Phil Keaggy interview - Harmony magazine
Early 1976

His dark hair and beard frame a face that expresses the openness and serenity of an inner joy. And when he smiles!-- somehow his eyes get into the act. He is Phil Keaggy, guitarist extraordinaire.
Phil lives with his wife, Bernadette, at Freeville, NY and is an active brother there at the Love Inn community. Besides his solo album, "What a Day," on the New Song label, and the three he did as a member of Glass Harp (Decca), Phil has contributed to many of the best Christian releases to date: Honeytree’s "Evergreen,'' Paul Clark's "Good to Be Home" and the 2nd Chapter's "In the Volume of the Book."
Not so much an interview as a testimony, the length necessitated our presenting in it two parts, with the conclusion to follow in the next issue of Harmony.
To Chuck Brown, Randall Pflum and Billy Gray, the interviewers who gave such care to see that the spirit of that afternoon was maintained, our heartfelt thanks.

Harmony: Could we begin with a testimony?

Keaggy: Sure, I was one of ten children; my mother was a very devout Catholic, but my dad was just sort of hangin' in there. He was raised a Lutheran, but he didn't really commit his life to Jesus. He was a hard working man-an iron worker. He put all his time and efforts into supporting the family.
My older sister, Ellen, had sung with orchestras like Guy Lombardo's and others. Later she became an actress. Ellen has been a real influence in my life. I always looked up to her as the star of the family and someone I could relate to, because I was really into music and television sets and watching movies.
As a kid, I was interested in anything that spun on a phonograph. I was fascinated by my brother's Magnavox hi-fi console, and I remember we used to play Guy Lombardo, Mantovani, even the Hilltoppers. all kinds of old music. My younger sister and I--just learning how to walk and talk and everything, would be watching the records and cutting our incoming teeth on the console of the hi-fi. By the time my brother got rid of the hi-fi, there were teeth marks all along the front of it.
Musically, at this time, Mom got me some Fats Domino records like “Blueberry Hill.” Then I got into Elvis Presley. I can remember the day my brother brought home records like "All Shook Up" and "Hound Dog". So anyway, this was all shaping my musical interests--all this kind of music --all these kinds of records.

Harmony: You caught the late fifties, then.

Keaggy: Well, yes. I was born in 1951. In 1955 I lost a finger on my right hand, my middle finger.

Harmony: How did it happen?

Keaggy: We lived on a farm in Hubbard, Ohio, which had a big water pump, and I was climbing up on it. As I was kneeling on top of the platform, it broke and the faucets came crashing down on my finger and cut it off. I can remember it very vividly--as if it happened yesterday, and I can see my dad running down the hill, rescuing me, and taking me to the hospital. I can recall having a white cast and bandage; it was gigantic! They tried to sew it on, but it didn't take, so I grew up with nine fingers. As a young kid, I was embarrassed about it a lot, especially when I was beginning to get into guitar. I used to be red when I'd play in front of people because I believed they were looking at my hand, which they probably weren't.

Harmony: It's amazing that you can do the finger picking that you do.

Keaggy: I'm not amazing at finger picking. I use my thumb, my forefinger, my ring finger and my little finger, and I put try to use them the best that I can.
Before my accident with my finger occurred, my oldest brother was killed in a car accident and two weeks afterward my younger sister had her big toe cut off. These were all really heavy things for my mom and dad to go through.

Harmony: It sure was. Musically, where were you about this time?

Keaggy: Well, we moved to the city in 1958. So here I was, just out of training wheels on my bicycle, and I had a little plastic guitar. After third grade I moved to a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio, called Boardman, and I got my first real guitar. It was a Sears Silvertone for about $19 that my dad bought me for my tenth birthday. I had wanted a set of drums, but my folks couldn't afford them, so I got the guitar.
I didn't know how to tune the guitar;. as it was when it came, that's how I thought it was supposed to be. A good friend once told me that when he got his first guitar, he tuned them all the same. So for about nine months I learned funny little melodies with my guitar tuned out. Finally, my brother Dave said "Here, let me show you how to tune this thing properly." I said, "Well, O.K., but I gotta learn all over again." I was disappointed.
It wasn't too long after that we moved to California for a season. I can still recall being into Elvis and the Ventures back then; old groups like that. I liked funky stuff, too, and I was getting more into the guitar and going to church on Sunday.

