Mike Rimmer went to Nashville to meet a brilliant custodian of the gospel blues tradition, GYPSY CARNS.
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When it comes to his day job, he laughs, "I'm corporate trash!" He actually doesn't talk much about his day job but he admits, "I'm a high-level executive for Gibson Guitars. Official title is 'Global Director of Customer Relations'. So basically I'm in charge of customer service for the world." If there's a serious problem with a Gibson customer anywhere on Planet Earth, the buck ultimately stops with General Carns!
In 2004, Gypsy took me on a guided tour of the Gibson factory in Nashville. This isn't a museum, it's a serious business and generally they don't let members of the public wander around the shop floor watching how they turn lumps of wood into fashionable guitars that your local rock god straps around his neck. We wander around and Gypsy takes me to the places where he started in the Gibson Company, right at the bottom of the heap. Through hard work, skill and a genuine personality he's worked his way up through the company and observing how he relates to his co-workers, he may be an executive but he hasn't forgotten his roots.
I believe that even now if you gave him a piece of wood, he could still build it into a guitar! He remembers, "I started in August 1975. I was the first inspector they hired. I ran all the different departments, made the guitars, sprayed the finish, sanded 'em, set 'em up, adjusted 'em, repaired 'em. Got into supervision and kind of got burnt out on that. Moved to New York in '89 and ran an A&R office there. Moved to Hollywood and ran it there. Moved back to Nashville in '94 and ran it again. Got into customer service in '99 and I've been in that ever since."
Gypsy used to be the guy who would travel the world and hand over Gibson guitars to extremely famous guitarists. He says simply, "From '89 to '94 I met 'em all - George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, CC Deville. Anybody who was anybody and anybody who wasn't anybody pretty much. I was out maybe four or five nights every week for about seven years. So I totally got burned out on bands. It's hard to get me out to a club.unless I'm playin'!"
I wonder what the guys at Gibson make of his music ministry. "You know, I kind of downplay it at Gibson." He expands, "That's the day job. It's a great opportunity for dealing with people to bring Christian principles in. That's how I run my department and that's how I treat our customers. And that's why it's successful. We don't lie. We don't cheat people. If we can't help you out we tell you. So the values, the morality, is a big thing that blends through. I mean people think it's cool. When I was in Amsterdam last week helping to set up our new office there, I played and some people took some pictures and fired them off the next day and they've got them posted around the shop. The executives that I work with, I don't really talk about it at all. The owner, the CEO Henry Juszkiewicz likes it. And he appreciates the fact because he knew me before when I was the wild man. He's seen the transformation and respects that and he's supportive of my music."
Gypsy Carns is a motor bike ridin' blues preacher so it's fitting that his music ministry regularly takes him to a church that has been established to outreach to bikers. He explains, "For Harley Davidson guys it's a church called Covenant Confirmers. Pastor Ron and Cricket Baptiste are the pastors there. A lot of the folks are bikers, who believe in Christ now, and their families. It's a great place. There's a great spirit there. It's actually the fastest growing church in Robertson County, which is about 30 miles outside of Nashville. It's a great ministry. They do a lot of community work, have bike rides. There's quite a big movement in the States, bikers who have been saved and still ride, still wear the leathers, but they believe in Jesus and they live that way. Because they come from such a tough background, it's a fight to keep their kids focussed and not doing crack or sleepin' around. You know, the normal things? But it's a great ministry and I really believe in the people there and the church itself."
He continues, "They all ride Harleys. You better not show up with a rice beater! I mean these are guys who've killed people and been on death row and been reprieved or been in jail for whatever. These are hardcore people who've cleaned up. The type of thing that I do really appeals to them; the blues. It seems the Lord uses me with that type of crowd. Playing in the streets, playing in prisons, playing in bars, shoutin' the Word. At the church, I play a set basically and speak between songs and do that sort of thing. But it's in a blues style. I stomp and shout and praise the Lord with song."
Talking about his new album 'Gospel Train Coming', he tells me about his version of "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burned". "The album has nine cover songs on there and I normally don't do cover songs. I write my own material through the Holy Spirit. But this one, I wanted to pay homage to the people who inspired me to be a blues preacher. If you go to BMI and you research the song, this particular version is by Reverend Gary Davis. But many, many people.I mean Darrell Mansfield, Glenn Kaiser.everybody plays this song. I've never really played these songs before because I've always written my own stuff. So even though it's a cover song it was new for me to do this. So I just tried to be true to the genre."
He continues, "My ministry has been geared around End Times and
repentance of sin and the Second Coming of Christ. In particular the
Jewish nation. To witness to them about Christ and to let them know
that he is the Messiah and they need to accept that, or there will be
retribution and payback. I mean I know the Jews are God's chosen
people and there are many that do believe in Jesus.
I'm going over there to Jerusalem in August to play. Play in the streets. Play at the Wailing Wall. Pray for me because it ain't going to be easy! There's a group that are Jews that believe in Jesus and they get a lot of persecution within Jerusalem, from the city. And I support them. But this year that is the main focus for me. To go there and to preach in the streets and send the message."
Otherwise Gypsy has a unique way of playing live. "I don't really think about playing," he confesses. "I pray about it and gigs come in. I'm playing this weekend at the Nashville Folk Festival. Last week I was in Amsterdam travelling for Gibson, and I played there. So it's not like I have a set booking schedule that I even think about. I just say, 'Lord where do you want me to go? Where do you want me to play?' I get an email or the phone rings or I see something in the paper that I pursue. I play at least once a week somewhere, whether it's a church or downtown Nashville on the street . I go down there and just play the Word. Like these guys who have their case open and they're playing for change, I'm on the same circuit, standing on the street singing about Jesus and giving away my CDs."
The style is true to the blues preaching tradition which is at the centre of his latest album. Times change but Gypsy is using a tried and tested method of reaching out to people, taking his music to where people pass by, hoping to hook them. He says, "I was in Amsterdam walking around with my guitar singing about Jesus and people were looking at me like, 'Who in the heck is this guy?!' But you know what? Some people listened. I gave some CDs away, I got to talk to people about Christ. And that's what it's all about. Am I famous? No. Am I selling a lot of records? No. But am I spreading the Word of God? Yes. For me it's about saving souls."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.
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