Friday, April 17, 2009

An Interview with Christian Music Legend Pat Terry

I recently reviewed the album, Laugh for a Million Years recorded by Pat Terry. Pat is one of the pioneers of Christian music, but he may be better known in the non Christian world for the songs he has written. I had the opportunity to ask Pat a few questions and what follows is that interview in its entirety, without edit. Pat says some incredible things here, things I have personally heard some of those early pioneers of the so called “Christian Music” genera communicate before. Read, enjoy, and think about the things Pat shares here, there is a lot to learn from our past and those that paved the path, we could hear from few who knows as much about this as Pat Terry.

MF: Laugh For A Million Years sounds a lot like it was written for Mark Heard. Can you tell us about this song?

PT: "Laugh For A Million Years" was written not long after Mark died, and I performed it at his memorial service in Nashville. It's my tribute to him, and to everyone who dreams big.

MF: Can you say anything about the dedication to Mark and Randy?

PT: As for my album's dedication, I don't really have much to add. I hope the dedication will speak for itself. Both Mark and Randy encouraged me greatly, and indeed Randy was quite insistent over the years that I do this album. They were such wonderful friends and are greatly missed.

MF: You were always known for your writing from both a musical and lyrical perspective. How do you marry the two concepts?

PT: By definition songs are marriages of music and lyrics, so it’s something I think about a lot. The process of writing songs is such an interesting thing to me. Sometimes it feels like it’s something that’s going on outside yourself, and you’re just kind of an antenna, picking it up and writing it down. And other times it’s a struggle, where you’re wrestling an idea to the ground. I used to write very quickly and didn’t do a lot of re-writing or editing of lyrics. But as time has gone on, I’ve discovered that if you give a song a little time, get away from it for a while, and then come back, you’ll often find areas that are close but not quite right. Maybe it’s just a word that’s throwing things off, or maybe one or two lines that seem slightly disconnected. If you hang in there with it, and don’t rush it, you’ll often get something better and more real. With that in mind, fine-tuning a lyric is something I spend a lot of time on these days. Interestingly enough, I’ve learned that it’s usually more important what I take out of a lyric than what I put in.

MF: You are one of the originals in the CCM market, it has changed quite a bit since the 1970’s, what are your thoughts on the music then and now?

PT: Well, I haven’t worked much at all in Christian Music since 1984 when I released my last album for Myrrh records, so I’m not intimately acquainted with a lot of what’s gone on since that time. But back in the early seventies, I can tell you that most of us who were beginning to make records for Christian labels weren’t thinking about music in terms of a market. We were just writing from the overflow of a newfound Christian experience, and I think you hear that in the music. It was heartfelt and fresh, and it had kind of a hippie, counter-cultural attitude too, that certainly wasn’t anti-church, but it was shaking up conventional ideas about church so it felt a bit radical. We had just come out of the sixties, so for music to have a bit of that radical edge to it was nothing too unusual. It was the fact that it was Christian young people making these records and listening to them that was so different. Eventually though, the labels started marketing campaigns that targeted primarily Christians, and pretty soon this music that seemed so alternative just became the new gospel music. From what I can see that’s pretty much what CCM music is today. I can appreciate some of that, and I actually like some traditional gospel music a lot, but I’m one who believes that musicians with a personal faith shouldn’t feel like church oriented music is the only avenue worth taking.

I’m really impressed by the number of younger artists these days who don’t connect themselves with the CCM industry side of things, but whose faith is informing their work. They’re avoiding a lot of the stereotypes that have been an uphill battle for a lot of Christian artists, and are being taken more seriously artistically, which is great to see. I hope church leadership can see the value in this kind of expression and be supportive without insisting on owning it collectively, because the artists need the support of their church families, but they don’t need the added pressure of conforming to evangelical cultural standards that aren’t always helpful when it comes to developing artistically.

As a music fan, I wanna hear these people with real gifts do their thing, and for that to happen the artist has to be operating with a sense of freedom. Whatever is on his or her mind needs to come out. They can’t be worrying about whether it’s gonna sound like Christian radio, or whether it can be used as a lead-in for a sermon, or whatever. It just has to be what they care about, and A&R departments, or church ministers, or even audiences, can’t tell the artist what that is and what it’s supposed to sound like. Real artists have their own way of expressing themselves and it’s that uniqueness that usually cuts through all the mediocrity out there and connects. It’s rare to hear that in popular music these days, CCM or otherwise, but when you do it’s exciting.

MF: You have had some success writing material for other artists, especially those in the country market, are there any favorites or experiences you would be willing to share?

PT: It’s always exciting for me when someone records one of my songs, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. B.J. Thomas recorded “Home Where I Belong” way back in 1976, and it’s still one of my favorite covers. More recently, when John Anderson recorded “Jump On It”, it was especially fun because my wife and I wrote that song, so we were able to share the experience of seeing it go from our demo to John’s album. His version of that song is just so perfect, we couldn’t have been happier. And sometimes a song connects in a way that is beyond what you could’ve hoped for. Travis Tritt once told me that after his record of “Help Me Hold On” came out, he heard from a number of people who told him that song really helped them work through some difficult times in their marriage. I love that. Once a song is recorded and the artist takes it out there to his or her audience, it starts to have a life of its own, which is so great.

Really though, for me, most of the good experiences connected with my writing songs and specifically those that I wrote in Nashville over the last twenty years, are not so much related to how the songs got recorded, or even who recorded them, but in the actual writing process.

