|FIRST THINGS FIRST by Bob Bennett (1979)|
Maranatha! Music MM0061A
Bob Bennett is a husband and a father. He's also an affable guy who seems to find common ground with most everyone he meets. He can be self-deprecating in a very endearing way. His razor-sharp sense of humor has served him well over the years. He also just happens to be one of the most gifted artists you're ever likely to hear in the Singer-Songwriter genre. He has crisscrossed the nation more times than even he knows, sharing his songs and stories with audiences large and small - everything from the opening slot for Amy Grant's Unguarded tour in expansive arenas to intimate house concerts for a few close friends. He has recorded albums that received abundant praise from critics and songs that were played ad nauseam by Christian radio stations. But other equally impressive albums and songs of his seemed to be noticed and appreciated only by hardcore fans. He's a poet who long ago found a way to wed musical notes with words on a page to tell appealing stories that we have remembered for decades. His songs have breathed new life into historical accounts from the pages of Scripture, and he has also created fictional characters from modern life that seem so real, we could swear that we've met them sometime, someplace. He was a good singer in the 70s and 80s, and he has apparently taken great care of his vocal chords over the years because he's still a good singer today (maybe that's partly because his songs don't typically call for a lot of screaming or high notes of the dog whistle variety). He's always been an underrated guitarist. Mostly, he's just a really effective communicator. In short, Bob Bennett is a treasure...a gift from God to the body of Christ.
"I get the privilege of giving people language to describe things that they probably already know to be true," Bennett told me during a phone interview in April 2018. "I get to provide language. When you hear a song and you resonate with it, generally speaking, there's an aspect of that song or that story that you already know and kind of recognize when you hear it. So the listener is always the final arbiter of what a song means or how useful it is. That's the sacred bargain. That's why it's so much fun to get up in front of people, forty years later, singing the same songs, because the audience always brings who they are to the listening. And it's a great privilege to be a part of that night after night."
Born in Downey, California, in 1955, Bob first began to play guitar as a pre-teen. Then he pursued music in stereotypical fashion by forming a rock and roll band during high school years. Raised Catholic, Bennett's path to a personal relationship with Jesus was influenced by a secular record store and a Jesus Music album.
|Bob Bennett (L) and Dan Rupple|
"When I started reading my little Good News for Modern Man," Bennett remembers, "and trying to think about this Christianity thing and was this for me, not only was the Hound of Heaven after me in terms of the Holy Spirit, but it seemed like almost every circumstance was pointing me toward the Lord. It's like when you buy a particular model of car and then all of a sudden you see them all over the freeway (because you're driving one now).
So, at the time I was working at a Licorice Pizza record store. It was a chain out here in Southern California, and the 'licorice pizza' was a vinyl LP. You know, in the cannabis haze of the 70s it was like, 'Hey, cool, man! It's a licorice pizza!' "
Bob continued: "But Dan Rupple, my best friend in this world (who co-founded Isaac Air Freight), he and I both worked in this record store. So what that meant was that we ended up having a great Christian music section in this secular record store. We had a better Christian music section than the Bible bookstore down the street. So what happened was that we started ordering in all of these Jesus Music albums and then we would listen to them in the store. And that's when I first heard the album Love Broke Thru by Phil Keaggy."
"Well, the song that was very much a part of my conversion experience," Bob said, "in terms of sowing seeds that later came to fruition, was a song called As The Ruin Falls which is based on a C.S. Lewis poem. You weren't going to convince me that I was a bad enough guy to need salvation because I had murdered somebody or robbed a bank or something - I was grading on a curve so I didn't get it. But in As The Ruin Falls, Lewis talks about his own self-centeredness - I want everybody to serve my turn, I even want God to serve me, the world revolves around me. That's basically what that lyric is copping to. Well, that was a shoe that fit. That's what really convinced me that I had culpability...in real time."
|Bennett and Rupple|
So that was 1977. How did Bob Bennett go from Licorice Pizza to Maranatha! Music?
"Dan Rupple and I were roommates at the time and we basically both started going to a local Calvary Chapel out here," Bennett told me. "I sort of half-seriously/half-jokingly call that era the 'Don't Miss the Rapture 70s.' Truthfully, that was the hook that got me through the door and then what kept me was the basic Gospel that was taught. So I went to a Calvary Chapel-associated church in my hometown of Downey but I eventually sort of wound up at the Mother Ship because I had heard a lot about it and I was also very much drawn to the Saturday Night Concerts. For many, many years, under two or three different hosts, they held weekly Saturday night concerts. We didn't even know what to call it back then; maybe Jesus Music was as close as anybody ever got to putting a label on it."
