Phil Keaggy on Christian music, then and now

Q&A | The veteran guitar player talks about his talent and trusting God through the music industry’s changes
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 4/10/15, 03:40 pm

Phil Keaggy is one of the world’s great guitar players and a pioneer in contemporary Christian music (CCM). He’s released more than 50 albums and is a seven-time Dove Award winner. He also received two Grammy nominations for best rock gospel album. He’s frequently listed in Guitar Player magazine reader polls as one of the world’s top finger-picking guitar players. Keaggy began his career with the jazz rock band Glass Harp, which recorded its first album in 1970. About that time, though, Keaggy’s mother died in a car accident. It was a turning point in his life. Keaggy became a Christian. Even though he continued to perform with Glass Harp, he forged a solo career. He had his first contemporary Christian music hit with “What A Day,” released in 1973. I talked to Keaggy at the National Religious Broadcasters convention held recently in Nashville. 

The Glass Harp started as a jazz trio in Ohio. Were any of you believers at the time? If you were to ask the three of us, were we believers, we’d all probably say we were all believers in God. We were all raised Catholic. Daniel Pecchio and John Sferra are both Italian Catholic, and I’m from Irish Catholic background. We all believed in God. What happened to me was I had a specific, very deep, profound experience where I was born again. It comes at a different time in believers’ lives. I personally believe that God puts faith in us. As a child, I prayed, I went to church with my mom and my brothers and sisters, and my dad, occasionally he went. I wanted to know God. I wanted to always be His child. The Holy Spirit came into my heart in February 1970 as a result of my mom’s passing from a car accident. It was truly a wonderful experience that I hold to that confession of faith to this day. That’s what happened. I started writing songs about my belief in Jesus, and I was reading Scripture. I was learning so much about God, and my relationship with Him was growing. I was introduced to the lady who became my wife just 11 months after I became a believer. We’ve been married almost 42 years now. My passion for the gospel was really, truly a big part of my life in communicating what I was going to sing. As a guitarist, I felt that I grew by leaps and bounds just by getting in touch with God that way. 

I think the Holy Spirit loves music, and I think where the spirit of the Lord is, there’s liberty. I’ve spent all these years enjoying playing the guitar and making people happy, bringing hope to them, bringing good news to them.

You’ve said that you prefer playing acoustic. Why is that? I really prefer the acoustic stuff because I could pull out any song out of the hat over my years if they’re rehearsed enough, if I’m cognizant of the words and the changes and things, I’ll step out on a limb and do it. If someone says, “Hey, Phil tonight would you play ‘Rise Up’ or ‘Let Everything Else Go?’” or maybe a song that I hadn’t done in a while? “Things I Will Do” or something like that … I’ll pull it out and I’ll do it. I know that somebody there wanted to hear that song. I like to see their faces. I like to communicate. I like to be able to relax and have some one-on-one time with the whole audience. … I’m there to serve, actually. I’m there to provide, I hope, a service of hope and joy and musicality. If I’m happy and relaxed, I think they will be, too. I’ve never been like, people up on their feet. I’ve been a different kind of artist. I have never been a pop sensation or anything like that. I’m just kind of who I am.

There is a legend that either Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix—the name changes—was asked how do they feel to be the greatest guitar player in the world? Whoever it was said, “I don’t know. Go ask Phil Keaggy.” I’ve heard that story before. Actually, the myth is more popular than I am, the urban legend that it is. No, it was never said by either of them. There are echelons of artists up there. Just like there are classic movies. Then you have “B” movies or you have unusual documentaries over there to the side. I’m kind of like an unusual documentary when it comes to my contribution because I’m just what I am, and I try to do the best I can at what I do. I want to thank God. I want to thank the people who have enjoyed and loved what I’ve done musically, artistically, and, hopefully, in a ministry sense, too.

