July 16, 1994
Let me begin by apologizing for the length of this post. It's really three posts: An introduction to Phil Keaggy; a description/review of his most recent album; and a note about the guitars he plays. Remember, this is email, not a conversation: you can skip part or all of this as you see fit!
As I write, I'm listening to Phil Keaggy's "new" CD, Way Back Home, and what a treat! The word "new" is in quotes, because Keaggy originally released an album with this title "way back" in 1986. However, it was released only on cassette on a small, independent Christian music label, and soon went out of print. Despite this, the album has been much loved and much requested by Keaggy fans. The new Way Back Home is in some sense a re-release of the 1986 recording, in that 10 of the 11 songs of that earlier recording appear on the new recording (the missing song---the instrumental, "The Reunion"---appeared on his 1987 instrumental album, The Wind and the Wheat). However, four new songs appear, and many of the older songs have been significantly reworked.
For those of you wondering who Keaggy is, he is best known as an incredibly brilliant and lyrical guitarist, a master of a wide variety of acoustic and electric styles. Much of his music is characterized as "Contemporary Christian Music" (CCM), and thus he has not received the attention his talent deserves. An interview with Keaggy appears in the May/June 1992 issue of Acoustic Guitar with the subtitle, "One of the best guitar players you may never have heard"! He is the subject of the cover article in the latest issue [issue number 4] of Fingerstyle Guitar, where his music is described as "at once heartfelt and technically amazing." Interviewer John Schroeter notes, "Despite his deliberate side-stepping of mainstream music and fame, Musician Magazine listed Keaggy among the '100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century.' The *Guitar Player Reader's Poll* placed him near the top as well."
Keaggy has recorded 18 albums, as well as 5 albums of "Backroom Trax" home demo recordings available through his fan club. Many of these recordings feature his "searing electric chops." Despite the prominence of his excellent, "ultra-lyrical" electric playing in his studio recordings, his concerts are almost always just Phil with his acoustic guitar, and his best-selling albums have been those which feature his acoustic playing. His last acoustic album was the 1992 recording, Beyond Nature, a technically and musically brilliant collection of instrumentals, many inspired by the life and writings of C. S. Lewis. Way Back Home has him returning to an acoustic setting, this time with vocals.
In the liner notes, Keaggy says of this album, "I wish to make this album Way Back Home a tribute to family, parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. I have a heritage I wish to express in this album. Of all the music I've written, these songs mean the most to me." These comments accurate reflect the thematic focus of this collection of songs: The family as home, the "place" where we come from, and from which we draw our sustenance.
This is a sweet album! Its sweetness comes, not from mere sentimentality, but from deep gratitude and joy expressed musically. The sweetness of this expression comes in part from musical understatement: The guitar work is seldom flashy (although if you try to figure some of it out, you'll find yourself challenged!), and the production is very light. Keaggy wrote several of the songs for his children---one was even partly composed by his 13-year-old daughter Alicia, who sings it with him---and the tenderness of these songs contributes to the sweetness of the collection. Keaggy and his wife, Bernadette, lost five children in premature births before they gave birth to Alicia, Olivia, and Ian; Keaggy's devotion to his children thus has a poignant intensity that is often evident in his music for them.
The changes made in the tracks from the original 1986 release are all in the direction of making the production more sparse: some harmonized vocal lines and guitar parts are now performed by a single voice or guitar, some string accompaniment is toned down or eliminated, some instrumental solos are shortened or eliminated. This sparseness lends the songs an accessible simplicity despite their emotional and harmonic complexity.
The album opens with the quietly reflective title track, a musical remembrance of the tragic farm accident that took one of Phil's right fingers when he was four years old (yup, he makes all that guitar magic with only four fingers on his right hand!). Instead of sadness, the song evokes a quiet joyfulness at the recognition of one's need to look back at important incidents in the past to guide life in the present. The final verse makes explicit the motivation for much of the album:
Way back home in the childhood of my past, I ask,From there, half of the songs deal directly with themes of family; past family remembered fondly, present family celebrated in song. The rest of the songs deal with various spiritual themes, many of them explicitly Christian. Some themes touched on include prayer, freedom found in surrender to God, and the mystery of the incarnation. The lyrics for several of these songs are poems from Christian devotional literature that Keaggy has set to music. There is also a gorgeous, inventive musical dramatization of part of the Noah legend of the Old Testament, combining Celtic-flavored harp-like arpeggios on the guitar with unusual rhythmic movement. Many of the songs are ballads, but some are up-tempo numbers, including "It Could've Been Me," an evocative tune whose melody and vocal phrasing are reminiscent of Bruce Cockburn (whom Keaggy greatly admires). Several songs have a noticable Celtic or British influence (Keaggy is a devoted fan of John Renbourn), while others have a uniquely "Keaggy-esque" flavor, with influences as diverse as 60s folk and rock, turn-of-the-century impressionistic music, and modern jazz-fusion.
what becomes of a man
who leaves behind the memory of youth,
instead of looking back to live again.
