Mike Rimmer spoke at length to American CCM singer TAMMY TRENT about her music and how she overcame the trauma of sudden bereavement.
The first time I encountered Tammy Trent was in the infamous lobby of the Renaissance Hotel during Gospel Music Week in 2000. I was chatting to a friend and waiting for another to meet us. Suddenly I noticed the most perfect looking couple I'd ever encountered at the event. The Christian pop industry is full of glamorous looking people, even the label publicists could be models but there was something about this blonde couple that made me watch them for a few moments and then enquire of my friend, "Who are they?"
Pop singer Tammy Trent and her husband Trent. There was a vibe about them certainly and it wasn't the usual star spotting Christian celebrity thing, it just seemed that they seemed so perfectly together. But that was swept away by an immediate thought. Her husband is called Trent Trent? Apparently I'm not the first to make that mistake. When we talk, Tammy simply says, "People were constantly making that mistake. Everywhere we went. Every platform I ever sang on, I totally had to clarify that because during the story when I would talk about meeting this kid and the things we went through dating, whenever I'd bring up his name I had to stop right there. Because I knew if I didn't, for the rest of the story people were just staring off into nowhere because they were like, 'Wait a second. I don't get it.?' So I ALWAYS had to explain it at that moment."
Tammy's husband's surname was Lenderink, which is not a great name if you're going to be a singer. "No", Tammy agrees, "and I was smart enough to discover that early on. Because now even, I think I did something the other day and somebody called me Lindermilk! I have Lindermilk, Linderink, Linderfink, Rollerrink. I get all kinds of garbage!" She laughs easily.
It's early morning and Tammy is in her office, a completely bare office as today is the day that she finally has some new furniture delivered. In fact we are interrupted by the arrival of delivery men and much moving and re-arranging of furniture about halfway through the chat. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Tammy Trent is not hugely known in Britain though on the strength of her latest album 'I See Beautiful' - released in the UK in April through ICC - she deserves to be. A quick history lesson has her explaining that she was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan in a churchy environment. Excelling in both basketball and singing, she earned twin scholarships to Southeastern Bible College. After college Tammy got her Christian music break as a backup singer for South African-born CCM star Pam Thum. In 1995 REX Records released Tammy's first eponymous album and with its Mariah Carey/Janet Jackson pop R&B vibe it was a US CCM hit with the song "Your Love Is 4 Always" becoming a number one Christian radio song and another, "Starting To Believe", a duet with Pam Thum, doing well too. Her next album 'You Have My Heart' for Light in 1997 featured some rapping by DJ Maj and a cover of the Spinners' R&B hit "I'll Be Around'. And though her next album 'Set You Free' for Sparrow in 2000 did less well she was pretty well established on the CCM scene ever before she relocated to Nashville. She explains, "I didn't move here to get a record deal. I already had one. It was the greatest time in my life because I didn't feel like I was searching for something, I felt like I already had it. So I just began to plug in here. The hardest thing was really finding a great church. Trent and I had come from a great church growing up, both of us, where we had met when we were 15 years old. That was our home church for most of our lives, so that was the hardest thing for us, to come here and find a great church."
Tammy is known as a powerful singer, so was it when she was growing up that she discovered she had a voice? She remembers, "I was raised in a Christian home and I was surrounded by music my whole life. I think it seemed like a natural path to follow but I'll be honest with you, even still to this day it's probably one of those things that I struggle with. Just thinking, man, do I REALLY have a voice or REALLY have something to say?! We probably all feel like that with whatever gifts God has given us. Maybe that's a good thing because it keeps us working harder and keeps us humble."
She continues, "I remember the first record I ever did. I got this call to go to Minneapolis and I did one of my very first shows there. I remember coming home and getting a letter from some woman who said that a song that I had written called 'Let It Go' had really touched her and led her back to the things of God in her life. I was so moved by that and thought: oh my goodness! This is like the first letter I had ever gotten and I thought, wow God, I really have touched the heart of somebody! It really led them back to you! I was so moved by that and I can't tell you how much that meant to me. And here I am almost 12 years later in my ministry and I got an email from her not that long ago reminding me of what I've meant to her, my life and how my music through the years has encouraged her. So I guess those are sweet little reminders that God gives me to remind me that, 'Yes, Tammy you do have a voice. Yes, you do have a calling on your life. Yes, I am continuing to use you.'"
