Friday, December 18, 2015

#55 THE MASTER AND THE MUSICIAN by Phil Keaggy (1978)

THE MASTER & THE MUSICIAN by Phil Keaggy (1978)
NewSong - NS006

This might’ve been a very different project.

The original plan was for Phil Keaggy to record a joint instrumental album with his friend, keyboardist Richard Souther. The two had been on tour together with the 2nd Chapter of Acts, as documented on the 3-record live set How the West Was One. Anyone who heard Keaggy and Souther collaborate on songs like Time and Rejoice would have to be excited about the prospects of an entire instrumental album by these two prolific musicians. But elders at the church to which Keaggy belonged at the time reportedly nixed the idea of a joint album with Souther. Keaggy still owed his label an album, so he headed into the studio in Chicago to record alone.

Scott Ross

The album also came close to having a different title altogether: Out of Ivory Palaces. Scott Ross, who was president of NewSong records, suggested that title based on a Scripture in the book of Psalms that said, “Out of ivory palaces stringed instruments have made me glad.” Stay tuned; later in this post, we’ll discover how the title The Master & the Musician was selected instead.

Phil Keaggy has released a virtual mountain of jaw-dropping instrumental albums over the years, but this was the first one. And it was special.

Music critics and industry professionals were impressed.

Mark W.B. Allender called it a groundbreaking piece of work…full of emotional twists, meditative sounds, and world-influenced tonalities.”

Scott Ross called it “personal and intimate.” He said it was “rhapsodic in its highs and lows” and “an ode to love.”

Jimm Derby called it a “complex” and “mature” work. He described the music as “intellectual” and “spiritual.”

Mark Moring wrote that the album featured “a master musician serving the Master of music,” calling it “a collaboration for the ages.

Phil Keaggy first gained notoriety as a member of Glass Harp in the late 60s/early 70s. His faithful, devout Catholic mother never stopped witnessing to him, never stopped praying. After her untimely death due to an automobile accident, Phil accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. He was born again. And it was a change that was immediately evident not only in his personal life but in the music of Glass Harp. This eventually caused a strain in the band and Keaggy left the group to pursue music as a solo artist…and to just spend some quality time with his Lord, studying the Word and learning more about Jesus.

In 1972 Phil met a young recording engineer by the name of Gary Hedden. The two formed an immediate bond. About a year later, a 24-year old Hedden would guide Keaggy as he recorded a solo album of mainly acoustic-based vocal material called What A Day (you can read about it here). These were songs of joy, flowing from the exuberant heart of a new believer. The recording budget was small, with Phil playing every instrument.

Two years later, Keaggy returned to the studio with producer Buck Herring and some of the most talented studio musicians on the West Coast. He was armed with acoustic and electric guitars, some amazing songs, and a bigger budget. The end result was a classic release titled Love Broke Thru. You’ll be reading more about that record much later in our countdown.

1977 brought 2 more recorded music projects from Mr. Keaggy, both of which will make appearances in this blog as we continue. Emerging was a great one-and-done album by a group that Phil assembled known as, for lack of a better name, the Phil Keaggy Band. How the West Was One was a 3-record live set recorded with the 2nd Chapter of Acts and A Band Called David. It features some amazing extended jams from Phil Keaggy and was an instant classic.

Which brings us to 1978. Instrumental albums in the burgeoning CCM genre were not completely unheard of – there had been Love Songs and Other Greats by Sonlight Orchestra in ’75 and a Praise Strings album from Maranatha! Music in ’77 – but they were a rarity. Keaggy’s decision to record an all-instrumental album was an interesting career choice (although Jesus Music artists rarely if ever thought of their music as a ‘career’).

The Master & the Musician presented somewhat of a dilemma for retailers. In the late 70s, Jesus Music and CCM was sold primarily in individually-owned “Christian bookstores.” A lot of the so-called ‘Mom and Pop’ bookstore owners were a little wary of a “Christian” album with no words. Today this might seem like a silly problem, to be sure, but in 1978 there were actually folks who wondered how an instrumental album could be considered “Christian” music. The thinking was that faith-based music should always be accompanied by faith-based lyrics. How could an all-instrumental album with song titles like Mouthpiece, Follow Me Up and Jungle Pleasures be ‘Christian?’ Christian radio programmers were similarly flummoxed.

