Sunday, April 29, 2007

Michael English in concert!

Tonight, I drove to the other side of town to see Michael English in concert. (It was actually close to the Stamps-Baxter end of town.)

The concert was at Una Baptist Church. I'd never been there before, and once I got in the area, I had that uniquely Nashville problem: I hit a strip of churches, all next door to each other, all with very similar names. I only had to go to 2 before finding the right one, but I did end up with a very nice invitation to a Spanish fellowship night.

Una Baptist Church is quite beautiful, with a not-too-large sanctuary, perfect for an intimate concert. And I just need to get this out right away: Michael English has one of the most amazing voices I've ever heard. I'd heard recordings, but nothing prepared me for this live performance. It's a really incredible instrument. It's strong and soulful, and he has a very precise control over it. Very, very impressive!

He started with a few songs, and then moved on to "Mary, Did You Know." (Michael was the first to record this song.) He introduced his family, and his 3-year-old little girl nearly stole the show with her rendition of "You are my Sunshine". He does a real mix of southern gospel, black gospel, CCM, and hymns that have been all funked up. Love those hymns!

In some ways, he wasn't what I expected. His voice is incredible, but I thought his stage presence would be more polished. Instead, he was a guy who just told stories about his life. He talked about some of the problems of his past, and how he is now choosing to approach life with complete honesty. When he brought up guest soloist, Christopher Lee, for a song, he admitted that part of the reason for having a guest soloist was because he needed a break. He said that his body can't sing as high or long as it used to, so now he takes a little break in his shows. How many musicians would admit that?

An honest Christian musician. What a novel concept!

After seeing the 'mix' of Christian musicians I saw this week at GMA, Michael was a reminder that brilliant talent is best used for God when used with genuine intentions and an honest spirit. At one point he talked about his resume. Years ago, he would tell people he had a brilliant resume. Now, he says, his resume is terrible, but he is better equipped for the job of ministering the Gospel than ever before.

Isn't that the goal?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

GMA Week - Day 5 & The Dove Awards!

What a long and incredible day!

This is the final day for the GMA Week seminars, and we started bright and early with "Sole Story, Soul Art". Al Andrews gave us the template of Innocence, Tragedy, Contending, and Resolve to study the story of the Bible, and then, the stories of individual people. All our lives can be told through this pattern, and when we understand this, it can help us to better understand other people. When turned on ourselves, it can also be used to improve and affect our art and ministry. Very intriguing workshop!

Next, came our keynote speaker - Max Lucado! This session started with a worship session lead by Joel Engle. Joel has a fantastic testimony of losing his parents early in his life, being raised by his grandparents, losing them, and then being adopted by a family when he was 16 years old.

Max Lucado spoke on the theme of his latest book, "Facing Your Giants". What a gentle and wonderful speaker! Some speakers like to bounce all over the stage to get your attention, but Max is passionate and calm. His theme was based on the five stones that David chose to fight Goliath, and how we have five "stones" we can use to fight our giants. Brilliant and wonderful!

Then it was home for a quick nap and a make-over, cause tonight was...

The Dove Awards! The Doves are the Grammys of Christian music. I've seen the awards on TV, but this was my first ever chance to see them in person. Tickets are pricey, but we discovered we could go for free if we volunteered as seat-fillers. In retrospect, this was a win-lose situation - 'win' because we saw the main show for free, but 'lose' because we had to wait outside for a long time, so we missed the whole pre-show.

The pre-show has some performances, but most importantly, this is when the bulk of the awards is given out. And these are the kind of awards that really interest us, such as 'Song of the Year' and 'Album of the Year' in different genres like Southern Gospel or Inspirational.

The main part of the show is the stuff filmed for television. As seat-fillers, it was our role to fill unsold seats on the main level, or to fill seats for artists as they went on stage to perform or give out awards. At first, we were seated right in the back. But the people next to us (also Canadians!) had a writer friend who was nominated for an award, but she didn't want to sit up front. So they asked us to switch! We got to sit in Row F, which was one row away from the Crabb Family, across the aisle from David Phelps. Whoo-hoo!

The show started with a huge performance featuring Toby Mac, Kirk Franklin, American Idol's Mandisa, and a killer gospel choir. Awesome! But as soon as the song was done, we took our first 'commercial break', and the tone of the evening was set. Since the show is taped for TV, it runs just like a TV set. There would be a relatively short burst of excitement while we'd have one song or one award, and then we'd take a break for them to reset the cameras and set pieces. As a live show, it was hard to build on the excitement because we were stopping so much. The pre-show started at 5:30 and the show finally ended at 11:00. But in between, we had some awesome performances!

