I’ve had the opportunity over the last few years to make several presentations on the intersection of popular music and theology. I’ve decided to write an introduction that explains the “what” and “why” of what I do and to collect the various pieces in one place. The following paragraphs are a window into the music side of the music and theology relationship in my life.
I have two enduring loves in my life–music and theology, in that order. And I should clarify that I’m not a musician. I wish I could play an instrument well enough to belt out my favorite songs. I do, however, know a little about music. I grew up in a religious tradition that sang acapella. Everyone knew their part and I learned to read music as my mother traced the alto part with her finger in the hymnal on Sundays. My mom and dad sang duets sometimes in church, and my dad’s head would vibrate along with his voice as they sang in pleasing and soothing tones. All the women in my mom’s family sang alto, not a soprano in the bunch. My grandfather sang a way too loud tenor, which would become my part and which I’m sure I sang way too loud.
I played trumpet in school and was in both the marching and jazz bands in high school. I picked the trumpet because I listened to a few Maynard Ferguson albums at Jeff Van Horn’s house, loved Tommy Loy playing the national anthem at the beginning of Cowboys’ games, and revered Doc Severnson because he was from Oregon, my heart’s home. Truth be told, however, I would have traded all my trumpet playing for piano and guitar lessons. To this day it mystifies me that I never learned to play either. I have a guitar now and play around. I have an essential tremor, though, and so playing is difficult with the way my hands shake. I can move between chords and finger pick decently, but I can’t strum well and so will never really be able to play the way I’d like. I can get through a few Dylan songs and some Tom Petty, but I will never be James Taylor. This mildly frustrates me because I would love nothing more than to play rhythm guitar and sing backing vocals in a band.
Music came to my house the Christmas or 1969. My dad bought a cheap record player and three albums for the family that year. Ed Ames, Mingo from the Daniel Boone tv show, Gentleman Jim Reeves, and the crowning selection, Johnny Cash, Ring of Fire. I listened to them over and over, especially Reeves and Cash. And I would look at the album covers and the dust jackets for hours, soaking in every detail. This would become my way of life.
I started to listen to pop music a few years later. I bought a k-tel collection of hits that included Rod Stewart, the Hollies, the Raspberries, Argent and other bands of this ilk. Around this time, my dad upgraded to a component stereo system and my world expanded. The first album I bought to run through its paces on this fine sound system was Credence Clearwater’s, Suzy Q, which I bought from my cousin Lydia. Her grin at the time of the transaction said she thought she had got over on me with an exorbitant price price, and I probably did overpay for a used album. But I still have that album today. Who’s smiling now, Lydia?
Occasionally my parents would go on trips and leave us in the hands of students from the college where my dad was an adjunct professor. It was the early 70’s, and Phil and Connie were legitimate hippies. Phil had an incredible music collection and would bring albums and his Martin guitar when they would come to stay. They would let my brother and me stay up late and watch the Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack. Phil gave me about a dozen albums to start my collection off in the right way. I don’t remember everything he gave me, but the Three Dog Night and Chicago albums were my favorites.
Those albums began my infatuation with listening to music. My allowance the next few years went toward nothing but baseball cards and albums. Led Zeppelin II awakened me to things musically. Though I couldn’t name it, I knew their music was of a completely different order. Chicago, mixing horns and rock and roll, gave me a familiar touch point to the music I was making playing the trumpet in the school band. Elton John’s, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Yellowbrick Road thrilled me. I would listen to them and other albums while lying on the living room floor, reading and memorizing the liner notes the way I did the backs of baseball cards. Liner notes, for the non-initiated, include the names of all the musicians who received writing credits or who played on the album, along with production notes like the studio where things were recorded and mixed and who produced or engineered the album. To some, this is like reading Leviticus. To me, it was the album as epic tale.
Over time, I began to make connections between bands from what I found in the liner notes. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter played guitar on Steely Dan albums, but also played on the Michael McDonald version of the Doobie Brothers (not to be confused with the Tom Johnston version). Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, The Eagles, and Poco had this long intertwined relationship of musicians moving in and out of bands and playing on each other’s albums. Waddy Wachtel, Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, and Jeff Porcoro were names that I knew, session musicians who appeared on favorite albums of mine with regularity. I began paying attention to the archaeology of bands, their sedimentations over time. I knew the difference between the Bernie Leadon version of the Eagles and the Joe Walsh version. Similarly, I knew the Randy Meisner songs on those albums as well as the Poco connection of Timothy B. Schmidt who eventually replaced Meisner. I can tell a Greg Rollie Journey song from a Jonathan Cain Journey song, the successive keyboardists for the band. I could go on and on, but the point is I was hungry for every morsel of information I could gather from the bands whose music I loved. I wanted to live as much as I could in the world those albums created.