Once he arrived at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, Bob Bennett was influenced in a positive way by another Jesus Music pioneer.
|Malcolm Wild in the 70s (L) and today|
He continues: "What happened at the time was that Malcolm Wild of Malcolm & Alwyn, who were sort of inventing the wheel over in the U.K. for what was happening here in the U.S., he moved over here and went on staff at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and as part of his work there started leading a Sunday afternoon musician's fellowship. And so, there were a bunch of different folks who were sort of aspiring to write and sing songs and perhaps be the next generation of the Jesus Music musicians or whatever, and Malcolm led that fellowship and it was really a great opportunity because it was really good, sort of, early discipling for us - to have somebody who'd already been there and done that kind of tell us, you know, what the work was about. And as a result of that, I became associated with Maranatha! Music and actually took a job and was an intern there before my first album came out."
Hey, a job at Maranatha? Sounds impressive, right? Well...
"I basically answered all of the unsolicited cassettes and music that was sent in - instead of Tommy Coomes doing it, I did it," Bennett revealed. So, dear reader, if you ever sent a demo to Maranatha back in the day and got a "thanks, but no thanks" response...who knows, you just might've been corresponding with a young Bob Bennett.
"And that was my first association with the label," Bob said.
"I realized that so many of the 'Saturday night' artists were recording on Maranatha," Bennett says, "and eventually I came to their attention. Initially, I had a song on a compilation album that they did; the song was called Spiritual Equation and it actually predated anything that happened on my first album. Then, as a result of that association, they offered me the chance to do First Things First."
I asked Bob about the meaning behind the album title.
"I saw the words First Things First on a coffee cup," he said. "And I was young enough and inexperienced enough not to know that 'first things first' is kind of a twelve-step concept or slogan. So I didn't know that, but when I ran across first things first, I thought...my first album...my first songs...perfect! It was as simple as that."
So here's a 24-year old who is only two years old in the faith, with a fistful of great songs but very little experience in the studio. What to do? Why, put him in the very capable hands of Jonathan David Brown, of course.
|Jonathan David Brown|
"For those who would characterize the late Jonathan Brown as sort of a mad professor, that would be an apt description," Bennett says with a smile. "And I mean that in a good way. Jonathan had a way of making records where he could take a very modest budget and make it sound like about two or three times as much as that amount of money would normally yield. He was such a canny producer and engineer. He was in some ways very precise and wanted what he wanted - and sometimes in order to make works of art, you butt heads a little bit. And that sometimes happened. But mostly, Jonathan Brown taught me how to make records."
|In the studio (1991): Jonathan David Brown, David Wilcox, Bob Bennett (L-R)|
Bennett continued: "Working with Jonathan basically got me oriented toward the process that I would in one way or another draw upon for everything that came after that. So it was very cool to have that focus. There's nothing quite like being on the hunt for a creative endeavor when you're making a record, there's nothing like it. When you walk into the studio and it's like, 'OK, we're working on an album now, we're going to do the basic tracks, the overdubs, the vocals'...in fact, probably not with the first one so much, but with almost every album that came afterwards, the notion of going into a studio and making a record was such a fertile and creative environment that I virtually would write songs while we were recording that would then also wind up on the album. Because it was so inspiring and so wonderful to be doing that. And so almost every album that I recorded after First Things First contains songs that showed up at the last minute during the process itself."
Did Bob come into the studio armed with songs that didn't make the cut, I wondered?
"I did have a few leftovers," he admits, "a couple of which have never made it to a recording - a couple for good reason, frankly. But it's really funny - with me, subsequent to the first album, almost nothing goes to waste. I've written and recorded almost everything that's kind of come down the pike. They say that your first album is the result of ten or fifteen years, and your second album is the result of one or two years after that. What's funny is that I didn't have that much time. With me, it would've been about a two year period, because I came to serious faith in March of 1977 and by the time September of 1979 rolled around we were almost done with this record."
When we drop the needle on First Things First, the first song we hear is Carpenter Gone Bad. It's almost impossible to believe that this song was written by someone we would call "a baby Christian."