The album ends with two songs about marriage, both marriage new and marriage old. The first is "Here and Now," a very pretty sung blessing written for the wedding of friends of Phil's. The final song, "The 50th," is a moving instrumental/spoken tribute to Phil's grandparents, who celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1948, three years before Phil was born. For the occassion, their family recorded blessings and wishes of family members young and old on a 78rpm record. These spoken blessings of 46 years ago fade in and out throughout Phil's nine minute instrumental composition, which is based loosely on the folk song, "There's no place like home" (recall the album's title...). Phil takes this simple, almost superficial folk melody and makes it *deep*, alternately bouyantly joyful and poignant. Near the end he modulates and segues into "Dear old dad," and the 78rpm recording fades in with his extendend family of 1948 singing this song to his grandfather---Phil accompanying his family three years before he was born! It's a touching moment, and a fitting end to a sweet album. The guitar playing throughout Way Back Home is magical, but especially so in "The 50th" (which, by the way, Phil plays in the highly unusual tuning, EEBEBB).
On a somewhat personal note, I can't help but remark on the exquisite tone of the guitars on this recording. This is partly testimony to excellent playing and engineering, but it is also testimony to the fine luthery of James Olson, who built the two steel-string acoustics that Keaggy uses on this recording. The moment in 1986 when I first heard the gorgeous, trilled cascade of notes that opens the first cut, I fell in love with the sound of Jim's guitars. Thus began five years of exchanges of letters between myself and Jim, as I watched his prices climb faster than the balance of my savings account! But I was finally able to order an Olson guitar in 1991, and have been falling more and more in love with it since its delivery two summers ago. Several of the musicians we discuss on this list are recent Olson players. Keaggy had already been a longtime Olson player when James Taylor discovered Olson guitars; Taylor's visibility eventually brought Olson's craftsmanship to the attention of David Wilcox, Leo Kottke, Patty Larkin, Preston Reed, and Cheryl Wheeler, all of whom play Olsons today. If you want to hear the beauty of Jim Olson's instruments, give Way Back Home or Beyond Nature a listen. If you want more information about purchasing one of Jim's guitars, drop me a line.
The word that comes to mind when I think of Phil's music is: joy. Not happiness, necessarily, but joy. From the time I first heard Phil's music in 1980, no other music has been so much a source of joy for me---the joy of jubilation in happy times, or of seeking (and perhaps finding) redemption in sad times. My fondest wish for any of you would be that you find music or some other form of art that touches and uplifts the deep places in you as effectively as Phil's music does so for me. Perhaps the gentle soft-spokenness of Phil Keaggy's Way Back Home will be such ministering art for some of you.
P.S.: Both Way Back Home (Sparrow Records, SPA51459) and the earlier instrumental album, Beyond Nature (Sony, SoN47748) can be ordered online from the Compact Disc Connection; WBH for $10.81 and BN for $12.84. Telnet to cdconnection.com and follow the menus. By all means, patronize your local record stores. But if you can't find Keaggy's stuff there, know that you can find it online.
P.P.S.: Fellow netter/classical guitarist Steve Bondy is joining me in a long-term project to transcribe a bunch of Keaggy tunes, notate them with tablature on a Mac, and post the transcriptions as PostScript to the net. A couple transcriptions are essentially complete, including that of the guitar accompaniment to the wedding tune, "Here and Now," mentioned above. If you'd like to be notified of Keaggy tab postings, drop me a line and I'll add you to our email mailing list.
[firstname.lastname@example.org moderator Alan Rowoth sez: Quite by accident, I got to mix a couple of shows for Phil last year and he's a real mind blower. Once I lifted my jaw off the floor, I can only describe him as the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar. (that's a complement from me, as Hendrix is about the only 60's artist that I can listen to with anything other than a nostalgic tolerance. Most of that stuff sounds sooooo dated to me and Jimi always sounds fresh).]