Interviews by Sarah E. Smith and Christine L. Pryor
Cover article from the July-August 1995 issue of
Religious Broadcasting, The Official Publication of National Religious Broadcasters
(Vol. 27, No. 7)
Reprinted by permission of Religious Broadcasting
© Copyright 1995---all rights reserved.
Ask people in the Christian music industry about men of integrity and two names invariably surface: Michael Card (MC) and Phil Keaggy (PK). With combined music careers equaling nearly 50 years, these musicians are viewed with respect, not only for their musical prowess, but also for their lives of Christian character. Religious Broadcasting (RB) recently questioned these distinguished gentlemen on integrity, accountability, and truth in music.
RB: What accountability is in place in the Christian music industry?
MC: There's not much of it there because Christian music is an industry, not a community, and accountability is a function of community. Accountability assumes an ongoing relationship that includes success as well as failure, and an industry is not built on those ideas. Maybe it's wrong to expect the industry to exhibit that. The accountability structure that I'm a part of are people who know me, people who are on my side, right or wrong, and who know all the chinks in the armor. None of them are part of the industry.
PK: I think there needs to be accountability, and I think there is, perhaps more than people realize, because a true artist who wants to be an artist for the Lord would be seriously reaching out for [accountability].
As I was talking to my wife on the phone last night I said we needed to sit down and discuss getting plugged into our church.
I am accountable to my wife. We are one in the sense that we share everything with each other. I hear a lot of God through her; I think that she's a woman who has wisdom and is very practical.
RB: Do you promote accountability with anyone else?
MC: I'm discipling Wes King. He's a part of our community, our fellowship. Our discipling relationship started about a year ago, [when] I took him on the road to England with me. He asked for it, which I think is how discipling should start. The disciplee needs to go to the discipler; it doesn't work the other way around. I promote it, and people are asking about it more and more. Accountability is becoming some kind of a hot topic right now, maybe because there hasn't been much accountability up to this point and people are sensing that they need to wake up.
For me, accountability wasn't a result of being a spiritual or a religious person, because I'm not. It was a necessity---almost cowardice. I thought, "I need this. If I don't have this, I'm a dead duck!"
I started out by writing lyrics and giving them to my pastor, Scotty Smith, and he would say yea or nay. Then if anybody had a problem with those lyrics, I could send [that person] to him. He would become my advocate. It's interesting how many people want to shoot down an artist, but then when you say, "Well, my pastor will talk to you about that," they'll pass. Then it grew into more of a relationship.
There are two men that I walk with every week and talk to several times a week. And then I have relationships that are sort of tangential; Steven Green and I have an understanding that we can call each other any time, and have called each other from the road when there's a problem. Wes can do that with me, too. Steve Green is the paradigm for me. Phil [Keaggy] and I have walked some. He toured with us for about a year. He flew to all the dates---he didn't ride with us on the bus---so I didn't really have a lot of time with him. That's another thing accountability and discipling takes: time. It's a relationship.
PK: In terms of being accountable one to another in the church, I feel it is absolutely necessary. But you can't stretch yourself out [by] being accountable to too many people---I think you specifically need to have a few. Jesus spent most of his time with 12 and had a more intimate circle of friends (Peter, James, and John). His most precious times seemed to be spent with His Father.
[You need to have] accountability to your pastor or brothers that you can share with, can receive advice from. I did get together with a group of other brothers for reading and prayer and that's been really helpful, a kind of firming up of the foundations. [We don't] talk about the business, making music and stuff, but where we are in our lives and the way we relate to our society, keeping in touch with the here and there as we go upon our pilgrimage so that we can be salt and light as human beings filled with God in this world.
RB: Musically, you've chosen a road less traveled, sometimes avoiding huge venues. Why is that?
MC: It wasn't a conscious choice. The music, for me, is always dictated by the lyrics. The message of the lyric comes first. It's not like I was a rock, jazz, or alternative musician and I became a Christian. I was a Bible teacher who sort of got pushed into doing music. When I would write a song, I'd have to find the right vehicle for it. I grew up in the folk tradition and so that's sort of where my center probably is, acoustic folk music.
Certain lyrics just call for big orchestral music and some lyrics call for rock, as far in that direction as I can go, because that music is appropriate for some themes like judgment. I don't think it's appropriate for very many themes from the Bible, but there are some themes that are best communicated by rock music. I have trouble hearing real hard rock music with lyrics about the love of God. I just don't think it communicates, but then again, it's not my first language, either. It's a language, and if that's all some kids hear, then they need to hear about the love of God with some guy doing back flips off the stage.