A unique take on the life and ministry of Jesus, Carpenter Gone Bad is a song Bob Bennett still sings today in concerts. "As I'm speaking to you right now, I am 63 years old," he said. "And when I sing the song that that 22-year old wrote and I can still mean it and not hang my head and not be embarrassed or whatever, that's kind of a neat thing. I love it when songs have a shelf life."
There's a man down in the street
Says He's the Messiah
Telling people He is the Chosen One
Says that He is in the Father
And the Father's in the Son
Empty nets made full of fish
And blind eyes that see
Didn't He used to work with wood in Galilee?
Now He's in the synagogue
Telling people they are wrong
To live as whitewashed tombs
Full of dead men's bones
People talking about Him wherever I go
They say He teaches with authority
Is there something I don't know?
They say it is His fervent prayer
That we stay in the Father's care
And believe that He is the Word made man
Some say He is the Son of God
Others laugh and call Him mad
Well do you think He's who He says He is
Or just a carpenter gone bad?
"The best payday for a songwriter," Bennett said, "is when a song not only evokes nostalgia (because after a certain amount of time it will do that) but that it also is still meaningful in the present tense." Musically, Carpenter Gone Bad was presented in a gentle, acoustic folk style for which Bob would eventually become known.
I told Bob I felt that the album's next track, The Night Shift, was a preview of things to come. In the song, he took characters that had no names and he brilliantly described their lives and situations to the point that we, the listeners, could just close our eyes and see them in our mind's eye. They were from different walks of life but had in common the fact that they were searching for meaning in their lives. And yet Bennett resisted the urge to have them all meet up at a church during the last verse, walk the aisle and "get saved."
"You're speaking back to me exactly what I had hoped for, even at that young age," he responded. "The Night Shift does indeed prefigure a lot of the songs of mine that came later because it was the most atypical kind of Jesus Music song on the record and it gave me my first glimpse that songs did not need to be the Four Spiritual Laws set to music. They didn't need to be complete, compact, let's give an altar call at the end - that it was OK to sketch things out. I think the best songs give people room to maneuver. When you talk about closing your eyes to interact with the story - I think that's one of the best things a song can do. Because a song will give me language to understand things and think about things, but I think the best songs engage you in such a way that they not only tell their story but then you can connect up your own story with it. It's the wonderful, almost incongruent thought that the more specific I can be sometimes in my own details, the more specificity it will allow you to have. It's almost like bouncing a ball against the wall. A song gives you something to bounce your own stories up against as well as listening to the story itself. I'm a huge believer in songs that are tightly written in terms of craft, but not so tightly written in terms of content that it sends the subtle message, 'Hey pal, I'm the songwriter and it's my way or the highway.' I love the fact that the listener brings who they are and where they've been and what they know to the listening of the song and that's the sacred bargain that makes my job so great. That's why I don't get bored out of my mind singing Bob Bennett songs year after year. It's because of the people listening to them."
Somewhere a child is crying himself to sleep
As I pray the Lord my soul to keep
As my last amen slowly fades away
The night shift takes over for the dying day
A short order; facial reflection
Glares back from a spot on the grill
And the only sound that makes sense anymore
Is the jingle of change in the till
Coffee and conversation, still the tune doesn't feel quite right
Like an ongoing curse, things have been getting worse
Ever since he started working the night
A lady paints her eyelids up golden because they reflect the neon light
And she waits for the man of her dreams to dance across the floor tonight
She swears there's no commitment, but you know that she's looking for one
But she settles for less because she figures it's best to do it in the name of fun
A soon-to-be-famous musician
Cranks out top-40 tunes in the bar
While his mind is somewhere on vacation
Far away from his voice and guitar
Seeking a cheap imitation, Valentino tries vainly to score
But it's forty-five on and fifteen off
There's just got to be something more
He says to himself: "is there really something more?"
"Can anybody tell me, can anybody tell me what I am living for?"
I noted that the song seemed to have 2 or 3 distinct musical movements, and how unusual it was for a 6 and a half minute song to occupy the #2 hole on a record.
"Some of that was due to the fact that the great Harlan Rogers was in the studio" Bob answered, "and we came up with the idea to do that vamp part before it kicks in, and a little bit of a breakdown in the middle...you know, when you've got Harlan in the studio, it's like, 'We've got to let this guy do some stuff.' The song in concert is a little more straight ahead when I do it by myself. But on the produced version we were able to work in some different textures."
