Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Light for the City
October 12, 2008

We were dressed in black and seated in the choir loft at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. More than a hundred of us had rehearsed with the Nashville Choir’s leader, John Coates. We had rehearsed with the conductor of the evening, David Hamilton. It was our job to provide background vocals for several artists who had gathered to honor the career of Michael W. Smith at a 25th anniversary gala performance. We opened the evening with a medley of Michael’s worship songs, beginning with one of my favorites, Shine On Us. (It appeared on a recording, My Utmost for His Highest, for which Michael wrote several songs.) That led us into Hosanna and then all the way back to How Majestic Is Your Name, one of Michael’s first and best known praise songs.

How powerfully music can return you in memory to a particular time and place! It was Belmont Church, in the early 1980s…I wasn’t a member there, so I must have been visiting for a special service or program. Michael came bounding down the aisle and gave me a hug and said, “I’ve met the woman I’m going to marry.” He was so excited. He and I had co-written a couple of songs together because we were both published by Randy Cox at Paragon Music, which later became Meadowgreen, a Sony subsidiary. These days those copyrights are administered by Universal.

My favorite of the two songs, Waiting, we recorded in the eight-track studio at Hummingbird Productions, where I worked. I had heard Kathy Troccoli sing at church (before her first album), so we hired her to sing this ballad of yearning which compares a woman’s waiting for her true love with our waiting for Jesus’ return. As far as I know, no one else has ever recorded it, but just this year I received royalties from Psalm 42, the other song he and I co-wrote. I don’t recall our recording a demo of it. I’m trying to contact Universal to find out who recently recorded it. It would be amazing to hear the song after so many years.

After the choir finished our opening songs and had been seated, the master of ceremonies for the evening took the stage. Bill Gaither is ubiquitous on TV these days with his Homecoming gospel music shows, but early on I knew of Bill and his wife Gloria as songwriters. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s we were singing their praise choruses, He Touched Me and There’s Just Something About That Name and Because He Lives.

I am grateful that many times I have been privileged to meet and thank songwriters who have moved me and changed my life. Bill is one of those. I was on a plane to L.A. when I recognized him across the aisle. I only said a few words of thanks to him, but it meant much to me to be able to express my gratitude to him personally. I’m thankful that he used his gifts to touch the lives of so many and help us sing out our gratitude for God’s love. Gloria is the primary lyricist, but I have yet to meet her.

Next, on stage came four men who were Michael’s original touring band. So much history with the first guy! Chris Harris and I were band members together in Fireworks in 1977-78. We later worked for six years together at Hummingbird Productions. Many years and a lot of living later, Chris and I were sitting in the lobby of the Vanderbilt hospital where his son Brandon was recovering from a terrible car wreck. As he introduced me to another friend, we discovered something we hadn’t known about our shared history. We both made the decision to quit the jingle business on the same night.

That jingle session in 1987 was yet another in a seemingly endless stream of late nights, impossible deadlines and frustrating circumstances. The product was Kotex and it was four in the morning when we finished the vocals. The music was FedExed off to Chicago or New York or wherever the client was. As he drove away from that session, Chris prayed, “God, You’ve got to get me out of this.” He said it was only weeks later when the call came from Smitty (This is how most friends refer to Michael Whittaker Smith, the honoree of the evening.) hiring Chris to be the bass player on his first big road trip. Instead of asking God to remove me from the situation, I just decided to leave it cold. I’ve wondered what might have happened had I exercised the same wisdom Chris did.

Next on stage came Chris’s brother-in-law Mark Heimermann. I remember the night I first met the Heimermann family in the late ‘70s, so many of them crowding into my then-favorite Nashville restaurant, the Laughing Man. (It no longer exists, and nothing has taken its place.) The whole family was in town for one of Belmont Church’s Come Together Thanksgiving weekends. Chris may not have imagined when he found his wife Jan that he was marrying into a musical dynasty. Elder brother Charlie is a composer as well as a singer in the Nashville Symphony Choir; a choral composition of his was performed for the Pope in recent years. Younger brother Mark and Chris later formed a group called Prism which produced four albums of hymns, reimagined with contemporary pop arrangements. Brother-in-law Don Wise is also a gifted musician, as are many of the family’s next generation.

Following Chris and Mark onstage was Wayne Kirkpatrick. When Wayne was still a student at Belmont University, he brought a demo tape to me at Hummingbird. At that time, it was one of my jobs to review all the demos submitted and evaluate them for quality of musicianship, writing, performance, etc. I would then give the evaluation sheets and tapes to the producers to recommend a small percentage of all the demo submissions. Wayne was one I had rated highly. Years later his evaluation form surfaced in some office housecleaning and the person who found it happened to know Wayne, so I think she gave it to him as a keepsake. I had never spoken to him about the story so I enjoyed sharing it with him in the hall before rehearsal earlier that day.

