A reflection on art, faith, humility, and tacos.
Tonight I played a show at a coffeehouse in a sort of strip mall. It was attended by approximately eight people: the opener, the talent buyer, two employees, and four customers. The gig didn’t pay and I sold no merchandise. One older man tipped me five dollars. I played a bunch of old songs and B-sides and wasn’t at my best, sonically. The kicker? I think it was the most important night of the three-week tour.
There were three elements at play behind this seemingly convoluted thesis. The first one was the simple fact that the show was, for all entrepreneurial and artistic purposes, a miserable failure. I’d played the same room two nights prior as a featured artist on their open mic with the goal of generating interest for the full show on Wednesday. I’d offered to book local support, but the venue assured me they’d see to it. On Monday, they let me know it had fallen through the cracks. There was no way I should have driven to this town for this turnout and I was feeling like I should have known better.
The second key here was my friend Sal. He’d also played the Monday open mic, and we had fun reconnecting and digging each other’s songs. On Tuesday, I asked if he’d still be in the area for this show, and when he said he would in fact be, I asked him to come do a short opening set. What I didn’t realize was that this would be his first actual show—no open mics, no covers for a guarantee. I watched as he absolutely slayed his set with six beautiful, original songs, interjecting explanatory stories that showed a maturity and sharpness beyond his years. Living under my cynical storm cloud, I saw him bask in the simple opportunity of getting to share his vulnerable art with other human beings.
The third and largest factor that contributed to my strange revelation was a conversation I’d just had with my friend Jess on the way to the venue. Jess plays in an awesome band and works the same grind we do: ruthlessly traveling, perpetually self-starting, slamming the American interstate with the songs in which she and her band so earnestly believe. We’d struck up a friendship online through mutual road friends and had been having a hell of a good time comparing notes about the road. When we each realized the other was a Christian, I couldn’t help but gush about the breath of fresh air it was to find another Christ follower in an industry saturated by an apathy, if not a general hostility, toward this particular brand of faith.
Some of this “secular” backlash I understand. Christians in the media typically don’t portray their spiritual leader well. I myself have been uninvited from playing at Christian conferences and un-offered jobs in churches because certain folks have found out that I travel in a bar circuit—not even that I drink specifically, but that I hang out in bars. It took me a good handful of years before I trusted a church again to love me the way I understand they’re supposed to, and that’s coming from a Christian of almost 20 years. I can only imagine how a lot of folks in the music industry and its accompanying counterculture feel towards the broadly traditional Christian church today: that radical array of slipshod dreamers that make up the beautifully diverse tapestry of the underground art scene of which we are a part. We’ve not been traditionally known for the grace we extend to the marginalized.
All this considered, when you find out that a friend on the dive circuit is on the same spiritual trek as you, it’s like in Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, when the secret police detective on the Anarchist Council learns that the other councilman is also a secret police detective. Our feet are in the same world as everyone else, but our eyes are working differently.
Jess and I were agreeing in our complete astonishment at the love and generosity we’ve both been shown on the road. For years now, people have come to my shows, bought my albums, fed me meals, opened their homes—all out of the goodness of their hearts. From the Christian worldview, it’s like God is showing us that we’ll be loved and provided for through these people, whether they know it or not. But then she said something that caught me off guard: she’d been approaching her tours as of late with a purposeful intent to serve the people she encountered.
I myself have struggled with the Christian idea of service and its role in my vocation. I know some people have been touched by, connected to, or even healed through some of the songs we’ve written, but I’m under no delusion that my music is so good that it’s a service for me to play it to you. I’ve long thought that my art is my art and my service is my service. I try to volunteer at my church, feed the homeless, and pray for people I know are having a hard time. And then I go and sing my songs, knowing that art is an important part of our spirituality as well. “Everything in its right place.”
Jess explained to me that she’ll fix a meal for a host family, or watch their kids while the parents run errands, but I still floundered for what it meant to serve people at a show. She said:
“l’ll talk to people and ask questions, and then I craft our set around our audience, and tell stories about my life or songs that I think will be most meaningful to them…we try to make it about them. And I always give 100% of myself. No faking. I hate performing at people. I want to invite people into this time…”
I looked at the eight people in the room and the idea of giving 100% that night honestly made me feel a little sick. I believe that God called me to do this with my life and that he gifted my band to be good at it, so when we perform these songs in rooms where most folks are more interested in shooting pool or hooking up, it’s infuriating. David Ramirez sang, “Maybe that’s what killed all the great voices in the world: always bleeding for every line, but no one was bleeding in return.”
I would never presume to call myself one of the “great voices of the world,” but I do work very devotedly at my craft. But when I got to thinking about that, I recognized this: I don’t have a time card. I don’t have a supervisor. I get to travel the country, seeing friends and singing songs, and more often than not, people pay me to do that.
My mom worries about me. A lot of righteous people worry about a lot of people they love who pursue music. The road takes a toll on everyone. I think, however, the greatest adversary to artists and entrepreneurs and travelers doesn’t lie within the traditional boogeymen of booze, women, drugs, or burnout. I think it’s bitterness. When you do your damnedest to make something important and people don’t appreciate it, it will jade you faster than anything. But you know where that bitterness comes from? Entitlement.
I don’t “deserve” anything. These audiences don’t owe me a thing. Any time someone listens to my song, much less tells me they like it, much less buys it, it’s a blessing. I made a thing and put it out in the world and someone else connected to it. What an insane, mystical, sacred act!
This tour hasn’t been especially good. I’ve been beating myself up about it in my businessman headspace. What can I do to waste fewer nights? How can we build our audience faster? What’s the next step toward getting big? I think though now after some thought that doing art is a lot like building a church. Growth should always be a byproduct and never a goal. If you’re focused on numbers, your focus is in the wrong place. When you’re doing the best you know how to put good into the world, the following will build itself. People are attracted to the authenticity. I realized I’ve been so caught up or in being disappointed that more people don’t care or being obsessed with growing our brand, that I’ve given up being present this week. I’ve probably missed opportunities and conversations I was supposed to have, fuming from behind the lip of a consolation pint glass.
I said a lot of this on stage tonight. I stopped for an eternity between songs to tell those eight people that I was so glad I could be there tonight because I believed I was in the process of learning something very important. And when I finished my show, one of those eight people came up to me. He didn’t say, “Great songs, man,” or “Beautiful voice!” He said, “I think you said some things tonight that I needed to hear.”
I thanked Sal on stage and I thanked the talent buyer and I thanked Jess in front of a bunch of people who didn’t know her. I put my five dollar tip in my pocket and went to get tacos with Sal. I tried to encourage him in his young craft, because he’s got a pure heart and a good mind for songs and I believe in him and I wanted him to know it. I also told him that art is like ministry: if you can be fulfilled doing literally anything else, run after that other thing. But if you feel in your bones that this is what you’re on earth to do, do it doggedly. And in the words of Sylvia Plath, “Don’t let the wicked city get you down.”
I drove an hour back to where I was staying and called my mom to enthuse about how the Holy Spirit is weird and crazy and teaches us in awesome times in weird ways. Then I wrote all this down before I could forget it. I’m hesitant to say tonight was life changing because I know life works in cycles, and I’m prone to forget these lessons, and God always gently reminds me with a voice eternally devoid of sarcasm. I just know that I got realigned because of a long series of not-coincidences, and for as long as I have this clarity, I’m through trying to be cool. I just want to be good.