Bob also related a story about getting some unexpected airplay, thanks to The Night Shift: "Back before AAA was really a radio format, there was a station out here in Los Angeles called KNX-FM, and they played great songs. That's where I first heard David Wilcox and several others - it was kind of adult-oriented rock and pop music. Well, somebody at that station got ahold of my album and played The Night Shift a few times - in regular rotation on this secular radio station, a station that I listened to, a station that was on my dial in the car all the time. So the first time I heard that song come across the speakers on KNX-FM, I was like, 'Oh, wow.' It was really cool."
Bob had told me that there's one song on the record that he's just not fond of. I correctly guessed that it would be Whistling in the Dark.
"Yep," he replied. "I had a situation where I wanted to 'lay it on the line' for somebody and so I tried to do that by way of that song. So, of course, the offending lines to me are...
Jesus said He was the way and you must be born again / If you disagree, don't complain to me, You can argue with Him.
Maybe, seemingly, fairly innocuous. Until you really think about it. It's kind of like when you walk into a supermarket and there's a sign up on the door that says 'seeing eye dogs only.' David Brenner used to ask, 'Who is that sign for? How's that gonna help anybody?' Well, Whistling in the Dark is a little bit like that sign. It sort of rallies the troops in pep rally fashion and makes everybody go, 'Yeah!' But to anybody that's a real seeker and inquirer, that's just going to be a smart-alecky and unhelpful thing to say to them. As a young man, I thought it was kind of cool, but not long after I recorded it I wished I hadn't done it. If I could pull one song out of circulation and make it disappear into the black hole of Gosh, I Didn't Do That...that would be the one.
Of course, even Whistling in the Dark had its positives. Kelly Willard and Bruce Hibbard turned in some great performances on backing harmonies and the great Al Perkins played guitar. "And, of course, I knew exactly who Al Perkins was," says Bob Bennett. "To have him in the studio was great."
Next up was a song that Bob Bennett didn't write...but wishes he did. "The Best was written by a guy named John Fowler," Bob said. "And when I cover other people's songs, it's because I say to myself, 'Oh man, I really wish I had written that.' I always point out to people: yes, Dion Dimucci had a hit with it and did a fabulous version of it, but he heard it and learned it off of my album! And I know that because I talked to him about it."
The Best features a peddle steel guitar and works really well on a Bob Bennett record for a couple of reasons.
First...I sit around and make up clever lines / And toss them out as they dance through my mind sounds just like something Bob Bennett would write, am I right?
Secondly...Now I can talk all night till I'm blue in the face / Present my argument and state my case / But I'd rather tell you of His wondrous grace...does that not sound like something Bob would say? People that "know" Bob via social media will attest to the fact that he's a lover, not a fighter.
The next song is one of my all-time favorites. No, not just one of my all-time favorite Christian songs...or just one of my all-time favorite Bob Bennett songs...or even just one of my all-time favorite songs from First Things First. No, You're Welcome Here is one of my all-time favorite songs - period.
Bob explains: "You're Welcome Here was basically me keying off the verse in Revelation where Jesus gives the huge indictment to the church in Laodicea but at the end of it, of course, extends the hand of restoration and reconciliation and says, 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if you hear My voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with you and you with Me.' Now, at the time, that was always used as a word picture for salvation - Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart, open the door and let Him in. Of course, in context, it's a somewhat different take. It's actually the hand of reconciliation being extended after a pretty scathing indictment. But I still think it's a valid word picture. And so that was the idea - Lord, You're welcome here in that way. I'm opening the door of my heart and my life and I want You to come in. Now, here's the interesting thing. A lot of people are probably well aware of a famous tract called My Heart, Christ's Home by Robert Boyd Munger. This was a famous tract that talks about Jesus coming into your house, wanting access to the different rooms and you've got closets that are locked up tight, and you need to let Him into all these places...and I had no idea that tract existed when I wrote the song. But people who are conversant with that tract thought, 'Well, he just wrote that song based on that famous tract.' But I think it was just the same spirit or something. Because I had never seen that piece until after I wrote the song. And when I read it, I went, 'Wow. That's pretty doggone cool.'
