How does a New Jersey ministry band end up on European satellite radio? Tony Cummings tracks down the intriguing story of TREE OF LIFE.
In the middle of a slab of hot UCB Cross Rhythms programming, wedged in between the DC Talks, Jackie Velasquezes and World Wide Message Tribes, the presenter slips in a piece of innocent '60s retro pop. The girl's voice glides silkily out over the skipping guitar and keys rhythm, the hook bites home. The lyrics mysteriously stray perilously close to cliche, yet are perfect for the quality of innocence the pure voice emotes. "I found your love/You released me from these chains/Took away all the hurt and the pain/Put a song in my heart/Showed the light where there used to be dark." It's by Tree Of Life.
None of UCB Cross Rhythms 25,000 plus listeners will have heard of Tree Of Life unless they (a) listen to the Cross Rhythms tape which comes with this magazine or (b) happen to know the Christian coffee house scene of New Jersey. Tree Of Life, though American, are about as far removed from the glitz, glamour and cheque book manipulators of CCM Nashville as it's possible to be. In fact, 'First Fruits', the 1994 album from which "I Found Your Love" and the other CR Experience-featured tracks - the smouldering blues "Jesus Don't Always Pay On Friday" and the swaggering R&B riff "Power" - are the result of a bunch of local church musicians "messing about in the studio". Mind you, the pastor overseeing this messing about was no hapless beginner with a misguided desire to throw away studio hours and money but a muso/producer with a decade and more pro music experience.
Mike Scavone had begun playing drums and singing in high school and by senior year had already been on local TV and landed a major label recording contract. As lead singer of Ram Jam, Mike hit the big time with the band's "Black Betty" becoming a Top 20 hit in 1976 and eventually going gold. But Ram Jam's ride in the fast lane was relatively brief. "Ram Jam effectively broke up in 1978 when I was sent to jail on drug charges," Mike explains matter of factly. "That experience really knocked me off my high horse. My wife had gotten herself saved and in August '79 I threw myself at the Lord's feet, absolutely naked. My identity had been utterly wrapped up in music. I abandoned all my ambition, joined a local church and got a regular job. For seven years I didn't play drums or harmonica. I didn't even listen to the radio - I wasn't interested. Then slowly the Lord gave me back music."
In the mid '80s, during a time of praise in his church in New Jersey, the worship song "Lion Of Judah" had a monumental impact on Mike. "I saw I had a whacked out idea of who Jesus really was. I felt music grabbing at my heart and I began to have a desire to help local musicians establish their ministries."
For five years Mike pastored a small congregation in New Jersey where Ken Brynildsen led worship. Ken had a bit of a background in music too. He sang in the 59th Street Church Teen Choir performing all around the metropolitan area and even travelling to Norway. Later he sang with a coffee house group Beloved before joining the Long Branch Covenant Church as worship leader and youth choir director. It was Ken's entry into songwriting which was the spark that led to the eventual creation of Tree Of Life. Many of Ken's songs were being used in his church services and in the sister churches around the Mid-Atlantic region. Remembers Mike, "Ken was going to enter a song for a Christian songwriting competition and came to me for advice. It was called 'King Of All The Earth'. I told him, 'You might as well record it right,' and gave a friend of mine a call in a recording studio I knew from my old secular music days. The recording of the song went pretty well - in fact, it ended up on the Tree Of Life CD! We brought Ayn Little from the church's worship team to sing backups. The very first time I heard Ayn sing I'd thought, 'That's a voice that should be on a record!'
So later I said to Ken, 'Let's record some more songs.' And Ayn ended up singing lead on some of them."
The demos turned into masters, the speculative recording project
became a band: Ken Brynildsen (vocals, guitar, keys), Ayn Little
(vocals, keys), Dave Hill (bass) and Mike Scavone (drums, harmonica -
and on the R&B driven "Power" - vocalist) and with the album
'First Fruits' released on Mike's own Beacon Records, Tree Of Life began to
play Christian coffee houses around the New Jersey area. The band even
made a trek down to Nashville to check out how the big time CCM
industry's GMA bash worked. Mike wasn't too impressed with what he
found: "There are many sincere musicians and ministers of the gospel
in Nashville. But the business heart of the industry doesn't look much
different to me than what I experienced in the secular industry. The
cheque book seems to run everything."
Mike is currently busy songwriting with Tree Of Life's Ayn Little for a future project. He is also working with New Jersey duo Alli And Nicole, Alli also being in alternative band Secret Agent Abe. Now in his late 40s, Mike is thrilled to be working with young musicians. He hopes to be able to impart some wisdom to them. "Music ministries can so easily become driven. The Lord has really spoken to me about the importance of serving him where he's put you. It doesn't matter that Tree Of Life won't get signed to Sparrow. It doesn't matter if you stay in a local church ministry playing to hundreds rather than a national ministry playing to tens of thousands. National is not always the goal. What the goal should be is serving God faithfully wherever he's put you."