Harmony: It was your mother, then, that was the dominant Christian force.

Keaggy: Yeah. She was fantastic. She had so much love, and she was such a giving woman; she gave all of her time to her children and to people that she loved. She brought joy into a lot of people's hearts, so I put wanted to please her as well as I could as far as going to church. My dad didn't go. He'd just drop us off and then come back and pick us up, so there wasn't a spiritual unity in our family. My dad drank, which was a hardship for my mom, and all of us, too, and scared us kids a lot with the things that go along with drinking. Some people, they can't drink without being kinda mean sometimes. But I'm not talking down on my dad, because I know it was just the fact that he wasn’t born again, then. He is now. He just didn’t have a personal knowledge of Jesus then, and so he became a slave of drink and it would take him over.

Harmony: When did you get your first electric guitar?

Keaggy: For Christmas, when I was in fifth grade. It was a hand-made electric guitar and when I got it, wow. I was so happy! I spent most of my time with it. And when I was 12, I got my first good electric.
I was very interested in how record players worked, especially stereos, and Nick, who really impressed me as a nice guy and who worked at this electronic store, would show me around and let me work the different systems, stereo components and all that. One day I mentioned that I really liked playing guitar and he allowed me to record on the Sony Tape Deck and put sound with sound. I played little tunes like "Malaguena" and some different instrumentals I had made up.
One day Nick took me to a music store and said, "'Do you like all those guitars up there." I nodded and he said, "Pick one out.” So I tried them out and chose a Fender Stratocaster. I played it for a while and expected to put it back but Nick said, "Do you like that?"
"Sure!" "Well, it's yours," he said and bought it for me. I paid him back by sweeping driveways and working in the electronics store.
I had that guitar for quite a while and put a lot of time and effort into playing it.
We moved back to Ohio and I joined a group called the Squires. I was an eighth grader at a Catholic school, and everyone else in the group was out of high school. I played in clubs when I was that young, but I was protected from a lot of evil back in those days. The Lord had a shield about me. It wasn't until I was much older that I began to get into loose living and drugs and things like that.
After two years with the Squires, I joined another group, The New Hudson Exit. But the strain of going to school and playing all the time got to me so I left and went to California. I stayed with my sister there until my folks came out. We found an apartment and they lived there for a year and a half, I only stayed seven months. They allowed me to come back home to be with a friend who I'd been writing to, that I'd known since grade school. His name was John Sferra.
John and I had written back and forth expressing our desire to form a group of our own to play the kind of music we wanted to play, especially our own music. Our desire was to have a group that was big--nine piece--like the Electric Flag and Blood, Sweat and Tears. We had big dreams.
Over the neat year and a half Glass Harp was formed consisting of John, myself and Dan Pecchio. My god, at this time, was my instrument. I worshipped musicians, listened to their music, copied their styles and spent hours playing along with Beck or Bloomfield or Hendrix, with Harrison, Clapton and others. I wanted to be a really good rock guitarist and become well known; that was my heart's desire. The Beatles were idols to me. I had every album, every European album, every single they ever recorded. I tried to fashion my vocal style like McCartney. Now I realize the Lord’s given me my own style and I appreciate that, though I still consider McCartney a much better vocalist than myself.

Harmony: Well, I don't know about that.