With only a few exceptions, I'd never seen any of these people perform live, so each performance was a real treat. Steven Curtis Chapman, Mark Hall (Casting Crowns), Mac Powell (Third Day) and Brian Littrell (former Backstreet Boy) performed as a group. Mercy Me was fantastic! Newcomer Aaron Shust held his own as the only singer-songwriter on the bill, and walked away with several awards.

Gerald and I were both blown away by acapella harmony group Take 6. Brian Free and Assurance raised the roof with James Cleveland's "King Jesus". (Love that song!) Chris Tomlin and friends did an incredibly moving performance of his version of Amazing Grace, from the film of the same name. Chris was introduced by teenage activist, Zach Hunter, who is working to abolish slavery in our modern world. Did you know there are 27 million people still living in slavery today? How can that still be happening?

The show ended with gospel music history. As we all know, the Crabb Family has decided to retire this August. Tonight was their final Dove Award performance as a group. They did a rocked up version of "Power in the Blood", with great solos by Jason and all the instrumentalists in the band. Such a great group!

How do I feel about my GMA Week experience? Well, before I did this, I was told I would see the best and the worst of the gospel music industry this week, and that was true. I met people who were incredibly genuine and passionate about spreading the Gospel though music. And I met people who have read their own press and become seduced by the glamour of the music industry.

But overall, I'm so glad I went. I think I got a really good sense of the music industry in Nashville. I learned a lot about the business of touring, promotion, and digital music. I met some wonderful people from all around the world. I learned that Southern Gospel really is the smallest part of the Christian music industry. And I heard many words of brilliance and wisdom.

But most importantly, I have been reminded that the industry must be a tool and not a goal. For...

I'd rather have Jesus than men's applause.
I rather be faithful to His dear cause.
I'd rather have Jesus than worldwide fame.
I'd rather be true to His holy name.

(Rhea F. Miller, 1922)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

GMA Week - Day 4

This morning started bright and early with a session entitled "Still Standing". Bishop Paul Morton had a thriving ministry in New Orleans, until Katrina hit. His story of survival through the storms of life was nothing short of inspiring. He illustrated his talk with stories from the Gospels of Jesus calming the storm and walking on water. The Bishop is also a singer, and he sang his new song, also named "Still Standing". He has a wonderful voice, but mostly, he just has a wonderful spirit!

The next workshop was excellent! Called "Making the Cut", it dealt with many issues surrounding getting signed to a major label. I really have no desire to get signed to a major label right now, but I still found this workshop to be invaluable. It brought up the debate of indie artist versus indie label versus major label. The panel offered a check list of things the majors look for before they sign you, such as the number of dates you're playing, the publicity you're self-generating, your fan base, etc. Even if I never try to get on a label, this checklist is a great set of goals to work towards.

Just after this workshop, I got the call from the auto shop. My tires were repaired! Translation: I didn't have to buy new tires! Whoo-hoo! Answered prayers. Picked up my car and took a little break before...

"The Power of Personal Branding" with Phil Cooke, who is definitely the single best speaker I've heard all week. I took more notes in this session than I took in first year psychology. It was incredible! Phil deals with branding in all kinds of corporations. He describes branding as 'the story behind a person, product, or service'. He gave us tonnes of advice on discovering our own uniqueness, and then building our brand around it. There was so much information, but Phil is also a dynamic speaker with lots of insight and wisdom. I tried to buy a recording of the session, but this is the one class they couldn't record. Very disappointed!

We finished with a panel of heavy weights. "Behind the Music" featured some of today's top music producers, including people who produce for Yolanda Adams, Janet Jackson, and Prince. That was all very cool, but, admittedly, I was there for Wayne Haun, who is one of the top producers in Southern Gospel. The discussion was very industry focused (as opposed to artist focused). It gave me a new perspective on the production of the music and the artist, and how that feeds back into the whole music community.

On Sunday, I said that there were 2 shows this week about which I was really excited. Well, the second one was tonight - the Southern Gospel Showcase! The evening was hosted by Michael Booth of the Booth Brothers, and it featured a large line-up. Each artist performed 2-4 songs. It was different than a fan concert - no product table, no long patter, and the only things pitched from the stage were Jesus and Compassion International. This was actually a great show for me to see. In the past year, I've been able to learn about a lot of groups through Singing News Magazine, but I've never been able to see most of them. Tonight, I got to see several groups for the first time.

The opening act was one such group - The Skyline Boys. They have a traditional sound, with a super-high tenor! Next came Mark Bishop, another Singing News discovery. Mark has great songs, and an engaging stage presence. I've seen Crystal River on a DVD, but it was great to see this young quartet carving out their own place in the Southern Gospel world. Hope's Call was another group I'd only heard about. I love their mix of Southern harmonies with bluesy, pop rhythms.

