Posted January 2020
Back in the seventies, Contemporary Christian Music (“CCM”) was humming right along. It’s what helped keep teenagers at the time (like me) interested in church and its music. People and bands like Larry Norman, Love Song, Andre Crouch, and many others were among the pioneers and torchbearers of the genre.
In that mix of pioneers was a brother/sisters trio called 2nd Chapter of Acts. They were amongst the real rockers of the genre. So, in the summer of ’77, when I saw that they were coming to the Civic Auditorium in downtown Phoenix, I immediately bought tickets. Sure, I noticed that the tickets said, “2nd Chapter of Acts, Phil Keaggy, and a Band Called David” but I was going to see “Acts”.
Let me just say that, while I’m still a big fan of 2nd Chapter of Acts, I went into that concert an Acts fan and came out being a huge Phil Keaggy fan and am one to this very day. I’ve caught him in concert a variety of times over the past 43 years and own a large percentage of his recorded work (though I recently learned that I have some serious catching up to do!).
That was the summer of 1977. Fast forward to October of last year.
I attended a house concert that was a fundraiser for a worthy cause. Phil Keaggy was the featured guest. I hadn’t seen him in concert for quite a long time so I was looking forward to the show. After it was over, I approached him and introduced myself and indicated that we both had a mutual friend, Ken Mansfield, who was over the U.S. arm of The Beatles Apple Records and has worked with countless other iconic artists over the years. Phil and Ken are close friends and Ken had this to say about Phil:
"Well, I've known Phil for quite a while and too. I always say, to know Phil is to love him and he's probably the most gracious, kind person. And so childlike in how he treats other people; the simplicity and his ‘straight-aheadness’ with you. So. Oh, yes. And then you stick inside that wonderful thing, the ability to be the greatest guitar player in the world. It's just a real wonderful package there in one place. So, I've known Phil for a long time and I think it's probably the most exciting
relationship that I've had. - both as being in the music business but also just meeting a brother that I can really count on and trust and love on."
When I asked Ken what is the least understood thing about Keaggy, he laughed and replied:
"Wow. Now let's try and find something to say that's not great about Phil. That's harder than saying something that's great about him. I don't know. He has just - I think his child likeness just makes him so innocent and kind and gracious all the time that, I would say, the only thing for him, like anybody else, is being in a business that gets a lot of people, as we say, in their face a lot. Sometimes he may have to be a little guarded because he is so kind and gentle, people do take advantage of him. And, you know, there is a plane to get to and there is somebody who has been on the road for twelve hours, then playing for three hours and then has to get back to a hotel so they can get two hours of sleep. It's hard for people to understand that sometimes. So but even in that, he is always gracious in letting you know he can't really do something for you at the time."
Back to Phil and the house concert, when I left that evening, Phil was kind enough to agree with me that an interview was in order.
In the past, I’d briefly met Phil, snagging an autograph on a couple of the albums. He was always gracious to me and anyone else he was approached by. I’ve watched him deal with over-zealous fans as well as over-zealous Christians. I’ve watched him perform with amazing, talented artists such as Rick Derringer, Greg Martin, and others and I’ve watched him share the unknown audience members – talented as well as the “wishful” (that’s the category I’m in but I stay in the audience!). To each and every one, he was far more patient than I likely would’ve been in the same situations. To say that the man has a warm, kind, gentle, gracious spirit about him would be a gross understatement. His heart is truly golden and only possibly exceeded by his gift of playing guitar.
The guitar. That instrument attempted by many and mastered by relatively few. For those who have watched Phil play, we walk away wishing that we could play his mistakes. He’s a guitarists’ guitarist who is highly respected both within CCM but probably more so in a variety of other genres. He even got to play with Sir Paul McCartney, informally and just the two of them. More about that later in this story.
Back to our interview.
I called Phil at his home in the greater Nashville area. After some introductory small talk, it was HE who started asking ME questions (there’s that graciousness of his, again). With that done, he brought me up to speed on what he’s been up to.
“I've been an indie artist now for about 18 years, since the last record label I belonged to was - or I was signed to was Word Records. They let me go in 2002 and since then, everything I've been putting out has been just indie. That means no marketing or distribution. Very little radio. But I keep working because that's my job and I still do concerts because a number of people still like to hear me play and sing and do my songs. So, the thing is, I keep creating and I've been doing a lot of collaboration, especially over the last - I'll say ten, twelve years with other writers and artists, musicians.