The fourth guy, Chris Rodriguez, played guitar in Michael’s touring band and went on to accomplish much in his own musical career. He and I happened to share a flight to L.A. once and had an excellent discussion about Israel, which has been a subtext of my life. So there they were, his original touring band, singing another medley of Michael’s memorable ‘80s songs, Secret Ambition and I Will Be Here for You, along with a black gospel version of Nothing But the Blood.

I’m not much of a TV watcher and especially not a fan of all the talent competitions which have become such a prominent part of our culture. I find that intense desire and yearning and disappointment very difficult to watch, having lived through it in my own life and in the lives of many around me. But Michael mentioned to me that his family regularly spends time watching American Idol together. The kids’ friends come over and everyone hunkers down with popcorn.

So of course it meant much to him to have Idol winners Melinda Doolittle and Jordin Sparks sing the song he wrote in memory of the Columbine High School tragedy, This is Your Time. Jordin was one of his backup vocalists when we in the Nashville Choir sang behind him in a Christmas concert a few years ago, and she did the same amazing job on that night as she did on this, powerfully interpreting Michael’s song All Is Well. I believe it’s one of the most moving melodies he’s written.

The Nashville Choir also sang backgrounds for his most recent Christmas album, the 2007 It’s a Wonderful Christmas. I’d never recorded in quite this way before. With so many voices, there was no way each one could have headphones, so we were asked to bring personal radios with headphones and tune to a particular radio frequency, and the recording feed was broadcast to it. Amazing.

I’m not sure why Ricky Skaggs was on the program because I don’t know what his and Michael’s association has been. Ricky’s been a leader in Bluegrass music, the protégé of Bill Monroe, and is well known for his Christian witness. I’ve never met him but I pitched a country song to his company (the only country song I’ve ever written, The Laundramat Waltz) and I stood nearby as he and his wife’s family, The Whites, sang in the lobby of the Green Hills movie theater for the premiere of O Brother, Where Art Thou? I know a lot of people who know him, including his recent production company manager, whose wife is in my book club. That’s Nashville for you.

Earlier in the afternoon before the MWS gala began, I was standing in the hallway telling Wayne Kirkpatrick my story about his Hummingbird “evaluation” when Mark Heimermann, Chris Harris and his son Brandon all gathered with us. As we stood chatting, down the hall came Amy Grant looking for the dressing rooms. Amy had her Harris-Teeter grocery bag, a couple of other bags or purses, and her guitar. She looked weary and a little befuddled. You wouldn’t have imagined that she could put on a black dress and sparkly earrings and come out on stage looking like a million bucks just a couple of hours later, but she did.

Amy is the fourth daughter of one of my grandmother’s doctors, Burton Grant. Her mom, Gloria, once went to get a prescription filled for my grandmother, because the weather was so cold. That’s the kind of gracious people they are. My grandmother was in a garden club with Amy’s grandmother, Zell Grant. I didn’t know these things until I was telling my mother about singing background vocals on a young girl’s album back in the fall of 1976 and she clued me into how many ways we knew the family. At the time we met, Amy was sixteen and a member of the Belmont Church’s youth group of which Brown Bannister was a leader. (More about Brown and me later on.)

Brown had moved to Nashville, with his friend Chris Christian, after graduating from Abilene Christian University. Chris (aka Lon Christian Smith) was an ambitious young Texas businessman who saw his future in music and made a lot of things happen very quickly. That year, 1976, he had worked a deal with Word Records to produce ten artists, many of his own choosing. He charged Brown with the task of becoming a recording engineer almost overnight. Brown’s early engineering sessions included lessons from the studio musicians as to which dial on the sound board did what.

With Brown’s help, Amy made a tape of some original songs she intended as a gift to her parents. She had written these songs in an attempt to communicate with her Harpeth Hall classmates about the love of Jesus which had become so real to her. Brown played the tape for Chris, and Chris played the tape over the phone for the Word people in Waco. “Sign her up!” they said. Thus Amy became one of the ten acts Chris had contracted to produce that year.

Since it was low budget and since Amy was in high school, many of the recording sessions were done outside normal studio hours. Sessions usually ran 10-1, 2-5 and 6-9. I was one of a handful of slightly older singers who were thrilled at the opportunity to record, to invent our own background vocals, to stay up late being creative and sometimes, occasionally, make a little money. (Not union scale, but we were so poor that we were still grateful.) We were in our twenties so to Amy we were “grownups” but we didn’t feel very grown up.