During this time, certain albums marked me deeply. Boston’s debut album was like nothing I’d ever heard before, a wall of sound that filled every inch of my listening capacity. The successive Steely Dan albums, Aja and Gaucho, blended jazz and rock in ways that just made me feel cool for just listening to it. They made me feel sophisticated, a connoisseur of fine music. Hotel California, Rumors, Frampton Comes Alive, Physical Graffiti, Songs in the Key of Life, The Dark Side of the Moon, all came out on top of each other and my world was full of music.
This kind of relationship with albums continues today. I still have the turntable my parents gave me when I graduated from college and most of the albums I bought in those early years of listening. I’ve started buying vinyl again, filling in my Dylan and Tom Petty collections, and buying newer stuff like Spoon, Gary Clark Jr., Margret Glaspy, Leon Bridges and The Avett Brothers. My kids all like music and I pride myself on being able to find new artists before they do.
Beyond albums, however, there are two other factors that deepened my relationship with music. Exploring the novels and essays by Nick Hornby, which prominently feature music, provided new possibilities for exploring my obsessive relationship with music. Music plays a prominent role in a novel like High Fidelity or Juliet, Naked, but as a way to carry other themes, like making meaning and commitments in a world in the absence of authoritative cultural narratives. Hornby’s essays are about songs or albums, but they’re not about them really at all. The music serves as prompts for cultural commentary, ways to enter a discussion about things that matter, like love and death and joy and regret on familiar terms, terms most of us have spinning on a loop somewhere in our collective soundtrack.
High Fidelity is a great novel, but it’s absolutely my favorite movie of all time. The setting is a record store (in Chicago in the movie version) owned by an aimless and commitment challenged character named Rob, played by John Cusack, and his two slacker “employees,” Barry and Dick, played brilliantly by Jack Black and Todd Louiso. I’ll spare you the movie review, but want to highlight two features of the film. To underscore the point I made in the previous paragraph, the soundtrack is phenomenal and music is the vehicle that carries the movie, but the movie is about what it means to be human in a world where external sources of authority no longer provide norms for things like relationships. In that kind of world, we’re all on our own to find some kind of meaningful line between the serial episodes of our lives. Which brings me to the second feature of the movie. Meaning is made throughout the movie by way of the playlist. It is a way to structure our experience, like the musical score of our life. Playlists are expressive of identity, both our own, and the identities of the ones we share them with.
A good part of my life is spent in the pursuit of making the sublime playlist. Spotify and other music services have made the possibilities endless. I make playlists for the different moods my life might take on a given day. I have joy playlists and mellow playlists and sad playlists. I have genre playlists. I have playlists that remind me of certain places or events in my life. I have more than 100 playlists in my Spotify library, and in comparison to the prolific-ness of some of my friends, I don’t consider this obsessive in the least. While albums are about the band, the playlist is about me.
One last piece about my relationship with music. When I was preaching regularly, I made it a habit to always have a novel and a biography going. Many of the biographies I have read have been about musicians. I love knowing their stories and their influences. I love the name dropping and the behind the scenes details on the making of an album. I’ve read biographies about the Beatles, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and others. But I like the autobiographies more. Springsteen’s is nothing short of brilliant. I love Dylan’s genre busting Chronicles, Part I. I’ve read Clapton’s and Elvis Costello’s. Hearing the artist’s voice in prose amplifies their songs, making the connections more immediate and vivid. A good biography finds a life’s voice by turning the events of a life into a meaningful plot. It renders a world, the world of a person’s life. In the same way, I love music documentaries, an obsession more readily satisfied with the growth of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
All of this is allows me to have a sense of the “world” of the artist. I know titles like “the gospel according to…” are en vogue, but I find it more accurate and useful to say that I’m after the rhetorical world an artist’s music makes. And those worlds have been life giving.