PK: I play coffee houses now and then. The places where I perform will be probably 60 percent churches, 20 percent colleges or schools, and the rest, either coffee houses or giant music halls or stadiums. I did a 40-city tour with Twila Paris and Clay Crosse in the fall, which took us to a lot of huge venues---arenas---and a lot of churches and colleges. I did a 30-city tour in the spring and I think there were more churches on that tour than in the fall. The big things are usually organized by someone else and I get invited on those sort of things.
Every now and then I play in a little cafe called Cafe Milano, which is owned by a little Italian friend of mine---who happens to be the same size as me---and his wife. When it's just a Phil Keaggy concert, it's going to be something that's probably practical in terms of a venue that's not too expensive. I'm somewhat celebrated as an artist, but I'm not a huge star and I like that.
I love being creative and I love being able to make music and make people happy, but it doesn't matter to me what the numbers are---it could be 50 people in a room or 1500. I'm just grateful that at 44, I can still sing and play and have a great joy doing it. I'm definitely receding on top, [I've] got gray hairs, and I'm a little more portly than I used to be, but I love life. I love what God has done in my life.
There's a lot of trappings that go along with life. I want to live simply. I think at this point in my life I am seeking a life of simplicity. Someone asked Rich Mullins recently during an interview, "Rich, what are you into right now?" He said, "Silence." I thought that was good.
RB: Sometimes honest lyrics are a little challenging for the general public. How do you maintain your honesty and depth in lyrics when the masses are clamoring for something else?
MC: I think the Bible is an honest book and it demands an honest response; a dishonest response isn't biblical. In the Bible, you've got the whole range of emotions, and this is where a lot of Christian music's been dishonest. An awful lot of the Bible is about anger with God, especially the Psalms, [which address] frustration with God and the absence of God. A lot of the book of Job is about the perceived absence of God. If you're going to communicate the Bible, it's got to be honest, and people don't like that.
A lot of the Bible is designed to make us very uncomfortable. I think honesty is uncomfortable. I think a lot of honesty implies intimacy, which is also not comfortable. So that's just what you have to work with. When you have a set of documents that are essentially those things, you can't do anything else.
PK: I've never been a good songcrafter for popular purposes. In fact, on my new album, True Believer, half of the songs were chosen for me because they were going to be accessible and more radio friendly. I really like the album; it's grown on me. In the process of making it, I was thinking to myself, "This isn't me. Someone's trying to put me into someone else's suit." One song was so difficult for me to do, i felt like I was trying on someone else's spine.
It's easier for me to just be Phil Keaggy with his acoustic guitar than go out an say I need a huge production. I don't have that kind of urgency imaging. That's why I have a manager, who puts me on a big tour [like] the Twila tour, but I still went out there and played acoustically.
I think I had a heart to [listen to other music people] and that's why I'm where I am today. I don't want to be contrary and I don't want to be stiff-necked about it all. It's not worth it because when I get out there with just my guitar I can do what I want to.
RB: How do you balance the pull of the spotlight with your humility in Christ?
MC: I think the first thing is you don't try to balance it, because you can't. Balance implies, "Well, this is going too far, I'll have a little more humility, and a little less..." It's more an idea of priority and a values system than it is a balance. Biblical humility is just reality. I, as a person, can manufacture humility, but it's not humility, it's kind of a vain thing.
Biblical humility is, in truth, realizing who you are in Christ. And Christ, at almost the same instant, tells us, "First of all, your righteousness is like filthy rags and you are a sinner. You are unacceptable and you have no hope. Nonetheless, you're accepted into the beloved, and not even as a servant, but as a son or daughter." So it's in that that I realize who I am.
I was probably victimized by this early in my Christian life. I was so much into righteousness being filthy rags that I couldn't see the other side of it, and that really is a false humility, because it's not the whole picture. But I'm a man who realizes, as a sinner, I'm capable of doing anything.
That certainly is a reason for humility and reaching out and understanding other people, yet at the same instance I realize I'm a son of the Father, that God loves me so much He wants to be married to me, and that He'd rather die than live without me.
And because I belong to Him, I have that value in His eyes. That's my identity, and that's humility, too, because that's a true picture of who I am. I'm not anything more than that, but I'm also not anything less than that. To me, that's biblical humility.