Keaggy: (laugh) Anyway, we were beginning to become better known in record contracts, our crowds began to grow and we were beginning to play second billing to well-known groups.
But the 18th year of my life was very dark; I was into drugs by now. I knew my mom was concerned about me. My dad didn't know anything; if he did, he'd have hit the ceiling. The unity and discipline wasn't happening in our home, the Bible was not openly read. That was something you heard about in church; that's the way Catholics were taught, at least in those days. So I never read the Bible till I was saved when I was 19. Ever! Now, it's like my road map to heaven; I read it every day. It speaks to my heart; it speaks to me about. everything I need to be and do.
Anyway, back in '69 I was experimenting with LSD. I had done some trips and it was terrible, I thought it might enhance my creative ability in music, but it didn't. I once heard a tape of me playing when I was high and it was awful. I sang weird and I played badly. I thought I was doing such a great job, but it was a deception.
People I was supposedly very close to, who were close to me, were turning on me. It seemed really strange. They were making gestures or mocking me. The things that people do under the influence of drugs is incredible! It's satanic. I was experiencing such fear, I thought I was going to get my head bashed in once because this guy looked at me and I saw hatred coming out of his eyes and oh ! it was just, oh ! terrible. It was like a nightmare.
During these days I would take naps in the afternoon because I'd be so tired playing at night, staying up till 4 in the morning, getting up early and napping again in the afternoon. I'd wake up having nightmares, or daymares, whatever you want to call them; whatever it was, it was like flashbacks.
I was into that whole scene! I had "Peace" written on my wall and I went around giving the peace sign, but I didn't experience peace in my life. I didn't know what peace really meant; it was just a cliché.

Harmony: How did you get turned around?

Keaggy: On February 14, 1970, my dad and mother were on their way to take my sister to her girlfriend's house. At the time I was down in Maryland playing with the group and was high as usual. When I returned I received word from my brother Bill that they were in an accident, a head-on collision. The steering rod had punctured my dad's lung; mom was in critical condition and, as a result, members of the family came from Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and all over. Dad was going to be all right but he was shattered. His world, his whole life was crumbling.
Mom looked very bad but I thought she would snap right out of it, I was very insensitive to the reality of what was going on. I was living in my own world, trying to do my own thing, not really caring about people, just myself. I remember visiting her at the hospital and saying, "Don't worry, mom, you'll be okay." A week later she died.
I was in Mansfield that weekend playing. I came home at 5 in the morning and the lights were on as I entered the house. They told me mom had died at such and such a time and I remember that I fell right to floor in despair. My whole world was shattered, too, because I had really loved mom and I knew that she prayed for me and wanted the best for me. I began now to experience an emptiness in my life--right down deep, gut level, right where my spirit is. I felt I was lost and needed help.
My sister, Ellen, who I hadn't seen for about three years, told me she had an experience that changed her life completely, a born-again experience. She had met Jesus Christ and her life was changed. I just listened to her as she shared her experience with me. And as I looked at her, I saw that she had hope. I could see that she was reflecting peace in her life, and joy, and love.
She shared with me that mom, before she died, praised Jesus. She said that mom had a vision of Jesus, that she literally saw the Lord and beckoned everyone to come see what she was seeing. Mom could only whisper but she was saying, "Praise God."
Mary Ellen was sharing with me and my younger sister, Geri, about how we both could come to know the Lord and have our lives changed. She invited us to an Assembly of Cod service one Sunday morning while she was in our area. I heard the Gospel preached and I responded with my need, I went forward, knelt down and said, "Jesus, come into my life."
I knew I'd tried a lot of other things; I'd seen the other side. I wanted to see what God had to offer me. But I didn't know a whole lot. I didn't even know what He was going to do, but I knew Jesus was the answer.

Part 2:

Keaggy: So I was saved on a Sunday morning, two weeks after my mom passed away. I experienced a joy that morning; a burden was lifted from my shoulders and something new took place. In the Bible, I John I, it says that I wasn't born of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible by the living and abiding word of God, so that when I received Jesus, I received the seed of eternal life and it's been growing ever since. My life began to change -- even my desires that very day that I accepted Jesus were different. I went home and listened to "Presence of the Lord" by Blind Faith. Out of all my rock collection, I just wanted to hear that song; something to talk about the Lord.

Harmony: What was the reaction of your friends to your experience?