Lord, I hear You knocking
You've been knocking at the door
How long have You been waiting
Seems I never really heard You before
I've kind of let the place go
I'm ashamed at what You'll find
But You can make Yourself at home
If You're sure that You don't mind
There are dark rooms deep inside me
Where Your light has never shown
And I tried to hide inside them
But I guess You've always known
That one day You would call me
And I'd awaken from my sleep
And You'd take me just the way I am
And You promised me You'd keep me
Cause when I cry, the roof leaks
And when the wind blows, the walls are weak
But a house is known by the company it keeps
And I feel better now that You're near
And I want to make it clear
Jesus, from now on
You're always welcome here
You're Welcome Here is a song that I have played and sung and have listened to over and over throughout my lifetime - especially at important milestones or critical intersections. It's a message that never gets old.
You might recall from my blog post on Kelly Willard's Blame It On The One I Love that she covered You're Welcome Here on that album. Bob was scheduled to play acoustic guitar on that session but was nixed in favor of Randy Stonehill when Bob just couldn't seem to get the song's timing down well enough to please producer Jonathan David Brown. Well, apparently, by the time this version was recorded, Bob's guitar skills had improved enough to suit Mr. Brown. Jim Fielder's stand-up acoustic bass adds a lot to this track, giving it the feel of a stripped down, acoustic jazz trio. Fielder was an original member of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
"It was so great for Kelly Willard to record it first and get it out there," said Bob. "Despite the fact that I wrote a song about my Dad on Matters of the Heart (A Song About Baseball), You're Welcome Here was always my Dad's favorite song. So that was pretty great."
First Things First benefited from some unique arrangements and excellent individual performances. Ron Tutt played drums on the project. "Ron Tutt played with Elvis for many years and I think he's still out there playing," Bob offered. "He's just a fabulous concert and studio player."
Alex MacDougall handled some of the other percussion instruments. I had a chance to speak with MacDougall in preparation for this blog post. "The rehearsals for First Things First were also recorded with me playing a light drums/percussion setup," Alex recalled. "The actual record was recorded with me on percussion and various drummers. One of the great learnings for me in my 'Bob process' is the amazing marriage that can take place between the folk and jazz musical genres. I approached Bob's music from a jazz feel, as did some others. The result was magic."
When asked to talk about Bob on a more personal level, MacDougall needed very little prompting. "Bob is one of my dearest friends," he said. "Bob is a fine human being, filled with wonder at the things of God. He's also got quite a sense of humor!" MacDougall also offered that he, Bennett and John Patitucci toured in the early 80s as a trio, performing many of the songs from First Things First in live settings. "That's a little-known fact," said Alex.
Side Two of First Things First is about as rock and roll as this record gets. "Forgive and Forget was me channeling Richie Furay as best I could," said Bob. "My friend Dan Rupple and I were huge Poco fans. There's no way to overestimate how much we dug that band. And then when I've Got A Reason came out, that was a huge influence on Dan and me."
Forgive and Forget is a testimony song - Bennett's conversion story set to some toe-tapping music.
I want to forgive and forget
Won't you let Me?
But I said, Nothing doing, Lord
You'll have to come and get me
And I fought it for a while
But then I just had to smile
Cause I let the Lord
Forgive and forget
In the song's first verse, Bennett reveals his new attitude toward his fellow believers...
I used to laugh at the best of them
Now I'm right here in a nest of them
Full of joy that can only be divine
I've said before that I'm a sucker for hymns done right. Well, Bob Bennett's version of My Redeemer Lives was an instant classic. I asked Bob where the inspiration came from.
"In 1977, a month after I was born again I was at an Easter sunrise service at a Calvary Chapel in Downey," Bob recalled. "And the guy who was leading the songs (Steve Todd), and leading all of the worship choruses you would've expected back in the day here in Southern California, he was raised in the Lutheran church. Well, he pulled out this song and played it and I just fell in love with the song. It's to the hymn tune of Duke Street. I went to a hymnal and found that it had a gazillion verses and I did something kind of presumptuous - I simply cut and pasted together the halves of the ones that I liked best, and came up with four cut-and-pasted verses. Then I came up with the guitar arrangement, and that was that. I still love it. I get to sing it all the time."