“So, I have a continual flow of stuff that's available to people who know how to get a hold of it. Say for instance on my web site, PhilKeaggy.com, there is on the menu - there's a tag called, ‘Keaggy's Garage’. So, there's there is stuff up there that's a lot of live recordings; a lot of demos; a lot of releases that have been indie, my indie releases; a lot of collaborations with other musicians. In fact, just yesterday morning, a jam album - the title of the album is called, ‘An American Garage Band’. It's with drummer Bobby Blazier and bassist Gary Lunn. It's an instrumental and it's all free flow. That's really recent.
“Another recent project that I did was collaborated with Rex Paul, an album called, ‘Illumination’ that came out last spring. It's a vocal gospel rock album and it has eleven songs on it. Four of those songs are old songs from the 70s and 80s; remakes of tunes like, ‘Time’, ‘Let Everything Else Go’, ‘Spend My Life With You’, and ‘Full Circle’. Rex produced it and he just kind of brought it to a really more of a real rockin', up-to-date, progressive rock kind of feel. He's an amazing producer and musician. In fact, he's the band. He's the bass player, the drummer, the keyboard player and guitarist, vocalist BGV's (background vocals). We wrote lyrics together for the new songs and he just brought some new life - injected new life into the old songs. A lot of folks have found it to be a really enjoyable album.
“I've done three albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson. They're just beautiful instrumental works, like soundtrack music. It's just music you can listen to and relax to, chill to, and enjoy the melodies and the textures, because he plays beautiful keys. He's a kind of a minimalist. I provide a lot of the ear candy, you could say, with various guitars like classical guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, 12-string, mandolin, cümbüş - a Turkish instrument. I do all the bass work as well. So, those are three albums I did with Jeff Johnson I'm quite proud of.
“I also did an album with veteran world class musicians, Tony Levin and drummer Jerry Marotta; Tony playing bass; Jerry playing drums and percussion. It's called, ‘The Bucket List’ and that came out last year, too.”
Then, as if he’s come to the realization at the same time he was sharing with me, he said:
“So, actually, I had three albums come out in 2019 and they're on Spotify, iTunes, my Web site, Jeff's Web site. Tony's, Jerry's; you can see them in all those different places.”'
Then, turning a little more serious, Phil shared some of his feelings about the CCM industry.
“The industry has changed. We don't have CD stores like we used to. We don't have record stores except for specialty shops, you could say, where you can find LPs. So, when I do concerts, I make my music available to people at the concerts.”
Shifting back to works released, Keaggy added:
“I don't know if you've heard of the ‘All at Once’ album that was recorded four years ago. That's a collaboration, as well, with about 10 different writers, at least 10. There's Lionel Cartwright. There's Nathan Chapman, Ashley Cleveland, my son, Ian Keaggy, who is also a very talented musician, producer, and writer - veteran book writer, Ken Mansfield, who worked for the Beatles. Ken is a wonderful guy. He's still around and I'm grateful for that because he's eighty-two or eighty-three by this time. He's got quite a story. Great testimony.
“Katie Peltier, who's a worship leader, worship writer. In fact, the All at Once album - we had a number of those manufactured and they're out. I'm going to have a minimum - a limited release of the same album, but it's going to be called, ‘Fearless Love’, which is one of the songs on the album, and I'm taking four of the pop songs off and just have it more gospel centered; more R&B blues, where the message is really more clear because that's really what the album was intended to be initially. We all got excited about all these extra songs, but they really didn't seem to coexist that well together. You know what I'm telling you? I mean, the Beatles could get away with it. They'd have. 'I Will' on one album, in the same album they'd have Ringo's 'Don't Pass Me' or, ‘Octopus's Garden’, ‘Oh, Darling’, you know, very different kind of songs. But I just feel that in some sense, less is more. A 10-song project, even though it's a four-year-old album, I feel that it's got some new fresh life.
“There's a song on there called, ‘Breathe on US’, which Katie Peltier sent me her lyrics and her melody. I created the music for it and produced it. On the original album, 'All at Once', those who have that album, it's just basically a bit of an ending with solos going on. In other words, I saved it up at the end of the song for the last two and a half minutes. The solos at the end, because my daughter Olivia, when she heard it, she said, 'Oh, Pops, you've got to put this on your new album because the guitar solos are so sweet.' What I ended up doing was taking her entire song and, instead of it being a lyrical album vocally, it's a guitar - like a Jeff Beck melody to her melody and it really ended up being the longest tune on the album, the ninth of the ten tracks. It's not out yet, but it's going to come out and I really feel it's special. The album ends with a hymn, 'I Must Tell Jesus', which was inspired to record because of a friend of mine who passed away, James Ryle, who was a great Bible teacher, and I helped him make an album in the last year of his life, actually; an album of his original songs and a couple of hymns.”