I can honestly say there's not a pull of the spotlight. I think there was at first, but I think since I've done it for 15 years, I've had as much of it as I want. If it were possible for me to stay home and just write and feed my family, I would do that. Everybody wants attention and to be thought well of. I don't know if that's the same thing as literally getting up in the spotlight and having people applaud you, but I do know that too much of that is bad for a person.
The biblical model of humility is the antidote, because the Bible says every person should think of himself as they ought, and that's only possible in light of this truth of who we are in Christ, that we are both unacceptable but nonetheless accepted---that's real humility. Then the spotlight can shine on you and it's not a problem. When the spotlight shines and everybody claps, you know the truth of it.
For a long time I would almost be irritated by the claps, because I would think, "If you're clapping for me, you really don't understand. If you've heard the content of the song and you're responding to that, then good, it's okay to clap." That was a problem early on, but that's not a problem now. That's their funeral. If they don't get it, I've done my part.
PK: People who are in ministry have different levels of security. I've always preferred not having a spotlight on me, just more of a general light on the audience so I could see faces. When I'm performing, I'm more secure when I can see faces, not because I want their affirmation, not because I want to make sure they're liking me, but [because] it puts me in touch.
In terms of success and pride being a temptation, people might come up to me and say maybe a compliment; the best thing I could do is honestly receive it and be thankful for it. I've been in this business long enough [to be] aware of my limitations [and] of the people I listen to who are truly great, not just replicators like me---sponges that mimic and copy other people. I struggle with placing such a high standard on myself to be a good performer and that's where my pride might get in the way.
I've also found that when I feel that I'm really blowing it [during a performance] that if I just stop and be honest with my audience---which is an embracing of [humility]---something fresh and healing can emerge that is helpful to someone else.
It's not really natural to be in the spotlight. There's always going to be people who are in the spotlight and there's always going to be people who want to watch somebody. I think when I feel like I'm struggling and I'm not meeting up with people's expectations, then I think I'm struggling with my pride. Just admitting sometimes, which is not a very professional thing to do, "I'm sorry folks, I'm just not having a very 'on' night." They just paid ten dollars a ticket, they don't want to hear that. [But] it's about giving something and ministering.
Paul the Apostle talked about glorying in our weakness that [others] may be strong. People have talked to me [about coming] to receive something that's on a frequency and a level that is not the level you think you should be meeting them at. They're coming with a need in their hearts, so they're going to hear with different ears than you are. That's why it's important to have a spiritual perspective on performance, a spiritual perspective on all that we do.
The presence of Christ within encompasses more than the space [we're] physically taking up. The best thing we can do is not quench the spirit with doubt and pride, because pride will quench the spirit in a very serious way. [It] is taking your eyes off Jesus and putting it on yourself. It paints a false image at the end of the day if you just keep examining self to that point.
RB: What spiritual responsibilities do Christian artists have to their audiences?
MC: I think they're the responsibilities, in many ways, of a teacher. Paul warns teachers that they're going to be judged more severely. That's why I think there are a lot of Christian artists who should be doing secular music, who are very gifted but who haven't been burdened. They've been gifted by God and obviously shown His grace, or they wouldn't be Christians. They want to be musicians, and they don't know anything else to be but in Christian music, which may not be necessarily where they should be.
Again, those responsibilities are lived out and held accountable by community. So the responsibilities aren't in the industry. There are individuals in the industry who do care, but this industry is a faceless entity that couldn't care less.
The Christian music industry is power and money right now. In its early stages it was a ministry support vehicle. A record company would come to you and say, "We're here to support your ministry," but now it's gotten so big that [record companies] are creating artists, taking people---some of whom haven't even sung in a church---and creating them. That's just power and money. One reason I wanted to step aside is because I just wanted to get off for a while and realign. I don't want to be seen as being critical of individuals in Christian music.
Even though I've left Sparrow, I'm still completely supportive of Sparrow. What I want to try to do is sort of help diagnose the symptoms of the industry. I was with Bruce Koblish, president of Gospel Music Association, and he was saying, "Yes, Amen!" That's the response of a lot of people in leadership. They feel the same way I do. I think a lot of people are just saying, "Lord, what are we going to do with this as it's taken out of our hands and put in the hands of big companies like Sony, BMG, and EMI? Where are we in all this?"
It's a big industry and I'm trying to step back and say, "This is wrong. The emperor has no clothes on." I'm not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but I do know that something has to give somewhere. I think a lot of little independent labels have started. I know that some of the finest Christian musicians I know can't get a record deal to save their lives. I think Bob Bennett is one of the best writers, period. Nobody will sign Bob because he's not a celebrity and he doesn't want to be a celebrity. There has to be a place for people.
