Tony Cummings recounts the inspiring story of Rochdale-based songsmith JOHN NUTTALL
Cross Rhythms Direct has down the years become one of Britain's leading Christian music etailers. Each month Angela Selby and the CR Direct team compile a schedule of their best sellers. And each month the big sales tend to be the same few artists - Jesus Culture, Soul Survivor, Hillsong United, Chris Tomlin.and John Nuttall. How the acoustic, devotional music of a 60 year old Rochdale-based grandfather should, month after month, be up there, at Cross Rhythms at least, with albums costing more to record than the entire 10 year output of this humble servant of God, is one of those amazing God stories. John Nuttall, pastor of Rochdale's Silver Street Christian Fellowship, takes the continuing big sales of his 'Father's Love' (2008), 'Father's Love 2' (2009) and 'Joining With The Angels' (reissued 2010) very much in his stride.
"I'm surprised, of course, that I've become something of a Cross Rhythms best seller. Your clientele is not really geared up for my music, as reflected in my not being on the play list - not a problem that by the way. If people come to me for one copy of my CD I do not really have the time so I have directed people to the Cross Rhythms shop. Also Europeans are amazed at the half price cost as compared with their CDs. What is interesting in terms of market forces is that I have always wanted to make my material accessible and therefore low priced. Because of this people are buying two, three, five even 10 copies at a time. Also because the message is so new for some, there are pastors who are buying in bulk to give to their congregations. I love the 'win-win' of God. In this way everyone wins. God's message gets out there, Cross Rhythms receives support and I get enough to go back to the studio to make more music and do something I love to do for God."
John was born in Bolton, Lancashire, and, with his brother David, enjoyed a happy childhood. The Nuttall family moved to St Helens for seven years. John remembers, "My father worked away a lot to earn a decent living as a plumber/ lead burner and I remember recording a Christmas message to send to him in Pakistan. We went to a special shop in town and sat in a room whilst a man 'twiddled knobs' and did all the technical stuff. This was my first recording! From there I moved to grammar school in Rochdale with dad now home, and have lived in the area ever since. Mum was a housewife apart from two years when we ran an 'open all hours' shop. She was a very accomplished poet, and her father had been editor of the Nottinghamshire Post, so I think that is where I got my love of language and words. Mum used to take us to the Methodist Church Sunday school in St Helens, but she and dad were not Christians. It was a happy childhood with lots of fun, care and love and not much money."
When John was 11 he was invited by a friend to attend a Methodist Church youth group. John can still vividly recall what he found there. "I loved playing table tennis, being with so many pretty girls and enjoying all the activities arranged for us by the three men in their 30s who ran it - I thought they were very old! I started to go to the meetings on Sunday evening so I could sit next to Denise Ashworth, and remember the tension between going to church and listening to the Top 20 on radio. However, whilst there on Sunday evenings I was touched deeply by the fiery preaching of an evangelist called Geoff Jones and remember responding regularly 'O come to my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for you' and 'Just as I am without one plea.. O Lamb of God I come'. And so the journey began. I was to be found as the only youth member attending the midweek Bible Study and at 16 began to preach. My testimony is really not so much what I have done for God or how much I sought after him; it is more about how much he has done for me, has drawn me to him and been faithful over the years. My dad was not too thrilled about my Christian faith and told me as much. However mum and my brother came also to faith during these years."
John went on to forge a successful career in education. After spells in schools in Milnrow and Manchester he became acting head teacher then head teacher at Denton Central Primary School in 1988. After three years he moved back to Rochdale to be the head of St Peter's Church of England Primary School from 1991 until 2001. Says the teacher-turned-singer/songwriter, "Down the years a number of my ex-students have contacted me via Facebook, etc to say they have heard my music, or 'is it the same John Nuttall who was head at.'. This is lovely for me because I always enjoyed the job and the children, but I was tired of managing schools and people. In 2001 my wife and I heard the call of God to go into foster care, through which we took on a family of four for three months; this continued and we have had the same family of children for eight years. I also then worked as a teacher for four years with an agency that supports children in care, and became their National Training Manager for the last two years of my educational career until 2005. I have enjoyed being in education and still enjoy being around children and, as a youth leader, young people. They are full of life, hope, vision and belief and I think they keep me young. No wonder Jesus said we must become like them to enter the Kingdom, I think he liked them too!"
