I was in Raleigh, North Carolina a couple weeks ago and heard more bluegrass music in five days than some people hear in a lifetime. I listened to new artist showcases, went to the IBMA Awards Show and caught most of the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival which boasted more than 70 bands on a dozen or so different stages. I came home on Sunday wiped out and completely full of bluegrass music which I let spill out on my radio show that evening.
No need for any more live bluegrass for a while, right?
Not so fast, banjo breath. The following Wednesday night the Earls of Leicester appeared at the Belly Up Tavern and I had tickets complements of the venue. My wife Marci and I went with our friends Rick and Patty Kirby and had a blast. As Lester Flatt might say, “Goodness gracious, it was good!” The band is the brainchild of Jerry Douglas, who normally performs with “Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.” But Jerry wanted to do a tribute album to the band that set his world on fire as a teenager, so he created the Earls of Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) with some of the top musicians in bluegrass music (Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp, Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman and Johnny Warren, whose father played fiddle with Flatt and Scruggs.) They dress in period costumes and mimic the mannerisms and choreography of the Hall of Fame band.
The concert was packed with bluegrass fans and the Earls transported us back about 50 years with a near-perfect set of music that Lester and Earl and the rest of the Foggy Mountain Boys would have played were they still alive. I was in the audience when Flatt and Scruggs played Russ Auditorium in San Diego back in 1968, just a few months before they broke up for good. I was lucky to see them then and I was lucky to see the Earls of Leicester on Wednesday night. My understanding is that this band is a project band that is touring in support of the new album for a few months, and then it will be over. All of these musicians have successful careers of their own which they will resume once this tour is completed. According to O’Brien, they are booked through March of 2015 and will also play MerleFest in May.
I spent some time backstage with Jerry Douglas before the concert and asked him a few questions which he patiently and courteously answered into my digital recorder. I played that interview on my radio show Sunday night October 12. To hear Jerry talk about the Earls of Leicester as well as his newly released album with Rob Ickes and the late Mike Auldridge called “Three Three Bells,” click here.
For the past twenty-five years or so I’ve made my annual pilgrimage to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “World of Bluegrass” trade show which started out in 1988 in Owensboro, Kentucky, then moved to Louisville, then to Nashville, and then last year moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where the whole city became the venue. Attendance numbers exploded for the weekend “Wide Open Bluegrass Festival” with some estimates topping 200,000. I have no idea how many people were there in reality but the crowds were definitely impressive. I could tell I wasn’t in San Diego anymore. It’s hard to attract 200 to a bluegrass event in San Diego … although it happens from time to time.
I do miss the good old days of Owensboro when the conference was smaller and it was possible to hang out in the hotel lobby with people like Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and Doc Watson. But the excitement of Raleigh and the chance to reconnect with so many bluegrass music friends always makes the trip worthwhile.
For seven years I co-produced the annual IBMA Awards Show which is held this year on Thursday night, October 2nd in Raleigh’s very impressive Performing Arts Center. I’m no longer involved in the production of the show but I look forward to it every year. This Sunday night on my radio program, I’ll be presenting music by all the nominees for awards (or at least as many as I can get into a two-hour show).
If you are a fan of bluegrass music, IBMA is definitely something to put on your bucket list. I’m grateful I still get to go after all these years!
A couple of weeks ago, somebody asked me how long I had been doing my radio show on KSON and I told them 38 years and counting. That was followed by the comment, “Wow, that’s a lot of radio shows! Do you know how many?” And I was stumped.
So I got out the calculator (and a calendar) and started adding up all those Sunday nights beginning with show #1 on March 7, 1976 until now, factoring in a short break in 1989. That was the year when the original radio station KSON-AM 1240 was folded into the emerging powerhouse KSON-FM 97.3. All of the airstaff at KSON-AM was released of their duties including me. The Bluegrass Special was off the air for about two months before I was offered a two hour slot on Sunday nights which is where it has been ever since.