Keaggy: Well, there's a verse in the Bible, Psalm 118:7, that says, "The Lord is for me among those who help me." That's a verse that I'll always remember because God's people, the few that I knew, were beginning to be a blessing to me, and lead me by the hand to answer some of my questions and to pray with me, because I had no fellowship.
The rest of the band just couldn't figure out what was going on. I liked them; we got along well and were united in our goals for the band. But something had happened to me. I saw something in my own life that I had never seen before, and I saw that the reason that I had been given a talent was to glorify God. I was to write music that expressed the love of Jesus.
I began to refuse their dope. We traveled in a little Fiat together, and we'd squeeze in and they'd offer me a joint, but I just didn't want it. The Holy Spirit had spoken directly to my heart. I remember being stoned one night and I just started feeling a conviction happening inside me. It was like hearing another voice saying, "What are you doing to yourself? You don't need that, it's deceiving you." But on the other hand, I heard other people saying, "Here, come on. What's wrong with you? Be like us." Hey, that's a really heavy thing to go through as a very young Christian, and I really sympathize with your young Christians, became it's really hard to take that step. But I was strengthened at this time by some regular fellowship at a little place called The Barn.

Keaggy: We signed a contract with Decca in the summer of 1970 and in September we recorded our first album. It was recorded in New York City in about a week. Even though I had bronchitis and had to sing one verse at a time, it worked out. And I was even able to get in a witness for the Lord Jesus in "Can You See Me" and "Look in the Sky." "Look in the Sky" was completely spontaneous in the studio, at a warm- up practice at 10:00 in the morning. The words just came, they flowed; nothing really spectacular, but it came out of our hearts. We enjoyed playing together and we really got tight musically. But spiritually we were going different directions.
We did a California tour right after we recorded our second album, Synergy. I met a lot of Christians there, I remember leading a brother to the Lord in San Diego who later gave me an acoustic guitar valued at close to $1,000. He just gave it to me. I was not expecting it. That album was a real experience because I was able to sing The Answer, a song I wrote right after my conversion to Christ. And with two Jewish producers and an engineer that didn't care about Jesus, I was surprised that out of 15 songs, one of the ten that got on the album was The Answer. I praise Jesus for that work, because it's just a simple song of testimony.

Harmony: The California tour was a very successful one for you?

Keaggy: Well, yes. It opened a lot of doors for the group. We played Winterland out there, and Whiskey A Go-Go, and we did a KSAN-FM live concert, which was aired over the whole San Francisco area. We played on the same bill with Michael Bloomfield. Mike's a guitar player I'd respected for a long time. I learned his licks and I worked with his style, but when I saw him I was kind of disappointed because he was going through a lot of changes. It's like the Bible says: "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." It's the same way with a musician. If he's living in despair, if he's down a lot, it will come out in his music.
I was very up: I was the most up at that concert than I had been in a long time because, first of all, I wanted to play well: I was clear-headed, I loved Jesus, and I wanted to play unto the Lord with all my might; secondly, Michael Bloomfield was there and I wanted him to be impressed. What we played was recorded that night and to this day I am happier with that recording than I am with any of the albums that we recorded, it's that good. But when Bloomfield's band played it seemed down and just wasn't flowing. But I still respect him; I don't know what he's doing these days, but I pray that he's beginning to see the light. I know he's Jewish, and the Lord is doing great things among Jewish people. So I pray for him.
Anyway, as far as recording, after the second album, we did a concert in Carnegie Hall, which was recorded and supposed to be the third album. It was good, but it wasn't released for some reason. We then went into the studio and recorded It Makes Me Glad. We all worked the best that we could. The group knew that it would be our last album together because I had given notice that I was going to leave. And on August 8, I did. It was a really heavy thing for everybody. I had changed my mind four times previously but this time I knew that if I stayed, I'd be disappointed.

Harmony: So you left. What then?

Keaggy: I was out of Glass Harp for only two weeks, and started searching for "a kingdom of God in the flesh." I stayed four days at Love Inn, worshipped and sang my songs for them. The day I left to go back to Youngstown, Ohio, they cried; they had attached themselves to me.

Harmony: How did you know about Love Inn?

Keaggy: Well, Peter York's brother Bruce told me that he had stopped there on the way back from his honeymoon in Cape Cod. He told me that I should check it out, that the Lord was doing some really great things there.

Harmony: Who is Peter York?

