Tony Cummings chronicles the history of singer, composer and now mentor to songwriters MORGAN CRYAR
The wistful, Americana of The Vespers is currently getting plaudits from the critics. Intriguingly, the father of the Cryar sisters who constitute half of The Vespers is himself an award-winning songwriter who, as an artist, had his share of success in the early '80s CCM scene. Today, Morgan Cryar is happy to take a backseat role apart from singing with the worship group at church. The veteran spoke to Cross Rhythms broadcaster Mike Rimmer. "I'm a contented man at this point in my life. I've raised some wonderful children and have watched them grow up and some of them have taken on the musical mantle and hit the road with it. So it's a good thing."
Morgan was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1958. He spoke about his teenage years. "As I was getting out of high school, I really made a serious commitment to Christ and then went straight into college (in Piketon, Louisiana) and met up with a bunch of regular guys that wrote songs. That was the first time that it occurred to me that people write songs. I guess I just thought that they came in packages from Heaven or something. But I met these guys that were songwriters and so I tried my hand at it and had a knack for it. Then I studied: I learned a lot about everything on songwriting that was available at the time, read it and realised that despite my lack of musical training - I was not a classically trained guy in any way - and despite the fact that I didn't really like my voice at the time, I could come up with something to say. That was the most important thing for me, was to have something to say. So I started writing songs and I'd sing them and people seemed to like them, so I got invited to sing more and more and more and it kind of grew from there."
In 1983 Morgan was spotted by Star Song Records and signed to the label. Star Song put Cryar with producer Jonathan David Brown then hitting big with Petra. Although the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music described the resulting album 'Keep No Secrets' as "an acoustic pop masterpiece" it was actually dominated by Brown's drum machine programming and the synth work of keyboard whiz John Andrew Schreiner. What there was no doubt about though was the quality of Cryar's songwriting. "A Few Of My Old Friends" was a very clever piece of pop that listed Cryar's "friends" - Gluttony, Covetousness, Hate, Lust, etc; "Concealed Weapon" spoke of the Word of God as "a big blade sharp enough to cut a lie apart"; and the title track observed that "Sinning incognito always comes apart." There was also a duet with Jayne Farrell (of the hit CCM duo Farrell & Farrell) on "Holy Fire", a powerful song Cryar wrote with Twila Paris. Morgan's skilful and spiritually incisive lyrics over snappy pop rock arrangements connected with American Christian radio listeners. "Made Up My Mind" and "I Get Carried Away" ("In my closet, on my knees/Prayers are bouncin' off the ceiling back at me/Then the breakthrough, the Holy Spirit way/And I lose myself in him and get carried away") were US Christian radio hits. Cryar began playing more and more gigs around Texas and further afield accompanied by a rock band called The Edge.
Morgan's next album, 1986's 'Fuel On The Fire', produced by Ray Salmond, had a much more rock feel than 'Keep No Secrets' with members of The Edge - Ty Tabor and Doug Pinnick - lending a hand in its recording. 'Fuel On The Fire' produced Cryar's biggest hit, "Pray In The USA" with Tabor supplying the melody and playing Springsteenesque guitar work and Cryar penning the lyrics which attacked the scandalous restrictions on prayer in American schools. Morgan spoke about the theme of his militant hit. "It seems like the battle still rages, even though at the time there had been a big victory - I think it was called the Equal Access Bill that was passed that allowed Christians to meet in schools if they wanted to. That's been challenged and fought and challenged and fought. But still it rages on and people are still praying."
"Pray In The USA" made number four in America's Christian charts. Other standouts on 'Fuel On The Fire' were "Sibling Rivalry" ("I saw Cain and Abel yesterday/You should hear the things they say/Sounds so much like us today/Fighting and dissention"); an incisive ballad about breaking bloodline of inherited sin "Break The Chain"; and the fruitless endeavour of hiding our misdeeds away "Under The Rug".
Tabor and Pinnick left Cryar to form the mainstream rock hitmakers Kings X and in 1988 the singer/songwriter moved from Star Song to Reunion Records who the following year released 'Like A River'. The album took a step back from the rock edge of its predecessor. Author Mark Allan Powell wrote, "'Like A River' mixes R&B and southern rock tunes in with a few lifeless ballads that, unfortunately, would prove popular with radio audiences." One song that particularly irritated the liberal Powell was the radio hit "The Voice Of Experience" which offered particularly sound advice (which Powell described as "trite") from an elder concerning the dangers of premarital sex. In 1990 Cryar released the album 'Kingdom Upside Down' produced by Chris Harris. The project produced a major Christian radio hit with the devotional ballad "Father" and also featured "See You On The Other Side", a moving song about Heaven.
