Tony Cummings spoke to the internationally popular family worship man COLIN BUCHANAN
To many British TV devotees the name Colin Buchanan will bring to mind the Scottish actor who played Detective Peter Pascoe in the long running series Dalziel And Pascoe. But for Australian and increasing British Christians, particularly those who are parents, the name Colin Buchanan will be recognised as belonging to an internationally popular children's ministry man. Buchanan's albums and videos such as 1996's 'Remember The Lord', 1997's 'Practise Being Godly', 2002's '10 9 8 God Is Great', 2004's 'Jesus Rocks The World', 2005's 'King Of Christmas' and 2014's 'The Jesus Hokey Pokey' show an amazing ability to communicate digestible spiritual truth in a wide range of musical styles (everything from rock to country) while his world travelling - including several appearances at the Keswick Convention - show that he is a skilled communicator to both children and adults. I quizzed Colin and soon discovered that he wasn't actually born in Australia.
Tony: I've been looking at your extensive discography and see that your recording began with something called Bucko & Champs. Who were Bucko & Champs?
Colin: (Laughing) You've gone straight to my most illustrious work. Champs is a friend of mine, fellow songwriter Greg Champion. I guess the same thing happens in England, but we love our nick names. I was teased early on in my career as I was getting into country music in Australia - they'd never call me Colin, I'd be Col and they'd shorten my name from Buchannan to Bucko and of course Champion became Champs. We used to do a few songs together of a Christmas flavour and we decided to parody some of the old Christmas carols like "Frosty The Snowman" which became "Frosty The Yobbo" and "Dashing Through The Bush In A Rusty Holden Ute" and so forth. That became an album which has become an institution in Australia. Every Christmas people pull out this album called 'Aussie Christmas With Bucko & Champs' which is full of Australianised Christmas carols suitable for singing in summer time. So that's another part of my little sweep of skills.
Tony: Yet despite your high regard for things Aussie, you weren't actually born there.
Colin: That is true, I was born in Dublin. It was necessary for Dad to look further afield for work and in fact as I understand it, South Africa was a possibility and Canada was a possibility, but I think cricket won.
Tony: What part of Australia did you grow up in?
Colin: I grew up in Sydney essentially. We moved to Melbourne and then we settled in Sydney and I had a great life there. We went to a Presbyterian church and that's where I met my wife. Then we decided to have what they call here "a tree change," move from the city to the bush, to the country and we really did. We went to live in a little Christian community for a time which was in the outback and that was where I discovered music in church and Sunday school. I'd write songs and play for church and Sunday school. It was in that little Christian community that I started writing songs that, without any plan on my part, opened the door to a career in music, quite by chance really, other than the Lord had a design.
Tony: When did it become apparent that there was an opportunity or God opening a door for you? Was that around the Bucko & Champs album or before then?
Colin: It was before that one. I was writing songs, I'd been a very appetite-driven creative person. I find that songs are my journal in a way, they are just something that bubble out of me. Some people paint and other people make models out of matchsticks and I write songs. So I chronicled my life as we were discovering this amazing album-making environment and the people there. I sent a few songs off, just to here and there just to see, and friends were saying you really should record these or do something with them. I think friends, part of them being friends is that they will generally be nice to you so I thought I'd send the songs just to some people who may not be nice to me and publishers and the producer came back to me. In fact it was a little difficult at first, doors were opening to music but we had just had our first child back in 1990. If there was a real turning point it was when I rang my mentor from the Christian community who had sort of been a great encouragement to me. I had said, "Look Laurie, it just seems too hard, I'm not sure I'm gonna be able to provide for my family and do this music." I was expecting him to say, "Yes Colin, these things are nice, but you should be responsible as a Christian man!" but he said, "You know Colin, it just doesn't feel like this has run its course yet and I really would worry that if you don't chase it a little bit further that you will be wondering what happened, because there have just been a few too many opportunities that I think you should sniff it out just a little bit longer. I would hate you to think I wonder what might have happened!" I was very grateful for that advice and with the support of my wife, which has always been so important, the Lord sort of opened the doors and I got to start recording as an artist in my own right, a singer/songwriter in the country scene which I guess is a little closer to the folk sound of the story song of the UK sensibility, not cowboy music. That was how the doors started to open.
My first record was released in late in '91 and Bucko & Champs came along I think in about 1994. I'm really grateful, because it was really recording those albums, working with musicians which I'd not done before, it had all been very amateur, so going into a studio, learning how albums fit together and meeting musicians really set up the opportunity to discover some of my kids Christian songs which had been sitting in a shoe box for a while and hadn't actually seen the light of day other than in Sunday school and church. So they are all connected, these opportunities, which is really a lovey design to look back at.
Tony: I know that artists don't like to bring out the skeletons in their cupboards but it sounds like these country-orientated albums are pretty good so, what are the titles of those albums?
Colin: I was telling somebody, actually an English man, only yesterday about an opportunity I had to perform at the sort of regional gathering of the Co-mission churches in Portsmouth and I was going to be introduced by a good friend of mine. He said, "What will I say to introduce you?" There were probably about a thousand, 15 hundred people there, and I said, "Well, you could say I've won nine Golden Guitars and released six country albums," and he said, "What are golden guitars?" I said, "They are country music awards." He said, "Oh, we won't say that." (laughter) So I know what you mean about skeletons. It's funny because I guess I've always thought music is best played and listened rather than talked about. I love people that, now with streaming you don't have to drop 10 quid on an album, you can jump on with your subscription and listen to all sorts of music, so perhaps if it's piqued anyone's interest, my country albums are on the major streaming services and you can listen to another part of my life and make your own mind up as to whether or not (both laugh) it's a skeleton or whether the dry bones dance.
