and a crow is upsetting a nest of bluebirds down the fenceline. Tyler is at my feet. It is a moment of contentment, pleasant tasks just done and others soon to take place. After several weeks which have been enjoyably busy but very tiring, it’s moments like this one that I’ve been so looking forward to.
But my webmaster wants a new letter for the site by tomorrow. And, in typical fashion, I’ve waited until the last moment to do the task. Everything is working to ‘radically disrupt’ my ordinary ‘get it done’ propensities and I’ve got a choice to make. I could ignore everything around me to do the letter but, frankly, that seems like an act of sacrilege. You’ll forgive me, won’t you, if I choose to turn the laptop off and enjoy the sunset? If you were here, you’d do the same.
I hope y’all are doing good. All’s well here.
Thanks for stopping by.
Life is good, acl
April 2, 2000
Good morning friends and happy springtime,
As I knew they would be, the past few months have been busy, happily so, with travel and studio work. Even so, the world’s greatest office manager, my sister Beth, scheduled some clusters of days at home which have allowed me to work outside around the farm. Though it is still a bit early for some things to come out of the ground, the daffodils have come and gone, zinnias are starting to break through the soil, and a rich array of greens are all around. On March 22, I heard my first whippoorwill of the year (an event I always record in my prayer book), and two days later the first purple martins returned to nest. Rains yesterday have cleaned the air thoroughly and a cool, clear morning will make it hard to stay inside for long today. I’m taking time to jot down some random thoughts before retreating to the fresh air outside.
If for no other reason than economy of language, I enjoy memorable phrases, small groups of words that are rich in meaning and easy to carry around. “The great and mysterious opportunity of my life,” “undo the fall,” “to know Him and to make Him Known,” “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love,” “He went around doing good,” “life that is truly life” – how often do I find myself returning to phrases like these to help me assess the direction of my days? That might be why I like songs; they let me ‘hold’ big thoughts in small cups.
Along these lines, I read a phrase recently which I’ve been turning over for the last few days. It is only two words long – “radical disruption,” taken from The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. That author (incidentally, the book is a compelling and thought-provoking, if slow, read) says that the effect of worship, the act of focusing our thoughts and hearts on God in an intentional way, is “a radical disruption of the powers of evil in us and around us.” (p.363),
How often, and in how many varied ways, does God radically disrupt our worlds? The Bible is a narrative full of such disruption – the parting of the Red Sea, the cloud and pillar of fire that Israel followed in the desert, the manna and quail that fed the wandering people, the encounter between Elijah and the followers of Baal on Mt. Carmel, and numerous other Old Testament events. And then the whole life of Jesus, not just the miraculous but the daily love of His life — has the world ever been so radically disrupted and turned on its ear? Has any moment so changed humanity like those that we celebrate at Easter – the cross and the resurrection?
And now springtime beautifully disrupts the world once again. Every blossom, every new blade of grass and every bud on forests full of trees call to an end the deathblows of winter. If we are attentive, we might be pleasantly disrupted in simple ways this season and might be, to use one poet’s phrase (was it Wordsworth?) “surprised by joy.” I hope that will be your experience and mine.
In his book, Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yaconelli writes the following,
“Episcopal priest Robert Capon named the first obstacle (to lives filled with wonder): ‘We are in a war between dullness and astonishment.’ The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news; it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life-changing; it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore. He changes them into ‘nice people.’”
How easy to become anesthetized to wonder, amused and even sensationalized into dullness? I pray for you and myself that God will disrupt our lives as Easter approaches, that He will astonish us with Who He is and how He is and what He’s done to rescue us from dull emptiness. And as He does that in our lives, I pray that we’ll in turn become ‘disruptors’ in this world as we live to make the love of Christ visible.
My niece Mary Katherine and her friend Judith Campbell recently shared “the seven facts of life” with me, an easy to memorize set of phrases which are the distilled truth of Easter’s astonishing meaning:
God created man.
The penalty of sin is death.
Man cannot pay the penalty.
Jesus Christ paid the penalty.
Salvation is given as a gift but only through Jesus Christ.
Man must repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ, alone, if he is to receive this gift.
Be amazed, perhaps for the first time, as you consider the cross this year. Let your heart be disrupted.
I hope your days, even in the smallest of ways, are being filled with wonder.
PS — My dad, raconteur par excellence, recently told me a story as only he is able to do. I don’t mean to be coarse in sharing it with you and hope you’ll forgive me if it’s a little earthy for good taste, but I do think it is worth passing on. As Dad tells it, he recently took one of my nephews, David, who is 4 years old, to church. They were sitting next to one another during the preaching service, when David, in what was surely a breach of his typically perfect manners (yes, that’s a joke), put his finger in his nose. He got what he’d been reaching for and, without a word, showed his finger to Dad. His eyes were clearly seeking guidance from his wise grandpapa concerning what to do with ‘it.’ Dad pointed to his own pants, his suit pants. Well, David understood the offer and proceeded to clean “the” finger on Dad’s Sunday best.
