Mike Rimmer spoke at length to CHUCK GIRARD about his music ministry since the disbandment of Love Song.
In 1975, Californian singer/songwriter Chuck Girard was one of the most popular Christian artists on the planet. His group Love Song were certainly the most popular Jesus music group and when they imploded under the pressure of their own success and the multi-talented gifts of its members, Girard stepped easily into the solo spotlight.
I first discovered Chuck's music in 1978 when I met a household of Christian students in my home town. These Newcastle University students invited me into their house and during a conversation, they played me a song called "When I was Ready To Listen" from Chuck's second album 'Glow In the Dark'. On that summer's evening the song seemed to sum up the emptiness I felt about my life and the Christians I had just met seemed to so different to me. It was the first time that God impacted me through music and it's part of the reason why I write about Christian music and play it on the radio. I believe that music can impact hearts. Girard's song impacted my heart and made me realise that the emptiness I felt could only be filled by God. Two days later I became a Christian and started a lifetime of walking with Christ.
Now I'm sitting face to face, in a Nashville hotel room, with the man responsible for impacting my heart all those years ago. He's older and wiser than the young man on the cover of his '70s albums but still passionate about God and the music God has allowed him to write, record and perform. These days Chuck Girard is making worship music and still ministering in churches. One of the interesting things about his self-titled solo debut album from 1975 was that there was a great deal of worship on there although it wasn't seen as something generic. It's a direction he's explored ever since. "I'd never really looked at it like that," he says. "It had worshipful moments and of course 'Sometimes Alleluia' was the breakout song on that album. Which was an attempt on my part to write a worship song. In fact it's kind of funny how that came to be. I was married by this time and I told my wife, 'I'd like to put a worship song on the album.' W had been on a weekend of rest and recuperation with the group about a year earlier, up in the mountains of Southern California. We pulled out guitars one night and started to worship again. This chorus was birthed in that time of worship. Just the chorus part. And then I didn't think much about it. From a songwriter's perspective, to me it was a little simplistic and it was just something that we did up in the cabin, you know? But my wife reminded me of it. She said, 'You know you really should finish that song.' I said, 'Awwh yeah. I'd like to do something a little more artsy, a little more artistic.' She was insistent and she said 'I have an instinct about that song.' So on her encouragement I sat down and the words flowed. I wrote the verses in about 15 minutes and of course 'Sometimes Alleluia' went on to be my most well known song. It kind of established me as a solo artist because it was that crossover song that you're looking for, where people see you as an artist and not just as part of a group that disbanded. It's a very difficult thing to do, by the way, to break out of that group identity and very few successfully do it."
For the debut he remembers, "The only thing that I had in mind when making that album was I thought it should be positive, not particularly confrontational or have controversial subject matter. So in a way I looked at it like a safe album. It had songs like 'Evermore' and my autobiographical 'Rock'n'Roll Preacher'. It had some rockin' songs but for the most part it was worshipful and it was very positive lyrics."
He continues reviewing his solo material, "In 1976 'Glow In The Dark' came out and I put a few songs on there that dealt more with the struggles of the Christian life. 'Written On The Wind' was out in 1977 and it was its own animal in a way in that it was a little more artsy and a little more objective. Looking at subject matter from outside rather than my own experiences. So in a way I always tried to temper the more edgy type of lyric with the safer album because you have to keep that financial base in mind. You have to be able to do well enough with each album to make another one. So if you just want to be the controversial artist you might only make a couple of albums. So that was part of my plan. It wasn't until years later that I discovered worship and I realised that there were elements of my songs that were worshipful and I was able to define it a little more. In those days when I was creating the first couple of albums, I wasn't really thinking in terms of, 'Let's make a worship album.' Or 'Let's have worship songs.' Other than 'Sometimes Alleluia'."
As well as being the first Christian music I'd ever heard, Girard was the second Christian concert I ever attended. After Garth Hewitt in a church hall, somewhere in deepest, darkest Northumberland, Chuck and his band performed at Newcastle City Hall in late 1978. Apart from finishing his show with "Sometimes Alleluia", it's all a bit of a blur now apart from the memory of Girard sitting at a huge grand piano for the evening, backed by a band.
It was in the late '70s and early '80s that things began to change for Girard. His last couple of albums for the Good News label, 'Take It Easy' and 'The Stand', hadn't been so well supported by the label and had failed to sustain the momentum of his earlier solo material. It was almost as though the industry around him was changing and Chuck was finding it difficult to find his place in the early '80s.