Thankfully, Keaggy has never exhibited a propensity to be dominated or even affected by such concerns. He eventually tired of being controlled and directed by label heads and A&R reps to such an extent that he eschewed that system altogether and started releasing albums on his own. Sometimes they were vocal recordings, sometimes instrumentals. Sometimes they would have a theme, such as Spanish-influenced acoustic guitar tunes (Lights of Madrid) or covers of secular love songs (Acoustic Café). He got to a point in his career/artistry/ministry that he simply recorded and released what he wanted, when he wanted, without regard for commercial concerns, and without being paralyzed by the CCM industry’s sometimes narrow expectations.

Stuart Scadron-Wattles

A young writer by the name of Stuart Scadron-Wattles came up with the idea of including an original, written story in the packaging of the album, on the liner sleeve as a solution to the ‘no lyrics’ problem. Written by Scadron-Wattles, the story was basically about a young musician during the Renaissance period attempting to gain an audience with the King and his court. For many listeners, this story would give sort of an explanation of why there were no words. Hey, Phil wrote all of this cool music to sort of tell this story without lyrics! Of course, such was not the case. Keaggy did not write The Master & the Musician in order to flesh out this story; rather, the story was an unnecessary afterthought. Most of the music was actually improvised in the studio before the story was ever written.

Stuart Scadron-Wattles and his wife Linda were members of the Love Inn community in upstate New York, the same community to which Phil and Bernadette Keaggy belonged.

Phil Keaggy Band

“My main connection with Phil during his days of touring out of the community was through my close friendship with Lynn Nichols, a talented guitarist who played in the Phil Keaggy Band,” Scadron Wattles remembers. “I liked Phil's music, and he seemed to appreciate my writing, but mutual respect was about as far as it got. So it was a bit of a surprise when Peter Hopper and Scott Ross asked Lynn to approach me about Phil's first instrumental project. I listened to the recording and was instantly struck by its original approach. It also seemed to be Phil at his best-- experimenting with musical work, without having to dream up verbal reasons for its existence. But Scott and Peter were worried.” 

Scadron-Wattles continues: “In those days, with the Jesus Movement firmly established, and a growing market for Contemporary Christian Music, the art was justified by the lyrics. Without lyrics, how could this project survive? NewSong had been founded to allow Phil to do what he wanted, but how was this project to be sold to Word Records, its distributor? By the same token, we believed strongly that the music should stand on its own, and were unafraid to market it as a new type of work.” 

“I countered that we might include an original narrative to accompany the music, which would give the largely evangelical Christians who were Phil's fans the necessary ‘hook’ into the work,” Stuart-Wattles explains. “The story was unessential to the work but would provide the excuse Christians seemed to need to enjoy the thrill of hearing Phil enjoy his instrument and display his versatility as he did so. The story idea was acceptable, and I was asked to write it.” 

“The story was easy enough to write. As a lyricist for the stage, it was a joy to sit down and let Phil's music write the story with me,” Stuart-Wattles recalls. “In order to increase the opportunities for connection, I associated the story's narrative turns with specific cuts of the album and kept the story in sequence with each piece.” 

Once the work was completed, Stuart Scadron-Wattles was uneasy about sharing it with Keaggy. His solution was to read the story to two of Phil's closest friends in the community, Lynn Nichols and Chris Christensen, at different sittings. “Lynn had some excellent suggestions, which I incorporated,” he recalls, “and the more sentimental Chris, who had been listening to a cassette dub of Phil's work for weeks, did what I had hoped: he cried. I knew then that Phil would like it.” 

The story was delivered to Keaggy, who asked for a change or two, but was otherwise quite pleased. Scadron-Wattles was paid a flat fee for his work.

So where did the album’s title, The Master & the Musician, originate? “The story gave us the title for the album,” explains Scadron-Wattles. 