The orchestration (horns and woodwinds arranged by James Gabriel) makes My Redeemer Lives all the more special. Bob Sanders played baritone horn, Nils Oliver was on cello, and Terry Winch and Darrel Gardner played flugelhorns. Bill Alsup and Ron Loofbourrow were on French horn, while Val Johnson played trombone and Phil Ayling and John Phillips played woodwinds. Along with Still Rolls the Stone, My Redeemer Lives has become a staple in the annual Easter playlists of many Christians.
The Garden Song is at once beautiful, intimate, haunting, and hope-filled. I asked Bob how he wrote that song. "I put myself in Adam's place," he explained. "If I'm Adam, how do I imagine this conversation playing out?"
I hear footsteps in the Garden
And I know the Lord is near
And He calls me by my name
Saying, "Where are you hiding?
Where are you hiding?
Why do you hide?
I miss you, my son"
And I answered more loudly than I might have done
"I feel naked and ashamed
I've sinned against you, Father
And I've no one but myself to blame"
And He said, "You are not naked
You are clothed in the grace of my Son
Come and let Me lead you
To where your journey will be done"
Why are you hiding?
Why do you hide from Me, my son?
Why are you hiding?
Why do you hide from me
When I love you so?
|Michele Pillar with Bob Bennett|
I Belong to You was the other song on this record not written by Bob Bennett. This one was penned by the producer, Jonathan David Brown. I told Bob that, while it's a very fine track, to my ears it sounds a little more slick and polished - a little more CCM - than the typical Bob Bennett song. "Jonathan was really good at making commercial records," Bennett said. "His instincts sort of went that way. And that sometimes was the rub in the studio because I would be wanting to go super simple, less polished, a little more dirt under the fingernails sometimes...and so sometimes we would go 'round and 'round about that. But I was really taken with the song when I first heard it and I still think it's a fine song."
Bob was in especially fine voice on this song. His singing is always very warm. He's been described as having "golden vocal chords" (whatever that means). And here again, the background vocals by Kelly Willard and Bruce Hibbard really enhance the song.
First Things First wraps up with a very personal song called Healings.
Jesus, will you heal me? I've got a terminal disease
It's hard for me to talk to You
Unless I'm driven to my knees
And I don't mean to make demands on You
But I know that You are kind
You see, my eyes are working perfectly
But I feel like I am blind
Jesus, will you heal me? I've got blisters on my feet
I've run everywhere but straight to You
Now the circle stands complete
And I've no one else to turn to
And I'm out of breath and scared
Though my legs seem very able
They couldn't take me anywhere
My eyes were blinded, I could not see what I had long ignored
My legs were useless 'cause I was running away from the Lord
And patiently He waited as I played my foolish game
And then He made me whole when I called His name
Oh look, behold it is true
To the glory of God, my life is made new
The more that I seek him, the more He's revealed
In the name of Jesus, I proclaim that I am healed
Praises be to the Healer of my life
"Healings used conditions of the body as the language," Bennett explained, "but it was really about a life that needs healing."
I asked Bob what he thought about the album once it had been released and he was able to hold one in his hands. "I think I was pleased with it," he said. "I was very excited. You know, you spend your whole childhood hoping that you get to make an album. So when you're looking at the thing and popping open the shrinkwrap and pulling out the LP and stuff, you know, it's just an exciting thing."
So how did it do? You know - reviews, sales figures, that kind of stuff?
"It was critically accepted and commercially mediocre," Bennett said with a smile. "I don't know that it sold tons of copies, but people who got it seemed to like it."
"All these years later, I'm mostly not embarrassed by it," he laughed. "What I love about making records is that they exist apart from me at a certain point. So they're out there doing work like a message in a bottle and if I'm having a bad day, if I'm in my bathrobe, if I'm not firing on all cylinders on a particular day...guess what? First Things First doesn't need me anymore. It hasn't needed me for decades. It's in fixed form. It's something that's a lot more reliable than I am personally. And I'm very grateful to have that kind of a representation with my name on it that has some consistency and still has some value in people's hearing."
First Things First was re-released on compact disc by Maranatha! Music in the early 1990s (with a bonus track). Then in 2007, a limited 25th Anniversary Edition was made available, complete with a new bonus song and audio commentary tracks for each song.
Our conversation turned to the topic of touring. Figuring out ways to monetize your talent is increasingly difficult these days. To put it bluntly, people generally don't turn out to hear you play and sing if they don't remember who you are.
