Lins Honeyman met up with one of the major figures in American CCM, MICHAEL CARD
For many, Franklin, Tennessee-based singer/songwriter Michael Card is part of the bedrock that makes up contemporary Christian music as we know it today. In a decades-spanning career that started with his debut album 'First Light' back in 1981, Card has released nearly 40 albums and written over 27 books as well as forging a niche for himself as a Bible teacher, radio show host and podcaster. Arguably best known for penning timeless worship songs like "El Shaddai" and "Immanuel", Card has written a remarkable 19 number one hits which form only a small part of a sizeable body of work that still connects with believers around the globe to this very day.
With over four million album sales to his name, his standing as one of CCM's founding forefathers is something Card at best wears lightly or, at other times, dismisses courteously. As the short bio on his website states, the popularity of his musical work has quite often jarred against his main goal in life of simply and quietly teaching the Bible and, throughout his career, the Western Kentucky University biblical studies graduate has supplemented his recorded output with in-depth, award-winning books that have succeeded in opening up the riches of the Old and New Testaments in an accessible and ultimately life-changing way for countless readers. His latest project is no exception. Set to be released in CD and book format, 'Inexpressible: Hesed And The Mystery Of God's Lovingkindness' hones in on a Hebrew word that scholars over the centuries have struggled to define but have ascribed to the kind of overflowing, unconditional love given to us by God - a love of which we don't deserve even a single iota.
Turning the clock back to September whilst the album part of the project was still in production and Michael Card has ventured over to the UK for a tour of churches with a young American banjo player called Moses De Hart. Due to the demand for tickets ahead of Card's first night appearance in East Kilbride, the team at the South Lanarkshire town's Calderwood Baptist Church have had to forgo their nearby and recently award-winning Hunter House Coffee Shop venue that is normally used for their consistently sold-out monthly music events and are instead holding the concert in the much bigger church sanctuary. Nonetheless, we all sit down for a meal in the now closed-for-the-day coffee shop just after the sound check and, after a brief introduction, Michael pats the seat next him at the table and signals for me to sit down. Instantly approachable and with much less of a beard than in all the photos I've seen of him, I'm struck by how unassuming he is. Slight in stature, dressed in old jeans, a thin fleece and comfy walking trainers (which turn out to be his on-stage gear), there is no suggestion in his appearance or demeanour that this is a man who has sold millions of records as well as being the author of one of Christendom's most recognised songs of all time. Perhaps surprisingly given the Christian music world's perception of him as a deep-thinker, Michael is refreshingly light-hearted and engaging and we start chatting about everything from banjo players, the Scottish weather and his flight over before heading to the church to start the interview in front of the empty stage.
I start by asking how the 'Inexpressible: Hesed And The Mystery Of God's Lovingkindness' project came about. "About 15 years ago, I was working on the laments of the Old Testament and, in several of the laments, a transition takes place from lamenting to giving praise," Michael responds with the kind of scholarly insight that will characterise our short time together. "The transition happened with the word 'hesed'. I had studied Hebrew in school but I didn't know of the word so I started doing my homework and discovered there was this whole world around it. Hesed is one of the defining characteristics of God and it's mentioned about 250 times in the Old Testament and I just looked each one of those occurrences and organised them by themes. It took 10 years to do and, about two thirds of the way through, I began to realise that I didn't really understand how language worked or how words have meaning. I took a year-long detour into studying language to work out how words get their meaning and develop over time. It's been a really fascinating journey but I'm sort of done with it now because it was quite a tiring process.
"I bit off more than I could chew," he admits. "If I'd known all that was involved, I probably wouldn't have done it. For example, the word hesed is translated 169 different ways and I thought I could come up the definitive translation. That's when I realised that I didn't know how words worked. Words don't derive their meaning from their translation, they derive meaning from context. If I were to ask you what the word 'key' means - it could mean 'important' or the thing you open the door with or the key of a song. The thing is you don't know what the word means until I tell you the context. My detour into studying language was learning about that side of things and that the etymologies we think are so important often keep us from understanding the real meaning of words."
Despite the gargantuan task of exploring the concept and meaning of hesed, Michael suggests it's been a fulfilling project before dropping something of a bombshell. "It's been an interesting journey and I've just finished writing 10 songs on the passages that have to do with hesed and they're going to be released as an album alongside the book. I think that's going to be my last album - I think we're done. The world is done with 10-song records - those days are over."