We're actually working on that right now by trying to start a group called Covenant Artist Alliance, which is going to be like a farmers' co-op, a network of people who are all resource people. So I'll basically write my songs and, like a farmer bringing his crop into the co-op, there'll be people in the Alliance who'll be marketing people, and people who'll be distributing. We'll all own it together. Bob, I think, is going to be one of the first people to go through the chute.
PK: I think [knowing] what [a Christian artist] is to be to an audience of people you don't even know [is hard]. Not everyone can know who you really are. In some ways, it's not their right to [know]. For instance, my wife wrote a book called A Deeper Shade of Grace (Sparrow, 1993), that brought out our personal life and hurts and what we've gone through.
I found [it] harder to go through interviews reliving those years than all the years just singing about Jesus and the Good News and being evangelical with my music. You're touching a little bit closer to home and I'm not too sure I want to open the garden of my heart to everybody with hobnailed boots on to come trampling in and taking a look around.
There's something inside me that seeks to stay fairly private, but I feel that people who know me [best] say "Phil, I think what you are on stage is pretty much how I see you off [stage]." I'm pretty much me all the time.
I do feel that we need to be as faithful as we can, try to live godly lives, seek to have Christ formed in us, allow God to work by His Spirit, keep short accounts with God, [and] stay out of continual sin---the basic things. There are people who have a great passion to see souls saved, especially the young artists who have such a passion to see their own age group set free from the chains that bind them.
When I was a brand-new believer in 1970, I was on tour for two years with Glass Harp, constantly traveling. I took my Bible and I would pray with people, meet people, and tell them about Jesus. These weren't Christian concerts---these were tours with Alice Cooper and the James Gang in clubs like the Whiskey A Go Go. I was desiring more than anything to reach out to my generation with what I had found.
RB: How have revenues generated by airplay of music and videos altered the music industry?
MC: In terms of video, I don't really know. I've only done one video, for The Bible League. In terms of money that's from radio play, that's basically what I live on. Touring is a break-even situation. A lot of the big bands and big artists count on losing money touring. I've heard a lot of radio people who don't understand. Early on, a lot of radio stations wanted me to sign something so they wouldn't have to pay, and I did. If they didn't want to pay, the music would still get out, and it wouldn't hurt me that much, and so on. ASCAP and BMI, thank you!
PK: Revenue of sales from play on the airwaves is really booming. I was just reading something Bob Souer wrote. [He stated] there is a resurgence and escalation of popularity of Christian music that's never been seen in the last 25 years. It's a big industry, it's huge, it's a contender. But it needs to be. Of course it has to do with corporations and finances---so does the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. A lot of organization and finances to into what they put together, and their main purpose is to save souls, not to build a name for themselves. That's obvious, because [Graham's] got such a fantastic track record.
With all the trash that's out there in the world, more power to Christians for putting out videos that get [out] the Gospel and decent stuff, good messages, things that really appeal to the heart and can put families back together. But they're also being artistic and having fun with it. Christians are allowed to have fun, you know. People think it's got to be constantly self-effacing and all that, [but] I think the Christian life must be attractive to people. People [have to] say, "I want what you have. I can see in your life a joy, a peace. You seem to celebrate life."
Some of the smartest people in the music business are Christians. They may not be the shrewdest [or the] most manipulative, but I think there is a great deal of very smart people with level heads on their shoulders and a few bad eggs now and then, but you're going to find that anywhere.
RB: You have to earn a living. How do you integrate business and ministry?
MC: It's a flow thing; it's like a fountain. First comes my relationship with God. From the overflow is my relationship with my wife. From the overflow of that is my relationship with my kids, then my community, and then, pretty far down the line, comes ministry. There are people who have the skills to sort of fake it, but real ministry is an overflow of all those parts of your life. If your commitment isn't first to your family life, it just doesn't happen. So when you talk about financial responsibility, it's way down the line. It definitely is a biblical mandate, to be good stewards of what we have.
Frankly, what I do generates a lot of money. It shocks me. When I see the income tax that we pay quarterly, I honestly can't believe it. We have a five-year plan to get out of debt, so we're working on all those things. It's just a big priority for my wife and me. But again, all of that is happening within community. The man who helps us with our money is a deacon in our church.
