Posted February 2020
About six lifetimes ago (the late seventies), as my interest in contemporary Christian music (CCM) continued to mushroom, the Phil Keaggy band put out their debut (and sole) album, Emerging. I bought the album as soon as it hit the shelves of the now-long-defunct store, Christian Discount, in Phoenix, Arizona.
In addition to Keaggy’s always amazing guitar work, I couldn’t help but be equally intrigued by the keyboard work on the album. Reading the liner notes (remember how much fun that was back in the glory days of vinyl?), I saw that the maestro on the keys was another genius named Phil. Phil Madeira. He was (and is) to the keyboards as Keaggy is to the guitar.
While the PKB was a short-lived project, Madeira’s career wasn’t – and isn’t.
Since those days, the Providence (or close to it), Rhode Island, native has become a prolific solo artist in his own right as well as contributing his brilliant musicianship to a head-spinningly (yes, that’s a word. I just made it up because we needed it) long list of other artists – and not just in CCM. No, far from it. That list includes Amy Grant, Charlie Peacock, Kenny Marks, Vanessa Williams, Buddy Miller, Little Big Town, The Waterboys, Emmylou Harris (more about Emmylou in a moment) and others. In other words: Phil Madeira is a trusted and reliable go-to, multi-talented musician that some of the top names in the music business.
Phil has also been prolific in his composition work for such artists as Alison Krauss, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Keb’ Mo’, The Civil Wars, again, many others.
He’s played a festival or two in Newport. The folk festival . . . and the jazz festival. Pretty freakin’ cool. He’s a recipient of a Dove Award, an ASCAP Humanitarian Award, and an inductee into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame.
When Madeira isn’t creating his music or lending a musical hand to his many friends in Nashville, he is an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ band, The Red Dirt Boys, and has been since 2008.
All of these accomplishments made Madeira one of the prominent names under the broad umbrella of the always-growing Americana genre. I had connected with Phil via Facebook but we hadn’t really communicated other than an informal “howdy” once friend requests were sent and accepted. It wasn’t until a personal introduction via Phil Keaggy, that Madeira and I chatted up about getting together for an interview.
Madeira invited me to his place for the chat. He was immediately gracious and accommodating as a host. From the git-go, we slid into chatting about all sorts of stuff unrelated to the purpose of my visit (talking about his new CD, Open Heart). I’m pretty sure that, in the midst of all discussed, we solved world hunger but I have no proof of that.
Settling into the reason for our interview, Madeira started by commenting on the state of contemporary Christian music and how, for someone who was somewhat involved in it back in the ’70s and ’80s, he’s not so much any longer.
“ . . . because I just don't know who's out there anymore. . . . I think the Christian music scene is shrinking. I'm grateful that I'm very much a believer, but I'm also grateful that I was never really allowed ‘in’ as an artist in that world. The doors that kept opening for me were doors of service, songwriting for others and playing for others.
“A problem I have with Christian music is this: does art have to constantly talk about its source? For me, it doesn't. I'm going to have a much more interesting conversation with another person if it's not just about what I think. And, so it is musically. The Christian music world was so limited musically and lyrically - the door was never open for me as an artist. We're talking 35 years ago.”
Pointing over my shoulder at some wall art, Phil continued.
“Honestly, musically, if you just look over you over there - when you see Thelonious Monk and Ry Cooter, the Beatles- that’s what I love to listen to. The only gospel music I listen to is Mahalia Jackson or something like that.”
Then, circling back to the CCM world, Madeira said:
“And I don't know how many people in that world go home and listen to the music from their own world. The artists that I think are amazing from that world aren’t really shining there any longer- Cindy Morgan, Nichole Nordeman, Lost Dogs, etc”
Phil leaned in.
“You know it’s funny how many artists who had great gigs found God and then were convinced that somehow the Christian market was where they needed to be. Rick Cua, Joe English- Joe English with Paul McCartney! BJ Thomas. Thank God Dylan didn’t bite that hook! Isn’t it ironic that you’re called to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel’, but you get sucked into this insular world that doesn’t really get outside of itself and preach to the choir?
"My trajectory was the reverse, as has been the case for a few friends who started in CCM- Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, etc. The irony for me is that I followed my heart, followed my dreams. I basically said yes to most of what has come my way. And I'm fine with that. I've played with every session player I've dreamt of playing back in the 70s, I have played with them all. Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar or Al Perkins. That, to me, is God up to something, you know.
“I’ve made my Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us” projects as a gentle proclamation of belief and inclusivity, but as for my solo records, I’ve made that statement. Until I change that statement, it still stands. I prefer to write about the journey from here on out. My Providence record- there's a teeny bit in there. But, it's just about growing up in the north and feeling the pull of southern music; eventually winding up here.
“Open Heart”, the new record - it comes out of a place of grief that I wasn't even acknowledging. It's about romantic love and loss- the ups and the downs of love. And all this comes from a heart that is trying to live in harmony with its creator. I’m broken, I’m joyous, I’ve won, I’ve failed, and I’m still moving.”
As our chat progressed, we talked about how life’s trials prune us and what we thought we knew and believed.