Keaggy: Well, he's a brother that I had met and spent some time jamming with even when I was with Glass Harp. He was only 14 at the time. He wasn't Joe Musician, but I sure enjoyed his company. He was simple, not heady or highminded, and he and I hit it off as friends. We got together and wrote a couple of songs and really experienced something between us. The Lord was joining us without our knowing it.
Bruce had said, "Someday you ought to get together with Peter and just sort of play once in a while.” And I said, "I’d enjoy it occasionally, but I couldn't think of a permanent thing with him." But it ended up that way for about 51/2 years, Peter and I touring together.

Harmony: How did the What A Day album get recorded?

Keaggy: After I left the Love Inn I went back to Youngstown and did the music for some children's films. I really hit it off with the engineer at Motion Picture Sound in Cleveland. His name was Gary Hedden. He suggested that I cut some of my songs there. So things started falling into place.
I had also met a man by the name of Al Stevenson who had worked at Channel 25 in Cleveland. Out of the goodness of his heart he said he would back me in this album project. So he put forth $2,800 and said, "Whatever the cost is, go right ahead. You can pay me back when the album comes out." It was really incredible how God was doing this; the desire of my heart for two years before this had been to record an album of the songs that the Lord had given me. So on January 2, 1973, What A Day began to be recorded. I spent six days in the studio with Gary. Sessions were from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Everything flowed; there was no striving. Gary and I became good friends, and I didn't preach at him; I just showed him how Jesus had changed me and let him know how I felt about the Lord when he asked me. The Bible says, "If any man ask you to give the reason for the hope that lies within you, do it". I was able to do that, and a week later Gary accepted Christ on his own. Both he and his wife became Christians and they're doing well. They're both baptized in the Holy Spirit. I was baptized in the Spirit in 1970 at a Kathryn Kuhlman service: It was a beautiful experience.

Harmony: Back to the album, what next?

Keaggy: Well, after Scott Ross and I had shared his vision of a record company called New Song when I visited Love Inn. I believed in it and wanted to be a part of a record company that would be totally for the Lord and guided by scriptural principles. So I sent the masters to Freeville with a note saying, ‘This is the album and if New Song wants to release it, I'm all for it.’ But due to lack of experience and finances we were unable to put the album out until June ‘74.

Harmony: What finally made you leave Youngstown for Freeville?

Keaggy: In June, 1974, while touring with Paul Clark and Peter York, the Lord spoke to my heart and told me to 'get off the road, quit being a lone-ranger minister and get plugged into a body (join a community).'
Bernadette (my wife of 11 months at that time) and I were still in Ohio but we knew our hearts were at Love Inn. I felt a part of Love Inn and the album connected me with them.

Harmony: How did the Love Inn begin?

Keaggy: Love Inn began as an idea in Scott Ross' head and grew into a large fellowship group with a national ministry.

Harmony: Could you describe Love Inn and the function of its ministry?

Keaggy: The elders at Love Inn are Scott Ross, a former deejay turned minister and Ted Sandquist. The Love Inn Community of Freeville, New York, is a body of believers functioning primarily according to New Testament patterns, and is not just another church on the corner, or a commune. We're a family and God is teaching us more and more. There's a quality of life that's being experienced here, in a practical outworking of the Lordship of Jesus in our lives, that is surpassing anything I've come from.
In addition to New Song Records, we publish Free Love, a bimonthly newspaper, produce biblical teaching tapes, and produce the Scott Ross Show, which is a nationally distributed contemporary gospel music show. Our worship and business center is in a completely remodeled barn, which also homes the book and record store and studio where Scott's show is produced.

Harmony: What was your immediate reaction upon joining the community?

Keaggy: One of the first things that happened to me here was that I had to come under authority. It's been hard for me to let go of my independence, but I am learning that they are not trying to hold me down, or restrict me out of jealousy, or just to put their thumb on me so that I won't be happy. It means less time spent on the road sometimes but I'm experiencing a lasting closeness with other Christians. I look in my brothers' faces and see the love they have for me.

Harmony: What is your function at Love Inn?