Growing up in the '80s in a Christian household, Tammy's record collection included many of the top artists of the day. But who was the most influential? "I have to say I grew up absolutely adoring Amy Grant's music. It was the first concert I ever went to. It was the first tape I ever bought and I was just nine years old. That's really when I was introduced to Christian music, probably about the age of nine. From there I would buy whoever was on the shelf, whether it was Rich Mullins, Michael W Smith, Kathy Troccoli, Russ Taff, The Imperials.all that stuff. Sweet Comfort Band, back-in-the-day Bryan Duncan. I grew up on contemporary Christian music. I think upstairs I still have a CCM magazine from the early '80s! But I loved it. One of the first jobs that I ever had was working at a Christian music store. I used to open up all those albums and read all the credits so I knew all the musicians. It's so funny now living in Nashville and hanging out with these people that were an inspiration to me. I thought I would never meet them and now I'm hanging out with Kathy Troccoli or I've got Amy Grant's cell phone number, you know?! All these things and I'm like," she shouts, "OH MY GOSH THESE ARE FRIENDS OF MINE NOW!" Again she breaks into laughter, "So it's very surreal to think that God would choose to put me in the same circles."
It was when she was in her early teens that Tammy began to discover God for herself. Her family had decided to move to a new church and she remembers, "The new church was very outgoing. They were very alive. They seemed like they loved being there. They were lifting up their hands or they were clapping their hands and the music was exciting. I remember them saying; 'If you want to get baptised we've got this meeting on Saturday.' I was 13 but I thought, that's what I want to do! I want to be baptised! I want to go up in that cool little pool of water and I want them to dunk me and I want this to be exciting. I want it to be new! I didn't understand a lot at that age but I remember it was that church that really sparked something new in my heart. I think at that time I realised that I could really have a relationship with Jesus. That it wasn't all just about a religion but it was more than that. I always thought I never had a testimony because I walked with Jesus my whole life. I didn't do drugs and I didn't slip into the peer pressures of school and education and my friends that I hung out with, as far as drugs or alcohol or partying or any of that. I didn't grow up in that atmosphere. I just had an awesome youth group of three or four hundred kids and I loved it. We were always doing some kind of activity and we had a great youth pastor so I always stayed close to the things of God."
Her bright mood falters slightly as she adds, "Growing up I always thought I never had a testimony and now here I am with you this morning, sitting here in Nashville, looking out my window in this office and I think how everything has changed for me the last five years. And now I've been handed probably one of the most painful testimonies I could ever imagine having."
And it's true, but before I ask Tammy to share her painful story, I want to know how she met her husband Trent. "We went to different schools in town but we were in the same youth group. I will never forget as a 15 year old girl sitting there in my youth group. It was during worship service so we were just worshipping and I remember looking at the back of the room and these three guys came walking in. And I cannot tell you, I thought to myself, oh my gosh, these are the yummiest guys I have ever seen! And my hand went even higher and I thought, 'Thank you Jesus! I've got more to praise you about God and I'm lifting up my hand, can you see me now?!'" She laughs, "I was just SO excited. I thought, 'Here's some new guys coming into our youth group and they look like athletes and football players. They have their jerseys on!' I was just so excited to meet them and then they found their seats and began to lift up their hands too! And I thought, man, there's something about that that's so attractive to me as a little teenage girl. These guys that aren't afraid to come in church and lift up their hands. I thought, man, I've got to meet these guys. Surely one of them will fall in love with me if not all three of them?"
Again there's a tinkle of laughter as Tammy remembers first eyeballing her husband. "I met them. Found out we lived on the same side of town together. So now we got to go to these fellowship groups together after church and I really got to know them well. I really started falling in love with the youngest brother of the three. He was taken with me and I was totally surprised but I was not complaining! I wasn't allowed to date till we were 16 but when I turned 16 we started to date. We dated for seven and a half years in our youth group and I absolutely was in love with this guy because he just loved the things of God. But he was so respectful of me. He cared about me. He cared about my heart. He cared about the things of God for me. He had such a pure mind and a pure heart. We talked in our youth group about 'True Love Waits' and purity and things like that and I really struggled with wanting to wait. I knew it was the right thing to do but he was always the stronger of the two, which made me love him even more. So after seven and a half years of waiting and dating I finally married him, because I couldn't take it any more!"