I’ve done a lot of co-writing in the songs I’ve written for country artists, and it’s that interaction with other writers that has been special for me. The first cut I got once I started spending time in Nashville was back in 1989. It was a song called “Lie To Yourself” that I wrote with Bill Lloyd, who back in those days was part of the country/rock duo “Foster & Lloyd”. They put that song on their second album, which was a great thrill for me, because I really loved what they were doing. But the best part of it was that Bill and I became fast friends during those days. He’s someone I really respect, not just because he’s an amazing talent, but he’s one of the most decent human beings you’ll ever meet. And even though he’s had a long and successful career, he still makes music for the love of it. That’s inspiring to me. Songwriting gave me that opportunity to make a great friend, and I’m glad to say that’s happened a lot. I wrote quite often with Randy Vanwarmer before he passed away back in 2004, and we really forged a great friendship through those writing sessions. I put two of our songs on my new CD. To be able to do that means more to me than any chart record.

MF: If Pat Terry had to pick out a movie, a book, and a CD or Record to have on a desert island for a year, what would they be?

PT: Movie: Duck Soup / The Marx Brothers - Because I’ve got a feeling laughing might be crucial to surviving on a desert island.

Book: The Lord Of The Rings / J.R.R. Tolkein - Because three volumes could probably be stretched out to last a year, and the fantasy aspect of it might help me forget I’m actually TRAPPED ON A DESERT ISLAND!

CD: 1 / The Beatles - This disc includes all the Beatles number one records, which only scratches the surface, but when you can only choose one CD, this'll work. People who know me understand my inability to choose anything else.

MF: Pat, in the early days, it seemed as if the church and many Christians didn’t accept the direction of the “New Contemporary Christian Songs.” There were struggles you and many others went through. Many bands and Christians today seem to be ignorant of their history and the struggles. What would you tell the Christians out there doing music today is the most important lesson you learned over the years that would be of benefit today?

PT: That’s a hard question to answer, because frankly I have a lot of mixed feelings about what came out of the things we did back in those early days. Is what we got what we really wanted? Despite the number of people who’ve responded positively to what became known as Contemporary Christian Music, there’s also the reality that as the music became more and more popular, the commercial aspects of the music business forever colored not only the music itself, but the churches that have embraced it. I get the impression that some of these congregations actually believe that the hipper and more technically advanced the presentation, the greater the potential for the working of the Holy Spirit, and I just can’t see it. It makes me sad actually. Of course, I understand, there’s something to be said for each generation reaching out to it’s own in a language that is culturally relevant, so in and of itself, it’s not wrong to want to speak in a contemporary way. But with so much emphasis on that in today’s evangelical church, I fear that what’s been created is a Christian culture that’s mastering the technical aspects of the presentation, without having much of a feel for what they’re actually communicating. Sometimes all this technicality just becomes the message, and in itself can distract people from really having an encounter with God. The concept of a “seeker service”, which seems to be what a lot of this kind of presentation is about, is interesting, but when does it cross the line from being valid communication to being manipulation? That’s what I think about. Musicians serving in that kind of atmosphere have a unique challenge, I think. And for those in the pew, who come to church needing a more intimate worship experience, I wonder if they can find it there. If I want to be wowed by hi-def video screens or hear thousands of watts of crystal clear concert sound, then I can get that at home or at an arena somewhere at a rock and roll show. In church, I want to feel that human connection and I want to get away from all the frantic bombardment of the media that we live with on a daily basis, and get quiet before God. You can be drowning in the midst of all the lights and cameras, and barely realize it’s happening until suddenly you’re gasping for air and going under. That’s why personally, I’ve come to appreciate a more liturgical form of worship. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but for someone like me, who on and off has been in and out of the mix of all this contemporary kind of christian music through the years, liturgical worship has been a spiritual lifesaver, so to speak. I suppose that’s what I’d pass along to my younger musician friends… Bigger is not always better. God still speaks in a still, small voice.

MF: While I can't find any videos of Pat, I can find a couple of the songs he stated was among his favorites covered by other artists. I am including the BJ Thomas cover of Home Where I Belong. Just double click on the video, if the video doesn't appear, just click on the link.

BJ Thomas: Home Where I belong

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Lion of Judah's Cub said...

Hey Mike. Good interview. I played on stage once with Pat back in the early 80s, and knew Sonny L. when I lived in Atlanta back between 84 and 88 (at one point, he dumped his guitar students on me cuz he didn't have time to continue teaching). Having also lived/worked with Keith Green in the late 70s, and being around so much of what was going on early in Contemporary Christian Music, I have to say Pat is totally right about the difference between then and now. Then... Read More it was more "innocent" I suppose, in that it was more about writing/playing songs from a heart that had just found God. Today, motives are much more mixed (including mine) in that we also are wishing to make a living doing what we do best--music. Which isn't a bad thing, in fact it's a good thing that some of us have gotten honest with ourselves in that way (for a long time I "spritualized" and "justified" playing music by making it as if it was all about ministry, when in fact it's always been very much about music--if it was just ministry, then I would sell my guitars and move to a grass hut in Africa).

Even though I'm in a full-on Christian band, I myself have mixed feelings about the whole genre, and would be just as comfortable just being in a "regular" band, provided there was some purpose involved (kinda like what Pat does with his writing--he writes cuz he loves to write songs, but his purpose is bigger than just writing songs). Honestly, even in a Christian band, I would just rather just show up, plug in, play my heart out, and just be who I am while getting out of God's way and allowing Him to be who He is (and being available for Him to use in whatever way)--than getting up there and "ministering". Kinda the "shut up and play" mentality--I think God can use that much better than trying to preach between songs. But maybe that's just me.


Mike Furches & The Virtual Pew said...

Really good thoughts here, I apprecicate you sharing them, now as a musician, promoter and pastor I find all of these things to be true. It is a strange world and have stories of the old FCCM (Fellowship of Contemporary Christian Ministries) of discussions and yes arguments with people like Keith Green and numerous others on these topics when they started raising their head.