Tony Cummings threw questions at veteran Celtic music man SAMMY HORNER.
On the UK scene Christian retail probably no musician has done more to popularise the sounds of "Celtic music" (one of those irritatingly vague phrases beloved by music marketing men which usually means music reflecting the Irish and Scottish folk music traditions) than Sammy Horner. Sammy's Scotland-based band of folk rockers The Electrics have long been favourites on the Christian festival circuit while the singer/songwriter's seminal album series 'Celtic Praise' (Vol 1, 1992; Vol 2, 1994; Vol 3, 1997 and Vol 4, 1999) have all been steady sellers. Alongside his pioneering work in Celtic music the Belfast-born singer/bassist has also released three popular children's albums through ICC and even once dreamed up a dance album (under the moniker The Seanachaidh) which fused electro dance rhythms to jigs and reels. Now, with the release by Kingsway of the 'Inspired To Worship' album promoted by a UK tour last month Sammy continues to bring haunting Celtic lyricism to the church worship experience. Currently working on the latest Electrics' album in the USA, Sammy found time in his unenviable workload to answer some questions.
I began by asking Sammy how 'Inspired To Worship' differed from the numerous other albums he's recorded. "Well, I had no hand in the production at all. I went to Nashville, sang my bits then never heard it again until it was finished. I wanted something that was more congregational and had a different feel, not simply another Celtic album. Phil Madeira was left to arrange and produce. I think he did a great job on this project."
Sammy is not happy with the label "worship leader". "I don't like the term (is it even biblical?). I know music can inspire, encourage, challenge and even touch people in all kinds of ways. In a sense music might be an aid to worship, but it in itself is not worship. How we live, what we do with our time, gifts and talents, our jobs, how we treat others...they are the acts of worship that we need to encourage. If some songs help those things then that is good, but to call music 'worship' is a narrow unbiblical view and in some ways that is more the language of corporate business then the language of Scripture. I am a singer, a songwriter, a musician...perhaps within those terms I can offer worship at some level, but that is just a small part of what even my worship should actually be."
I asked Sammy how things were going with The Electrics. Does he still consider them a folk/roots outfit? "Well it's all become a bit more punk rock these days and I love it more than ever. The band have really been embraced by the whole folk rock scene particularly in mainland Europe and USA. It has been bizarre but very cool. We only play when we want to these days and pick and choose carefully. Our days of travelling in Transit vans are certainly over but it somehow seems more exciting and better than ever. People love how we use our words...the breadth of the subjects in our music and of course the live shows still have them dancing from the first beat. It has been a long ride - I never would have thought it. We still really do nothing in terms of PR, but that phone keeps ringing!"
Judging from the sleeves of some of The Electrics albums a lot of Americans must assume that Sammy is Scottish. I asked him whether our American cousins are surprised when they meet him? "Yes, it has led to some embarrassing situations - rooms being decorated in Scottish flags in my honour in Canada. publicity stuff in the press being completely wrong... Still, it could be worse..."
Probably in the UK Christian bookshops Sammy is, rather paradoxically, best known for the three children's cassettes he recorded with ICC a few years back. I asked the singer/songwriter whether he still does children's ministry. "Not so much these days. I still occasionally play in a school or do some kids stuff, but my role has definitely shifted."
Sammy is not keen on some of the music marketed in Christian bookshops, particularly some of the items pushed under the "Celtic" label. "Honestly, I don't like very much of it. It became a monster and not much in terms of originality or passion. It became a brand name and suffered because of it. It is strange now that the likes of the Drop Kick Murpheys, Flogging Molly and The Real McKenzies are filling clubs all over the world as if it is a new thing. The Electrics have been doing it for years. But if you listen to most of the mainstream guys they have the passion that is sadly lacking in the Christian market from what I know of it. I think also the theology suffered. There is a whole world of wonderful Christian teaching within Celtic Christianity. Putting pipes on existing songs just doesn't always capture that."
A while ago there was some talk of Sammy touring and even some recording with the Australian apologist/preacher John Smith. I asked the veteran if this will ever happen? "I do hope so. We were working on rock versions of the old hymns with John's famous sound bites woven in with them, but as you may know John got very ill and had to have some major surgery. I hope it will happen at some point but he is a hard man to pin down! By the way, he is much better now!"
I asked what was next on Sammy's always crowded work schedule. "The Electrics will be hitting European festivals in the summer. I will also be out solo a little. A new Electrics project will also be finished for the USA market, and come September I have a massive 10 week USA tour - about 45 cities - opening for Mitch McVicker for six weeks (and playing bass for him) then a solo stint on the West Coast before finishing in the Mid West early November. I am also meant to be playing bass for Jimmy Abegg and Ben Pearson on their new project 'The Dads'... if it fits into the trip. Oh, and 'Obey The Makers Instructions' (Sammy's children's album from 1992) is being released in the USA with a book apparently... it is supposed to be this year... which might be nice!"
I finished our Q and A session by asking if he could select a couple of highlights from his years in music and ministry. "Well, I could mention the Impact festival (the pioneering event organised by Sammy held each year in Glasgow in the '90s) and The Electrics performing 'Free'...or the letters and calls I get from people touched by my songs. I am amazed at the opportunities I have had and continue to have in this work. I have met many of my heroes, both mainstream and Christian, and on occasion had the chance to play or work with them. For a wee lad from Belfast who bought his first bass guitar in a bomb damage sale, that ain't bad. To wake up in California in a beach house on the Pacific coast one day...then play in Motherwell, Scotland a few days later is still kinda surreal to me. But I don't think there is anything in this world I would rather do than what God has given me the chance to do."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.