Ironically, later releases of the album did not include the story. Scadron-Wattles explains: “By that time, of course, it was no longer necessary to justify instrumental works to evangelical Christians, so the need for the story was no longer as acute, and the title had acquired an existence independent of the story which had inspired it.” 

I personally remember, as a teenaged consumer of the album, being initially disappointed at the amount of mellow, acoustic songs on the record. After all, in the previous two years we’d been treated to songs like Time, Just the Same, Wild Horse, Where is My Maker, Turned On the Light and Take A Look Around…I just knew I was going to be blown away by an album full of scorching rock tracks. Such was not the case. There was some rock ‘n roll, but this was a very eclectic album that my then-young ears did not fully appreciate until years later. The record covers a very broad spectrum yet manages to come across as a cohesive collection. The songs were alternately moody, cheerful, complex, playful, beautiful, somber, and delightful.

The phrase “withstood the test of time” is clichéd. But in this case, it is absolutely applicable. When searching for an adjective to describe The Master & the Musician, timeless is the word that comes up over and over again.

The Master & the Musician was produced, written, arranged and mixed by Phil Keaggy. It was engineered by Mal Davis and Garry Hedden, and recorded during the summer of 1978 at Hedden West Studio in Schaumburg, Illinois. 

Phil Keaggy played most of what is heard on The Master & the Musician, including classic, electric, and E-bow guitars, bass, Arp bass synthesizer, drums and percussion, and some background vocals.

There were guest appearances that we’ll cover as we review the record, track-by-track.

The cover photographs were taken by Chris Maggio. Illustrations used in the album packaging were the work of Claude Schuyler.

The medieval tone is set right out of the box during the record’s first track. Pilgrim’s Flight is an enjoyable classical/folk blend but it begins with an effect that sounds a bit like a space ship. It was actually an electric guitar being played through an MXR digital delay and then sped up twice the normal speed. Keaggy has revealed that he “tuned down” an acoustic guitar for the bass part on this song. This is the first track on the album that features the E-bow. Keaggy describes it as “a little device that you hold in your hand that vibrates the string.”

Gary Hedden

Engineer Gary Hedden remembers the moment Phil Keaggy first used the E-bow: “They sent Phil an E-bow to try out. It was this mysterious, silver device in a box, and he looked at it, and within minutes he was making music with that device.” Invented in 1969 by Greg Heet, an E-bow can cause an electric guitar to mimic the sound of a flute, cello, or other sounds not usually playable on guitar. “It’s been a cool little device to use over all these many years,” Keaggy said in the commentary for the 30th Anniversary re-issue of The Master & the Musician. “Pilgrim’s Flight sets the stage for the rest of the album,” he says. 

The energy picks up nicely on Agora (The Marketplace), my favorite track on Side One. Keaggy plays a Les Paul through a Music Man amp on this track, while Tom Baker plays bass and Terry Fryer adds some Moog synthesizer parts. Keaggy described the song as “Latin meets jazz.”

Next up is the shortest track on the record, a 47-second gem titled The Castle’s Call. Susan Kricher plays flute over 2 classical guitar parts from Keaggy.

Kricher’s flute is back for the very English-sounding Wedding in the Country Manor, a song that Keaggy did indeed write for a friend’s wedding (Peter Hopper). Phil has said that he heard the flute parts in his head, sang them for Susan Kircher, and she then wrote them down (as Keaggy does not read written music).  

Suite of Reflections was up next. It was the first song Keaggy actually recorded for the album. “Originally this was called Theme for Bernadette,” Keaggy recalls. “I wrote it for Bernadette when we lived in Freeville, New York. And then it kind of evolved into this collection of themes that kind of just cascade one into another…it developed into quite a sophisticated piece of music. There’s a lot of emotion.” Phil has said that once this song was finished, he and Gary Hedden knew they were on their way to making “a pretty special album.”