Marty McCall, Gary Pigg and I found that we worked well together. We were inventive, our voices blended (mine was the fuzzy bonding material between the two unique voices of the men), and we were quick. The three of us had the privilege of singing background vocals on most of the ten projects Chris produced that year, including B. J. Thomas’ first Christian album, Home Where I Belong. (His claim to fame was the Bacharach/David hit Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head from the movie Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and I loved his other hit from the ‘60s, Hooked on a Feelin’.)

Marty had recently moved to Nashville to become a solo artist, but when Word Records heard the three of us together, they offered us a two-record deal to become a group on their label. We named ourselves Fireworks and Chris Harris (introduced above) became our bass player and Lanny Avery our drummer. Now, sitting in the darkened auditorium listening to Amy sing Michael’s songs (Thy Word, which they co-wrote; Rocketown; Give It Away), I glanced up to the seats in the balcony to my right and there sat Gary Pigg with his son Landon, also a singer/songwriter with much success nationally in the past couple of years.

Marty now lives with his wife Vickie in Herndon, Virginia, and I have visited them twice, in 2007 and again this spring. But Gary and I see each other almost every week, as his wife Carol and I have been dear friends since 1975. I’ve watched their son Landon grow up, along with his sister and three brothers. It’s amazing to see the next generation taking off, doing what we aspired to do and doing it better. The youngest, Gabe, is a drummer.

And their daughter, Cari-Ann, married a drummer. A few years ago, their wedding was held at Michael and Debbie Smith’s country house, in a beautiful garden beside a lake. Of course her brother Landon sang, but a young lady I didn’t recognize sang too. It turned out she was Jenny Gill, Amy Grant’s step-daughter with Vince Gill.

Amy and I have never “hung out” but living in the same town has given me the opportunity to run into her at various times over the years. Once my mom and I were waiting in the airport at the same gate where Amy showed up, and I was able to introduce them and describe the family connections to Amy. Another time she and her sister Mimi were having lunch and we spoke. I was pleased to hear that they had been discussing our band, Fireworks, on her tour bus and wondering where everyone was now. When I quit the group I felt I had fallen off the face of the musical earth. Turned out I was wrong, but who could predict?

After singing backgrounds on her first album, I also had the privilege of singing backgrounds with Gary Pigg and another girl when Amy first performed with a live band. (Until then it had been just Amy and her guitar.) The concert was at Vanderbilt, where she was then in school, and it happens that I currently work in the building next door to the Langford Auditorium where we sang twenty-nine years ago. It was not much fun for me since rehearsal time was too brief, and we were singing with a girl who flew in from Texas for the event and missed rehearsal. Also the pay was minimal, and I was beginning to notice.

When it was time to record her third album, a friend and I co-wrote a song, Say Once More, which we handed on a cassette to her producer, Brown. (I still get tiny royalty checks for that song, even though it appeared on her second-least-selling album, Never Alone.) Those were the days, when you could simply walk up and hand a song to a producer! It wasn’t long until even the contemporary Christian music industry, the little brother of pop music, had become so complex and organized that all the songs came from known writers who had publishing deals. There were official song presentation meetings and the like. Of course, by that point we were talking about real money, so every Joe Schmoe and his sister were trying to get their songs cut, and there had to be some kind of filter.

I have always trusted Amy’s sincerity, but she made a huge impression on me years ago with the extra effort she took to bless a young friend of mine. She asked me for my friend’s name and actually remembered it, greeting her personally when I brought the girl to a teen fellowship/concert at Amy’s barn. I later told that story to Vince when I met him at a Belmont Church “family reunion” held in the ‘90s. He smiled and agreed, “She’s really good at the name thing.” That’s an ability some people have naturally, but Amy works at giving people this gift of recognition. She has grown up under constant public scrutiny and, despite untold harsh criticism, she has remained deeply genuine and consistently kind.

I’ve run into her at restaurants and in the grocery store parking lot, but the most significant moment for me came when I had the privilege of encouraging a creative impulse. She sang, along with our old group Fireworks and several other groups and singer/ songwriters, at a reunion concert in November, 2007. We were standing backstage and I asked her if the scripture song she had just performed was “written” or if it’s different every time she sings it. (I’ve known people with the gift of improvisation who compose new melodies on the spot, as they sing.)

She said she had many more like it and had been considering recording them. She had been discouraged that such a project could not be a commercial success. I exhorted her to do it anyway, saying, “We bought albums years ago that were musical dreck just because they were scripture. There is an audience. There are people who will buy this! Please do it.” Since she hasn’t recorded it yet, I’ve thought about writing to reinforce how moving I believe it would be to hear symphonic arrangements behind her very free, creative melodies.

Back at the Schermerhorn gala, the next artist to appear on stage carried a significant chapter of my history with her. Wynonna has had a solo career for decades now, but when she was a teenager she sang with her mother as a duo. They were known as The Judds. Neither woman is likely to remember my name, but I played a deep-background supporting role in getting their career off the ground.