Do you recognize the Easter story there? Christ takes our dirtiness, our sin, our filth, and says “put it here. Come to the cross and get clean.” He gave His Sunday best … It’s all about love.
January 30, 2000
Good morning friends,
Weather in Georgia and North Carolina prevented my previously scheduled travel this weekend but has given me some time to catch up on things here in the studio, including this long overdue letter. As confining as these cold, wet days can be, they are perfect for recording, for reading, and for writing. i was disappointed to miss my visit with Melissa Vincent, the David Banks family, and other friends at the St. Peters Methodist Church in Morehead City, but time here at the farm has been quite pleasant.
i cannot begin to revisit all that has gone on since my last letter, other than to say that my year-end travels and holiday time at home were richly enjoyable. Even having the flu, which forced me to spend a rare day doing absolutely nothing (but sleep), was not altogether unwelcome. i’ve had time to read and think a lot (both of which are helpful and necessary to me for writing) and am eager for the interesting and challenging work that’s on my calendar.
i started the year’s work with a trip to Orlando for the Young Life All-Staff conference, a once-every-four-years event at which that ministry brings all of its staff people together (about 2800 folk). The trip was all the more enjoyable as my sister and office manager, Beth, and my niece, Aron, were able to be with me. …. There’s simply no way to describe the event. i did a wee bit of singing (including a song that i wrote for the conference consistent with the theme of the event, “every kid, everywhere, for eternity”) but otherwise spent my time drinking from a river of gold — a river that included the teaching of Howard Hendricks, the humor of Mike Ashburn, the challenge of Denny Rydberg, the renewed friendship of so many with whom i’ve worked at YL functions around the country, the inspired music of perfectly (or so it seemed) blended voices, and the sense of being part of God’s great work in this fallen world. It was about the best way i could imagine to start a new year and millennium.
Thank you, Young Life, for what you do, and for allowing musicians like me to be part of the team. My love for the organization is no secret and i count it a privilege indeed to ‘beat the drum’ for such a refreshing, relevant, Christ-centered lifeline to young people. … (Incidentally, in the time that i’ve been home since the conference, i’ve recorded a version of the theme song and provided it to YL to distribute as they see fit. That song, along with the video of “they are kids” should both be available from the service center sometime soon.)
In the song “tell me a secret,” a song about friendship on the Open Windows cd, the first verse goes like this:
“Tell me a secret about you
Tell me what makes you afraid
Ask me 5 questions about me
That is how friends are made.”
The formula is a good one not only for trust building, but also for very interesting conversation. When i travel, i relish opportunities to meet and hear the stories of those that i get to meet for the first time. While it’s not appropriate perhaps to ask for the secrets of perfect strangers, i do ask, and answer, lots of questions. i thought i’d answer some of the questions that i get asked a lot (with hopes that i’m not seeming narcissistic to do so. i’ve got so much stuff that i’m reading and writing just now that i’m frankly at a loss of what to put in this letter.)
What kind of dog is Tyler?
Full blooded Australian Shepherd
How old is Tyler?
Not certain, but around 11 or 12 (people years)
Who takes care of Tyler while you’re gone?
Dad or neighbors
What is your favorite music to listen to?
First a bit of history. When i was younger, i listened to music of all types, all the time. As a teen in the 70’s, i listened to lots of pop acoustic singer/songwriter types like James Taylor, Kenny Loggins, Dave Loggins, Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffet, Jim Croce, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and similar others. i also really enjoyed the Allman Brothers and other southern rock/blues bands as well as lots of R&B players like Steve Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, and Aretha Franklin. My tastes were and are pretty eclectic.
That said, probably 90% or more of my listening now is to classical music. All of my radios are set to NPR and, while i don’t ‘understand’ the genre technically, i love its presence.
When i do listen to contemporary stuff, i really, really enjoy David Wilcox, Marc Cohn, John Gorka, Brook Williams, Shawn Colvin, and Pierce Pettis (along with personal friends Bebo Norman, Ed Cash, Jane Kelly Williams, and Siler’s Bald).
My most recent acquisition, one which i am thoroughly enjoying is a live recording of a guitarist named El McMeen (also a practicing attorney). Check out his website www.elmcmeen.com.
The one musician who is probably my favorite ever (running neck and neck with JT) is a jazz guitarist named Earl Klugh. His music is all instrumental but i love to sing and scat to it. His sense of melody, and the R&B quality of much of his stuff, is just wonderful to me.
What books are you reading right now?
i always have several in progress. Just started a novel by the old Scotsman George MacDonald called The Vicar’s Daughter. Am also reading a thought-provoking book called The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, a commentary on contemporary trends in our society and the effects they have on the concept of childhood. At all times, i’m reading something by CS Lewis and i keep a rather dog-eared (Tyler hates that term) copy of The Quotable Lewis (edited by Martindale and Root) near at hand. While it’s a rather lazy way to read Lewis, I’ d have to say that, aside from the Bible and the sermons of CH Spurgeon, it has been the most influential book i’ve ever read. … Am also reading some short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald and constantly enjoy what, to me, is a rich monthly treatise on theology, National Geographic magazine. i just finished The Pursuit of God by AW Tozer and am reading 1 Samuel in the Bible.