Next came SG royalty - Janet Paschal. Janet has a new album coming out, so she was previewing some new songs tonight. So charming and beautiful on stage! I'd read about the Triumphant Quartet, but you have to see them live to appreciate them. Great sound, with a really fun, and sometimes goofy, stage presence. I'd also heard of Three Bridges, but I was not prepared for this trio. They mix Southern Gospel with 'black gospel', and it's awesome! Great harmonies, great voices, and killer fun songs. Love them!

Next came someone I just admire so much: Karen Peck and New River. Karen's song choice is always great, and she's a fantastic communicator. If I was a little more country, I'd be singing her songs all the time. And, of course, I'm always biased towards sopranos. The grand finale was the Booth Brothers. Their sound just gets smoother ever time I hear them. They did a few new songs, plus "He Saw It All".

Such a fantastic celebration of Southern Gospel music. I saw some friends too, including a Stamps-Baxter friend I haven't seen for over a year. What a great night!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

GMA Week - Day 3

Tonight has ended roughly, so I may not sound very excited about my day, even though it was great. I left the conference at 6:00 to pick up Gerald so we could go to a showcase together. That's when I discovered I had, not one, but 2 flat tires! Needless to say, the evening went downhill from there. My car is at a repair place tonight, I've sat in my second tow truck in 3 weeks, and I'm in a city with no public transit. (deep breath)

... But today was excellent ...

To start the day, I attended a panel on touring. Most of the people were from Christian and crossover rock bands, but the reason I went was to hear Ronnie Booth (of The Booth Brothers). There are so few Southern Gospel people here; it's mostly CCM and rock. Most of the questions were directed at the rock dudes. When Ronnie was finally asked a question, he acknowledged that he felt a little out of place, and that 99% of the people in the room probably didn't even know who he was. When I stood for my question, I started with, "I'm a Southern Gospel girl, and I know who you are." He was so great in his answers, and said he felt hopeful that a young person wants to sing SG. We chatted for a bit after the discussion. Very kind and humble man.

I hooked up with my friend, Kimberlee, who is the organizer of CWE (Christian Women of Entertainment). We had a long leisurely lunch on Broadway, and picked up more free stuff from the exhibit hall.

This afternoon focused on the digital market, and I must say, it was a little depressing. I love holding a CD and reading the lyrics and credits in the little booklet. According to today's panel, the CD will be completely out of commission in the next 5-20 years. Maybe in 20, but I don't see it in 5. It's not that the technology won't be in place and simple to use. I just think there will still be people in 5-10 years who won't know how to download, who won't want to download, or who won't own a computer. I probably sound very old-fashioned, and I'm okay with that. I think digital downloading is pretty incredible, and I'm completely in support of adding that to the music industry. I just don't like it when technology people give off that "join the wave or you're a loser" attitude.

The afternoon ended with a really strong panel called "Blurring Genre Lines". The group was a mix of agents, managers, and artists who have experienced a lot of crossover in their careers. It was a heavy-hitting group including the Foreman brothers from Switchfoot (a crossover rock band), the senior VP from the William Morris Agency, and songwriter/music-innovator Kirk Franklin. First of all, what a great topic! And secondly, how smart of GMA to have such diversity on the panel. The information was a good mix of spiritual insights, story-telling, and just good practical advice.

After that, I left the conference, and we're back to my first paragraph. Tomorrow, I'll get a call that will either be for a reasonably priced repair, or a very expensive replacement. Praying for the first one...

Monday, April 23, 2007

GMA Week - Day 2

It's been a wickedly long day, and all I want to do is crawl into bed with the family, but I really want to get all this down. Please excuse typos and things that just don't make sense!

This morning started with a worship service for the whole conference. Ross Parsley, from Colorado Springs is not just the Senior Pastor of his church, he's also the music minister. Very impressive to see the music leader suddenly stop jamming and just start preaching. He was good, but there were so many sound issues that it just got distracting. The percussion overpowered the vocals, so you couldn't sing along. And then a very loud sound check in the next room killed almost every intimate moment in the sermon. Rough way to start the day.

After that we had a rather long break, so I wandered through the exhibit hall, filling up my free tote bag with free pens. Love free stuff!