As the old Ronco commercials used to say: But wait! There’s more!
“So, let's see what else is going on. I did a couple Ambient albums that I released this year by me and Tony Gerber. One is called, ‘Red Lunar’, which is a live, impromptu thing. He plays keyboards and flutes and I play the guitars. It was all live and it was recorded during the red moon when one of the red moon's had taken place. And then another one I did on his podcast with him and a cellist. It's called Pristine Chapel.
“These are all new projects. So, as you can see, most of them are instrumental at this point. But I do have vocal songs kind of on the back burner. In the can, as it were, just waiting for the right time and place to release those. Like I said earlier, we have limited distribution. We have limited quantity in terms of actual projects that you can actually hold in your hand. Most of it is livestreaming these days.”
To that point, I surmised that he was benefiting financially from the technological advances in music recording and delivery.
“Oh, absolutely! You know, for the last 25 years, I've been, for the most part, engineering my own music and producing it in my little music room down below. And yes, the cost - it's very cost effective. For instance, the album I did with Jeff Johnson, he has his home studio up in Washington State. He would send me files and I would send him files and he'd mix it. We never paid for studio time. It was just my Pro Tools and his Logic programs and it works really well.
“But the thing is, like I said, there's not the marketing and there's not the distribution and the A&R departments and everything. There are not the advances there used to be. But that's okay. It's the concerts that help me pay the bills. But to be free and to be creative is a real blessing at this time in my life. I really do prefer home recording and coming up with new music and sounds and to continue to try to grow on my guitar as a guitarist. So, obviously, the main thing is to, lyrically, when I do music that is lyrical, somewhere and somehow it continues to lift up the name of Jesus so that people know the Good News; that there is hope and that God loves us and cares for us all. And so that's the most important thing.”
As I alluded to a few paragraphs ago, I have seen Phil perform with a variety of very talented artists and his albums reflect much more of the same. So, I was curious if there was anyone he would like to perform or work with, musically, whom he hasn’t done so, already.
“I don't know, I don't seem to have a whole lot of ambition in terms of, like, ‘Oh, I wish I could play with this person.’ I don't really have that, you know. I mean, I have deep respect for a lot of the people that have influenced me; the great artists that I grew up listening to. But we're all kind of elderly, in a sense. I mean, I can tell you I'm in my late 60s. I'll be sixty-nine in March and I've had great opportunities over my lifetime to play with people I really admire. Say, for instance, Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta. Those two guys - to be on the same album with guys that played with Peter Gabriel and McCartney and Lennon and all these all these amazing musicians and all these amazing artists. I mean, the list is endless. With who these fellows have played with and here's this little guy from Youngstown, Ohio; and I mean ‘little’. I mean, both Tony and Jerry are least six foot three and here I am, a little five-foot four guy. But we got along just beautifully in the studio, created some really fun music. But I did get a chance to play at Linda McCartney sister's wedding back in 1990. As a result of that, I had a chance to just sit down and play guitars with Paul McCartney for about 20 minutes.”
I excitedly interrupted him on that one. Why? Well, my closest and dearest friend knew one of Phil’s brothers. That brother knew that Roderick was a fan of Phil’s and gave him a photo of Phil and McCartney playing together at that wedding. I’d seen the photo back in the early 90’s before the internet was dominant and before that picture and many others were scattered all over the ether. It’s an amazing photo that you can see here.
When I asked Keaggy if he’s had any other interaction with Sir Paul, his characteristic humility showed itself, again, in his reply.
“Oh, no, no. I'm just a drop in the bucket, just one little fella that, in a moment in time, had a chance to shake his hand and pass on to him a guitar that a friend of mine had made. It was a left-handed guitar – a left-handed acoustic guitar - and asked me if I would see if I could put it in Paul's hands. I said, ‘I'll try’. As a result of presenting him with this gift, he asked me, ‘Where's yours?’ And I said, 'Oh, it's over there.' 'Get it out.' And then we just sat down and picked on a few of his tunes, not my tunes.
“He didn't know my songs, of course. Although, I did sing three songs in the wedding and one instrumental. He was very encouraging, you know, like a big brother, like a producer would say (sliding into a British accent), 'You did a fine job. You have a nice voice. Remind me a bit of James Taylor.'
“I mean, he was a great influence on me from a melodic standpoint, a tonal standpoint, vocally. One of the great, great writers and artists of all time, of course, and it was an honor to meet him. I was it was kind of surreal, actually.