The song Golden Halls has a tie-in to Keaggy’s long-time support for the relief organization Compassion International. Keaggy explains:

Golden Halls was originally called Beyond the Screen before it was put into this album. It’s actually a vocal song that I wrote. It was inspired by a TV program that really focused on world hunger and poverty, especially the plight of the children. I was so moved by this documentary that I just had to write about it. I gave it some thought after watching it, and I thought, ‘We can do something to help these kids.’ And it wasn’t long after that, that I got introduced to Compassion International. There’re so many great organizations out there, helping kids – World Vision, Food for the Hungry, Feed the Children and Compassion International. It wasn’t long after that, I began to share from the stage how I felt exactly, and try to bring some good news, bring some help, some healing, some love, some tenderness, some care to some of these children. Bernadette and I have been involved with Compassion now for many years. You can hear in the background Bernadette and my voice harmonizing. And it was pretty special having her there while I was making this recording.”

Terry Fryer played some PolyMoog synthesizers parts on both Suite of Reflections and Golden Halls

Side two of The Master & the Musician opens with what Phil Keaggy says was a last-minute idea. Mouthpiece was cool. Mark Moring at Christianity Today called it “a beat-box vocal ditty that would make Bobby McFerrin proud.” The shame of it is its brevity. Only 1:18? More, more! Keaggy remembers: “When I walked back into the control room, Bernadette was sitting there. She kind of looks up at me and goes, ‘What was that? Sounds like you’re running out of ideas!’”
The record’s undisputed highlight was up next. Follow Me Up has been described as “a signature work of Keaggy brilliance.” ‘Looping’ is a recording technique that long ago became an impressive and indispensable part of Keaggy’s live performances, and that apparently began right here on Follow Me Up. “This is, in a sense, probably where I was beginning to get into the idea of looping,” Phil remembers. “Although I wasn’t using a loop machine, I was using an old MXR digital delay.” He used a Strat for the rhythm parts, a Les Paul for the leads, and a Fender Precision bass that he’d borrowed from a friend. The breathy wind sound you hear was created by a synthesizer. Keaggy explains in the audio commentary for this song (available on the 30th Anniversary re-release) that he played the drums for this track himself…recorded one drum at a time. The end result was amazing.
At just 55 seconds, Jungle Pleasures seems like a novelty song or an afterthought. It begins with percussion in a 15/4 time signature (sounding like something Andy Kaufman would’ve danced to in 1978). A smokin’ lead guitar barges in and is gone almost as soon as it arrived. I call foul! Way too short! This one should’ve gone on for at least 2 more minutes! [Am I being greedy?]
The rest of the album takes on a more mellow tone.
Next up is the chilling and haunting Deep Calls Unto Deep. “I’m using volume swells with my little finger on the Strat, creating some interesting sounds,” Phil relates.

This is yet another song that had nothing to do with the story penned by Stuart Scadron-Wattles. Keaggy explains the actual meaning behind the tune and the title: “I called it Deep Calls Unto Deep because I was just really missing home, I was missing Bernadette, and I had so much I wanted to express but I just couldn’t find the words. Bernadette and I had been through so much over the previous 3 years prior to making this album. We had lost triplet boys, baby boys, when Bernadette was 5 and a half months along, and also a little baby boy, Ryan, who lived three days. That was in 1976. And then a miscarriage in April of ’77. The title of this song comes from the Scripture in Psalm 42, verse 7. ‘Deep calleth unto deep, at the noise of Thy waterspouts. All Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over me.’ In verse 8 it says, ‘Yet the Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime and in the night His song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life.’ The ending of this song is just the loneliness that I felt for home. And it comes out on my guitar, where I’m playing the Les Paul in kind of like this ‘weepy’ tone. I remember saying, ‘It’s time to go home.’ So I made arrangements to go home, back to upstate New York. Still, even C.S. Lewis said that we were created for another world. I probably was longing for Heaven as well.”

Nick Kricher played oboes and recorder on Deep Call Unto Deep.

Next up is a Medley of songs: Evensong, Twilight and Forever Joy.

Evensong is an Irish melody and it was inspired by a poem Keaggy had discovered called While the Days Are Going By.