From such a lovely beginning, unfortunately Tammy wasn't to experience a happy ever after. In September 2001, Tammy was invited on a mission trip to Jamaica. "It was really a great time in both of our lives," she remembers fondly. "For once, we were able to take a trip where somebody else was sort of paying the bill! So it was a great time. We didn't have the money to do it ourselves and we just kind of looked forward to this vacation/mission trip. We had a beautiful week together there in Jamaica. We had one day left before we began this mission trip. Trent wanted to go diving at the beautiful legendary place called the Blue Lagoon. He'd been a certified diver since the age of 12 and he was just amazing at diving. He was a bit of an instructor. He was smart and it was something he'd done forever and I was never afraid of Trent being in the water."
On the afternoon of September 10th 2001, it was just like any other day. Tammy remembers, "We headed to the Blue Lagoon and had lunch there on the side of the dock and then Trent suited up to go for his dive. We sat on the edge of the water and talked for a moment longer and then he said, 'Baby I'm gonna be gone for 15 minutes and when I get back we'll go and do something that you want to do.' And I said, 'Okay Trent.' I watched him slip into the water and halfway between the dock and that hole he lifted up his head out of the water and he waved goodbye to me. I just had no idea at that moment, after 11 years of marriage and seven and a half before that dating, that it would be the last time I'd ever see Trent alive."
Tammy watched him for a while as he was diving in the Lagoon. She sat on the edge of the water and finished off her lunch there. Trent was free-diving that afternoon where a diver goes in the water without oxygen tanks. Instead they hold their breath. She explains, "He could hold his breath up to about 5 minutes underwater. He was amazing at that. So I was sort of watching him from a distance. Every few minutes he would just bob up his head for air but after about 30 minutes I realised I hadn't really been watching. I was finishing lunch and I was watching some other snorkelers in the area. So when I got up to look for Trent I didn't see anything. I knew I had to see at least the top of his head or something come up and down and maybe 30 minutes had gone by and I hadn't seen anything. So I really got scared. I was very scared and he hadn't come back when he said he would. So it was about that time that fear absolutely gripped everything within me. I remember starting to cry and having to tell myself that, this is okay Tammy. It's fine. He's done this probably a million times. Don't worry, everything's fine. He's okay. About that time a boat came into the Lagoon and it circled and then it hit the dock and I asked the guys if they'd take me out to search for him and we began to search for Trent. It was truly at that time that I knew my life would never be the same again."
Sadly Tammy's fears were confirmed and despite his experience as a diver, Trent had drowned. Tammy went through every possible emotion as the reality of what had happened dawned on her and yet even in the middle of the most painful moment of her life, God was there. She explains, "I'm a girl that just takes God at his word. I've always known the presence of God in my life. I think at that moment, standing on the edge of the water, everything was so distant for me except for the presence of God. And it didn't mean that it answered all my questions and it didn't mean that I wasn't crying or weeping or didn't understand. I mean, I felt hopeless. I felt fearful. I was scared. I think more than anything my body was just numb. I was shocked and I really didn't know what to think, how to move.any of that. I think that's probably the blessing when these tragic things happen, when our bodies go into shock, it's probably a gift from God because you can hardly move. I felt the presence of God but my mind was more on what was happening at that moment."
That evening Tammy was calling the USA and making arrangements for her family to fly out to be with her. They still hadn't recovered Trent's body. A dive team had searched but they had to call off the search when it got dark. Tammy continues, "This was the evening of September 10th and I was in the home of two perfect strangers and I, for obvious reasons, didn't sleep at all. I was calling back home to the States. My family were all making arrangements to fly to be with me because they hadn't recovered Trent yet. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know where Trent and I were heading. We were in the middle of nowhere at this Lagoon and now I'm completely by myself and Trent is missing and I don't know what I'm doing. And I'm just crying out to God and holding out for a miracle and holding out for hope, but I felt absolutely lost.and I wanted to die. I think it was at that moment too that I called my family just saying, 'Pray for me.' I called my church and I just said, 'Pray for Trent. Pray for us, we need a miracle.'
