- Christianity Today Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2009 3 Mar
An audio scrapbook of Phil Keaggy's 30-plus-year career would treat its listener to a staggering musical spectrum, the scope of which is barely imaginable. Traversing hard-edged progressive rock to the gentlest of worshipful ballads, he manages to weave his unique voice like so much thread through a musical tapestry. With each project, there are new and unexpected twists at every turn. And, says Keaggy in characteristic wit that's sharp as his chops, "It's good to twist!"
It would seem that, for Keaggy, the only constant is change. "I don't ever want to be tied down to one particular style," he says. "Variety is the spice of life." Yet wherever his musings take him, the result always bears his undeniable signature.
Keaggy first practiced that signature at the tender age of 13, when he joined his first band, The Keytones. A few years later, he would find himself fronting the venerable Glass Harp—a power rock trio in the tradition of Cream. It was during that stint that epiphanal events, including the tragic death of his mother, led him dramatically to a newfound faith in Christ. In his enthusiasm, he oft times proselytized from the stage, met and prayed with people, and did so in venues including the Whisky-A-Go-Go, or on tour with such acts as Alice Cooper, Humble Pie, or Ted Nugent. "I was desiring more than anything," he remembers, "to reach out to my generation with what I had found."
Keaggy, though, unable to reconcile the demands of his position with Glass Harp with the demands of his heart, left the band to pursue music-making of a different sort. He teamed with the legendary Love Song and 2nd Chapter of Acts bands, where his contributions gave shape to the fledgling "Jesus Music" movement that ultimately yielded the contemporary Christian music category. It was during this period that he made the seminal 1973 "What A Day" record, a milestone in the history of CCM.
Ensuing years would find him in various situations and locales, both solo and with bandmates, honing his craft to a razor's edge. Significant markers along the way include recognition as one of the century's most significant guitarists (Musician Magazine), a perennial favorite among numerous reader polls (Guitar Player, CCM, Fingerstyle Guitar), and even a Grammy nod. Certainly in the world of Christian music, his place has been firmly established, where his instrumental projects have dominated GMA's Dove Awards for many a year. But all the awards and accolades are purely ancillary to the ever-unassuming Keaggy, whose sole focus has always been the power of the music. "I'm known primarily as a Christian guitarist," he says. "And I'm proud to be associated with Christian music. It's an irony, though, that much of my music has been instrumental in nature. But music is more than words. The power of God is not always a thunderous, cataclysmic force. Sometimes it's a gentle breeze, or just a sense of having God's arms wrapped around you. And I think music can wrap its arms around people when the heart is in it, when the Spirit of God is somehow involved."
Clearly, that Spirit is present in his most recent venture, " Hymnsongs," a collection of traditional hymns interspersed with new and original pieces. In many ways, the project is a natural extension for Phil, whose recordings and performances have often drawn from the well of the inspired masters of hymnody. "I've always loved hymns," he says. "They're great melodies that still stand on their own, and are still sung, even after centuries have passed. And those melodies are even more appreciated when you know the lyrics. The writers of the hymns were great wordsmiths; they could be so concise and so eloquent in their expression of truth. And theirs is music that speaks to every generation."
Serving a sampling of the great traditional hymns in fresh and contemporary stylings, he also unveiled several new compositions, including a pair of Irish hymns by Keith Getty, and two Keaggy originals, one of which is an inspired set of variations on the Lord's Prayer. Called "Our Daily Bread," it, and the album are dedicated to Todd Beamer (a hero of 9-11's Flight 93), whose love of Christ—and Phil's music—encouraged the arrangement. "I'm glad I was able to come up with that," Keaggy says. "I was able to take the song to another place. It was just one of those inspired moments that God has given me."
While one might associate hymns with pianos, organs, and choirs set on risers, there is none of that to be found in this collection. Hymnsongs is an entirely guitar-driven record that showcases the breadth and width of Keaggy's mastery over his instrument—in both amplified and unplugged modes.
He credits co-producer Ric Hordinski (of Over the Rhine) with bringing to the record " … a youthful smile." Keaggy resisted the initial inclination to make what he described as a more solitary, contemplative record. "I didn't want to do the stayed, quiet sort of thing you'd expect from an acoustic guitar player; I wanted to add a little cayenne pepper, a little salsa, some spunk, some B-12, a little bit of everything that gets you up on your feet. And then say, believe it or not, these are hymns! But at the same time, I wanted to be respectful of the music."
Hymnsongs strikes the perfect balance between the traditional and the modern, the reverent and the fun-spirited. These are hymns at their unsung best, as the strings beneath Keaggy's fingertips sing as well as any choir. "I enjoyed pulling from history the melodies and sentiments and convictions of the old hymns," he says. "In some respects, being a musician is like being an archeologist—one who explores, and seeks adventure, digging through earth to find the hidden gems—the compressed elements that would become diamonds. That's the way life is: the things that are appreciated most are the things that are sought for."
It's Keaggy's hope with Hymnsongs that younger listeners will get—and seek out—perhaps for the first time, a taste of the church's great musical heritage—those gems of yesteryear that have endured through the ages. And perhaps the newer ones, and a great many of those memorable songs to be found in Keaggy's nearly 400-song catalog may find their way into the hymnals of centuries to come. "Maybe they'll hear Hymnsongs," he adds, "and be inspired to find out what this music is saying, what it means. Maybe it will touch somebody's heart in a special way. To me, my religion is a living faith. I hope to always convey that through my music and through my heart."