Twilight is a series of chords in progression, and harmonics played on electric guitar with EBows. It features Phillip Kimbro on recorders.

Voices are actually heard on Forever Joy. Phil and his wife Bernadette overdubbed and multi-tracked their voices on this one.

The original release of The Master & the Musician closed with the song The High and Exalted One. It was inspired by a passage of Scripture in Isaiah 57 that really spoke to Keaggy.

Re-releases of The Master & the Musician have included a bonus track titled Epilogue/Amazing Grace. Recorded in February of 1989, Phil Keaggy has said it can be thought of as a “postscript” to the album. 

Looking back on the album, Keaggy is pleased with the finished product. “We were totally into trying some things that were new, that we hoped hadn’t been done before” he remembers, “and I think we combined something of the Old English folk thing to the modern, progressive thing a little bit. The whole thing was experimentation, improvisation, and discovery. That’s how I see it.”

In the years since, Phil Keaggy has released many recordings, both vocal and instrumental. He’s won awards and drawn rave reviews for instrumental works such as Beyond Nature, Acoustic Sketches, The Wind and the Wheat, Hymnsongs, Premium Jams, Cinemascapes, Majesty and Wonder, 220, On the Fly, and many others. But this album, The Master & the Musician, remains the biggest seller in Keaggy's vast catalog. After 4 decades of steady releases, that says a great deal.

Mark Allan Powell wrote in his Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music that it’s probably fair to say that Phil Keaggy is the most versatile guitarist who has ever lived. The Master & the Musician certainly bolsters that claim.

“Back in the beginning, we didn’t set out to be ‘CCM artists.’  We were called to be proclaimers, whether we do it with words or without words. I think the Holy Spirit loves music, and I think where the Spirit of the Lord is, there’s liberty. I’ve spent all these years enjoying playing the guitar and making people happy, bringing hope to them, bringing good news to them.”
–Phil Keaggy 

Monday, December 14, 2015

#56 EYES TO THE SKY by Randy Matthews (1975)

EYES TO THE SKY by Randy Matthews (1976)
Myrrh - MSA-6547-LP

It was 1974. 

Randy Matthews was preparing for the opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to open for ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd on a national tour. Billboard magazine ran stories on how Matthews and his band had started playing clubs and bars in preparation. But first he had a gig at a Christian music festival in Pennsylvania. 

A forerunner to the Creation Festival, the Jesus Festivals sought to build on the success of the much-publicized Explo ’72 in Dallas, Texas, where Matthews and other Jesus freaks such as Larry Norman, Andrae Crouch, Love Song, the Archers, and Randy Stonehill thrilled audiences more than 80,000 strong. The Jesus Festivals were held on a patch of potato farmland in Mercer, Pennsylvania.

Christian music festivals were in their infancy but were quickly embraced by young people. They were often organized by fairly conservative Church fathers who sought to avoid controversy. The folks who ran the Jesus Festival in 1973, their inaugural year, deemed the music to be "too racy."

The audience for Jesus ’74 was double that of the previous year. Crowds arrived in Mercer in cars, trucks, VW vans, Winnebagos, on motorcycles, even on horseback for three days of Jesus Music, Bible teaching and fellowship. And, while the atmosphere of a Festival like Jesus ’74 was definitely hipper and less structured than the average denominational church convention, the organizers were still very conservative in their approach and the music generally fit squarely in the soft rock/acoustic genre.  

I was recently introduced to a gentleman by the name of Park Smith, who gave a firsthand account of what took place that day. "A bunch of us went from our church," he recalls. "It was the Jesus Movement days and we were (and are!) all so much enraptured with our new-found love for Jesus." 

The time came for a set by Randy Matthews and his band. For his third or fourth song, Matthews launched into Four Horsemen, which has been described as an acid-rock version of the hair-raising prophecies of the 6th chapter of the book of Revelation. Festival promoters were reportedly shocked by Matthews’ electric guitar-oriented, rock ‘n roll presentation. Hearing what they took to be “demonic music,” they cut the power to the stage mid-song, ending Matthews’ set and unwittingly creating an iconic moment in the annals of Christian rock history...and not in a good way. 