This afternoon was awesome! We did "networking roundtables". We all sat at round dining tables in a large room, and each table had an "industry leader". This person could be an artist, booking agent, manager, radio promoter, producer, etc. We would have 20 minutes to bombard that person with every possible question we might like to ask. After 20 minutes, the industry leader would stand up and go to another table. We now had a new person to bombard with questions. My table had a publicist, a record distributor, an artist manager, an indie booking agent, and an e-newsletter developer. It was just incredible. The manager was the last one, and by that time, the other people at my table were networking amongst themselves, so I got to have her all to myself. I took tonnes of notes. This workshop also had a reception with cannoli and chocolate-covered strawberries, so this gets my vote as Best Workshop of the Week!

Right after this, we all raced down to the park across from the Country Music Hall of Fame for the Music City Walk of Fame induction ceremony. There were several people honoured, including The Crickets, Wynonna Judd, and Nashville BMI founder, Francis Preston. But I had personal interest in the other 3 honourees. Emmylou Harris is the love of my father-in-law's life (don't' worry, my mother-in-law knows). I felt I was his proxy today. Michael W. Smith was nominated, and his chosen presenter was his good buddy, Jim Caviezel (Jesus of "The Passion"!) Finally, John Hiatt. John Who? John Hiatt wrote "Have a Little Faith in Me". Gerald sang that to me constantly when we first met. It eventually become 'our song', and that was our first dance at the wedding. *sigh*

During the afternoon, I hooked up with some Write About Jesus alumni, so we all headed down to the Hard Rock Cafe for supper, and then off to the first of the evening's concerts. Hillsong United in one of the world's leaders in praise and worship music. One of the most popular praise songs ever, "Shout to the Lord", came out of their music program. Tonight, their youth band lead worship at the Ryman. I've seen them before, and for what they do, they're just fantastic. They are bringing teens and young people back to the church in droves. I can't believe I'm going to write this, but at the risk of sounding like an old lady, I just don't like loud music in worship time. I like to hear the voices of the other people singing around me. Yes, even those of you who think you can't sing. But I can never put down the incredible gift of ministry present in these young musicians. They are truly blessing so many people.

Michael W. Smith was the host of this worship time, so he came out to lead a song or 2. Then he brought out his good buddy, Jim, again! Jim Caviezel is a soft spoken and articulate man. It is clear from his demeanor why he was considered for the role of Jesus. He told some amazing (and some frightening) stories about making "The Passion of the Christ". He talked about getting the call from Mel Gibson. But most importantly, he talked about finding God while he was literally hanging on the cross. He reminded us that earthly fame is fleeting, but we have the greatest awards and rewards awaiting us in heaven.

Finally, at 9:30 tonight, we got one of the 2 shows that got me really excited. (Tuesday will be the second) The Songwriter's Showcase featured some of the top songs of the past year sung by the writers. A lot were artist co-writes, but a few were pure writer performances. The best of these was definitely my friend, Joel Lindsey, and the song I adore, "Orphans of God". I sang this song at an audition last week, so I sang it about 20 times in rehearsal last week. But tonight, it still moved me. It still gave me chills and made me want to stand up and cheer. What a great song!

The artist line-up for this show was completely impressive. One of our hosts was Mandisa (who got kicked off American Idol way before her time; what were Americans thinking?), and she sang a song off her new album. Great song, and what a set of pipes! I hadn't heard of our other host, Mark Schultz, but as soon as he started singing his song, "I Am", I recognized it from the radio. Chris Tomlin sang "Made to Worship" with his co-writers, and ended by leading us in a chorus of "How Great is Our God". Everyone sang, and people added harmonies. Awesome! Jonathan and Ginger Bond of Young Harmony sang "God's Sing God", which combined a powerful testimonies with great harmonies. There were a few bands that did acoustic versions of their songs, which was very cool. It ended with Mark Hall's "Praise You in the Storm", which I'd never heard before. (sometimes I am so out of the loop!) It's a song about giving God praise even when your life is completely falling apart. It's not just a great message, but it's a great song.

And now, tonight, I'm tired and inspired and ready for bed.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

GMA Week - Day 1

GMA is the Gospel Music Association, and this is their week in Nashville!

GMA Week is a 5 day conference for people in all areas of the gospel music industry - artists, promoters, agents, radio djs, producers ... everyone. There are workshops and special events all day, and concerts by top artists each night. The whole thing ends with a bang Wednesday with the annual Dove Awards ceremony. For the uninitiated, the Doves are the Grammys of gospel music.

I'd heard lots about GMA Week, but it was never feasible to go. But now that I'm in Nashville, it just made sense to sign up. I'm hoping to get an overview of the industry here in Nashville, and to learn about the services and options available to me as an artist.

It started bright and early this morning with registration and orientation. I'm in the "Music Professional" track, and our special track for the weekend is called "Indie Impact", focusing on the needs of the independent musician.