The myth has nonetheless persisted and I think the reason is it’s one of those stories that could be true. Your fans hear your guitar playing and say, “It’s possible that Phil Keaggy might be the best guitar player in the world.” I’m certainly one of the guitar players in the world, that’s for sure. When Jimi Hendrix was asked the question, “How does it feel to be the greatest player in the world?” He goes, “Let’s just say I’m the greatest guitar player in this chair.” He was pretty modest and humble about his own assessment of himself. Anybody who is a true musician knows they’re not the greatest at anything. ... The closer you are to the Lord, the more you realize what a sinner you might really, truly be. The closer you get to the light or the closer you get to becoming a great writer, the more you realize how little you know. I’ve always had a pretty realistic assessment of my own gifts and talents. I also know my limitations. I’m limited immediately. I have nine fingers, but I’ve learned how to do some finger style. I have my own picking style but I have a melodic style that I’m really grateful for. There have been times where I might have been driving or I’ll be walking the trails in the park. When I got the iPod on and I listen to books sometimes, and then I’ll let it shuffle into some music. Maybe an old song of mine will come up, maybe an instrumental piece. I’ll go, “Wow! Did I really do that?” I’m some kind of humbled by the gift of music by God. The gift to be able to make music, especially when you draw from a beautiful source. There’s all kinds of music and there’s music that shouldn’t be called music, but we don’t need to go there. Everybody has their tastes. I just know what I like, and I know what I love, and I know what I’m capable of. I don’t try to venture off into places I’m not at least experienced at.

Having been in the Christian music industry for more than 40 years, what’s different today than when you started? I’ll tell you what is consistent and what is not different today is the hearts of the artists. I’d rather talk about them than the people that have run the business of Christian music. … Back in the beginning, we didn’t set out to be “CCM artists.” The term didn’t even come until the late ’70s. I guess I would say the artists who love God and devote their music to Him and develop their music and are investing in that, those are the people that I really love. I think that’s what stayed consistent. I know artists who are really big names, and they’re some of the humblest people I know. Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, these guys are very successful—Amy Grant—just incredibly humble people. I can go down the list from those who are from the earliest days to those who I’ve gotten to know who are now popular. The main thing is the message because no one can really bank on a career in this. We were called to be proclaimers whether we do it with words or without words. We’re planted on this Earth to love God, to worship Him, to proclaim Him, and to love one another well. To me, that’s life right there. Love your families, love your husbands, your wives, your children, and if you’re blessed with grandchildren, which someday I’m looking forward to, someday, go for it. Love your neighbor. …

To me, the timeless message is the love of God which fills all of the universe and it’s what keeps us alive, keeps us going. If only we could recognize it, that’s what we have to do. Just recognize it, how we could find Him in others.  We could see him in our brothers and our sisters. Even in the lost, they have value to God. God has not forgotten them.

It’s a different way of making a living these days in Christian music. People aren’t selling albums and the music is almost free. Has that changed your life? I’ve been an indie artist now since 2002 when me and a record label, I was with a Christian label, we parted ways. Of course, the only place that really sells my music is when I go out and play concerts. I take some CDs with me or through the web shop. I don’t have any stores selling my music. I have to do concerts. That’s how I make my living, actually. I do sessions, too, occasionally. They pay some of the bills. I take joy in doing that. I put my heart and soul when I do sessions. In fact, a couple of years ago, I played on half of Micky Dolenz’ last album called Remember. It’s a great album. A lot of ’50s, ’60s songs, ’70s songs, and I played some of my finest guitar on one of those songs. 

Many folks probably know Micky Dolenz was a member of the Monkees. Right. His voice is actually better than it’s ever been. I think he was around 64 or 65 when he recorded this album. He’s hitting all the notes, doing all of his own harmonies. It just amazed me. It was really a privilege to meet him, to do guitar work for him. We had a listening party at his house out in L.A. Then, I also played recently on Billy Sprague’s album. On two songs, he was so happy with what I did. I’m so delighted that he is happy with what I did. They know that I’m free. They know that when I do a part for them, I’m going to be listening, hopefully, with their ears as well.

It’s used to be that you would lose money on the tours and make money by selling albums, but now, the music is free and you make money on the tour? That’s pretty much it. That’s interesting because some people hired me to do sessions and they really don’t have much money at all getting into that aspect of it. Then all of the sudden, God brings someone along into my life and they say, “Hey, Phil I’d love to have you. Can you do this for me?” They make up for all the people that didn’t have much to give. It’s like, let’s just keep on trusting God for this. 

Listen to Warren Smith’s full interview with Phil Keaggy on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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