Tony Cummings spoke in depth to an American musician with an extraordinary tale of God's grace, MICHAEL LEE FARLEY
Oregon-based Michael Lee Farley is a superlative guitarist who recently made a surprise visit to the UK. Michael recorded and released the album 'Peace, Be Still: For The Love Of Hymn Vol 1', produced by Grammy Award winning Ron Davis, but it wasn't the need to promote it which brought him to the UK. Michael has a deep-felt passion to minister Christ to others. He said about his music, "I only have so many notes left. And if they are not ordained, designed, designated, directed by the Father I don't care to do them. Offer me other opportunities to go here or go there, to do this or do that - nothing in the world matters more than that. If I think the Lord's in it, I'm all over it. If it seems like fluff and a waste of time, something deep in my heart says that's a no go."
Michael was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1953. At an early age he moved with his parents to southern California. When asked what his parents did his reply was simple, "They drank a lot." He expanded, "It was a very broken situation and I think a lot of what I do to this day and how I perceive life and life in the spirit was maybe a rebellion from the anti-faith that my parents shared - or didn't share. It was a broken situation for quite some time with a lot of things that could put some people flat on their backs or even in an early grave. But that's another story."
While a teenager Michael first got the music bug. "The Beatles were my earliest influence. My friends and I has a dream of doing something like they did, though the only thing we had at the time were coat hangers and broomsticks. So we'd put on the Beatles and the Beach Boys and we were living the life. None of us had musical instruments at the time but those dreams turned into reality when Mom brought home that one string guitar. A man is motivated by inspiration or desperation and as a young child the desperate nature of our upbringing and a lot of the things that transpired during those years created a real dislike of myself, who I was and where I was going. So that desperation catapulted me into 'I've got to be good at something'. I like music and I would spend eight hours a day in the room putting the needle from the record over to the middle part to try to find where that lead solo was happening again and carry on with it. I was a desperate young man looking for something."
Michael became a member of a band called Cover who after playing clubs in the Hollywood area came to the attention of Capitol Records. It looked likely that the Wishbone Ash-style Cover would be signed and Capitol sent a top producer over to their rehearsal hall. As it turned out, the timing was all wrong. Michael explained, "I had become a Christian maybe a month prior to that. Suddenly everything was different for me." He remembered, "The day before the producer was to arrive at our rehearsal hall we were singing 'Music, music - that's all we're living for.' It was like taking a skeleton key to open all the doors. I stopped the song mid-stream that night, at that rehearsal. I asked the bass player if he would sing my part, a harmony part. He looked at me quizzically and almost angrily asked why. I said, 'I just can't sing those lyrics from my heart.' He said, 'If you're so high and holy why don't you just quit?' I got home that evening, I knew that the Lord was working deeply in my heart because I had a god with six strings and I had a dream that a lot of young men have. But I found a God that was beyond and bigger than all of that. Somehow in my young heart I knew that Jesus was the way, this other one wasn't. So I got home that evening and I called each band member and said, 'I'm out.' That was the day before that opportunity and I didn't hear from them for a long, long time. I then subsequently took the Scriptures quite literally and sold all of my musical instruments - hardest thing I ever did in my life."
Some time after that Michael was drawn back into music but rather than the fantasy-chasing world of mainstream pop, a door was unexpectedly opened in Christian music ministry. He recalled, "I received a call from a company in Florida called Young American Showcase. What they did was take Christian individuals from around the country that play an instrument or sing, audition them and then, after rehearsal camp in Sarasota, Florida, send them around the country to do assembly programmes at various venues. Then after a secular concert evening we would deliver the Gospel message. For a number of years I was on tour all over America. I had to borrow a guitar and borrow money to buy an amplifier. But that's how I got back in the music scene. Once I got off the road I learned about leading worship and I found out I could easily play an acoustic guitar with a few modifications." Michael continued with Young American Showcase until the mid '70s when he got married to his childhood sweetheart.