In 1982 I was living alone in a four-bedroom house. One evening I went out to dinner with friends from church to meet a couple visiting briefly on their way from Florida to Rochester, New York. Their names were Don and Christine Potter. I felt an immediate, strong connection with both of them, and when I discovered they were considering moving back to Nashville (having lived here previously in pursuit of the music business), I offered without hesitation for them to stay with me while they looked for a place to live.

They loved visiting our church, but they could hardly believe it was real, so they made two or three trips down from Rochester just to go to church before they made the decision to move. When they arrived with their van full of stuff, I discovered they were in bad financial straits and would probably be staying with me longer than a few days or weeks. We couldn’t have imagined three years, but that’s what it turned out to be. Don, a fabulously talented guitarist, felt that God wanted him to lay down his guitar and work as a construction laborer for a time, and he was obedient. But one day, I believe it was Thanksgiving 1982, Don took his guitar on a visit to the home of an old music business friend, Brent Maher.

He played for Brent, and when he heard the jazz inflected brilliance of Don’s playing Brent was amazed. Just that week he had been conversing with Dan Raines, a contemporary Christian music business guy, who described his search for a new artist with precisely Don’s capabilities. Eventually, songs were written, and two albums were produced. But in the meantime, during the production process, Brent said to Don one day, “There are these two girls living out in Franklin, a mother and daughter. I think I’d like to pitch them to RCA. Why don’t you go out there and work with them to get a few songs ready for an audition?”

Wynonna and Naomi Judd had reinvented themselves as Kentucky country girls. Their real names were Christine and Diana and one of the mother’s previous jobs had been in L.A. as receptionist for the office of the Fifth Dimension (a pop group at the height of their fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s). Simple, unsophisticated country girls they were decidedly not. The mother was a nurse and had cared for Brent’s son when he was in the hospital following a car wreck. Naomi (Diane) slipped Brent a cassette of songs she and her daughter had sung into a cheap cassette recorder in their kitchen. That cassette went into the glove compartment of Brent’s car and months passed before he got the urge to pop it in and have a listen.

And so it was that Don Potter met Naomi and Wynonna and worked with them to get a few songs ready to perform. The executives at RCA agreed to audition the girls in person – unheard of since decades before – and offered them a deal the same day. Their first album was released in 1983. Don went on the road with them in the early months of their career, and then continued to coproduce the majority of their records with Brent. Don’s wife Christine and I visited the studio one night to hear what they were up to and met Wynonna for the first time there. Many nights we dropped Don off in the Kroger parking lot where the bus was waiting to take the girls on the road. I recall one evening when Wynonna came over and sat in our living room and discussed her boyfriend troubles.

One morning in 1985 I was home sick and got to witness a little of the life that went on in my house when I was on Music Row working at the jingle company. The folks at RCA, or her management company, someone with clout, had decided that Wynonna needed to lose weight. They hired an Asian guy to go everywhere with her and keep her moving. He was the first personal trainer I had ever met. Dressed all in black, he reminded me more than anything of Cato, the servant of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies.

Back at the gala, the Nashville Choir rose to our feet to sing Great Is Thy Faithfulness, one of my favorite hymns. It was an evening conceived to honor the ministry and career of Michael W. Smith, but I’m sure many people felt, like I did, that it was a night of looking back over our own lives as well. Indeed, God has been faithful: to teach and train, to correct and comfort, to empower and to protect through many challenges.

We ended the evening with a worship medley led by Brown Bannister. How appropriate that the last person to take the stage was the first person I met. Back in 1973, it was summer and we were gathered at the campus of Pepperdine University for a wedding. Our friend since seventh grade, Janice Hahn, was marrying a Texas boy, Gary Baucum. They had met at Abilene Christian University where Janice roomed with my best friend, Marilyn Young. Gathered to celebrate Janice and Gary’s wedding were all these precious Texas men.

We found that God’s Spirit was at work in Abilene like He was in California, wooing our hearts and drawing forth worship. We all sat in the Youngs’ living room and sang and prayed together. Brown Bannister was one of those young men. He and I, with my college boyfriend Danny, were asked by Janice to sing Noel Paul Stookey’s There Is Love in her wedding. So I met Brown in the context of worship and music three years prior to our first recording session, in the Nashville studio called the Gold Mine (the basement of Chris Christian’s home).

The Smitty concert ended with a song that has become a beloved anthem for many reunions and partings. Michael and Debbie wrote it on the spur of the moment one night for a friends’ going away party, and it became an instant classic. It was a fitting close for the concert and it also serves as an excellent blessing with which to end this stroll down memory lane.

“Friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them
And a friend will not say ‘Never’ for the welcome will not end.
Though it’s hard to let you go, in the Father’s hands we know
That a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends.”