The next morning a doctor came into her room and called her through to the room next door so she could look at the television. She explains, "I walked in there the morning of September 11th, 2001 and I will never forget staring at the television as the second plane ploughed into the Twin Towers in New York city. At that moment I was in even more shock because I just thought, what does this mean? My world is falling apart and my personal world is falling apart. America is falling apart. Nothing made sense to me at all and I think I just wondered, what now.? What now God?"
But Tammy found that her faith in God made a difference immediately she was in that desperate situation. "I'll tell you, even as a believer my whole life, I'd never really had one of those experiences where God just showed up. I would just walk with Jesus every day. I think it was two days after the loss of Trent when I was in a hotel room, by myself, and I was crying in the bathroom. I just said, 'God, I need to know that you're real! Are you there? Can you hear me? Can you see me? Do you feel the pain that I feel?' I remember tears just racing down my face and I specifically said, 'I miss my family. I miss my best friend.' Nobody could get to me because of 9/11. In America all flights were grounded so I was by myself and I longed especially for my mom. So I said, 'God if you can hear me, if Heaven is real, if this is all real, could you just send me somebody to hold me? I'm not asking for thousands of angels or even hundreds of angels; just one angel that would just hold me.'"
Her voice goes quiet as she feels again the emotion of the moment. She continues, "I remember at that moment I knew I was supposed to somehow get up and move out of that bathroom. So I got up and I began to move through my room and I could hear somebody in the adjoining room. I made my way over there and the door was open so I looked in and I saw this beautiful Jamaican woman standing there in a Hilton housekeeping outfit. I looked at her and said, 'Ma'am could you come in and make my bed?' She looked at me and said, 'Yes.' She said, 'I've been trying to get to you. I could hear you crying and I've been trying to get to you. Could I just come in and hold you?' And at that moment it was an instant answer to my prayer. Everything that I'd ever longed to experience before in my walk with God happened right there. I had asked, 'God could you just show up here right at this moment?' And he did it for me at that moment. So I knew at that moment that somehow I would get through this. I knew that God was very, very real. And that I wouldn't just survive it but somehow I would overcome it. I knew that truly that was the beginning of healing in my life. And I think there's been seasons of that for the last five years where God has constantly reminded me that he's very real. That this is a truly authentic relationship that I can have and that I CAN be restored and I CAN be healed. I will always feel hurt and pain from this loss in my life. I mean, I would be lying if I said that God isn't healing the very broken pieces of my life but I will always wonder what could have been and what if.?"
She shrugs and admits, "Five years later I still have no interest in dating or being in a relationship but that's because I'm a woman that knew love deeply and I don't feel a void in my life in that area."
Like every Christian faced with tragic circumstances, Tammy had the choice to give up or rebuild her life and she chose the latter. The healing process is a long one and she still feels like she's in that process even five years on. She says honestly, "I think it's still really a choice for me every day, to wake up and to choose life and to choose hope and to choose peace even in the moments when I don't feel those things. But I think that's just part of our faith. Again it's like believing in the unseen and the unknown. If we could see all that stuff then we wouldn't need faith. So I think that's just part of my journey, but I still feel like I'm truly healing. I think there's a lot of healing that has taken place in my life but I think through the music and the couple of books that I've written, a great deal of restoration has come from that. To be able to process all of this on paper and to go back and read it. And to really not just look at the pain but to also see the goodness of God and the goodness of the healing that has taken place in my life. I think that it's made me who I am today and that's a stronger woman, a woman that is even more interested in the things of God because I've seen the very hand of God begin to put my life back together again."
