New Year’s Eve, 31 December 2006, my lovely wife Laura and I made our way to the Mother Church of Country Music down town in Nashville. There seated in the storied and beautiful Ryman Auditorium, I witnessed my third or fourth live performance of Prairie Home Companion: Ketch Secor with all his Old Crow Medicine compadres, Emmylou Harris, and Cowboy Jack Clement joined Garrison Keillor on the stage. I remember getting all worked up in the moment. When we had audience participation singing near the end, I sang my tenor part too loud. I couldn’t help it. I was having a moment of aesthetic ecstasy.
That night or early the next morning I wondered to myself: what if we did a theological variety show? I felt compelled to write Garrison Keillor a letter. He did not reply. Probably best for him and me both. I knew it was an inane idea. In 10 years now, I’ve never said “I host a theological variety show in Nashville” and the person respond something like, “oh wow, that’s so cool.”
They just stare at you, something like, “what were you smoking when you conceived that brain-child?”
In the next couple months, a few friends of mine were teaching a class on spirituality and creativity. One of them said several times that if you had an idea that wouldn’t leave you alone, and you were afraid you would fail if you tried it, then you needed to try it. After hearing that a few times, I said an expletive to myself, and said I’d have to take a step.
At the time the only person in the “music business” in Nashville I knew was no small player. Randy Goodman was president of Lyric Street Records, Disney’s music label, as well as chair or some such of the Country Music Association. We did not know one another well at the time. I had heard he liked Thomas Merton, so at least I thought we’d have something to talk about. I asked him if I could talk to him, and he invited me over. I shared my inane idea, and asked him what he thought, and he said he thought it was a great idea.
This was disappointing news.
Now I felt obligated to do something. I knew I had no business being in the music business. More, I was an academic. We must maintain a certain air of intellectual superiority and sophistication. Good Lord, was I becoming a song and dance man?
Randy and his business partner Doug Howard began encouraging me, meeting with me. I remember one day I came into a meeting with the two of them and Randy handed me a hand-written note with a quote from Johnny Cash: “Your faith must be greater than your fear.” I still have that on my bulletin board in my office.
Randy made resources available for us. I convened a number of my students and academic colleagues, and we brainstormed. David Dark, I think it was, said something about William Stringfellow speaking of “tokens” of the resurrecting power of God into the world. And the idea began to be fleshed out.
In time, I would come to know this beautiful passage from Stringfellow:
Discerning signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings, with perceiving the saga of salvation within the era of the Fall. It has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair.
One thing lead to another, and I convinced 125 of my friends to come a small theater for us to do the experiment, with our first episode entitled “The Appalachian Longing for Home.”
We were all rather surprised that it worked. We were even more surprised that it seemed not only to work, but that it was somehow beautiful, as if the whole were more than the sum of the parts.
So, we were off-and-running, and we’ve gotten to play shows and venues, gotten to play with people I never dreamt when we started. What beautiful moments and themes and performances and stories and laughter we have shared. I still feel privileged to get to play my part among the community which has formed around this endeavor, and still feel giddy every show-day listening to the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain boys rehearse, to watch performers new to our endeavor “get it” and get excited about it, to hear tales and poems and songs, in which, again and again, we glimpse tokens of the beauty and mercy of all that is good and lovely.
In that first decade, we’ve been privileged to host brilliant artists representing more Grammy and Dove and IBMA and Academy of Country Music and Pulitzer and poet laureate awards than we can count. Professors from Yale and Harvard; Country Music Hall of Famers; journalists and activists who have helped bend American culture toward justice; performers who’ve sold millions and those who’ve never recorded an album, but all having some lyric or melody which moves the heart and soul to pay attention to the grace of living; a Brother Preacher who’s helped us laugh at the idiocy which too often overtakes the sacred; a house band of some of the best musicians in the world.
What is so humbling about this is to continue to watch the many people who long for spaces in which beauty and justice and mercy may be not merely discussed but embodied—embodied and performed in the midst of a world riddled with hostility and partisanship—and to watch them do so with perseverance and kindness and humility. No small endeavor, this art informed by intellect and social criticism and truth-telling and good humor.
So, we are off-and-running for our second decade.
Come join us this Thursday night in Music City, as we start afresh.
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