“I think failure can do that. I remember when I went through my divorce. I have two grown daughters. They weren't grown when we went through a divorce, though. Thankfully, their mom and I negotiated that stuff well enough that fifteen, sixteen years after the divorce, we were good friends. You know, I love her. We care about each other. Our kids don't freeze when we're in the same room. We have a very extraordinary divorce, I think. There was no scandal, but when it went down, I took a lot of grief from a lot of people. I still have at least one person out there who hates me because I left, and she’s happy to tell folks that I’m a loser.”
Phil smiles and says, “She’s absolutely right”.
“When we divorced, I was really afraid of God abandoning me. I go to an Episcopal Church and they have a little prayer service, very early. I was there every day and that, honestly - the process of failure made me a more tender person. I'm a more forgiving person because I have much to be forgiven for. Because of this, I'm probably more embracing of whatever comes my way in terms of the difficulties I've had. When people hate you or accuse you, lashing back isn’t going to improve your lot. It’s in those places of feeling the wrath of other humans that you can find God. God’s been through the same thing, only more so.
“But, all that to say is that the good times give you good times. The bad times actually give you character if you know how to embrace them. The bad times teach you about God and teach you about yourself. Bad times generally are the things that produce good art. And so, I'm grateful. Anything you know - my state of mind is essentially one of gratitude. “I know that I don't live the sort of Christian life that my mom would have wanted me to live. I'm a profane individual. I'm very liberal, politically; very liberal theologically, except that I really do dial into the story of the risen Jesus. I don't see Jesus as symbolic. I see Jesus as Jesus. Jesus welcomes all. ‘You're gay? Come to church.’ I can’t get lost in the arguments that Evangelicals want to churn up. I want to make music and love people.
“I'm sixty-seven. I should be done by now, but I guess I’m a late bloomer. I've never been more prolific. Up until recently, I've stayed out of the spotlight. It's always been about serving - whether it's been Phil Keaggy or Emmylou Harris or go down the long list. Right now, it's just I have that opportunity to say, ‘Well, I'll invest in what I'm doing’, and I've been doing that for about three years. I played the Newport Jazz Festival last year. The residual for me is the music itself. . Relationally, the guys in Emmylou's band are my closest friends. They're, bar none, it's the best band I've ever played with. I mean, it's insanely good.
“If you see Emmylou Harris with her Red Dirt Boys, that's us. We have the incomparable guitarist Will Kimbrough bringing his special sauce. Brian Owings on drums; Chris Donohue on bass- both of whom are on my new record, Open Heart, and on my Providence record. I built those records around that trio- the three of us. Bass and drums and yours truly on piano and vocals, recorded live and then we started adding stuff. As Red Dirt Boys, Will Kimbrough is our guitar player and, in Red Dirt, I play guitar as well, but I fell back on the keyboards a few years ago. I do love that.
“n terms of band ego versus an individual ego, I've never experienced anything like Red Dirt Boys. When we jam, Will Kimbrough and I will take off; we’ll solo at the same time. It’s like Little Feat, like New Orleans Dixieland, but with guitars. We both sing. We both play. We pass the lead vocal back and forth with Chris and Bryan holding down the groove. It's remarkable. It's not my band. It's as much the drummer's band as it is anybody else's. That's a sweet thing. The spotlight shines on all of us as one”.
“The Keaggy Band days were all about Phil and he was gracious enough to share that spotlight with me each night, but it was his music primarily. The weird cult-like church we were a part took most of the money, and so our bonds were formed in some ways because of our struggle to survive. Lynn Nichols said to me a few years ago, ‘Why didn’t we just up and leave the church, and put some money in the bank?’ Well, we were superstitious; our concept of God wasn’t just about Him loving us. It was also one that was a bit afraid of Him. Our scene was all about staying in line and obeying our ‘elders’, who were all about 32 years old! Crazy. It’s a miracle I believe in anything after all that. But I do.”
“Playing with Phil was an exceptional musical experience because we liked to make up stuff as we went along. It was part of our sense of Spirit, quite honestly. And everyone was on board, all the players. We were just kids, 22, 23 years old except our drummer who was a decade ahead of us; the old man in the band. But we took chances musically, which was a real rarity in Christian music. We were sort of like the Grateful Dead but lacking in great material. As much as people love “Emerging”, our one disc, the writing on it is not amazing, not Phil’s, not mine. The backdrop of being controlled by a religious community lurked in the way we operated, and I think that maybe the reason that there will never be a reunion by the original PKB. But it’s funny how often people ask some of us, ‘When will you guys unite and make another record?’ Well, never say never, but never.”
I then asked Madeira to tell me about his latest CD, Open Heart.
“Open Heart. Basically, what had happened was my partner passed away in 2017 of cancer. She found out around Christmas 2016. Man, it was a terrible time and I was not allowed to speak of it. She had her own little community, but I was forbidden to have mine. Of course, I resented it. I just felt pushed out. I had my daughters and two friends as the support system.