I had to look at the calendar for each year beginning with 1976 because not every year has the same number of Sundays in it. I counted all the Sundays in each year, subtracted 8 weeks during 1989 and worked my way up through the year 2014 to last Sunday night’s program which turns out to be show number 1994.
So that means my 2000th radio show will take place on Sunday night, October 19th!
Okay, let’s see. Multiply 2000 radio shows times an average of 30 songs per Sunday … plus 13 years when the show was three hours long … that works out to be a total of about 70,000 bluegrass songs played on the radio over the past 38 years.
I wonder how many times I played Foggy Mountain Breakdown?
A little over five years ago I accepted a staff position at College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego with the title Pastor to Generations. I was not a member of CABC at the time, but I knew of it. It was one of Southern California’s original megachurches. Sadly it went through some tough times and there was quite a bit of turmoil, division, staff turnover and a huge decline in numbers. Once a church of more than 4000 attendees on a given Sunday, it was down to about 600 or so when I joined the staff.
CABC never had a Pastor to Generations before. We invented the title and to this day, most people have no idea what I do. I explain my job by saying that I help promote and facilitate intergenerational discipleship—that is, I try to help older generations pass their faith on to younger generations. This is a key part of our senior pastor’s vision to unify the church, strengthen families and make more and better disciples. I spend most of my time coming up with and implementing programs to encourage and train parents and bring the generations together.
This has not been an easy job. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. And after five years, I wish I had a little more results to show for it. I wish I could report that CABC has become one big happy family and that all the older people love the young people and vice versa. I wish I could report that the majority of parents are making disciples of their kids. I wish I could report that the declining numbers have stopped. I can’t report any of those things. Despite our best efforts, progress has been extremely slow and at times seems to be stuck in reverse. Too many people still don’t get it and others just don’t want it. Discouragement pops up like wildfires. I’m coming to realize that results in generational ministry are no less elusive than they were when I was in youth ministry. I always said that youth ministry is a lot like Sequoia farming and apparently the same is true in generational ministry. I have a feeling that it’s going to take a lot longer than five years to see the vision for intergenerational discipleship truly take hold and produce health and growth at CABC.
But wait a minute. Some good things have happened over the past five years. When I compare where we were then with where we are today, I do see something that looks like results—maybe even something that looks like success! I see parents and kids worshipping together in the same space at the same time every Sunday. I see people of all ages coming out for our weekly beach nights at La Jolla Shores. I see a number of families, young and old people serving together in Mexico on a mission trip. I see almost half our church showing up for an intergenerational retreat focused on community-building. I see dozens of parents attending a 12-week Spiritual Parenting class (the video series featuring Michelle Anthony). I see our church adopting a new children’s and youth ministry curriculum called tru (Cook Publishing) which practically requires parent involvement. These things could not be seen five years ago.
So I feel better now. These are baby steps, to be sure, but they are signs of life. They may not produce the kind of results that satisfy the bean counters and naysayers, but they are all good things and have moved us a little closer to becoming the church that God wants us to be. As someone smarter than me once said, “We aren’t called to be successful, just faithful.” I am trusting God that his call upon my life will produce good fruit in his time if not mine.
How do you think results should be measured in generational ministry?
Last month our senior pastor Carlton Harris preached a vision-casting sermon based on Ephesians 2:14-22. This passage stresses how Christ created a new humanity out of two cultures (the Jews and the Gentiles) that were previously incompatible with each other. “For he himself is our peace who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … (v. 14).”
College Avenue Baptist Church is strategically situated in a part of San Diego where many cultures, not just two, converge. We have people from almost every country in the world living within a few blocks of the church. So a major part of our church’s vision is to be cross-cultural, to find ways to “make disciples of the nations” right here at home.
In his sermon, Pastor Harris went on to apply this passage in another way. He challenged our church to not only become more cross-cultural, but more “cross-generational” as well. He emphasized that being cross-generational is very different from being multi-generational. Any church can be multi-generational, he said, but it takes a special kind of church to be cross-generational. In a cross-generational church, the dividing wall of hostility is broken down between the generations and these very different cultures (young and old) are not only at peace with each other but actively participating together in worship, community and ministry. “Our aim is for College Avenue Baptist Church to be a cross-generational church” he emphasized, and he gave examples of how we are striving to do that in our programs and ministries.
