Welcome to week two of discussions on Andrew’s nonfiction book about creativity and community! If you’re just now joining us, you can find all the details here.
The idea struck and I couldn’t ignore it: What if there was a Christmas concert that was only about Jesus? What if it told a story? And what if it didn’t sound like your usual Christmas songs, but like the music I listened to the rest of the year? In other words, what if it sounded like Nashville, with dobros and hammered dulcimers and fiddles and folk singers, instead of Bing Crosby? Craziest of all, what if it happened at the Ryman?
High school Andrew would have been very surprised by all this. Back then I was way into rock and roll—everything from southern rock to hair metal. That may come as a surprise, given my folky vibe, but for years I listened to bands like Pink Floyd, Queensrÿche, Tesla, and Extreme. And each of those bands, in hindsight, had a direct influence on what was to become Behold the Lamb of God, because each of those bands released concept albums.
If you’re under twenty you may be wondering two things: (1) Who are those bands you mentioned? and (2) What’s a concept album? …
The point is, all that stuff from high school is bubbling in the cauldron, and it floats to the surface in the most surprising ways. Even the stuff you’re embarrassed about isn’t beyond redemption.
In my case, I had to go to Bible College to complete the recipe that led to Behold the Lamb. My Old Testament professor always pointed out when Jesus showed up in the Hebrew Scriptures, whether in theme, theophany, prophecy, or foreshadowing. And though I’d grown up memorizing verses and listening to thousands of my dad’s sermons, it wasn’t until I was eighteen in that class that I realized Jesus is the center of it all. He holds the whole thing together. It was like God had written a concept album called the Bible, and I had finally realized what the story was. The story was Jesus. Everything clicked into place once I put him in the center. That’s why, at the Amy Grant concert, I envisioned an album that hearkened back to Pink Floyd and Extreme but sounded like the kind of music I actually made, and most important, was about the Savior I had come to know. Not only that, I immediately thought of the Ryman. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to sing those songs there, in the heart of this city I’d come to love?
I wrote “Gather ’Round, Ye Children, Come” back in early 2000 I think, and I told my manager Christie that I wanted to try a Christmas tour. No, I calmly explained, we wouldn’t be singing traditional Christmas songs. Yes, the songs would tell a story. No, there wouldn’t be speaking parts. No, the songs weren’t written just yet, but seriously, how hard could it be?
No joke, we started booking shows before the songs were written. …
When the time finally came to record the album, we had done four tours. We had shaped the arrangements, figured out tempos, landed on harmonies, and tested it all on the road. But it wasn’t until Andrew Osenga, Ben Shive, and I were in a basement studio late one night that the remnant of Extreme finally bubbled to the surface in its hair-metal glory. Up to that point we had been ending the show with “Joy to the World,” and it worked, but I wanted to find a way to tie all the songs together somehow. We named the work track “Silent Majesty” as a joke (an obscure reference to Christmas Vacation), then came up with a chord progression and stacked lyrics from the key songs on top of one another until we found a cool way to build to the final, explosive reprise of, “Sing out with joy for the brave little boy who was God, but he made himself nothing.”
At last, my nerdy high school dreams had come true. It was a proper concept album. But my college dreams came true, too, because it was also a proper Bible album, unabashedly about the Israelites and the Incarnation. And my musician dreams came true because it had dobros and mandolins and dulcimers thrown in with the strings and electric guitars. Come to think of it, it answered my longing for a community because so many friends came together to make the record, and then tour it, and those friendships deepened and deepened over the years. “God, will you let me sing about you?” I asked when I was nineteen. In some ways, his answer was Behold the Lamb of God—which turned out to be so much more than I could have asked or imagined.
The whole thing has been such a gift. Not only did the Christmas tour carry my family through some really lean years, not only did it reset my heart’s compass to the true north of the gospel, it also gave me the great gift of friendship. It wasn’t so much generosity on my part that led to the community culture around this tour; it was necessity. There was simply no way I could pull off the concert alone. It had to be a community effort. And that led to the idea of the tour having the in-the-round component, which turned out to be one of the best things about it.
Each year we bring out a little slice of this sweet community of artists and musicians who genuinely love Jesus, and we tell his story. It hasn’t always been fun. Touring is hard. Our kids have never known a December where their papa was home. We miss plays, church concerts, Christmas parties. I miss Jamie and the kids, and I know they miss me. I’m sure the rest of the band feels the same. But it’s so very clear that this tour is a calling. How can I keep myself from singing? …
Here’s the point. If I had waited until the songs were finished, this thing might never have happened. If I had merely tinkered with these songs for all the years it took to finally record them, chances are I would have moved on to other things and never given it a try. It wouldn’t have grown into what it was meant to be. You can think and plan and think some more, but none of that is half as important as doing something, however imperfect or incomplete it is. Intention trumps execution, remember? Sometimes you book the tour before the songs are written. Sometimes you stand at the altar and say “I do” without any clue how you and your wife are going to make it. Sometimes you move to Nashville with no money in the bank and no real prospects. Sometimes you start with nothing and hope it all works out. Not sometimes—every time. All you really have is your willingness to fail, coupled with the mountain of evidence that the Maker has never left nor forsaken you.
Discussion: What are some of the influences bubbling in your cauldron? What do you think Andrew means when he says “intention trumps execution”?
For more conversation, come over to the forum!