Keaggy: To learn discipline and how to serve others. I've taken on the responsibility of being part of the Love Inn staff. If I show faithfulness in this job, the Lord will entrust me with greater things. When I'm not on the road, which is most of the time now, I work at Love Inn. Nine to five, Monday through Friday, I work in the tape duplicating room. I clean the place, unpack twenty-five tapes of the Scott Boss Show each day and duplicate a total of 800 shows on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday afternoons, I work in the recording studio with Ted Sandquist on a song to go along with Scott’s show topic. It becomes tedious and menial work sometimes. I get my eyes off Jesus and say, 'Oh, Lord, this is a drag I could be out there telling people about Jesus with my music realize, though, that He's trying to tell me, 'Son, I’m not finished with you yet."

Harmony: Where did you and Bernadette meet? Is she a hometown Ohio girl?

Keaggy: Yes, she is. We met in '71, when the Glass Harp was playing at Oden's Den in Akron. I'd see her there Monday nights with her friends every week. She can tell it, if she likes.

Bernadette: Well, you about said it. We used to go hear the band play and I guess I hadn’t ever planned on meeting him. I just enjoyed their music. One time, during a break, he came over and stated talking to me. And gradually we became good friends.

Harmony: Did he reveal he was a Christian at the time?

Bernadette: Yes, he shared the Lord Jesus with me, and it was a totally new thing for me. I was brought up Catholic but I had strayed from that, so it was a different approach and it really interested me, I was open to it. He took me to a couple of prayer meetings that he regularly went to and introduced me to some of his Christian friends, and I could see that they bad something special, a glow and a happiness that I really desired.

Keaggy: People need to see it in us. I'm sorry that I couldn't have been more loving toward people when I was a young Christian. I was so zealous and interested in winning them to Jesus that I forgot about loving them first. I think marriage has helped me understand that. We have been married since July 1973, and our relationship is as exciting as it was when we were first married. Jesus renews our love. daily. Because of our relationship, we can learn how to love others well. Down deep inside, people can sense whether or not you receive them in love, or you are trying to rap on them or Bible belt them.

Harmony: Bernadette, what's it like being married to one of the top guitarists in the world?

Keaggy: First of all, I'm not. Not even in New York.

Bernadette: You know, it's funny. A lot of people ask me that and also questions like "What's it like to be ministered to 24 hours a day?" But even when I first met him, I just saw him as a person, not as some famous musician up there playing in front of hundreds of people. I love his music and I listen to it, and I don't play his album every day but just once a while.

Keaggy: (laughter) Mostly when I'm gone.

Bernadette: And I love to hear him when he creates new music.

Harmony: Getting back to What a Day, the album really ministers.

Keaggy: I appreciate that. The album came out of my life. Now I Can See is the song that really speaks what my heart is saying. When life goes into an album, life comes out. There is a lot of music that is fantastic technically but it lacks life and spirit. Jesus said, "The flesh profits nothing, but the Spirit gives life." I've got music that's fantastic musically, but then there's music that the Lord ministers through. He anoints it. The input that you receive is also your output. Its roots go back to influences in a person's life that have been good and pure. You know, when it comes to anointing, that's something only the Lord can do: He can use someone who isn't as talented or someone who is much more talented than I am. I encourage people to get into music but I remind them to remember who's the author and giver of that gift. I discourage people from getting a guitar just to be like me. When someone is given a gift from the Lord, the Lord will accomplish that which concerns that gift. It's all for the purpose of glorifying Him, to build up the Body, to edify the Body, and to bring news to the fainthearted -- -- to those who are lost, and to set the captives free.

Harmony: What are your goals?

Keaggy: I know I can't let my music take prominence over the Lord’s will. We haven't had the finances to put out my second album, but I'm been doing backup work and production. I guess my goal is to really trust the Lord for all of it. I want the album to be released and I want to know more about guitar -- those are the desires of my heart. Those are desires God can grant if you delight yourself in the Lord.

As this story goes to press, Phil is going into a west coast studio to cut his second New Song album. The album, produced by Buck Herring is scheduled for a fall release. As reported in Vol. I No. 6 of Harmony, New Song is now distributed by Word, Inc.