Park Smith gave this account: "As I recall, we were up front, right of stage and Randy got up with his band. I believe that his band weren't Christians and so there was some concern about him playing in the first place. Christian rock back then was just coming on strong. The 2nd Chapter of Acts really pushed the limits - especially with The Devil Lost Again which has some Deep Purple-like bass sounds. Randy Matthews got up and started wailing out some great tunes but, lo and behold, the stage went silent! No one really knew what happened for sure but what was going around at the time were two things (both of which are only 'hearsay' from at that concert). The first was that one of his band members was mimicking masturbation in the mic while playing. The second was that the organizers were still quite conservative and the style of music was well out of their boundaries. It was quite sad and I heard that it hurt Randy quite a lot."

Well, I'd never heard the masturbation thing. That's a new one! But it wouldn't shock me if some really high-strung, uptight people thought that might be what they were seeing or hearing. I traveled, played and sang in bands during my youth. We had a woman in Pennsylvania walk out of one of our concerts. On the way out, she complained loudly to our sound man, "I came to church tonight, not to a night club!" There were some church folks in South Carolina who complained that we were (in their eyes) "rubbing all over each other" while we played our songs "like a bunch of New York homosexuals." A state youth director in Alabama shut us down because of what he perceived as "space sounds" coming out of our synthesizers and electronic percussion. Another youth pastor required my drummer brother to remove his leather fingerless gloves before the concert because "they look like something gang members might wear." So, yes, it's entirely plausible that some people at Jesus '74 absolutely freaked out, thinking they saw and heard things that existed only in the inner recesses of their fertile imaginations.

The experience was chronicled in Pennsylvania Song, the 3rd track on side two of Randy Matthews’ 1975 Eyes to the Sky album…

Twenty-five thousand people on a Pennsylvania hill
The boys and me together for the first time, if you will
Shoutin’ glory hallelujah
Praise the Lord, the King of Kings
Out of twenty-five thousand people
You could hear the songs we sing

They came by car and camper
They came by foot and plane
They came by helicopter
They came in Jesus’ name
For two glorious days, they sang the praise of the resurrection
But in four short songs they tried, convicted, had our crucifixion

I don’t claim to be a martyr though I pray to be a saint
As the dogs ran in I crippled and bent, my knees fell weak with pain

You pulled the plug and drained my soul
But I know I left a ring
Around the tub of tradition
I saw some dance and sing

As you might imagine, it’s a somewhat angry, full-on rock song, drenched in fuzzy electric guitars.

The song fades with Matthews defiantly singing, Keep on rockin’ and-a rollin’…

The Jesus ’74 incident left a mark. Matthews continued to sing and record, but some say his attitude toward and distrust of the ‘suits and ties’ behind the music business and organized religion affected him greatly.

Interestingly, Randy Matthews had little in common with the West Coast Jesus People, with their drug testimonies and ocean water baptisms. He was born in 1950 to a Midwestern family of at least 5 ordained ministers. His dad, Monty, was a founding member of a Southern Gospel quartet called The Jordanaires, a group that eventually enjoyed a modicum of fame backing up a young rock ‘n roller named Elvis Presley. So Randy naturally gravitated toward music. While a high school student in Lamar, Missouri, he sang in a Gospel quartet called The Zionaires. By his own account, Randy Matthews just didn’t quite fit in with the whole Southern Gospel scene. “I just sang that type of music,” Matthews explained to CCM magazine, “because my minister had convinced me that this was the only style of music that God would honor.” As Lee Corso would say, not so fast.

While attending Ozark Bible College in Joplin, Missouri, Matthews made friends with Noel Scott and Charlene Munger; the trio became excited about something new -- using folk music to communicate a Christian message. Randy began writing folk songs on his acoustic guitar that shared the message of Jesus. He would sing his songs and entertain audiences in coffeehouses and on street corners. This son of a Jordanaire was on his way to making a considerable musical mark of his own, sharing the Gospel in his own inimitable way.  

