MacKenzie Hollis is a young college woman in our church. She likes to write songs. Fortunately, she’s good at it. It’s not unusual in Nashville to run into songwriters. They're everywhere. Even now, long after technology made geography less important for creating and marketing music than it had been before, people keep moving to Nashville in hopes of launching a music career.
So its not unusual that MacKenzie shared a lyric with me last Sunday, but the interesting thing is why it moved me to write a blog.
First though, a little background.
Years ago, when traveling to speak somewhere, people would often slip me a cassette as they whispered something like, "would you please get this to Dolly Parton or to Naomi Judd? My niece - wife -- brother -- friend -- writes good songs but needs a break."
I didn't always know what to do with these little pieces of dreams. The songs on the cassette were usually not very good but they carried people's hopes and hope must always be respected. Still, every musician or friend of a musician has had this experience and rarely knows what to do with such awkward moments.
(Terry Blackwood once told me that his career had taught him at least one thing -- that God was not a good songwriter. "Whenever anyone tells me, 'God gave me a song,' I can be sure the world is not going to care much for it.")
When people write a song, they are nearly always convinced that it is a best seller if they can just get it to the right person.
In the days before computer recording programs, studios were expensive. But anyone with cash could get their song recorded professionally complete with orchestras and some great artwork for their record jacket. Luring amateur musicians to record an album was no small part of Nashville industry in those days. I suppose there are still garages all over America filled with those albums.
Alas, the public didn't often agree with these aspiring stars about the quality of their work. Even if the songs or voice had potential, there was usually something lacking that kept that potential from becoming something truly great.
It is hard to express the thrill of starting with a lyric and then watching it make its way through crafting and production to become a great song. But it’s not magic, at least in the way most people think.
C. S. Lewis once said that the difference between a professional artist and an amateur is the amateur's belief that the raw product is the same as a finished product. Amateur musicians, cooks, preachers and writers usually have a genuine natural talent for what they do. Their talent attracts the attention of family and friends because it does seem rather magical.
Sally's little drawing of a dog is impressive because she is only five. If mom and dad (or grandparents, most likely) praise little Sally, she may continue to practice and improve. However, if Sally doesn't get professional instruction from a master, her talent will hit a ceiling. She will remain, perhaps a very good, amateur. She may be inspired and express passion through her art but the product will, nonetheless, have a limited audience.
Inspiration is a vital part of art, though amateurs may not know that professional artists often discover inspiration for their work after, rather than before, they begin it. We all hope we were conceived by people who were at least somewhat inspired about what they were doing at the time. But as every parent will tell you, parenting is about a lot more than begetting. Raising a child is not always as exciting as conceiving one. So inspiration alone cannot create a great work.
Anyway, MacKenzie sent me a lyric. I needed some material and had told her so. A respected Nashville producer had asked me over a year ago to write some music for an album. Now, a concert is coming up -- on April 21st -- and I still don't have all the material together. I pastor a church. I have a family. Its tax time. And there are more excuses if you want to hear them.
Twenty years ago, I was writing songs and getting them recorded. I loved the work and spend many hours each week writing and making demos. Then a bunch of stuff happened. I moved to Phoenix. My children grew up. My pastoral work increased in volume and complexity. Somewhere along the way, my music nearly died. I have written a handful of songs in the last few years, but that part of my life has not received much of my attention.
Then Steve Mauldin asked me to write some songs, do a concert and an album. He asked me to do this because of a sermon I preached about using our gifts for kingdom purposes. He remembered that I had one of those gifts and that I should practice what I preach. I should offer my gifts to further the work of God through our church. (All the proceeds of this project will go for eliminating our church debt so we can get on with the mission.)
I've been trying but there seems to have been obstacles all along the way. Meanwhile, a concert and a recording project is days away. Little by little, I have gathered the material as he has worked hard (and patiently) to bring it together and make it presentable.
So, MacKenzie sent me a lyric. It was already well crafted but she asked for my collaboration to form it into a song. I read it and told her I would work on it. That afternoon, I sat down at the keyboard and played a few chords, singing the words, rearranging them, adding a phrase here and there -- suddenly I knew what the song was. It was a songwriter's prayer:
May my words calm the mind
And my music bring some peace
May my voice be the sound
That will guide a pilgrim home.
Melody emerged, lyrics became prayer, inspiration gave way to crafting and production, and raw product began moving toward becoming a finished product.
There is still much to do, on this song and on others. Some of them are still rough. They are not fully formed, like the world over which the Spirit breathed that was still "without form and void and where darkness moved upon the face of the deep."
Artistry is like that. Potential must be respected but its must also be coaxed out of the formlessness void where we find it if it is ever to become stars, beasts, oceans and fruit. The artist is not certain at first what all is there but he must keep working, crafting, innovating, experimenting until something unexpected shows its self and then takes control.
Of course, when one is preparing a sermon, a hymn or a prayer, he is not only trying to express himself; he is asking for divine grace to create a vehicle that others will use to express themselves. MacKenzie's words brings that longing to a fine point:
Only you can make us whole
O Creator of the soul
But my song can be the start
of the healing of a heart.
I love song writing. I have had the pleasure of hearing some great artists record songs I have written. Songwriting has not been my central focus however, and so I have remained an amateur. I have learned two things though through my limited songwriting career: that the raw product is not the finished product, and, a gifted amateur can participate in creating something truly wonderful if he will allow himself to be guided by those who understand the art better than he.
All but one of my songs have been products of collaborative efforts with people who have studied, practiced and focused their career on music. They helped me take my raw products and made them into finished products.
MacKenzie sent me a lyric. I sang it until a melody emerged that moved me. Then, with her permission, I rearranged some of the lines. Steve will now do his voodoo and determine the rhythm, instrumentation and all the musical work required to make this song something others can enjoy. At the concert, some of Nashville’s greatest musicians will play what Steve has prepared as I sing.
And then, perhaps, the listeners will join in to make this lyric, which MacKenzie first wrote as a personal reflection, their own heartfelt prayer:
As I craft this simple rhyme
Breathe your presence through the lines
So this becomes a sacred time
That will make my music Thine.