Still crazy after all these years
I had the opportunity recently, because of the kindness of a great friend, to attend a concert featuring one of the Christian artists who has been among the most influential people in my life as a musician and a Christian: Randy Stonehill. The venue was Topeka Bible Church, and I attended with my best buddy, Rick Roberts, and his wife, Tina--there were other dear friends there, as well, and in some ways it was an experience full of nostalgia concerning the most formative years of my life in Christian music.
Randy Stonehill started music as a ministry in 1970, when I was in my junior year in high school. As a 16-year-old, I had experienced a refresh of my faith in God through a Lay Witness Mission (raise your hand if you know what that is) in my church, and I was engaging with Scripture for the first time, and considering what sort of career I could pursue that would combine my love for Jesus and the skill sets that he seemed to have given me. At the time there was precious little "contemporary" Christian music--in fact, there was a prevailing view among many Christians that rock 'n' roll was "of the devil," and those who participated in the rock 'n' roll culture were mainly devil-worshiping, drug-using, sexually immoral people who were far, far away from Jesus. And when the odd attempt was made here and there to introduce Christianity-influenced rock music, it was typically opposed--Jesus just couldn't be exalted with loud guitars and drums.
Randy Stonehill was one of a small handful of artists who helped to change that--along with people like the late, great Larry Norman, Chuck Girard (and Love Song), Paul Clark, and others, Randy articulated his deep faith in Christ in a unique rock 'n' roll voice that helped me understand that God was not merely the God of my parents, but my God as well. Randy's music was honest, authentic, and heartfelt, and spoke of the joys and struggles of life and faith with hopefulness and assurance that God was real, that he was intimately involved in our lives, and that this ancient faith was still relevant in the midst of all of the changes that had taken place in American culture through the late 50s and the 60s.
A lot of Randy's music came to me in the form of cassette tapes loaned by friends--it probably wasn't until around 1976 that I actually purchased one of Randy's albums--Welcome to Paradise--and I still have it, somewhere. Rick and I performed most of the songs from that album over the years we played together for Youth For Christ summer camps, ski trips, and various school assemblies and concerts at Christian colleges--maybe even in a bar or two. Songs like "Keep Me Runnin'" and "I've Got News for You" were part of our set lists for years.
Randy had not lost much of his energy in the last 47 years, at least not that I could detect--the 65-year-old artist played energetically, jumping and kicking as he always has. Nor has he lost that much of his hair (what line from which Stonehill song* does that remind you of?)--and I have to admit that a lot of the music he played was not the old stuff but newer material that was unfamiliar to me--since I've been so steeped in worship music in the last decade or two, I've lost track of Randy's continuing career as a songwriter.
In those days, when I was playing music with my buddy, Rick, we weren't leading worship, really--often we were typically performing music as a warm-up to a speaker, trying to get the audience ready to hear what the speaker wanted to communicate about God and life and faith in Jesus; our aim was to touch hearts, open minds, disarm cynicism, and reach into the real lives of the people we were playing for and touch an emotional nerve, play a resonant chord, as it were, that would help them be more open to what would come later. Randy's music was perfect for that. I quite often shared with audiences about the death of my grandfather and then sand Randy's song, "Grandfather Song"--a touching piece about having to say goodbye to a loved one: "you're sailing away / but I believe that someday I will see you again / 'cause I know you, my friend / and you never liked saying goodbye." Rick would often sing "First Prayer"--a lovely song about the early days of faith in Jesus--always an emotional piece. And we would rock the crowd with songs like "I Love You" and "Keep Me Running" and "Good News"...ah, those were the days. And now I've got something in my eye...
After the concert I met Randy briefly (for the second time, actually) and told him how much I appreciated his music--Rick mentioned to him that he and I had performed various Stonehill songs hundreds of times over the years that we played together. (I said the same thing to another of my favorite singer/songwriters, Pierce Pettis, once, and I always wonder if the artist ever thinks to him-/herself, "Great, so where are my royalties?")
Thanks, Rick, for the invitation and company, and thanks, Randy for a life-long career of inspirational songwriting about faith and life and Jesus. So good.
*"Turning Thirty": "Oh, I've still got my energy and I've got most of my hair / and I'm not too old to rock and roll, and I'm not really scared / of turning thirty."