Randy Matthews was truly a pioneer, a founding father (if you will) of Gospel rock and roll. He is credited with some important “firsts” which we will explore in detail in future posts.

But for now let’s return to Jesus ’74 in Mercer, PA. Determining exactly what happened after the infamous unplugging is very difficult. It’s been written and reported that Matthews and his band were literally driven from the stage and chased by the crowd. Randy has said that he remembers trying to climb a fence, but then blacked out and later awakened in a hotel room with ripped clothing. 

In his book The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, author Mark Allan Powell likens the unplugging of Randy Matthews to the booing of Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

Powell notes that “in short order, the sort of electric rock Matthews had sought to introduce to the Pennsylvania crowd would carry the day and the people who thought that God could only honor folk music would be lumped in the same category as those whose tiny little God could only work through quartets.”

Whatever transpired in the initial aftermath of The Incident, the subsequent rumors and innuendo did a lot of damage. Matthews later told CCM magazine, “That one situation wiped out everything for me.”
It may have seemed that way to Randy Matthews at the time – and he did lose concert bookings and was dropped from the Skynyrd/ZZ Top tour – but he continued to release critically acclaimed albums over the next few years and had a meaningful concert ministry going forward. Which leads us to the subject of this post.  

My introduction to Eyes to the Sky came via a 2-record compilation set titled Jubilation, Too! The track Guardian Angel was included on that various artists’ treasure trove, and it was a winner. Written by Matthews and sung with his trademark growl, it’s reminiscent of an old Negro spiritual, at least in the way the song is constructed. It’s got a smooth rock groove and contains some tasteful guitar parts. And lyric lines like these were somewhat poignant in light of the earlier incident in Pennsylvania…

My guardian angel has been fightin’ for me
And things’ll be better, ooh, you just wait, you’ll see

My freedom’s comin’
It’s comin’ in its own time
So me and Jesus, ooh, we’re gonna make it just fine

It’s always darkest before the dawn
I’ve heard that song and dance before like you
It’s over, what’s done is done
Forget the mistakes, remember the rest

Eyes to the Sky was produced by Austin Roberts, an interesting character in his own right. Roberts had found success writing music for Saturday morning television cartoons (Scooby Doo and Josie & the Pussycats) and scored a huge hit with a country tear-jerker called Rocky. His main claim to fame in Christendom were the Sonlight Orchestra albums and a decidedly ambitious hard rock musical called Eight Days: A Personal Journey. 

A rollicking testimony song called It Took a Carpenter kicked off side one of Eyes to the Sky. It was co-written by Matthews, Roberts and Kim Rose. 

Next, the classic Oh My gets the full studio treatment. Matthews could write about the darker side of life in a way that came off as completely authentic despite his upbringing. Lyrics like these were pure gold:

Oh, my
If hell is any hotter

then I don’t want to die

Oh my
If Heaven’s any higher,

then Lord let me fly

Gave you my rhythm
You gave me Your rhyme
Set my feet dancin’ in 4/4 time
I heard Your Gospel
Played rock and roll
The dance is over
Where’d the good times go?

I wore Your t-shirt down streets of shame
In darkened corners, I lit Your flame
I talked with junkies, Lord
And I ate with whores
I stuck Your stickers on barroom doors

Paid in Full, composed by Austin Roberts and Kim Rose, was a nod back to Mathews’ gospel quartet days. The subject matter was the price that Jesus paid for us all…but this one should’ve been pitched to the Oak Ridge Boys.

There’s a Shadow Passing Over the Land was written by Austin Roberts with help from John Reese. It reminds me of a protest song that could’ve been recorded by Matthews’ gravelly-voiced compatriot, Barry McGuire

Matthews would pen all of the album’s remaining songs.

Another classic, Wounded Warrior, closes out side one. Like Oh My, Wounded Warrior was first introduced on the double live album Now Do You Understand. The studio version loses some of the immediacy but it’s nice to hear the tune rounded out with Jerry Carrigan’s drums, Billy Pruett’s flute (recorder?) and what I would call ‘earthy’ or ‘organic’ instrumentation.