This is the vision that drew me to CABC five years ago. I have been serving the church since then as Pastor to Generations, doing my best to help bring that vision to fruition. We have accomplished a few things but still have a long way to go.
I was intrigued by Pastor Harris’ use of the term “cross-generational” to describe what we are doing at the church. For years I have used the term intergenerational to say essentially the same thing. Others have used it too. In their book Intergenerational Christian Formation, authors Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross take several pages to discuss how the term intergenerational is defined and why it is preferred over terms like multi-generational (for the same reasons Pastor Harris pointed out) and transgenerational, which some people use. But they never consider the term cross-generational at all.
I think cross-generational has a nice ring to it–especially when used in the church. What do you think?
Jeff Palmberg is a pastor in Washington who also likes to draw caricatures. Occasionally he randomly caricature-bombs people just to make them smile. I certainly got a kick out of the one he sent to me.
If you would like Jeff to do a custom caricature for you (or someone you know), he has a Facebook page called JP’s Custom Caricatures. Check it out.
Our pastor is fond of saying that Sunday morning begins Saturday night. I learned that same idea as a child growing up in a home where we always took Saturday night baths, shined our shoes, pressed our shirts and generally got everything ready for church the next morning. I no longer concern myself with pressed shirts and shined shoes but I do at least try to get into bed at a decent hour on Saturday night so that there will be less chance of my falling asleep during the pastor’s sermon in the morning. And my evening prayers always include a prayer for the pastor and the other worship leaders on Sunday morning. I pray also for my own heart, that I can set aside my expectations of what worship ought to be and enter fully into the singing, the sermon and the other elements of worship. You see, that has been a big problem for me. I often have difficulty entering fully into worship because of my expectations for what worship ought to be. This is not a criticism of my church or any other church. It is just a recognition that my expectations have become problematic, a real hindrance to me. Here are some of them:
I expect that worship leaders will direct my attention to God, not to themselves.
I expect that worship will not be a performance by the singers and musicians no matter how talented they are. I expect that the congregation is not an audience and that the sanctuary or “worship center” is not a concert hall. At least, not on Sunday mornings.
I expect that most of the songs and hymns will be songs that I am familiar with, or at least songs that have singable keys and somewhat predictable melody lines.
I expect that when we DO sing a song I’m familiar with (like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) it will still have the same words and melody I remember.
I expect that when the worship leader introduces a new song, he or she will take some time to help the congregation learn it rather than just showing off how well he or she knows it.
I expect that the songs we sing will be about God, not so much about me.
I expect the songs we sing to have good (or at least acceptable) theology.
I expect the songs we sing to have inspiring lyrics. Songs that include words like “wanna” and “woahhhhh” don’t inspire too much.
I expect that the song lyrics will be available to me and others in the congregation in some form or another at the appropriate time, not five seconds after the lyrics have been sung.
I expect that the worship leader understands that not everyone can remain standing for more than 15 or 20 minutes if they are over the age of 30.
I’ll stop there. Those are just some of the annoying expectations I have of worship which sometimes become stumbling blocks for me. It’s hard to give them up, but maybe that’s what I need to do.
Let me just say that most Sundays I am able to worship without my expectations ruining things for me. I’m grateful for the talented worship leaders who serve in our church week after week and do the best they can to provide a worship experience that includes and involves everyone. I do look forward to attending worship each week and most of the time it’s easy to focus on God and worship with the rest of our congregation.
But now and then, those annoying expectations rear their ugly heads.
What are your thoughts? What are some of your expectations in worship?
On Wednesday morning April 30th, Marci and I woke up to discover that our giant 100-year-old (or more) eucalyptus tree in our back yard had fallen down. We assumed it must have fallen during the night, although we didn’t hear a thing. Turns out it fell down sometime during the day before and we just didn’t notice it the night before. One of our neighbors told us it went down around 10am on Tuesday and it made plenty of noise.