Our opening speaker was Christian artist, Shaun Groves. Shaun lead us in a few worship songs, and reminded us that this week must be about finding fame for God and not ourselves. The rest of the day was organized with panels of 3-4 speakers with a moderator. The panel idea was good because you got many answers to each question, but there was also a bit of rambling at times.

The first panel spoke about finding an online presence through sites like myspace. I was quite surprised that none of them knew about Shoutlife. Luckily, one of the audience members brought it up during the comment time. I can't say this was my favourite panel. The presentation was quite jumbled, and it was hard to get clear information. I have a basic knowledge of operating online, but I think a newcomer would have just been lost.

Next, we had a great panel called "Place in this World", about finding your niche. Again, a bit of rambling and storytelling, but there were some great stories, and some great advice. Denver Bierman was one of the panelists, and he has a group called the Mile High Orchestra that does Christian big band. Definitely going to check them out.

This panel also featured Tammy Trent. I first saw Tammy on 100 Huntley St, about 4 and a half years ago. She was speaking about the losing her husband, Trent, through a shocking accident. As she spoke, I realized that she had lost Trent only 3 months before I lost Steve. Our grieving time-lines were the same. I wrote her that night and told her how much it meant to me to hear her testimony. At the time, I was still so mad with God, and I was so impressed to hear how Tammy had clung to God in the same moment that I had pushed Him away. I've been on her email list ever since, and write her occasionally, and it was through Tammy that I was introduced to Shoutlife, which has been nothing but a blessing! I took a minute before the session to introduce myself to her, and to thank her for sharing her story. Such a gracious lady! Tammy Trent is a masterclass on how to treat a fan.

Next was a panel on touring. At first, I thought this might be beyond me because it seemed to be dealing with bands, but it ended up being one of my favourite panels of the day. Tara Leigh is a solo artist who tours and does all her own bookings, and she had great practical information about the ins and outs of booking yourself.

We ended with "The Long Haul" featuring artists who have built careers spanning 20 years or more. I was uber-excited about this panel because it featured the wonderful Allison Durham Speer. There were obvious lessons from each panelist about being persistent, but there was also a lot of detailed practical advice too. They recommended writing out a mission statement for our ministry, so that will be a project for me.

I met some great people today from the States, Canada, Ireland, and Poland. I heard some inspiring stories of overcoming great failures. I connected with some very interesting artists, and made plans to see some great shows.

However, I must say this, too. I was warned that GMA Week will show me the best and the worst of the industry, and my greatest annoyance in the church reared it's ugly head before the day had even begun: Denominational Snobbery. I hate hearing Christians make snide remarks about denominations that are not their own. The Devil is never happier than when we're fighting amongst ourselves.

(Must stop there. I could vent for days on this topic... and it wouldn't be pretty!)

There was a showcase tonight featuring delegates, but I was really exhausted from the past week, so I decided to head in early. Tomorrow will start at 9AM and end around midnight, and I really need my beauty sleep!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

CWE Showcase at Caffiene

Tonight, I was blessed to perform at this month's CWE (Christian Women of Entertainment) songwriter showcase. I got involved with this group in March, and I'm just loving it. There are monthly showcases, and next month, they're hosting a fellowship night.

Tonight's show was at Caffeine, which is a great cafe on Demonbreun. It was extra special to have Gerald play with me tonight, because we used to visit Caffeine on our honeymoon!

It's an intimate venue, and tonight, it was packed! Some people stayed the whole night; some came and went; but it was full for the whole show. I felt very lucky that I actually had people there to see me - 6 Shoutlife friends came to see the show! Yay, Shoutlife!

I started with "Infinitely More". Then Gerald joined me for "My Father's Arms". Then I booted Gerald off the stage so I could do "Sing Me a Song, Sing Me a Lullaby". I was happy with all the performances.

We met some great people tonight, heard some good music, and got some really wonderful feedback on the songs. But I must get some sleep tonight - GMA Week starts bright and early tomorrow morning!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Round of Pizza

Tonight marked a milestone for us - Gerald and I performed our first round together!

I think I've explained this before, but a "round" is a performance style unique to Nashville. You get 3-4 songwriters on stage at a time, sitting in a row, each with their own stool and mic. The first sings one song, the second sings one song, and so on down the row. At the end of the row, you go back to the first songwriter and go "round" again. You go round and round til everyone has done 3-4 songs. The number of songs generally equals the number of performers, but not always.

Last night's show was at Pizzereal. Yes, we performed in a pizzeria, and yes, we were actually paid in pizza. (Welcome to Nashville!) It's actually a gorgeous little place, built on the first floor of an old house in East Nashville. This was a monthly songwriter night organized by songwriter, Donna Long, who we met at Doak's party. (Who haven't we met at Doak's?)