Oh wounded warrior
You’ve been here before
Hey wounded warrior
On the run before
When wells run dry the world stands still
Those who walk must crawl
Living waters flowing still
Enough for one and all

Oh wounded warrior
Dying for the right side
Bleedin’ in the sand
Love is a white dove flyin’ just above you
Reachin’ down its hand
Though you have hated Him
Though you have murdered him
He loves, He understands
And He wants to save His people
From cryin’, lyin’, dyin’ in the sand

And has the eagle left its mark on you
Those crimson-bannered soldiers ‘neath the cross are few
Late at night war dogs bark
Beggars are comin’ to town
Some in tags and some in rags
Some in velvet gowns

The song’s ending was quintessential Matthews and unlike anything else being recorded in CCM at the time.

Eyes to the Sky was recorded at Creative Workshop by Billy Puett and engineered by Brent Maher (who went on to engineer and produce huge hits for the likes of Elvis, Olivia Newton-John, the Judds, and countless others). Kim Rose arranged the songs and Billy Ray Hearn served as Executive Producer. The album employed some of Nashville’s top session players, including bassist Joe Osborn, Ron Oates on keys, percussionist Farrell Morris, and guitarists Steve Gibson, Billy Sanford, and Reggie Young. Backing vocals were supplied by Matthews, Roberts, Rose, Bergen White, and Buzz Cason.

The album cover was designed by Small Wonder Studio and featured an original painting by J.T. Morrow. In the painting, Matthews is pictured as a modern-day version of the prophet Elijah, being fed by ravens. The symbolism (a banished prophet being cared for by God while he flees his oppressors) wasn’t lost on many.

Side two begins with the classic (albeit somewhat controversial) Captain. The songs opens as an acoustic piano-based ballad but builds to a dramatic crescendo on the choruses:

I sail in Your wisdom
I live in Your shadow
Oh, my Captain
Oh, my Captain
Captain Jesus

After the aforementioned Guardian Angel and Pennsylvania Song comes In the Morning. It’s a sobering, haunting ballad…and another song that was first recorded on the 1975 live album. This is another track that is very different from the standard CCM fare of the mid-70s. Matthews possessed an awesome rock voice, but he was also a poet. His poetry often went to very dark places, shining a light on an often seedy underbelly of society…encouraging engagement with the neglected and forgotten.

 In the morning when day is dawning
And the bees fly high from their hive
And the honey starts pouring
Don’t you follow the hungry flies
To fill their belly
Why they soon as well be
Just as dead as they were when their eyes were blind

And it’s your choice
You’re either up or down
Lift your voice
Make a hallelujah sound

Eyes to the Sky concludes with the song that caused all hell to break loose at Jesus ’74. Lyrical imagery from the book of Revelation is accompanied by a hard rock beat on Four Horsemen. Clavinet and fuzzy guitars carry the song while Matthews’ growls and screams can be heard off in the distance. 

Hard rock songs like Four Horseman would eventually be much more commonplace within CCM. Petra’s Come and Join Us was on its way, while Resurrection Band and Servant were just around the corner. But Randy Matthews got there first. He took the arrows. That’s what pioneers do.

A consummate entertainer and effective communicator, Matthews was one of the most important of Gospel rock and roll’s early practitioners. There are many things we love about him…his down-and-dirty, blues-inflected rock ‘n roll…an amazing voice that sounded as though he gargled with gasoline…his brilliant comic timing…his endearing, vulnerable persona…and his uncanny ability to have an audience laughing hysterically one moment and silently weeping the next. 

Randy went on to record five more albums spaced out over the next 13 years or so. He was honored with an opening slot on a national White Heart tour around 1990 and inclusion in 1997’s “First Love,” an audio/video documentary featuring Jesus Music pioneers. But it still feels like he hasn’t gotten his due. 

If it were somehow possible for you or me to deliver a heartfelt apology to Randy Matthews on behalf of our misguided brothers and sisters who behaved badly in Mercer, Pennsylvania in 1974...if that could somehow erase the slate and make things right…we’d do it in a heartbeat. 

I know I would.