Part of my accountability is stewardship. A percentage belongs to my church. That, to me, is so cut and dried it's not a problem. My wife does most of that financial work, so it's really not hard for me. She's taken a lot of the burden on herself.
PK: I'm [able] to provide for my wife and kids, and I'll do that as long as I can because that's my first responsibility. God opens doors and closes some other ones. I lived very meagerly back in the '70s. When Bernadette and I married in 1973, we both ended up living that way. I've done a lot of albums over the years and they sell moderately. They're not blockbusters, but it's great to have them out there and available.
RB: From an artist's perspective, how do you view religious broadcasting?
MC: It's not National Religious Broadcasters' ministry, it's not my ministry, it's all the Lord's ministry. I've always viewed radio as being part of a team. For me, as a person who goes out and tours, radio is the key for me. When we go to towns where there is not a Christian radio station, it's uphill all the way. And [it's] more difficult when there are radio stations that won't support us. It's a team.
PK: I think variety is the spice of life. There is a great variety of emphasis and personality and I think religious broadcasting is something that we've been blessed with freedom to have. You won't find it in other parts of the world like you have it here. It appears on the surface to be very shallow at times---a bit simplistic---and doesn't really grapple with the things that affect people and bring the best out of people. [These things sometimes] happen to be, unfortunately, some of the greatest tragedies.
The Oklahoma bombing brought people together to pray and cut out all the fanfare. It got people right down to that brokenness and unity, as a result of humility, pulling together, and selflessly giving to [each] other. I'm grateful for what is being proclaimed out there that lifts Jesus and brings the Gospel to light in people's lives. Someone took time to care for me, and that's how I came to Jesus. I think that's why [religious broadcasting is] a fantastic thing. It's an open door God has blessed us with.
Our freedoms could be suppressed one day and then we'll find out the value of true faith. I think materialism and extremism in the area of our freedoms has brought us into a lot of trouble. Often, the Bible talks about those who are poor in this world and rich in faith. There's just so much of everything in America that I really feel that perhaps there's a wake-up call going on right now. He's trying to get our attention as a people.
I think the best of religious broadcasting is trying to bring across [that we need to realize] God is not our enemy and Jesus Christ is truly our greatest friend.
I think also the unity that is so necessary in the body of Christ is important. I admire Charles Colson. He got a lot of flack for writing the book, The Body, and being associated with Catholics. I was raised Catholic and my mother's influence was powerful in my life. I came to the Lord when she passed away. She sowed the seeds in my life for me to become a believer.
There are divisive voices out there. People who thrive on disunity are the ones [to whom] you've got to say, "I'm not going to contend with this, I'm not going to argue, I'm just going to go about my business."
RB: How can the religious broadcasting industry improve?
MC: I understand [the concept of] target audiences, but if the song is good and if the lyrics are good, then play the thing. I dare stations have just one show that plays music from across the spectrum. I like the diversity. I think the compartmentalization of music is really detrimental. The rationale for some of those charts escapes me. I believe some of them are based not on the music at all, but on the perception of what the artist is. I think doing away with that would help a lot.
In Europe, when you listen to radio, you'll hear Bach, then Sam Cooke, and then a Beatles song, and it sort of breeds into people a greater appreciation of music. But now in Christian music we have not just contemporary stations, but four or five different flavors of contemporary stations.
We just got a DSS satellite system that has a lot of music channels. There is a contemporary music channel that plays everything. I'll hear John Michael Talbot and then I'll hear one of Whiteheart's great songs. It plays Bob Bennett all the time, and praise the Lord, I'll even hear myself on that sometimes. This is on TV, with no picture, and my wife and I listen to this. There is a lot of good Christian music out there that you don't hear, and you're never going to hear, because it doesn't fit in whatever particular chute this Christian station is. I think it would work!
PK: A very powerful ministry back in the '70s was the Scott Ross Show. I used to duplicate tapes for that show when I lived up in New York. Back in those days, when there was less Christian music, he used to incorporate secular music that would ask questions and then bring out Christian music that was available at the time to answer the questions, sort of tell it like it is.
I would like to see stations that would play less popular music. Music that is very artistic, that really says something [and has] a greater poetic nature to it, no [music that] just tickles the ears and makes you feel good, but asks questions.
Sarah E. Smith and Christine L. Pryor are managing editor and features editor, respectively, of Religious Broadcasting. The above interviews took place during the Evangelical Press Association's annual convention in Bethesda, Md.
Many thanks to James O. Bratton, Jr. for providing Way Back Home a copy of this interview!
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