Gerald did some of my favourites: "I'm a Real Big Fan" and "Never Learn", and we finished together with "All Her Flowers". I did "The Wedding at Cana" and Gerald accompanied me on "My Father's Arms". I also debuted a new song, "Sing Me a Song, Sing Me a Lullaby". I sang it acapella, but I think it might be nice with a light djembe under it. I was completely nervous to do something new. Unfortunately, the audience was loud when I started it, but by the end, I had their complete attention. Gerald had never heard it before, and it got good reviews from him, so that's always very satisfying.

One of the great things about rounds is that people tend to jump in and add to each other's songs with vocal harmonies or guitar leads. Obviously, I'm not going to add guitar to any one's song, but my ability to improvise harmonies is getting better by the day. In our round, we were joined by Diana Gibson-Kelly, and I felt myself humming along on her songs (beautiful melodies!), but I wasn't sure if I should sing it into the mic. I think I'm still getting used to the etiquette. She told me after that she could hear me and loved what I was doing, and that she wished I'd done it into the mic. Next time...

For now, I'm happy with another performance done, and my first round with my hubby!

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Isaacs in concert!

We are hosting our first Canadian house guests here in Nashville - my in-laws are here for a visit. But I'm very aware that we are not the only attraction here in Tennessee, for tonight, we all headed off to a very special treat - The Isaacs!

We first heard the Isaacs in the Gaither concerts, and it's always one of the highlights for us. But tonight, we got to see them in an intimate, full-length concert, and it was great.

The family has a wonderful stage presence, with lots of joking and loving, and I think a lot of that is lost in the large auditoriums. Tonight's concert was at College Heights Baptist Church in Gallatin (just outside Nashville). They had a great venue with an enthusiastic audience, and that combination led to a great show.

They have just put out a new album, so the show was a mix of classic and new material. In this intimate setting, even the old songs seemed to take on new meaning. I've heard "Yours and Mine" many times, and I always love it, but tonight I could really see the intimacy of the mother singing to her daughters, and it was just beautiful. Of course, since moving to Nashville, this song just makes me homesick...

Because it was Nashville, the audience was full of musicians, so they started pulling people up. I couldn't catch all the names, but at one point, there were 10 people on stage performing an impromptu arrangement of "In the Garden". The Florida Boys' Gene MacDonald was pulled up to sing bass, and I just love his voice! The whole song was terrific, and it received the only single song standing ovation of the night.

The whole show was awesome, and, as all great shows should be, it was inspiring. Gerald and I left hungry to play, write, and sing. And that's all we ever ask from a show.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Nashville Symphony Hymn Sing!

We're back in Nashville! We did the whole drive yesterday. I have to admit: We had rain for the first few hours of the trip, and I was very nervous because of it. But deep breaths and constant prayer kept me calm, and we arrived home safely and in good spirits late last night.

And we had to arrive home quickly because I had a 12th row centre ticket tonight to the Nashville Symphony Hymn Sing!

Let's just start by getting it out in the open: AMAZING!!!

The event was held at the brand new Schermerhorn Symphony Center's Laura Turner Concert Hall, which is nothing short of spectacular. It's very ornate and built in the style of an old European recital hall, with gorgeous white and grey details, a fabulous pipe organ, and long galleries on all sides.

I saw this concert advertised weeks ago, and it immediately appealed to me for many reasons. First off, we all know how I feel about hymns. Second, it was a hymn sing lead by a huge orchestra and choir. (The Nashville Choir is similar to Toronto's Mendelssohn Choir.) And third, it had a killer line-up of soloists, including my favourite: David Phelps.

And this is where the only disappointment of the evening occurred.

There was no David Phelps! They weren't really honest in their advertising (in my humble opinion), because David was only singing in the Sunday show. I was at the Friday and, therefore, Davidless show. Not impressed.

But I was able to recover quickly because the show was brilliant from the first note.

It opened with the choir singing the Doxology, acapella, from all different parts of the galleries. Gorgeous acoustics and stunning harmonies. Hearing this choir brought back so many great memories of my time with the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir!

The choir then moved to the choir loft, and the hymn sing proper began. Everyone was given a beautiful hymn booklet when we went in, so when the choir arrived up front, we all joined in the singing of the Doxology again. The conductor encouraged us to sing, but the audience needed no encouragement. Voices soared all around me, and I could even hear an audience member singing the occasional harmony line.

Gerald and I have a test for great songs: they can bend, but they won't break. The great hymns fit this category. Tonight's program ranged from gospel classics to the lovely Irish and British hymn tunes. They were sung acapella, with solo piano, or with full majestic orchestra. Each song bent to fit into it's chosen interpretation, but none fell under the weight of diverse rhythm and harmony.

