Lins Honeyman quizzed singer, songwriter and pianist JIM RADFORD of Scottsville, Virginia
The music scene populated by Christians has a healthy tradition of so-called late starters with the likes of soul singer Naomi Shelton and bluesman Leo 'Bud' Welch both making their recording debuts in their autumn years despite decades of music making away from recording studios. Add to that list Scottsville, Virginia-based singer/songwriter and pianist Jim Radford - not to be confused with his British folk singer and peace campaigner namesake - who, since 2013, has released three albums chock full of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs which stylistically reflect the man's lifelong love of jazz, blues, country and anything else that takes his fancy.
Born in 1952 in Smithfield, North Carolina, the young James Radford grew up listening to the sounds of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the Beatles before a decision to learn the iconic riff on Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" led to him owning his first Fender Rhodes electric piano and joining local high school band the Supersonics. The late '60s and the early '70s saw Radford play with a variety of individuals and groups which in turn saw him cut his teeth as a working musician before a move to Greenville, North Carolina to play piano for newly-formed country rock group Heartwood would ultimately lead him down a different road. Whilst Heartwood would go on to record three albums, Radford did not feature on any of them thanks to a dramatic encounter with Jesus that would pre-empt his musical career.
In August 1972, Radford immediately repented of his sins after suddenly meeting Jesus whilst in the otherwise mundane process of helping a friend move house. This instant conversion subsequently led the young musician to hand in his notice to Heartwood and start attending church whilst taking up a number of manual jobs to keep the money coming in. In 1975, Radford met a Scottsville evangelist called Earl Tyson who, as well as eventually becoming his father-in-law, invited the newly born again Christian to join him on a preaching trip to Iowa and Kansas which signalled the start of a stint in evangelism and Bible teaching. Music was never far from Radford's thoughts though and, whilst renovating his in-laws' house, he wrote his first ever Christian song "I Am The Way" before more self-penned numbers and hymn arrangements followed. By the end of the decade, Radford began attending college to prepare for ordained ministry which resulted in a post as pastor at four small United Methodist churches in the mountains of Virginia before eventually moving his family to Halifax, Virginia to continue serving in his chosen denomination.
By the late '80s, Radford was starting to write more and more songs and dipped his toe back in live performance waters by playing in a handful of worship bands. By 2009, Radford and his family had moved to the aptly-titled Singers Glen to take up a charge in two small churches in the Shenandoah Valley and began to sense that doors into the world of recording would open up to him. A meeting with experienced producer Robby Meadows led to a group of Nashville session players being invited to play on some of Radford's songs at Meadows' studio in Harrisonburg, Virginia before renowned Bonnie Raitt guitarist Will McFarlane would complete the newfound Jim Radford sound.
As if to catch up on lost time, Radford, Meadows and crew recorded and released 'Who Says?' (2013), 'Bound To Be Free' (2014) and 'Draw The Line/Blur The Line' (2015) in quick succession with a fourth album 'Incarnation 2' due for imminent release. Now retired from the ministry and over in the UK on a well-deserved break from recording, the currently Scottsville-based musician fills me in on why it took so long to release his first album. "Some of the songs have been 40 years in the making," Jim clarifies. "When I met Jesus in 1972, I was a musician and I had a recording contract but, in my heart, it was not something I wanted to do. I wanted to do truth in my music and we in the band weren't doing that. God had plans for me other than being a musician which included being called to go to seminary. However, I believe I was called to play music to begin with and, 40 years later, my first musical project came out. Releasing my first album 'Who Says?' was a God-led thing from start to finish. Doors that were closed began to open and I knew it was time to pursue it. For many years, music had been on the backburner but now it's 24/7."
I ask how a virtually unknown singer/songwriter suddenly gets the chance to record an album with a producer the calibre of Robby Meadows not to mention a glut of Nashville session players, backing vocalists and string and horn sections. "In Singers Glen where I spent five years, there were two recording studios in sight of my parsonage," Jim advises. "The first one was owned by a man who was in partnership with Robby Meadows but when I went there and, for one reason or another, it just didn't mesh. I said to someone that what I really needed was a bass player and that person turned out to be Robby Meadows who is obviously a great producer too. In the meantime, my brother loaned me a Tascam 24 track recorder and I began to record my own material. After seven songs, I went in to listen to the playback of the last recorded piece and it was garbled nonsense - something had gone wrong with the machine. That's when I called Robby and he invited to come over right away - he was 10 minutes away - and we just hit it off.
"For the first album, we started recording with just piano and vocal and Robby called me with a suggestion. He knew of some Nashville session players who were coming to spend a week in Harrisonburg as long as there was a client list long enough for them to stay busy for that week and he asked if I wanted to be on the schedule. The very first song we did was 'Wannabe' and, having never met the guys who were playing on it before, we went straight into it and got it in one take. We did four songs at that session and each one averaged about 40 minutes to do and I was just blown away."