As the years rolled on it became clear that Cryar's music was becoming mellower. He admitted, "As I got a little older I guess I did mellow out. I went more acoustic toward the end and it was more singer/songwriter. That's where I started. It was those first two records where the label really influenced more of the rock sound. I didn't grow up a rocker, I grew up with an acoustic guitar in my hand, so it was just me returning to myself, I guess."
It was to be five years before the older, mellower Cryar recorded his next album. 'Love Over Gold' was produced by Cryar himself and released on Rick Cua's short-lived UCA Records. It included a cover of Tommy Petty's "Won't Back Down" and a faith inspiring opener, "If I Never See A Miracle" ("If I never see a miracle/If I never see the dead raised up/If I never see the Kingdom come/I won't stop believing"). But it was an inspirational ballad, "What Sin?", which has subsequently come to be recognised, by some at least, as Cryar's greatest song. Its poignant verse ("It happened so long ago/And I cried out for mercy back then/I pled the blood of Jesus/Begged him to forgive my sin/But I still can't forget it/It just won't go away/So I wept again 'Lord wash my sin'/But this is all he'd say") is followed by an unforgettable chorus ("What sin, what sin?/Well, that's as far away as the east is from the west/What sin, what sin?/It was gone the very moment you confessed/Buried in the sea of forgetfulness"). "What Sin?" is a song that has refused to go away. Morgan explained, "Here in the States if a song gets played on a certain percentage of radio stations it will actually get on the charts. 'What Sin?' was one of those songs that hit everywhere, but it didn't hit in the same week. I think it was a top 10, but it was never a number one. But then, this is a 1996 song and it just wouldn't go away. And so I still get emails and letters from people saying, 'Hey I just heard your song', and as far as they know, some of them, they think I wrote it yesterday, and here it is 14 years old."
Morgan explained what inspired "What Sin?". "First of all, it was inspired by my own sin and regret that I wrestle with like anybody else. And part of the song was inspired by my grandfather. My grandfather told me a story about how he used to wake up in a fit of rage, just right out of a dead sleep, and he would be cursing. He was a strong Christian and so it was very disturbing to him that he'd done that as a younger man, he would wake up with this rage. He told me the story and I said, 'Well granddaddy, God's forgiven you for that'. He would kind of get this faraway look in his eye and he would say, 'You know, I hope so'. There was something about that tension there, where he couldn't say, 'Yes, of course he's forgiven me'. I was young and didn't quite understand that sense of 'I hope he's forgiven me because that was really, really bad.' Then as I got older and realised I've got things in my mind and I go 'I hope he forgives me'. And so it was in that wrestling match, in dealing with those thoughts, that the song kind of sprang forth. When I came up the hill and told my wife, 'Wow, I think I just wrote a song', and played her the song she said, 'Oh, my goodness'. Everywhere it gets sung, a lot of people go, 'Wow, that's me, that's my song'."
As it turned out 'Love Over Gold' was Morgan's last album, apart from a compilation 'What Sin: The Best Of Morgan Cryar' released in 1998. Said Morgan, "I started doing fewer concerts. I've got seven children and so little by little I lost my taste for going out and just burning up the road. It gets harder and harder to leave your children. So when you do that it's like taking the coal out of a stove; eventually it cools down a little bit. So that's what happened: little by little I lost interest in going on the road and eventually the labels had to drop me too."
Morgan is philosophic about his years caught up in the Christian music industry. "I used to tell people if you want to understand the business of music, you take a large number and that's pop music and if you divide that by 10 that's country music and if you divide that by 10, that's Christian music. Eventually you get down to the place, to where survivability is hard to come by and so an artist, perhaps they stop selling as much as they did five years ago. Well the label, they're stuck between a rock and a hard place: they've either got to find someone who is selling more or they go out of business, sometimes both. There's a hard reality there, especially in Christian music, just because of the size of it: it's not as huge as the other genres."
Morgan has now found a new role as a mentor to a younger generation of songwriters. His book Strong Songwriting is becoming well read and many are visiting Morgan's www.strongsongwriting.com website to pick up tips and advice. Cryar explained how his new role developed, "I got invited to a couple of music conferences to just talk as an artist, just to say here's what I did and here's my experience. They said, 'By the way can you teach a bit about songwriting?' Since I had studied it pretty heavily I said I'd say a few things. When I did that there was a very, very good response and so that kind of got me thinking there's a lot of need out there. People are needing that guidance. I certainly wish I had more practical guidance: most of the books I had read were very academic. People needed more of a 'take you by the hand' approach and so that is what I started doing. Strong Songwriting is more conversational, a little more insider-secret kind of thing; how to get around in this world of writing songs. A lot of How To stuff in there."
We fans of Christian music can but hope that at least one of the budding songsmiths who takes heed of Morgan Cryar's wealth of advice about songwriting will go on to write a song of the quality of "What Sin?".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.