'It's a Selfish System'
Phil Keaggy is considered one of the most revered guitar players of the past 30-plus years. Just don't call him a "Christian guitarist," because he doesn't like to be pigeonholed like that. From his early years in Glass Harp to going solo as Christian music first took shape, Keaggy has been influencing the masses and raising the standard of musicianship, regardless of the genre. In recent years, Keaggy's indie records have kept fans on their toes, switching back and forth between vocal and instrumental albums, tackling both acoustic and electric compositions. His latest, Jammed!, leans toward the latter, compiling plugged-in (but wordless) rock, blues and soul tunes with hints of jazz fusion. The living legend recently talked to us about that album, but even more, about his frustrations with the CCM industry's tendency to "pigeonhole" artists—not to mention what he calls a "selfish" business model taken from the secular world.How would you describe Jammed!?Phil Keaggy My real perspective on this album is kind of like an éclair. It's the filling, basically a desert or a kind of candy for guitar players, especially the ones who like electric stuff. You could call it electric ear candy. It took me two days to throw together.What are the chances for a new vocal album?KeaggyInseparable was the last serious album I did on my own and that's been five years, so I'm certainly not flooding the market with my vocal music! Jammed! is providing the opportunity to be out there to help people stay awake on a long, late night drive.I'm [releasing] a serious acoustic musical album that's got strings, woodwinds, drummers, percussion. It's a really good album that I'm proud of, but it won't be released for quite awhile. Then another's a vocal album coming and [Jammed!] is just kind of in the interim.How are you able to switch up between so many playing styles?Keaggy I deliberately took a long time to compose and write the project I started last fall. I worked hard for two months in between travel and really concentrated, focused and put everything I could into it. Inseparable was a very in-house thing, but I'm being creative and writing fairly a lot now. I'm positive about the future and I still love to play.How do you find time to guest on other artist's albums?Keaggy I've got to be kind of careful because I've had good advice: "Don't sell yourself too short." I have to not be too available to everything that comes along. I've always been a people pleaser and now I'm upping the ante in terms of price so I can be more selective. I really enjoyed working on three tracks on Sara Groves' [parenthood-focused] album Station Wagon. I love playing on those songs and I love the heart in that album.I'm also thinking Neal Morse, another one of those Einstein musicians who's hip and extremely intelligent. On One we did a duet ["Cradle To the Grave"] which was a sweet experience. What a sweet guy, man, what a composer he is! I don't understand why nobody in this town [Nashville] gave that album a review. If this was the '70s it would've made headlines. The world we live in today has a bizarre genre called CCM.What frustrates you most about that label?Keaggy I'm not sure it's contemporary and I'm not sure it's really Christian. I mean, what I was doing with Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill and 2nd Chapter of Acts [in the 1970s], that was pre-CCM. They had to put some sort of label on it, and I think that ultimately hurt us. It pigeonholed everybody.How does that marketplace react to your instrumental albums?Keaggy They don't know what to do with it.Considering the fact that some Christian music listeners expect a certain number of Jesus references in their songs, where does wordless music fit in with ministry?Keaggy I don't know. It's always made me feel odd when I'd get a Dove Award for an instrumental album that has nothing to do with gospel. When I think of gospel music, I think of spreading the Good News with words. But maybe it's just because I was heralded once upon a time as one of theirs. The category of instrumental music seems sort of important to the big picture, but I felt a little embarrassed at the same time.Does your instrumental music come from spiritual inspiration?Keaggy No, not necessarily. More than sometimes it does feel that way, but across the board no. It's something I do like putting on my clothes or taking a shower. It's like breathing. I'm not always thinking in terms of CCM or thinking in terms of gospel. When I pick up my guitar, there are times where I feel the Lord just bless it. I feel a blessing in what I'm doing and that's just a result of wanting to serve him and please him.But I'm [bothered] by the fact that Guitar Player magazine has to put "Christian guitarist" before my name. I can't just be known as a guitar player; I've been pigeonholed in the situation. I feel like I'm on periphery of CCM and not quite in the world. I think Larry Norman felt that sort of way. They didn't know what do with him and they didn't know what to do with Sunday's Child.What irks me most about the Christian music business is the model on which they built the whole thing. It's based on the world's model of taking songs and masters from artists and owning it, when they make you pay back the production budget based on your royalties' percentage and then they end up owning it. It's like making 30 years of payments on a house that the bank never gives you!How did you get reeled into that kind of partnership?Keaggy I was young and naive. I wish I knew in the '70s what I know now. I would've never given my music away like that. You've got stars in your eyes, Christian or non-Christian, and you want to be expressive to let world hear where you're coming from. It can bring a blessing into this world, but at same time in my own life and for other fellow artists, we're so discouraged by the selfish system put in place, based upon the model of the world.It may be a selfish system, though it seems the mainstream is better at re-releasing an artist's back catalogue than the Christian market, such as the constant re-introduction of the Beatles to a younger generation.Keaggy There are new generations of Beatles' fans yet music from the '70s in Christian music is forgotten. They are only thinking about the present and not the treasures of the past or the futures of their artists—which is why the indie explosion is best thing that ever happened to Christian music. I just wish the hearts, pocketbook and bank accounts could have real righteous actions to go along with the explosion of CCM. I don't know, I might get myself in trouble! (laughs)So are you suggesting that the genre of "Christian music" shouldn't exist?Keaggy Maybe. I would've been out there more in the world playing, selling CDs and spreading some light instead of conveniently singing to the choir. What Bono's doing is dangerous. He's basically sharing the gospel in a very real sort of way, and I kind of respect that. He didn't want to get tagged and pulled into CCM. [Bob] Dylan wouldn't let that happen either during his Slow Train Coming days. At same time, barriers are put around us. When you go to Europe, they don't know what CCM is! Let's all just do our music and go where we're led to go.I don't do altar calls, but I do love gospel music way before labels. That's when it had an identifiable personality that was unique. What's on the radio sounds the same, though I suppose it's like that everywhere. I just like playing to audiences, and have spirituality come out and be expressed.© Andy Argyrakis, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.