Do you write the music first or the words first?
There is no pattern at all to the way i write. i constantly write down ideas or phrases i encounter. They sometimes turn in to songs. The unpredictability of the songwriting process is one of the things i most enjoy about it. That said, i don’t quite understand those who say that songs have to be ‘inspired.’ Writing on demand is a large part of what i do and I sympathize totally with the one who said that writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and observation. Life, for me, is constantly ‘inspirational’ and prepares me, i sense, to write when i must.
When’s the last time you FELT desperate?
i’ll not answer the question, but thought it was an unusual one which was recently asked by Laurie DeYoung, a nationally known morning radio show host in Baltimore. What would your answer be? (Just a note. It’s interesting that she specified ‘felt.’ Had she asked me the last time i WAS actually desperate, i’d say that i am constantly desperate, even when i don’t feel like it. That’s why i am a Christian.)
Most memorable concert you’ve ever played?
Impossible to say. (I’ve played some bad ones that are hard to forget!) But last year, i played one that was most memorable. i went to a nursing home in Lagrange, Georgia to visit with my thirty year old friend Terry Moore, who suffers with sever cerebral palsy. He is a total care patient and cannot talk too well at all. It’s difficult to carry on conversation with him. i took my guitar, sat by his bed, played and sang some soft songs. His face, the smile, was too beautiful to describe. It was better than applause.
Do you miss law practice?
Actually, while i do not at all miss the work, i do sometimes miss the camaraderie, the storytelling, the strange brand of humor which lawyers share. But, as i’ve said before concerning law, i’m glad i did it, but i’m glad i don’t do it anymore.
What guitar tunings do you use?
i use standard tuning rarely when i write. i like the feel of open tunings and, especially since i play alone when i’m in concert, i appreciate the fact that some of the alternate tunings allow me to maximize use of the bass strings.
My favorite tuning, one which significantly changed my whole way of playing and singing, is one that i learned from a video by El McMeen entitled Sacred Songs for the Fingerstyle Guitar. The tuning, from bass to high stings is CGDGAD. (i have written a number of songs in that tuning: Accidental roads, Flowers were made for the field, Top Down Holiday, Movement of our Moments, Liberty, The Prodigal, Playing with Fire, Choir of Aubiere, Enjoy the Ride, Tyler talks back, and lots of others.)
i also use DADGAD a good bit (Land of Love, October Eyes, Outside the Window, Refrigerator art, Love Looking Down, Smile in My heart, and others).
By changing dadgad to DADF#AD (what i call open E), i have written Game of who has more, someone’s been here, Cotton Rainbow, Stand on the Steeple, World without a Word, others.
i have been playing a lot lately with CGCGCE (the Bike Song, Love of a Different Kind, Ode to the Rusty Strings, Can’t run with the pups no more, the Chime Song).
i don’t at all consider myself an accomplished guitar player and have found that these tunings help immensely to add personality to the sound of the guitar. The fingerings of the chords tend, at least once you learn them, to be easier than those typically used in standard tuning (to me anyway). There are some good books and tapes to help if you want to experiments with some of these tunings. David Wilcox and El McMeen both have good videos if you’re interested.
A final thought about music. i recently reread this passage by G. Campbell Morgan who was offering some thoughts about Deuteronomy 31:19, where God commands Moses “write ye this song.”
“For forty years Moses had led the people. During that time he had constantly communed with God, and in the course of that communion had received many charges. This was one of the last things he was told to do. He was to write a song, and the purpose of it was distinctly stated. A great song once embodied in the life of a people will remain from generation to generation. In days of disaster it will be a haunting memory testifying of truth concerning God. In days of difficulty it will be a messenger of new courage. In days of victory it will be a means of expression. Songs often remain after commandments are forgotten. Therefore Moses was commanded to write a song and teach it to the people. The song itself is found in (Deuteronomy 32). This is a very suggestive story, bringing to our hearts anew a sense of the value of poetic expression, and showing that it is also a gift of God. There are people who seem to imagine that if we speak of poetry, we are referring to something speculative, imaginative, probably untrue. As a matter of fact, poetry is the highest method of human language, giving expression, as prose never can, to the deepest and truest things of the soul. The Church is more catholic in her songs, than in all her systematic theologies. In the former she realizes her unity, whereas in the latter she too often creates her divisions. The Wesleys did more for experimental Christianity in their hymns, than in all their printed explanations. A great song is a great possession, and not for Israel only, but, for us also, this song of Moses is among the most beautiful and most strong.”
The thought helps me to sing ‘old’ hymns more thankfully. … It also adds an interesting perspective to Ephesians 2:10 which says that we are the workmanship (literally, i’m told, the ‘poema’, the poetry of God). Think about it.