Michael enrolled at Logos Bible Institute, a Bible college run by Grace Community Church in California. While there he and his wife and a number of other college students took the radical step to go and live in community. Selling all their possessions they formed Brothers, Sisters And Mothers. Michael spoke about his early years in the community, "It was morally stable and clean and we worked off the land. We were contractors up in the greater Washington area so we would work with our hands to bring in the income to build the infrastructure and the buildings for our future life to come. It grew from that few couples to many, many couples. Part of them stayed in the western Washington site to do the labour and bring in the cash that would fund us over in the eastern side of Washington - mountains, dovetail joints, thermal siphon heat - we lived off the land. It was Little House On The Prairie all over again: no electricity, chopping down trees and building cabins. We were rebelling against the structure of the Church, we thought we had a better idea but we didn't. It was just an old idea, trying to get back to the second chapter of Acts. But usually what will happen is somebody will rise up, or some people will rise up, to control [the others] and that is pretty much what happened."
Tragically the community which had begun as a brave Christian experiment had over the years mutated into a cult. He remembered, "I wanted there to be more worship and more Word, and that's when it got pretty heavy. They said they wanted me out but wanted my family to stay there. That had happened to another person. I remember getting on the bus that day and being told, 'You're not on your way to a journey with God, you're on your way to hell. Don't speak to anyone Christian, don't go to anything Christian, don't do anything apart from what we tell you you can do.' In fact, when I started writing letters to my wife they would read them before she ever got to them and they would say that I was controlling her.
"So, I got out and went to Wenatchee, Washington. I stayed with Mennonite people for a while then I ended up at a homeless shelter. I remember how desperate I was at that point, thinking - I don't want to get too far because I want to go back there after I get my spiritual whereabouts again. I ended up going down to my Dad's house in Santa Rosa. He was of a mind to go back with a shotgun and cannon and blow the place up after we got my family out of there. I was under so much control at that point that I called someone who had been in the community formerly. They were a thousand miles away but I whispered on the phone. I said (whispering), 'Hey, Donna, it's Michael.' That's how much control had come. And she called a mutual pastor friend of ours, he got on the phone with me and said, 'You've got to get down here right away. You need to get back down here to Santa Barbara.' So I got on the next bus out. My beard was long and I looked like a ragamuffin. I got down to Santa Barbara and got my head screwed back on straight, got to worshipping the one true God and listening to the Word taught correctly.
"They sent a contingency of elders up there because the Lord had spoken very clearly to some individuals. One pastor in the greater LA area had a dream; another one in Oregon had a dream. They talked to the pastor who I was staying with and he had the same dream. They saw tentacles coming down from the ceiling of a place that they described as where I had lived. They and said that the tentacles were landing on these two individuals and their spirit of control had taken over the community. So they went up there and had a meeting. The Lord had told Pastor Dan that [those leaders of the community] had muddied the waters of the sheep. They'd trampled upon the grass, like it says in Ezekiel, 'Therefore I will remove them from amongst the elders.' That was the message that he took. He went out into the field, up to the outhouse but he didn't come back. He'd fallen down into a ravine and sustained a severe concussion. Once they found him and rushed him to the hospital they then bandaged him and got him back up and reconvened, started with the meeting all over. The leaders of the community thought this guy was obviously off his rocker and God had put him in his place, down a hole somewhere. After they had a tirade of 'here's what we think about you Mr Pastor,' Pastor Dan said, 'Have you said your piece? Because now I want to tell you what the Lord told me while I was out.' And then there was silence. He went on to say that he invited anybody and everybody in that place; he said if any of you had the freedom to leave tomorrow how many of you would? Because he knew they were all under the noose and control. Every single hand was raised and when the morning came that place became a ghost town."