Then, circling back to finish his answer to my question:
“No, we've not. It's not the kind of thing where he would ring me up and say, ‘Hey, Phil, how are you doing?’ But it was nice. It was a nice meeting. It was a nice occasion. And of course, Linda's sister, Laura, (the one who) got married. She's a believer and a really nice person. Both she and her husband have been friends all these years. We've gone to Italy where they live; visited them when I was doing concerts over there some years ago - many years ago.
“So, anyway, that's one of the stories I wouldn't have ever presumed or assumed or imagined in my wildest dreams that I'd be in the studio with someone like McCartney or Clapton or any of those kinds of players that were influential; you know, Jeff Beck, on and on and on. But I have played for Rick Derringer on one of his tracks, on Airborne Ranger with the guitarist from Grand Funk, Mark Farner. I have played on a few projects by other people. Greg Martin (of the Kentucky Headhunters) is a great guy. Great guitar player, fun guy.
Later in our conversation on some other subjects, Keaggy added:
“I enjoyed meeting Mickey (Dolenz). I played on six of his twelve songs on his album called, Remember. I've been to his house out in California. We had a listening party with a lot of friends and artists that you would recognize that were there. One of my favorite solos I've ever done on anyone's album was on his album - on the Nilsson song called, Remember - the title song. You should check that out sometime - on Spotify, iTunes. Yeah. Micky - he's fun. A talented guy. For his age, the guy's singing is still great.
“I got to play James Burton and I got to play right next to him onstage, Johnny B Goode and Louisiana some years ago. That was that was a blast for me because I loved watching him play guitar on there. You know, the Ricky Nelson/Ozzie and Harriet Show. Of course, Elvis and Scotty Moore and James were early influences in my life, too. As a guitar player.”
“But, you know, I've had a bit of - I'm kind of an underground musician, and that's okay. I'm a little lower profile than most guitarists, except perhaps maybe in the area of Christian music. But then there are so many wonderful, talented musicians and writers. What really mainly excites me is just knowing that I have a loving family and that's where I get most of my joy from. My wife loves me, my kids love me, love both of us. It's a whole different level of feeling satisfied and complete and music fits in there somewhere. But it's not it's not the whole story for me.”
As I stated earlier, I became aware of Phil Keaggy back in 1977. CCM hadn’t yet reached the stratospheric levels of popularity that it eventually would. It was also a much different kind of business and genre, then. Honestly, for me, it’s a genre that has left me and many of my friends far behind.
To that point, I asked Phil for his view of CCM today; if it is broke and, if so, what would he do to fix it.
“I really don't keep up with it very much anymore. I continue to read my Bible and pray and share my story when I do my concerts in many cases, many times. But as far as the business, I don't have much connection to it anymore, so I can't really tell you. I know that there's a real emphasis on worship music these days, and I certainly will support that. But I think one of the things the record labels - Christian record labels and radio - they really didn't know what to do with musicians like myself, in a sense, because, you know, half of what I've done through my lifetime is instrumental work and there's not much of a room and a place for that. But it's important to me as a musician to let my voice be heard through my guitar, not just my vocal cords. I think I'm probably more known as a guitarist than a singer or a writer and I get that.
“I've never had a real true pop sense. I think the only song I had that went to number one for a couple of weeks was a tune I didn't write and that was 'True Believers'. Alan Shacklock, a British musician, producer and writer - he wrote that song and that was about it. There's one station up in Pennsylvania called, WJTL, who's been very supportive, even though I've been kind of like in the background; sort of - well, I don't know how to put it - diminished in popularity, in a sense, because in the 70s, 80s and the early 90s, I was a bit on the radio, you know. But, not since really. Ninety-eight was about the last time. But that didn't cause me to quit. I mean, I don't do it because of radio. I don't do it because of sales. I do it because I love music and I really enjoy other musicians. And the process of creating and, you know, making music with others, it's really been very important to me.
“So, I really can't. I can't really give you - put my thumb on the pulse of the music business at all. I have no idea what's going on, really.”
I shifted gears in my questioning. I perceived Phil as being one who uses what he has and acquires only what he will use, guitar and gear-wise. With that in mind, I asked him how many guitars he had, figuring it would only be a handful.
“The guitars I own are the ones I use, so I don't have that many. I have a dozen guitars or so and that's it; guitars that I've had over the years, for some of them, 40 years or 30 years. I've got a Les Paul, a Strat; a Zion and a Yamaha and a couple basses that I like to use - a fretless and a Gibson bass, a Hoffner bass. I've got a 12 string. They're all instruments that I've utilized and used in the studio. So, no, I don't have a truck load. I have what I use. They're my tools. I'm not a collector. I'm not in the business of buying and displaying, you know. I just don't do that. I just use what I have and that's it. So, no.”