Reflecting now, he observes, "Well I probably could have stayed in the industry. My relationship with my label was a little bit rocky through the whole 10-year period. At the end of the '70s/early '80s I was looking for another situation. It was a mutual thing. We mutually agreed to go our separate ways. I had another contract pending with Light Records - Ralph Carmichael's label. I went through this time of tremendous spiritual renewal and upheaval in my life in 1980. God dealt with some things that needed to be taken care of in my life. And as a result of that I began to examine a lot of my decisions, my direction in life. And really more like a token thing, I tossed off a little prayer, 'Lord if you don't want me to sign this contract, show me. I'm open.' But in the back of my mind, 'Of course he does!' and 'Everything is okay but I need to make sure I cover it with prayer.' The label had already been delaying because Light was going through financial difficulties and they never could give me a budget to get started. So they'd already delayed the start of an album a couple of times. They were pushing it back three or four months at a time. So it happened again this last time right after I prayed the prayer. I just took it as a sign that it wasn't working. This is the third delay! I won't be able to record again for four or five months. So I just called them up and said, 'Look this isn't working. I don't think I'd sign the contract if I had it.' It was a mutual thing. He was cool to let me out."
He remembers, "By my own decision I got out of the industry. It was shortly before they basically moved to Nashville. I never really regretted it. I never really looked back. There were times where it's been very difficult because when you get out of the industry, first thing that happens is you have no visibility anymore. You don't have the money to take out ads and magazine covers and all that. So people think that you've dropped out of the scene. Well that wasn't true but that's how people perceived it. Then you're making your own albums and your own money, which is extremely stressful. I just took all that on."
Girard observes, "But it some ways it was a really positive thing because you maintain the control. Like today, I own all my catalogues from 1980 and now I'm exploring digital delivery with iTunes-type stuff. I can do that. But my '70s stuff is all tied up. I have no rights to that to this day. The people that do have the rights aren't interested in pursuing anything as far as I can tell. So that music is kind of in bondage. I think that was probably one of the most positive things that happened out of the whole struggle that it became. It was very difficult to put your own albums especially in the day when I started because we didn't have the $10,000 home studios in those days. It was a huge financial burden and there was no real promotion. No ability to promote. No way to get it on the radio. So you shift a lot of things to do that. But again, I don't regret it. I'm happy that I made the decision that I did."
One of Chuck's other struggles was with alcohol. Up to the point of his conversion, Girard had been deeply into drugs and alcohol. He explains, "After I became a Christian I was delivered from drugs and I realised that drugs were wrong. But I could justify alcohol with what I called the 'loophole Scriptures'. 'Take a little wine for your stomach.' and all of that. Jesus drank wine.blah, blah, blah.you know? Some people can handle it, well I couldn't. So as much as I tried to rationalise it and justify it I got back into addiction with alcohol. Not drugs but alcohol. That continued to spiral through the '70s and by the end of the '70s I was in a really bad place. I really needed to be delivered again and the Lord did that in 1980. There was a time when the circumstances of my life came together in a crossroads. Marriage difficulties and a lot of other things that stressed out my life just came crashing down on me. It broke me. It was exactly what I needed and the Lord started to pick up the pieces from that day. It was just a time of new beginnings and tremendous trauma in my life but sometimes you have to go through those things to be restored and to be repaired. It literally was the beginning of the second phase of my life. A whole new way that I looked at my ministry and the future of my music and the whole thing. So it was almost, in some ways, as life-changing as my born again experience."
That experience had a radical affect on the way that Girard has made music for the past quarter of a century. He explains, "When I went through this experience in 1980 a couple of things happened that really turned the tide of my thinking and the whole way I viewed my ministry. I felt from the Lord, he said, 'If you're going to call yourself a Christian musician why don't you see what I have to say about music?' So I did my first Bible study where I really concentrated and focussed on music. Through that, I discovered that music was always about worship in the Bible. So that was the first thing. This kind of new awakening into, 'Woah! Maybe this is the real reason we have music in general?! It's about worship! And maybe one day that's all music will be about?' I started to put all this stuff together."
He continues, "Then the second thing was, it was the first time in my whole Christian experience that I began to worship God in my private times. A little embarrassing to say after being a musician for 10 years, a well known musician that I had never sat down at a piano or with a guitar to worship. So in my personal times, just me and God, I never sat down to worship God. I used what I call 'recreational music time' to craft songs, to get new songs. So this was a new experience. I just put my headphones on and dialled in some echo on my very rudimentary little recording thing I had in those days to get it sounding really good and then just go off for a couple of hours. Well, in the process I discovered this whole area of spontaneous singing. How it really happened was the very first experience, I didn't have a keyboard. I was using a regular piano. On top of the piano there was this little Maranatha songbook that Calvary Chapel had put out. I knew some of the choruses in there. I really didn't know any chorus committed to memory and I couldn't have led worship in those days. I wouldn't even have known what to do. So I just started to go through the songbook and sing the songs I knew. Then I'd turn the page and there'd be a good lyric there but I wouldn't know the melody. I'd feel from the Lord, 'Well just sing it and I'll give you a melody.' Pretty soon I closed the book and just started to express my heart in a very free way that kind of broke a barrier that I'd never experienced before."
Reading of this experience now in 2006, it doesn't feel like anything original but for Girard back in 1980, there wasn't really anybody else doing this kind of thing. Through God's leading, he once again found himself pioneering. "I discovered you couldn't force it by sheer strength of desire, it would only happen when I would just connect in that special time between me and God which would be every few weeks when I'd get one of those experiences. So I began to go deeper into the whole area of spontaneity."
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