Nowhere in my pre-interview research did I find any hint of this revelation and I resist the urge to say "come again?" "I've been doing albums to accompany books for years," Michael expands. "Readers don't generally listen to music as much and people who listen to music don't generally read as much. What I've been trying to do is bring those two worlds together and, after 20 years of trying to do that, I've discovered it doesn't really work. But at least I've tried."
I suggest that what does work with an accompanying book is the opportunity to expand on very in-depth biblical principles that can't be explored fully in a three minute song. "That aspect of it does kind of work," he concedes. "The two different vehicles - the written word and the song - allow you to communicate in different ways. There's also a depth that you can communicate in music that you can't through a devotional book. Equally, there is a danger of trying to cram as much theology into a three minute song as possible and leaving out key elements."
I ask him what we're likely to find on what will now turn out to be Michael's swansong record. "On the new album, I've got two different string arrangers because it's a slightly more orchestral record than I've done in a long time," he advises. "One of the arrangers is a man called Alan Moore who actually came out of retirement to do this project. I told him I wanted to do an orchestral version of 'This Is My Father's World' and he told me he was willing to come out of retirement to do that. Whilst we were working on scores the other day, Alan said there is a quiet holiness to this record that he's never heard before. It's not a radio record because, in general, they don't play me anymore. That means that I don't have to create songs that I think might get airplay which is a nice freedom. There's a black gospel song on the new record, there are a couple of folk type songs and there's even one track that has a Korean choir singing in their native tongue. We're also going to record a song with an English female choir whilst we're here in the UK and we're doing the strings in Prague with a big orchestra. It's a very acoustic, classical-sounding record."
Going out with a bang in other words? "Well, I don't know about that," he smiles. "We're going out with a classical bang, maybe. There's not a drum on the whole thing."
Michael confirms that he will continue to write songs and issue them online outside of the album format and, at this crossroads in his long and successful career, I ask him to recount the reasons why he started making music in the first place. "It's a call - that's the only way I can understand why I make music," he responds. "I grew up in a musical family in Nashville, a musical town. I can't remember a time when I didn't play guitar - I've played it all my life. When I became a Christian, there wasn't such a thing as Contemporary Christian Music - we just sang hymns which was great. Right around the time I was getting out of school - my degree was in biblical studies - I had a professor who knew I played guitar and told me to write a song based around the sermon he was going to do the following week. That was about 40 years ago and that's when I started writing music."
As previously mentioned, Michael's goal was always to teach the Bible as opposed to just creating a memorable song. "For me, the music and the Bible teaching have always gone hand in hand. It's just who I am - there's nothing deliberate about it. If I'd been more deliberate about it, I would have probably chosen something that would have worked better. I've always thought combining teaching with music was the best way to do it but I guess being a singing Bible teacher is not the most promotable idea."
Sensing that he might be underselling himself somewhat, it's easy to forget that this is the man who, with John Thompson, wrote "El Shaddai" - a multi Dove Award-winning song, a Billboard number one hit via Amy Grant and one of RIAA's songs of the century. I ask him how he feels about what many regard as his signature tune. "'El Shaddai' was probably the fourth or fifth song I ever wrote. I really didn't consider myself a songwriter when I wrote it and, since then, I've written about 400 songs and a good number of those I like better. However, because Amy Grant didn't sing them and the timing wasn't the same or whatever, they didn't get as much recognition. Earlier, I used to get more frustrated because I would have 10 new songs on an album but people wanted to hear a song I wrote 30 years ago. However, the older I get the more glad I am that people want to hear anything of mine at all. I do think 'El Shaddai' helped me get started - it was a good kick start."
At the start of the concert, Michael sits down at the Calderwood Baptist Church piano and, after a brief but warm acknowledgment of the expectant crowd, he launches into an extended medley of songs that include "I Left Everything To Follow You", "Soul Anchor" and "God's Own Fool". Nestled almost surreptitiously amongst them is the aforementioned "El Shaddai" and something very special and spiritual happens when the audience joins in on a song that seemingly everybody knows verbatim. "I've been coming to the UK for 25 years or longer," advises Michael with obvious enthusiasm for performing his music to audiences beyond his native America. "I love coming here and I always have. In the past, we did concerts for Christian Unity in Belfast when the troubles were on and that's when I really connected with folks all over the UK."
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