The tree is (was) over 150 feet tall and very bushy. Apparently there was some root rot going on and the tree just couldn’t stand up to the wind storm that we had on Tuesday (“Santa Ana” winds). Fortunately, the tree fell away from the house, but it landed squarely in our swimming pool. It crushed the shed containing all our pool equipment and demolished most of the landscaping in our back yard.
I tried to climb up on the fallen tree just to assess the damage and ended up falling into the tree and cutting my leg badly. I went to urgent care and got it stitched up and decided to call in some professionals to see if they could remove the tree.
Two weeks and several thousand dollars later, our barren back yard looks like a bomb went off back there … but at least the tree is gone and I can get to the pool which is now a mosquito-breeding swamp. I’ve called some expert pool people to help me clean it up. It is really a mess.
When I was finally able to get into the pool shed, I discovered that all the pool equipment was destroyed completely as I expected, but a stack of plastic lawn chairs survived. I removed them from what was left of the shed and put them on the concrete deck next to our swamp. “We can save these chairs, at least,” I thought to myself.
Not more than two hours later, I was in the house when I heard another crashing sound in the back yard. I ran out and discovered that a large branch from another eucalyptus tree (which had been sideswiped by the first tree) had fallen to the ground … right on top of those plastic lawn chairs. I have to admit … that made me laugh.
So, I am learning … more and more these days … that you can’t get too attached to your possessions or your money. God gives and he takes away. All things are in his hands and no matter what happens, we can always give thanks. Right how we are just so thankful that the tree didn’t fall towards the house.
If you would like to see some more photos of our “great tree disaster,” click here.
I just finished reading Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilbum and I must say I hated reaching the book’s end, not just because it ends with Cash’s death but because it was such a terrific read. Hilburn is a wonderful writer (music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times for over 30 years) and he really knows how to tell a story. From what I understand, this book is the definitive biography of Cash (over 600 pages long) and it is brutally honest, well-researched and intimately detailed. It’s not a celebrity tell-all book that makes you feel like you need a shower after reading it, however. Hilburn wrote it with the full cooperation of Cash’s children as well as the Man in Black himself who told the author that “he wanted people to know his entire story—especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments—because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed regardless how badly they had stumbled.”
Mr. Hilburn, himself a secular journalist, weaves Cash’s faith in Christ—inconsistent and contradictory as it was—into the storyline throughout the book. It begins with a picture of young J.R. (he didn’t become “Johnny” until after he started making records) attending church with his family “every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Unlike other kids who complained about having to go to church, he looked forward to the music, the sermons and the sense of community.” Hilburn writes that although Cash’s pledge of fidelity in “I Walk the Line” (“Because you’re mine … I walk the line”) was undeniably inspired by his love for his first wife, Vivian (whom he would eventually leave for June Carter), he adds that Cash often spoke of the song as an expression of his allegiance to Christ as well. In fact, Cash called the song “his first gospel hit.” I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times and never made that connection. The book is full of interesting revelations like that.
Johnny Cash has become much better known for his dark side, however—his addictions, his moral failures, his frequent run-ins with the law, and his famous “one-finger salute” photo that went viral after it was featured on a full-page ad in Billboard magazine. According to Hilburn, the photo was taken at Cash’s 1969 concert at San Quentin prison. Apparently, Cash was fed up with the TV crew following him around and decided to send them a little message. The subsequent photo of a snarling Cash flashing his middle finger at the camera was acquired years later by Cash’s record producer Rick Rubin who decided to use it on the Billboard ad in 1998 after Cash’s album “Unchained” won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album. The caption read “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” (The joke, of course, was that country radio and the Nashville music establishment snubbed the album altogether.) “Cash was uneasy about the ad,” writes Hilburn, “so he called Billy Graham to ask for advice.” Graham’s response? According to Cash, “He didn’t tell me what to do or not to do, just that he wouldn’t judge me either way. After my talk with him, I prayed about it and called Rick back. I gave him the go-ahead.”