Tammy has proven her faith in God in the most difficult of circumstances and it seems as though the girl who thought she didn't have a testimony now has the opportunity to minister to thousands because of the way her faith has become stronger despite the way her life had crumbled. "I know that God has opened up the doors for me to minister in a whole new way," she explains. "I was always the girl that stood up on the platform and sang a song about faith and I think some people could have been sitting out in the audience thinking, 'How could she possibly know what I'm going through?! She looks like she's got the perfect life and the perfect marriage and everything's going great for her and her career. How could she know pain?' I think people might have looked before and just thought, 'She just can't relate to me. I don't know her God.' I think now when I get up on a platform and I sing a song and I tell the story of what's happened in my life but how I'm clinging to hope, I think now people sit in those seats and go, 'You know what? She DOES understand. She DOES know. And if she is clinging to God in the midst of all of this then why can't I? If she's trusting God then why can't I? If her God is putting her life together again why can't he put my life back together again?' And I think for the first time it's like people.I see them really listening and I see them really longing for peace in their life again like the peace that I've found."
Tammy continues, "So it's truly opened up brand new doors for me. I've taken platforms now and gone into arenas, with 20,000 women in an arena, where I've spoken and sung. Of course they haven't all come to see just me!" again she laughs, "as I've been travelling with the Women Of Faith. It's an entire conference and there's a lot of us speakers there on a weekend and different recording artists and stuff. But I've had the privilege of getting up on a platform like that in front of that many women in one weekend to share a story of life and hope. And I see how God is using that and I see how he's giving me a new platform. So I think even through all the questions that I still have, the one answer that I have is knowing that there's purpose in my life and that God has not left me alone."
As a music artist, I have to confess that Tammy's music has always struck me as being a little too fluffy for my taste but even before we chatted and I really began to understand what she had been through, there was something radically different about the 'I See Beautiful' album. There is a depth of songwriting that touches the listener. One very special moment is the song "Stop The World". Tammy didn't write the song but she could easily have done since the lyrics are so poignant. "The song was actually written for me and for Trent," she confesses, "while I was still in Jamaica, just a few days after the loss of Trent. A friend of mine, Peter Orta, wrote this song. I asked him to sing it at the funeral. God gave him the song and he called me the next day and he said, 'Tammy, this is the song I want to sing for you and for Trent.'"
After spending so long out of the public eye after the death of her husband, was it difficult for Tammy to return to the studio to make a new album? She pauses and confides, "You know it was very hard. It definitely was hard. I think I was kicking and screaming the whole way as I would head to the studio every day just thinking, I can't do this! I can't do this! I can't do this alone! I feel like I'm on my own. I definitely felt like that but I'm sure all of us feel like that with things we're trying to accomplish and trying to step out in faith. We think we can do something and then we back off because we're afraid. I definitely felt like I was kicking and screaming every day but each day that I finished a song I would go back and listen to it in the car, maybe on the way back to the hotel and I would just smile and think, okay I did it! I did it Trent! I think you'd be so proud of me, that I'm here and I'm doing this!" She elaborates, "And I didn't really necessarily have anything in mind. I didn't have any agenda. I just wanted to be able to go in and sing a song and write a song that was really on my heart at that moment. I really didn't know what to expect as an outcome or if anybody would enjoy the record, but I knew that it was mostly important for me to do for it me. I knew that it was another part of my healing."
I tell her that I think she's delivered the best album of her career. "Awhhh", she exclaims, "you know you're so sweet! I don't know that I feel that way. There's so much more in me. I don't know that I've ever done that timeless record yet but for me, at that time in my life and that season in my life, it was right for that season. You know, I hope that with each record people can see growth in me and maturity, even in my relationship with the Lord. And that's really my goal. I think you'll have critics wherever you go that say, 'I loved this' or 'I didn't love that', and I think you really have to walk away from that and just see if God is using this and he's changing the hearts of people? Then that's awesome! And if he's changing my heart? Then that's awesome too!".
Tammy Trent is a living testimony of how one woman can experience the comfort of God at the most trying of times and then pass on that comfort to others through her music and ministry. It means that even in what seems like the most senseless and cruel of situations, it is possible to find meaning, encouragement and hope. Her life and her music is inspirational in the true, full sense of the word and 'I See Beautiful' stands as an artistic statement that in God, you can exchange beauty for ashes.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.