Our first guest soloist was Steven Curtis Chapman. I know I'm so behind on this, but I am only a recent fan of Steven's. He accompanied his own solo of "Fairest Lord Jesus", and then acted as emcee to introduce the other guests and lead in the audience singing. His humility and warmth were perfect for the occasion.

I was incredibly excited about the next soloist: CeCe Winans! How can you not love that voice? CeCe is so well-suited to sing with an orchestra - so much poise and a voice that was never overwhelmed by a stage full of musicians and a 100 voice choir.

Next, we were treated to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and I mean treated! They sang 2 spirituals, acapella, and they were just incredible. Clear tones, perfect blend, and sopranos that make you sit up in your seat. And here's the wild part - Their conductor walked out with them, but he stood behind them the whole time. A chord would play on the piano, but he wouldn't give so much as a downbeat. Without a physical act that I could see, the choir was completely self-directed. I was just in awe! I've sung in lots of choirs, and seen lots of choirs, and I've never seen a choir do this. I kept thinking, "Maybe he's poking them in the back to tell them when to start?" Okay, pretty sure that's not true, but you've got to wonder...

Next came the song that, Sunday, will be the David solo, "What Wondrous Love is This". Tonight it was performed by CCM artist Steve Green. And I don't mind admitting, I was completely impressed. He had incredible poise, stunning tenor notes, and a heartfelt performance.

Our final soloist also gave cause for excitement: Alison Krauss! Who's not a fan of Alison's? I have to admit, I don't think she was entirely comfortable singing in front of the orchestra. She had her lyrics with her and never seemed to get physically comfortable. But that voice! Her song was "Be Thou My Vision", and I can't think of a more perfect marriage of voice and melody.

But even with all those artists and all those musicians on stage, the best part was still the hymns and the corporate singing. Thousands of people, all singing the great songs of the church. When we reached the 3rd verse of "Amazing Grace", I had to catch my breath. "Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come." I flashed back to last week, sitting in our car on the side of the road, and realizing Gerald, Sebastian, and I were all completely unharmed. God has been so good to us, so I sang extra loud on "Great is Thy Faithfulness".

I don't think I can even properly express how wonderful it was tonight. From the theatre to the songs to the choir to the soloists, it was all just overwhelming in its power and beauty. Where else but Nashville could tonight have happened?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

NSAI Toronto meets an Alien

Tonight was a very cool experience: I was a guest speaker!

One of the hardest parts of getting my American work visa was just getting the correct information on the process. When I got my visa in January, I offered to speak about my experience to the NSAI group in Toronto. Tonight was my night...

I knew there was some interest in the topic, and we packed the meeting room with over 30 people, which is great for this group. I was also joined by Erica L. James, my immigration lawyer.

It was great to do the presentation together because Erica could provide proper legal info, and I could talk about the human experience, including some of the quirky parts of the process. For example, each of my letters of reference required a resume from the writer, but some of the artists didn't have resumes! So, I spent hours googling names and searching websites, building resumes for people! Crazy, but it worked.

We'd planned on speaking for an hour, but there were so many questions that we ended up speaking for over 2 hours. The feedback after was tremendous, and Gerald and I received many great words of support for following our dream.

I really just wanted to make it easier for other people. I spent the first 4 months of the process just trying to find out how to get the visa. If I can save someone that time, I think that's a great thing. After all, what's the point of having "extraordinary ability" if you can't spread it around?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Jesus, take the wheel!

We arrived in Canada last night, but I was too tired to touch the computer til today. For those who prayed for our safe journey - Thank you! I'm writing today to tell you that your prayers worked.

The drive from Nashville to Toronto is approximately 13 hours of driving time. We have done the trip in one day twice now, so we figured we would do it again on Wednesday.

The day started perfectly - clear sky, but not too sunny; cool weather requiring neither heat nor air conditioning; good moods and lots of car snacks. What else could we need?

In northern Ohio, we hit a small patch of snow. We considered stopping for the night, but we drove through it quickly and decided to press on. After all, I have all-weather tires on my car and I took all my driving lessons in thick, Newfoundland snow. I have no fear of weather.

The border crossing was very quick, and we were now facing the final 3 hours of the trip. The weather was clear, our moods were great, and the chocolate-covered espresso beans were keeping us bright and alert.

We hit London around 11pm, and that's when the snow returned. First a few flakes, then almost total white. I slowly brought the car to a slower speed, but we were hit with a driver's nightmare: sudden road freezes. The pavement became an ice-slick.