I have to say that my opinion of Billy Graham went up after I read that story.
One reason I wanted to read this book is because I have had a couple of personal encounters with Johnny Cash and actually got to work with him when I was in the group Brush Arbor. We played a couple of concerts with Cash in 1973 and we also appeared on a TV special that he did for NBC. I must admit that I checked the table of contents of Hilburn’s book to see if by any chance we got a mention. We didn’t.
We didn’t deserve one of course. That TV show which aired in January 1974 wasn’t a significant part of Cash’s legacy, but it certainly was a highlight of Brush Arbor’s career. We flew from San Diego to New York for the taping of the show which was done at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. In a classic case of being too self preoccupied to pay much attention to what was going on around me, I’m sure I spent most of the time in our dressing room practicing banjo rolls rather than soaking in the part of history I was getting to witness up close and personal. Besides Cash and his ensemble (the Tennessee Three, the Statler Brothers, June Carter, The Carter Family, Mother Maybelle Carter, his daughters Rosanne and Rosie, etc.), Bill Monroe was on the show as was Tanya Tucker, Larry Gatlin and Carl Perkins. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished I knew then what I know now. And I also wish I my camera hadn’t been stolen on that trip. I left it in our dressing room while we were taping the show and when I got back, it was gone. So I have no pictures of our time in New York City with Johnny Cash.
But I have some good memories, like the night we went out to dinner with Cash and his family at a famous Italian Restaurant in New York called Mama Leone’s. There were about 15 of us as I recall at the table: Cash and his family, Larry Gatlin and us. After we ordered our meal, I got up to use the restroom. At the back of the restaurant where the restrooms were located, one of the waiters asked me (in a strong Italian accent), “Excuse-a me. Is-a that-a Johnny Carson at your table?” I thought that was hilarious and when I got back to the table I remember Cash got a kick out of it too.
My camera may have been stolen, but thanks to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, I do have video of the performance we did on the that TV Show:
And here’s a photo of us with Cash that was taken by our manager Dan McKinnon. Speaking of one finger salutes, it appears that I (yes, that’s me in the upper left hand corner) was sending an unintentional message of my own.
Back to the book. One aspect of Cash’s life that resonated strongly with me throughout the book was Cash’s determination to keep going, his perseverance. He was strongly committed to his music, his family and his faith and he never gave up on any of them even though he failed miserably and made disastrous personal and professional decisions. He never gave up on his musical career even after it had deteriorated to the point that he was in the mid 1990′s performing in Branson to half-empty showrooms of disinterested blue-haired tourists. I remember seeing Johnny Cash around that same time with a bewildered look on his face standing in a small exhibit hall table at the Christian Booksellers Convention, hawking Bibles for Thomas Nelson. How the mighty have fallen, I thought at the time. But Cash kept on going. Late in life, he finally kicked his pill habit and his sagging career was ultimately revived by rap producer Rick Rubin, the man responsible for some of Cash’s best work, including “Hurt,” the haunting song (and video) that introduced Cash to a whole new generation of listeners. Suddenly he became an international star again.
On a side note, I think it would be wonderful if everyone had a Rick Rubin in his or her life—someone younger and smarter who could bring the best out in us when we get old and stuck.
Rejuvenated as he was, he continued to write songs and record through heart surgeries, neurological problems, a damaged jaw and failing eyesight. He even continued working after his beloved wife June Carter passed away in May 2003. He died four months later at the age of 71. By then, according to one estimate, doctors had him on some 30 medications.
His son, John Carter, later said: “I believe the thing about Dad that people find so easy to relate to is that he was willing to expose his most cumbersome burdens, his most consuming darknesses. He wasn’t afraid to go through the fire and say: ‘I fell down. I’ve made mistakes. I’m weak. I hurt.’ But in doing so, he gained some sort of defining strength. Every moment of darkness enabled him to better see the light.”