Tony: Was there a particular moment when you switched to children's ministry, I won't say exclusively, because for quite a while you've kept some of your music pitched towards adults, haven't you?
Tony: But was there a particular moment when the children's side of things became more important for you?
Colin: Yes there was and I was surprised by how well received it was. I felt that, as I've said, I'd learnt how to make an album, I'd been given opportunities to get used to the studio, met musicians and I had these bunch of songs in a shoe box and my wife at the time, this is about '95, had asked me to make a little gift for the kids she was teaching in her pre-school Sunday school class. So I went up to a little studio, recorded some songs for a cassette, back in the day of cassettes. We made 30 copies of that and gave them to the kids in the group. Our friends started saying, "Can we have a copy of that cassette?" so we made some copies. I thought you know what, I think it's time to get these songs out of the shoe box and record them. So I took the risk. We were a little tight on funds at the time, but I made an album called 'Remember The Lord!' and I remember the main Christian retailer in Australia ringing me up and saying, "We've created a monster." (Both laugh) "It's called Colin Buchanan!" It was quite unexpected. There was no intention to switch direction, and in some ways even to this today I love the different aspects to my career and my creative life, because I feel that keeps me fresh across different realms. But that's how I just made an album. They said, "Are you gonna make another one?" I was certainly inspired to write, and even to this day I'm very inspired to write. I think there is a great challenge that comes with putting the Scriptures and God's truth into music, it's not a light weight undertaking. I think you can have a lot of fun in the process, but hopefully there's an enduring value in those songs because they don't come from a superficial place, even though they can have a very lively and sometimes whacky sort of veneer.
Tony: One of the things that has impressed me about your music so much is that you go much deeper theologically than most children's albums.
Colin: I'm very grateful for what amounts to two or three years in my late teens. I grew up in a Presbyterian church in Sydney and I was very grateful for some sensibilities that came through that church from a number of people who were either involved in children's ministry - so they were very serious about learning the Scriptures, about not diluting truth for children but distilling truth and being very accountable for the truthfulness of what you give children. A simple truth can be carried very deep, so a simple untruth can also go deep as well. There's a lot of responsibility to have. For instance, Iain Murray, the noted historian and theologian - he's very elderly now and is one of our ministers - to have someone of his calibre and the other ministers who are in our church who are serious expositional Bible teachers, they would give children's talks. They didn't put on the clown nose and start being all silly, they came with the same sense of gravity about the nature and character of God and the substance of the Scriptures to their children's talks. It came from the pulpit and it came from people in ministry; not sticking words in kid's mouths and not sticking to moral-isms. I think back in the day there was less of the "Jesus loves you" as the sole message of children's ministry, but in more recent times it does seem to be a common message and it feels (although I wouldn't tackle people about it) like there is so much more that could be said and in some ways it doesn't really mean a lot unless you know who Jesus is and who God is and what the nature of that love is and how it's been manifested in the Gospel. That sounds heavy but that's the challenge for someone who wants to minister to children - to distil that truth into an understandable form.
Tony: When I listen to your albums I'm also amazed at the musical diversity. You mentioned that you started off in country music; when did all the other styles being to kick in?
Colin: I probably didn't really start in country music. My Dad loved classical music, the "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", Beethoven's pastoral symphony and others like that, Noel Coward, the family loved musicals as well. So that was then and as I got older I liked listening to the radio. I'd get my fair share of whatever was on the radio at the time. I always had an attraction for acoustic music and folk music. When I first heard some of those great folk and acoustic singer/songwriters I was very attracted to that, so I think that became my epicentre as the door to music opened up. The musicians I work with play all kinds of music. We've been working on a New Testament songs album and I took a photo of the band and then said, "You realise there's about 200 years of playing experience between us here." These guys have done all sorts of gigs over their careers. One of the guys is Belgian and he's played in soul bands in Belgium; he plays in Irish bands, he's played in country bands, he's been in rock 'n roll bands. So when you go into a studio with a children's song that is stylistically ambiguous, they say that "'the chorus is a bit like this song here but the verses we could just pull this in," and between them they become this nice stylistic patchwork quilt and the beautiful thing is that these guys know how to pull sounds, they know what guitar to reach for, what snare drum to put in place.
Tony: Is it a regular set of musicians working on your record?
Colin: Yes, over the years it's been pretty consistent personnel. It's just a bunch of guys who are really great players and I feel like it's a real blessing to be able to use them. The studio can be a very exacting place to play and I think you can hear in these albums there is a sense of free fall and freedom in them, which I really love pulling out of these guys. They get to be playful as well as play and yet they are professional musicians - they really nail their parts. It's a little like (approaching the theological substance) approaching the musical side substantially as well; I feel like that's been a really great investment. With kids' albums, people go "Oh we don't have the money, people don't take much risk." They might programme things on the computer and do things on the cheap. I think that potentially a lot of people are going to listen to this music and listen to it again and again, so I think substance - both lyrically and musically - is really, really important and something to aim for.
Tony: You mention that you've been in the studio recently. Tell me a bit more about that project.
Colin: Over the years I have put songs that I would call morality-based Bible stories aside in a shoe box, but I think it would be nice to collate them one day. So, "one day" has come and I found I had enough for a New Testament batch and an Old Testament batch, so I've gathered together my New Testament songs. A little like my albums, it's an eclectic mix. I've created 15 narrative-based songs. There's one about the mountain of transfiguration, there's Mary and Martha, the tax collector and the Pharisees. There's Jesus' temptation, there's the farmer's field about the parable of the soils and so forth. There's a conversion song on the Damascus road.
Tony: What's that album called?
Colin: It's got the snappy title of 'Colin's New Testament Bible Story Songs'.
Tony: It does what it says on the tin.
Colin: That's exactly what I thought! I couldn't come up with a less ambiguous title.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.