"Yeah, with me, people have either been listening for an awfully long time or they just have no earthly idea who I am," Bob says. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of in-between territory these days. And this is going to sound like a horrible, sour grapes thing to say, and I don't mean it to be precisely that, but I think Christian music is the one genre of music that has the shortest institutional memory of any genre there is. Because if you look at any other type of music - jazz, country, folk music, rock and roll - the younger musicians may not be bowing down and saying, 'Hey, thanks,' but they at least have an awareness of who their predecessors were and they're conversant with the music. And ironically, in the Church, where you would think our notion of heritage and who came before and who did what and how can we partner together across demographic lines and age lines and all kinds of stuff - I think we just kind of have amnesia about some of that stuff. Of course, I have a dog in the hunt, so it makes it sound like 'poor Bob Bennett, I hope he gets some affirmation one of these days.' But, for better or worse, we've sort of built up this culture where we are very selective about what we look to in the past. I'm 63 years old and I can't get enough of being around guys who are 80 or 85 or 90. Guys who are old enough to be my Dad. Even at this stage of my life, I want to hang out with those guys, I want to finish well, I want to do what they're doing. Whatever they have to tell me, I want to hear it. It's not going to cost me a doggone thing to hear it."
After First Things First, Bennett experienced tremendous success with a much-heralded record called Matters of the Heart in 1982. CCM Magazine called it the best album of the year. It was full of songs that grabbed our hearts, inspired our imaginations, and fed our souls. That album and the two that followed contained a string of radio hits.
Then Bob experienced a painful divorce - not exactly a career enhancement for a CCM musician. Instead of papering over this unfortunate event, Bob laid his soul bare and shared his pain with the world on an album called Songs From Bright Avenue. I was going through my own painful divorce around the same time period. Like Bob, I wondered if I would "ever be able to sit at that table again." Well, eventually Bob did and I did, too. But not before that record darn near saved my life.
After that, a shift began to take place in churches and on Christian radio airwaves. Bob Bennett continued to write and record masterful, story-driven songs on records like Small Graces and The View From Here, but he found the "Christian" audience for those songs to be shrinking.
His explanation: "The style of songwriting and storytelling that was done in previous times is totally missing in action (as far as I can tell). You've got a few guys like Andrew Peterson and Andy Gullahorn and guys like that doing great work and still out there writing those kinds of songs. But the kinds of songs that Scott Wesley Brown and Bruce Carroll and I write are not the coin of the realm anymore. So my little spiel on all of this is that the culture is binging Netflix for 5 and 6 hours at a time because story is still king while inside the confines of the church, musical stories are missing in action. They're not being told anymore. Nobody is sitting at a piano or standing up with a guitar in their hand and telling their story, their testimony, in the music. It's just not a part of the language anymore. So even if I remain anonymous from here on in, I would love to see the Church re-embrace what's happening in the world around her in a good way. This is still important. If you get up to sing a story, people will still listen. But the pastors don't have the vision for it, and these songs are not being sung in the church. If it's all-worship-all-the-time, to the exclusion of everything else, then we've ceded an entire method of communicating, we've cut off an entire means of artistic expression that we could totally run with." He then laughed, "And that's the end of my speech!"
Bob maintains a strong internet presence and makes his music available through his website (including 5 albums recorded since 2007!). He's not going away anytime soon; he still manages to play and sing wherever doors open for him to do so.
"From the time I picked up a guitar at age ten, I wanted to do this job," he said. "I wanted to play concerts. I wanted to make records. I had camped out next to the family stereo listening to The Kingston Trio and I said, 'I want to do that.' Then the Beatles came and all of the singer-songwriters came along - Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Bishop, people like that. I wanted to be Jackson Browne. That was not going to be my path...but I did get a chance to do something really wonderful that has also been a career. I don't count the number of people in the audience and decide how hard I'm going to try. If I've got 5 people or 500 people in front of me, to me, every night is like Carnegie Hall."
Turning our attention back to First Things First, I ask Bob which songs he still sings in his concerts today.
"Oh, I'm really happy to still be able to sing some of those songs and really mean them," he said. "I can still sing You're Welcome Here, I can still sing Carpenter, I can still sing Redeemer and feel fully invested in those songs."
He smiled and said, "I still have a certain amount of empathy and affection for the young fellow who recorded that record."
So do we, Bob. So do we.
|Bob Bennett and me, circa 2014|