“Eventually, a few months before she passed, I just said, 'I can't do this anymore. I love you. I'll do whatever you need me to do. But in terms of being this guy that you keep rejecting, I can't do this. We've gotta figure out a new way.' That turned into a terrible rumor that I left her because of her cancer, which was devastating to have out there, but it was out there. She had convinced me that she had another ten years of life, and I knew we couldn’t continue in the paradigm of behavior that we’d created.
“And then four months later, she just took a dive for the worse. I saw her one time before she passed away. She passed away eight weeks after I last saw her. She just lived half a mile from here and I wasn’t really given the opportunity to grieve or to be part of her departure. That one little lie- ‘he left because she had cancer’- effectively destroyed me within the community she and I had shared for years.
“During that terrible season of rejection and being scapegoated I wrote six tunes were rootsy and jazzy, upbeat and bitter. It's very almost like 50s, 60s jazz with vocals - like Horace Silver meets Mose Allison type lyrics. Cutting. Bitter. Which was the way I dealt with this barrier to finding closure. Primarily, they weren't directed at her, they were directed at the people who ran with her story.
“Now I realize that I was in the anger stages of grief..
“Meanwhile, she passes away. I'm in the back row at the funeral. The priest at the funeral stared at me when she put the wafer in my hands. It is weird to be hated. I never lashed out. I don't think my non-lashing was motivated by goodness. I think I was just smart enough to know that it was just going to bring more shit on me if I did that, right? I had my daughters as my support system, which was sweet, but also terrible. They shouldn't have had to experience that. They saw me at my most dejected.
“So, she dies. And, then, about four months later, I started seeing someone. I was foolish enough to think, ‘Well, I guess, you know, she made things so difficult for me that I guess she made it easier for me to move on.’ Which was dead wrong but it's what I thought. I started dating this gal and she was going through her own terrible breakup and rejection. We were rescuing each other, which- trust me- rarely works out. I started writing these tunes that became the record that's coming out in February called Open Heart. But what I realize now is that, especially in the songs that are addressing this woman's grief, I'm actually addressing my own devastation.
“The first line of this album is 'You're going to grieve it for a long, long time, your open heart was the scene of the crime, you keep asking me questions. Why, why? Why? Baby, your guess is as good as mine.'
“It took me a long time to get to the point of celebrating this woman I’d given a decade to, despite the bad ending. I loved her then, and I love her still. I miss her, sure. Her ending was terrible, and leading up to writing ‘Open Heart’, I was in denial about my grief. I was dismissive of those beautiful years, because of the hurt her ending heaped upon me. But once I realized what really created Open Heart (my grief), I was able to remember what I loved, long after the photos were tossed out, long after I thought I’d never think of her sweetly again. And now, a picture will show up on social media- the two of us loving each other somewhere caught in time, and I’ll save it and savor it.”
Phil then asks himself out loud before continuing: “What's the last verse? 'You kneel on the tombstone of what seemed meant to be. Sometimes the prayers is a rosary bead. in the grotto of dashed hope and sacred memory, whisper a prayer for your beautiful dream.'
“My heart was addressing itself, even though I didn’t know it. Isn’t that beautiful? And isn’t that how God works? Subtly and sacredly.
“There's a lot of humor in the record and there's some sadness. But I call it Open Heart because that's me. When it comes to my heart in a relationship, I open it right up. I'm looking for that intimacy that I had to a real sweet degree with the woman who passed out. That's what Open Heart is trying to talk about. Meanwhile, there's this crazy back story of grief and the journey, but I still smile.
“I’ve got my basic go-to team on the record- Cindy Morgan. She's a frequent partner of mine in terms of duets. John Painter
on Horns and James Hollihan on guitars. It’s my standard crew. I love the people I work with. I’m blessed.”
Drawing those comments to a close, Phil concluded, “To me, I'm interested in real life. You know, I'm not interested in knowing how good you're doing with God. I'm actually interested in how bad you're doing with God. That's much more intriguing to me!”
“I gotta believe that God's mercy is good enough to know all of the mistakes I'm making about Him. I'm just saying I don't know everything. I tend to be pretty dismissive of a lot of stuff that I grew up thinking was true. But now, I don't worry if my kids are not on the same page as me with spiritual things. I'm not freaking out over that. Whereas my mother took it personally if I didn’t see God the way she saw him, I am content to believe that my kids are on their own unique beautiful journeys, and God is with them. I am not looking to see myself in the mirror of my children's eyes. I want them to be who they are. I trust that God is good and that whatever path they're on, whether He's visible, whether God is visible to me or to them on that path, I’ve got to believe God is on their path. It might look like a path to destruction. It might look terrible. But everything that you know seems to point that way, even in Scripture. Like in the Psalms, where it's saying, ‘I go all the way down to hell, I can go all the way up to heaven, You're there.’ So why would I think, Well, yeah, He's everywhere except on that path of someone I don't understand. I don't worry about it. I don't worry about hell.”
“What I hope the rest of my life looks like is: making great music, traveling, playing, producing and continuing on in the joyful journey God has me on- life's too short to make stuff that doesn't matter.”
Keep up with Phil’s work and appearance itinerary by visiting PhilMadeira.com.