With the disintegration of Brothers, Sisters And Mothers Michael began to rebuild his life. For the next couple of decades he worked in music retail stores, ran music schools, and taught guitar, banjo and bass and led worship regularly at church. Michael ended up owning the music shop he was working in. Said Michael, "I rode my bicycle to work one day and when they said they were going to liquidate it I said, 'No, you can't do that.' I spilt my heart - God was doing something. God did some miracles there. I prayed and fasted for enough to buy the business, now that I had some business savvy. I didn't have a bank account, no rich relatives not even a check account. The long and short of the story was we had a meeting: there were 20 teachers, me and these folks and they said, 'Farley wants to buy the place. He's going to tell us all how he's going to do that.' It got quiet all of a sudden and I said, with red cheeks, two words: 'by faith'. There was an explosion of anger and the words were coming fast and furious. 'Maybe that's how you run your life but I got kids to support.' 'What are you going to do?' 'How are we going to...' They said, 'Well, Farley, that was really a bad answer. You've got till Monday to come up with $150,000.' So I started fasting and praying during the course of that week. I was walking in the field around the lake and the Lord spoke to my heart and he said, 'Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. There's nothing too difficult for me. I can do this.' They were no longer words on a page, they were spirit and truth. I got a phone call Saturday night from somebody in the church that I didn't know and had never met. She said, 'I understand you want to invest in a business.' I said, 'Yes, I do, Mrs Wister.' She said, 'I'd like to meet with you Sunday, after church. Can you show me your business plan?' I'd never written a business plan, I didn't even know what one was. God brought a friend, the sound manager; he said, 'I'll write that for you.' By the time we got there on Sunday after church he showed her and explained the business plan and said this is what it's going to be like and this is how much we need. She said, 'I don't understand always the ways and will of God but I know what he said to my heart. He said, "Whatever Michael needs, give it to him."' She said, 'This is not a loan, there's no interest and no repayment. It'll be in your bank account on Tuesday.' I needed the likeness of $200,000 - this was quite a long time ago, it was a lot of money and the rest of the money came in the exact same fashion. That's how our piano store business got off the ground and sustained itself."
Continued Michael, "It was the year 2000 and I had my own music business in the Santa Barbara area and I was asking the Lord in earnest for more free time so that I could pursue writing, singing and performing for his name's sake and I came up with an idea from an existing product. There's a company called Mighty Bright, based in Santa Barbara, and the CEO of that company was a customer of mine at one point. I asked him what he did. He created book lights and other trinkets and fancy stuff that you'd never buy and sold them around the country. I saw those little lights and I somehow knew in my heart that musicians could use that type of a thing so I asked him if I could market that as a musician's light versus a book light and he said, 'Your time, your dime but it will probably never work.' So I had a friend of mine mock up a box that said Music Light and put a book light inside, took it to the NAM show in January 2001 and sold over 8,000 of them out of my pocket. Those little lights changed our lives forever. Now, it's 2014 and I've got distribution over 40 countries and they've turned them from incandescent to LEDs and I humbly submit that I take light to the world - in more ways than one."
Michael and his wife moved up to Rogue River in Gold Hill, Oregon. He explained, "We wanted to get away from the Santa Barbara area because one of my children was severely addicted to drugs - and that's a whole other story. But it's part of my testimony when I'm doing concerts. It was about three years ago that I wanted to go all acoustic and do a solo endeavour. I'd been leading worship in a local church and playing lead guitar behind everybody else. I just felt there was more to it for me in this season of my life. I discovered a tuning called dadgad. Not unlike that light and the miracle of that light, this tuning has transformed my life. Isn't that funny to say? It enables me to take the hymns of old - or any melody really, but I fancied the hymns that have stories in them, that I could arrange the hymns, tell the stories. I want my strings to be a reflection of my heart and what's going on in my heart, and that tuning has brought that to pass. Being involved at the church level, you could test the waters as it were and when you look out and you see people weeping, it's like a new discovery - you're on to something. You're touching heartstrings. You're taking the heart meaning of a particular song, verbalising it and then letting them sing that afresh. Something they've sung probably for decades and then exploring it all over again with new meaning. Somehow, someway by God's grace it touches people. Little by little, hymn after hymn after hymn it began to develop into one set, two sets, three sets. And then I had enough for a CD. I approached a fellow named Ron Davis who is a Grammy Award winning producer and he helped me record something very nice out it. My prayer is that there would be 'For The Love Of Hymn' 1, 2, 3 and so on."
The Mighty Bright Musician's Light success story continues. Today Michael and Cathy Farley still live in Oregon with their menagerie of chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats and a proud peacock. He said, "God has been exceedingly good. All good and perfect gifts come from him and there's nothing that I've received that I haven't received from his hand."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.