Phil’s wife, Bernadette, wrote a book several years ago that deals with the subject of the heartache of miscarriage at birth. I brought up the book and relayed that I had told a young couple I had went to church with at the time about it as they had experienced the tragedy of miscarriage several times like the Keaggy’s had.
“Oh, it was! It was a tough time in our young lives, to lose babies. We lost triplets the first time at five and a half months and a baby boy another year later who lived three days at six and a half months along. Then, a miscarriage a year after that. We didn't know that we'd ever have any kids. But then we moved to Kansas City in 1979 and 1980, Alicia was born. Thanks to friends who are very supportive and a great doctor who just happened to be a godsend to both Bernadette and me.
“And so, in the early 90s, Bernadette wrote the book, A Deeper Shade of Grace, and it was then rereleased under the title of, Losing You Too Soon. It has been a blessing to a lot of people. It will never be a top seller because not everybody has that story and that experience. But there are many who do, but they just don't know about it, you know. But it has touched a lot of people and I'm glad that Bernadette wrote those chapters with her own hand and it's her own voice. She speaks for both of us. And I’m happy to tell you that we became, for the first time in September, grandparents! Our daughter, Olivia, had a baby boy and we are just over the moon about him. He's beautiful and a fantastic little kid, you know?
Of their son, Ian, Keaggy said:
“We worked on that together. There was even a Glass Harp song on an album we did called, Hourglass. It's the funest song on the album. It’s called, Weather Boy. It was Ian's first lyric that he wrote when he was about, oh, 13. I put it I put it to music. It's called Weather Boy. It's like the Who. You could probably hear that on Spotify. I think Hourglass is up there on Spotify. But yeah, he's working with a lot of professional people and writers today. He's really articulate, very intelligent and kindhearted, gifted young man, really proud of him.
“So, there you have it. Well, it really, really is a real healing that took place. We had our two daughters and a son. They're all in their 30s and they are wonderful kids, wonderful. My son is a very good songwriter and producer.”
With our time to chat drawing to a close, I asked Phil the question I have asked scores of other artists, especially those who are within our age span: How does he hope to be remembered and what does he hope his legacy is?
“Well, that I left some hope into the world. Some joy with my music and that, perhaps, I might be remembered as a kind person. You know, simple stuff like that. Nothing profound.
“We all have a chance to leave a mark, leave something behind worth remembering. Those are the things that matter to me. You know, the fruit of the spirit stuff: Love and joy and peace. I want to be a peacemaker.
“I've got friends that I've had since the 60s that I keep in touch with. You know, that that kind of thing. We’re all family. And my friends from Glass Harp, the band I started in ‘68. I left in ‘72 to work with other people and to do my own music. But we still are close, close friends and we play off and on together still after all these years. In fact, this year, twenty, twenty earmarks, 50 years since our first album came out, half a century ago. The gospel was on that first album. Also coming next month, it'll be 50 years since I gave my heart to Jesus and asked Him to come into my life.
“I think that's the thing that influences me the most, is the Good News of the gospel. I feel the gospel - it's still the best news, especially in the times we live in today. When you look at the Gospel of John and how Jesus taught us how to treat one another, He gives us the grace to do that; enables us and I just think He's not only the greatest savior, but He's a great model, a great example of how we should love one another.”
I’m sure that, as I have for almost forty-three years, you will love Phil Keaggy’s work, talent, story, and heart. He truly is the real deal. Please follow him at his website (here), Facebook (here), and Twitter (here).
If you were to ask me what to buy (assuming you don’t already own some of his work), I would have a very hard time answering. He’s done so much great work. From the “Store”, I would suggest, perhaps, his concert DVD, “Philly Live”. “The Master and the Musician” is a must-have, if it’s in stock. If it’s not, then get “The Master and the Musician 30 Years Later Tour” DVD. “Dream Again” is great. The song, “Why” features Ian Keaggy on vocals and is my favorite tune on the album.
From “Keaggy’s Garage”, I will admit that there is a lot that I don’t have from there (but I will!). I know that “Acoustic Sketches” is phenomenal as is “Premium Jams Vol. 1 and Vol. 2” and “220”. Also, “Jammed”, “Beyond Nature”, “The Wind and the Wheat”, “Roundabout”, and “Freehand: Acoustic Sketches II”.
See what I mean? It’s just too hard to pick. But once you do, you’ll want everything he’s ever done.
That’s how it was for me forty-three years ago this summer. But I was lucky. He only had two solo albums at that time.