From his childhood John had also shown musical abilities. "I sang a solo at the Harvest festival when I was four - same verse twice because I forgot the second - so it looks like I had a voice. Mum played the piano and organised lessons for me but I was more interested in playing out. I learned guitar at age 14 playing Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and others of that era. My first public performance was at an old folk's home we visited from church, where I remember singing inappropriately 'Show Me The Prison' by Joan Baez . Once I became a Christian, my brother and I played in Christian bands. We were friendly with the Glorylanders who were hugely successful and influential in the '60s. I then played in a rock band at college and was chair of the folk club, hanging around with some great musicians. I must admit a lot of my development was then arrested when I became a teacher, husband and parent. I tended to concentrate on teaching children the guitar, and found life very busy as I was also preaching, running a Sunday school, a youth group and a midweek house fellowship.
"20 years ago, aged 40, I went to Silver Street Christian Fellowship for a rest. I was under some stresses and strains and was happy just to enjoy receiving. But then after a year the worship band left the church and I was asked to step in. So I played what they were playing, from Mission Praise, Songs Of Fellowship. etc. 'Hosanna', 'Father God I Wonder', 'As The Deer' and lots of Kendrick. As time went on I also loved Bryn Haworth, Ian White and Sara Groves. I went to the Manchester Vineyard church for some worship training sessions run by John de Jong and we remain friends still. He is an awesome musician and worshipper and I became part of Angel Mountain Ministries, which is a ministry he runs operating in the Czech Republic."
John's own songwriting was developing and around 2000 he began looking around for some means of professionally recording his songs. By 2001 the 'Heartsongs' CD had appeared. Recounts John, "I have good memories about recording 'Heartsongs'. Album production for me has been a long and slow process over years, and working with Phil Goss of Appletree Studios, on your recommendation, was a good move. Phil was very encouraging and the title describes well the songs that I write - straight from the heart of God to my heart and then back - breathing in and breathing out. 'Heartsongs' was not successful in sales terms but I learned a lot, including perseverance as a writer. Actually I cannot stop writing - that is placed in me by God - but I can stop recording and did so for a time."
In 2005 John finished teaching. He says somewhat ruefully, "Leading worship and doing youth work were enough for me. Then, however, God called me into eldership at church in 2005 when I finished teaching and also when church faced some problems. After two years in 2007 the church asked, and God confirmed that I should become leader. I therefore head up the team that was called to shepherd and serve a flock that needed time and healing through a difficult and transitional period. It's great when you are 'called'. You know when tough times come that God's grace is all sufficient and he will see you through. It's not good when we do things with our own agendas and in our own strength. And to be honest I would not have personally chosen to lead a fellowship, having had no theological training or background!"
A year before he took up the pastorship of Silver Street Christian Fellowship he made another foray into the challenging field of recording and releasing an album. John speaks about the 2006 release 'Joining With The Angels'. "Despite good reviews and friends who liked 'Heartsongs', I had to seriously think about doing such a project again especially with the costs involved. Then I met and teamed up with Andy and Wendy Green of Cornerhouse Productions who have served the Christian music scene for many years. They had done a lot with Chris Norton and they lived only nine miles from me! We understood each other immediately and through friendship have now completed a number of projects together. I have great respect for Andy and Wendy Green as my music producer/director/arrangers. I enjoy working in team and recognise the need for me to work alongside quality people who can complement my giftings. So when I was left some money, 'Joining With The Angels' was birthed. Some of the songs on there are my favourites of all the songs God has given me."