Within seconds, I lost complete control of the car. Before I knew what was happening we had slid over into the left lane. I realized we were spinning backwards, and the road. "Please God don't let us flip over!" Snow sprayed everywhere. Within seconds, the car stopped, and I realized we were completely off the road, looking up at it from below.

Gerald and I turned to each other. "Are you okay? How's Sebastian?" The first moment of peace came in realizing that, even though we had just spun 360 degrees and flew off the highway, we were both completely unharmed.

Now what?

We were shaken. I tried to drive out of our spot, but a quick inspection by Gerald determined that we were completely stuck in a muddy field. A car stopped by and offered to call 911. Thank you. Within half an hour, the police arrived.

The weather was too rough for towing, so we had to leave the car in the field and hope it would be clear enough in the morning. The police called around to find a hotel that would take dogs. We threw our suitcases and guitars into the cruiser and slowly, very slowly, drove to the hotel.

On the short drive to the hotel, we saw 3 more cars off the road.

The hotel gave us a special rate. Sebastian loved staying in the hotel (2 beds!). By morning, the weather had calmed, so we had a tow truck help us out.

The car was half sunk in the mud, which had also frozen. It pulled out okay, but the tires were caked with mud, hay, and the odd piece of garbage. It felt a little stiff to drive, but when it hit 60 K, it would just start to shake.

We went to a Canadian Tire (so happy to be in Canada in that moment!). The guys spent 2 hours removing over a garbage can's worth of mud and ice from my tires and axles. They thought I had done some serious damage to the car, but once it was clean, it ran just as perfectly as ever.

We got in the car, took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and drove to Mom and Dad's place.

Today, I am exhausted.

Last night, I saw a short TV clip of a car spinning out of control on a highway. My stomach tightened.

When I think of the 'what ifs', I just have to stop myself. I don't even want to open my imagination to the possibilities.

Our car lost complete control, and yet I, Gerald, Sebastian, and the car were completely and utterly unharmed. We always say 'nothing matters but my family', but I can honestly tell you that, for me, that statement will forever have a deeper meaning. We could have lost the car, the clothes, even the guitars, but my family was safe, and nothing else mattered. We have been so richly blessed!

"His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He's watching me".

Monday, April 02, 2007

Cafe Coco and the Guitar-B-Que

Today was a very Nashville day - very social and full of music.

This morning I attended the Palm Sunday service at Church of the Redeemer. Last year, I was singing at a non-denominational church on Palm Sunday. It was a great church, but I missed my palm! Today's service started with the traditional outdoor procession, leading into the sanctuary. We sang great Palm Sunday hymns, and had a special vocal trio during the offering. The whole service was just full of joy!

This afternoon, Gerald and I played Cafe Coco. The front part is a very busy cafe, but they have a back room set up as a small music venue. It's very cozy, but they have music there all the time, so I'm sure it can get pretty busy. Today was not one of those days. We were part of a special all-day NSAI line-up to celebrate Tin Pan South. When we arrived for our time slot, there were 6 people in the room, 7 when the bartender arrived. I think we maxed out at 10 when a few people came in to find a quiet place to eat their lunch.

But, we followed the Equity rule and carried on with the show. (Equity says you must perform if the audience equals the cast + 1) They actually had several performers not even show up, so we ended up going on just seconds after we walked through the door. Gerald started with his set, including his ever-soulful "I'm a Real Big Fan", and "Never Learn". He hasn't done that song forever, so it was a real treat for me.

I did "My Father's Arms", with Gerald on guitar, followed by "Wedding at Cana" and "Abide With Me". After the set, I met a new Shoutlife friend! She had come to see me play, but because they put us on early, she only caught the last few bars. Disappointing on both sides, but at least we got to meet. Hopefully, we'll hook up again.

To top off the day, we attended Doak Turner's annual Guitar-B-Que. (I have no idea how to actually spell that!) Doak hosts the monthly songwriter party we attended back in November. At the monthly party, people group up in rooms in the house to play songs for each other. This time, it was more about the food and the socializing. There was one large song circle in the middle of the yard, but it was mostly loud party songs being performed. Surrounding the circle was a large crowd of songwriters recovering from a crazy week and stuffing their faces with pulled pork and sweet tea. (soooooo good!) We saw tonnes of people we knew, including NSAI Toronto members, so it was a great time.

Gerald met up with a guy who also writes Christian songs, and we all got curious about each other's music. When it was time to leave, we left with this guy and his wife, found a quiet place on the lawn of a nearby church, and sang our songs under the trees. Such a great way to spend the day.

We're going home for Easter this week, so it's going to be crazy busy, but this was a great way to end Tin Pan South and just enjoy being in Nashville!