It seems that the provision of quality session musicians is the central theme to Jim's story with the addition of strings and horns building upon the already sturdy foundation laid by Meadows, his client and Nashville colleagues. "We did a song of mine called 'Mender Of Broken Hearts' at that session and, in my head, I could hear a 'cello on the song," Jim explains. "This is the honest truth - I went to the grocery store after the session and I just casually prayed to the Lord that I needed a 'cello player. In my mind, I heard the name Christian Howes. Now, Christian Howes is a jazz violinist who I heard in New York City when he was playing with guitar legend Les Paul. I got home and looked him up on the internet and I saw that had a string production service and I emailed him. He emailed me back within 15 minutes asking me to send him a couple of my tunes and not even 15 minutes later he emails back to say he would be delighted to play jazz violin on the album and he even had a young cellist who would also play on the project.
"Then Christian offered the services of a guy called Hamilton Hardin to do horns for the album," Jim continues. "I originally said I wasn't sure. Hamilton and the guys were from the north and I needed southern players - Muscle Shoals, that kind of thing - but then I thought, on a wash, I'm going to let them do horns on my song 'Cane And Abel' and there was no looking back."
The Jim Radford sound is one that is refreshingly impossible to pigeonhole with a blend of blues, country, jazz, gospel and even hymnology acting as the backdrop to some deeply theological lyrics and the man's gentle and accessible vocal delivery. "I'm not a blues singer," Jim admits, "I have no one particular style because I love country songs, I love blues and I love those gospel things but I also love the hymns that I do."
One particular number in the Radford repertoire that stands out is a brave reworking of the Mahalia Jackson classic "Walk In Jerusalem" which featured on Jim's second album 'Bound To Be Free'. "It's a happy song," enthuses Jim. "Cindy Walker, one of the back-up singers, commented that the songs on the albums are happy songs and I received Christ Jesus in joy and that's the way life should be. 'Walk In Jerusalem' talks about the hope of walking with the people that have already gone on to glory and that's what's in my mind when I sing that song - you know, there ain't no dying there and the saints will be shouting in victory."
I suggest that, as much as he is passionate about music, Jim's raison d'etre is to communicate the message of God's undying love. "It is crucial to communicate the Gospel in my songs," he confirms. "I have to write what I know to be true and it's got to come out musically. The music in itself is wonderful - I love to play for playing's sake - but at the end of the day the music is a vehicle to drive the message. If I don't do that then I don't feel that I have done the music or the message justice. For me, the music and the Gospel go hand and hand. A lot of people come up to me and say that they don't like Christian music but my songs get their toes tapping. I'm hoping that the appeal of the music will draw folks in to finding out more about Jesus."
Keen to reference the huge canon of African-American spirituals from yesteryear, Jim included the traditional song "I Want Jesus To Walk With Me" on his 2015 release 'Draw The Line/Blur The Line.' "Who knows why we choose certain songs but that song had been on my bucket list for a long time," advises Jim. "When we recorded it, Joel Key who played lead guitar on that song didn't play a single chord but, when Will McFarlane came in, he just played chords and didn't play a single lead line. Joel and Will were playing the complete opposite of each other but it worked perfectly even though they've never actually met! That song is statement of faith. I want Jesus to walk with me - when I'm troubled, when my heart is almost breaking. Everybody knows what that feels like and therefore that song just works."
Will McFarlane is well known for being a member of mainstream blues star Bonnie Raitt's backing band for a number of years as well as being guitarist of choice for luminaries such as Etta James, Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Little Milton and I ask Jim how he got the opportunity of getting such an established player to appear on his songs. "When I was originally looking for musicians, there was a sound I could hear in head but I didn't know how to get it, "Jim explains. "My brother who is also a musician suggested a guitarist who he said was one of the best blues players he'd ever heard. He was talking about Will McFarlane and said that I just had to hear this guy. At the time, Will had moved up from Muscle Shoals to take a position of minister of music at the Grace Bible Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was coming to the end of his contract with the church and I emailed him. I thought that he would never email me back but he did the very next day and suggested we get together for coffee. I drove down to meet him with my friend Jonathan Hornsby (brother of 'The Way It Is' singer/pianist Bruce Hornsby) and we spent the afternoon with Will. He was within weeks of leaving and heading back to Muscle Shoals where he's now based so I called him just at the right time. It was definitely a God thing."
In a remarkable and prolific surge of creativity, Jim is set to release his fourth album in as many years. "It's going to be called 'Incarnation 2'," he advises. "My wife's late uncle was a man called Tommy Tyson who was a great evangelist and really understood the Holy Spirit better than anyone I've ever known. He had a saying that, when the Holy Spirit comes, he comes to you, on you, in you, through you and as you. I love that and I've made it the chorus of one of the songs on the new album. It's all about God's life in our life - he came to dwell in us. The very last cut on the album is a song called 'Jesus Reigns Alone' and Will and the girls are really knocking it out on that track. It talks about how much God loves all people from all nations and all religions. God loves the Buddhist, the Marxist, the Socrates, the Muslim and there's coming a day when everyone will get on their knees and say just that - Jesus reigns alone.
"I'm excited about these songs," adds Jim in closing, "and I've got songs in mind for many more projects. When I say that God opened the doors back into the music world, I mean he just threw them open!"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.