In 2008 John was to record and release the album which was to take his music ministry to the next level. "'Father's Love' had 'God's purpose' written all over it. I did nothing different personally from other albums, and have not since. I do nothing to promote sales, don't have a website; it is not my living so I do not put lots of time and energy into it, but sales are higher than anything I've ever done before and the albums have gone out to 35 different countries. Basically Jeff Scaldwell of Fatherheart Europe came to Rochdale to speak on how Jesus came to show us the Father; to show what Father God is like; and that knowing God in this way can revolutionise our walk with him. Lights switched on for me and I now understand the Scripture that says eternal life is that we know him. It became clear that God had planted this seed years earlier; and when I sang some of my songs during ministry time, Jeff asked me to make a CD so he could take it around to conferences with him. The rest is God's story. I have had emails from paranoid drug-taking teenagers whose main music is P Diddy and 2 Pac, who love the albums, and lots of kids, including my own, go to sleep to them. It is fun when women come up to me at conferences to say they take me to bed every night. But it was also sobering and humbling when a lady who had only two weeks to live with cancer, wrote to say she had played 'Father's Love' continuously, and was OK to die because she was going home to her Daddy."
After the sales phenomenon of 'Father's Love' John found himself being constantly asked for another volume. So in 2009 'Father's Love 2' was released. Says John, "As with all things, some people prefer 'Fathers Love 1' but a number go for 'FL 2'. I am also asked now to go to more and more places to share the message, so I needed more material. That is the other reason I wrote Father's Love - the book. In preparing for speaking I needed to have enough to share so I just put a whole lot of illustrations and thoughts down on paper and self-published. This helped me keep costs down, and the aim is to get the message of God's Love 'out there'.
"Jesus said he had come to show us the Father. He came to present, and re-present the Father to a people who had got it all wrong. Jesus said that all people needed to do was look at him and they would see what Father was like; so for example, he portrayed God as a Father in the story of the Prodigal. He called God Abba or Daddy. So the book explores what a good and loving father is like, and how we can equate that to God as Father. The corollary to this is that we are sons and daughters of the Living God - and the world is awaiting and groaning for the revelation of the sons of God. So the book explores the Fatherhood of God and our position as sons and daughters. It can be read in three hours, or just dipped into. Like my preaching it is encouragement and exhortation, with lots of illustrations from my life and how God has impacted me. I also include lots of Scripture so people can weigh the basis of the message."
In 2010 John released a revised version of 2006's 'Joining With The Angels'. The singer/songwriter explains why he felt a reissue was necessary. "People who had bought 'Fathers Love' 1 and 2 were asking if I had any other albums for sale, and I felt 'Joining With The Angels' needed the re-vamp. I agreed with the Cross Rhythms reviewer that the first song was not consistent with the rest of the album. It was also recorded in Bratislava so does not fit in that way either. I wanted 'Joining With The Angels' as the first song to pack a punch. Also, with the original release I hadn't initially expected to sell many so I had done a home produced cover, which was detrimental to the overall effect. So one of my youth group did me a new cover [for the reissue]. Finally, some of the mastering needed re-doing so I had that done also."
And so the songs on 'Joining With The Angels' are now touching the lives of John's still growing audience. Says John, "My songs are increasingly used in my own fellowship and around the world, mainly for 'ministry', 'soaking' and 'receiving' times as they are more God singing over us than us singing worship to him. I receive lots of correspondence telling me how much the words and music of the 'Father's Love' CDs are ministering to all ages and cultures. As I respond to this interview I have just returned from Macedonia, ministering in song and am due to go to Holland, Belgium, Exeter, Falmouth, Truro and Norway later in the year. It is very exciting for me after 15 years of writing to be 'out and about' with the Good News.
"If there is anyone out there making music, my experience has told me to persevere, do what you have to do, seek first God's Kingdom and all the rest happens. Don Potter wrote an amazing book called Facing The Wall and I can echo the sentiments contained there that firstly we should be private worshippers. I'd also like to say that my experience has shown me that if God wants the message to get out he will do it, but we do have an important part to play in making it as good as we can. I am grateful to have something that will be able to be passed on to my children, grandchildren and possibly beyond. I am also thrilled to have something that is touching many hearts across the world with the love of God. I am keen to give honour and glory to God and the grace I am able to breathe in and out, each and every day."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.