Monday, June 29, 2009

Jesus Music

I mentioned Don Rakestraw in an earlier post. He and my sister Jennie were getting serious about each other, so he was around a lot. He and I had learned a bunch of Neil Young and CSN&Y tunes. "Harvest" and the first CSN album especially. I was also listening to a lot of George Harrison. I loved the 3-LP "All Things Must Pass." We learned some of those tunes. Now that he and I were both real sold-out believers, we started looking for a way to put this interest to some kind of spiritual use. We started with a medley of "Heart of Gold" and "Wayfaring Stranger" that we did in church. Don played guitar and sang harmony while I played harmonica and sang lead. It all went over really well. Later we did Harrison's "Hear Me Lord" and "Here Comes the Sun."

It was early 1972 and our area was hit by several waves of revival. The Asbury Revival of 1970 coming down from Kentucky, the Jesus Movement from the West Coast, the Charismatic Movement from everywhichaway, and a local revival at First Presbyterian Church here in Gadsden that spilled over into a prolonged Campus Crusade influence. Our group was more influenced by the Asbury and Jesus Movement than the others, but there was a lot of cross-pollenization.

Anyway, about that time, Don and I "invented" Jesus Music. We thought we should adapt or write songs in our style of music to the service of God rather than mammon (or self). We took a set of songs to a battle of the bands at Gadsden State Junior College only to be surprised (and delighted) to find another group of long-haired Jesus Freak acoustic musicians at the hall. They were from Albertville and they had a coffeehouse. We checked it out loved it. We had a couple of guys with us who got all excited and rented a building in Gadsden. So now we had a coffeehouse, too. The guys from Albertville would come down and play at our place and we'd play up there. Steve Richey and Rick Trussell became good friends of ours. (I still see Rick fairly often. He hangs out with us at the Vineyard from time to time.)

So, with a coffeehouse, we had a regular gig at a time and place where, spiritually, a lot was going on. Our duo was expanding into a band while we were expanding our repertoire by writing our own songs. The stuff I wrote musically reflected what I was listening to from Neil Young to The Who to the Allman Brothers.

Then we started hearing what was already out there--the "real" Jesus Music. Paul Clark, Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Malcolm & Alwyn, Love Song, then Second Chapter of Acts, Keith Green, Randy Matthews, Terry and John Michael Talbot. The list grew with Honeytree, comedian Mike Warnke, Phil Keaggy, and more and more and more. We started seeing guys from our own part of the country--Pat Terry, Don Francisco--releasing albums and touring. In order to make this music available, we started selling the records in our coffeehouse. We never had any coffee in our coffeehouse, but we always had a lot of great music.

At the same time, we were becoming aware of a plethora (si, jefe, a plethora) of local talent. Some of the best songwriters and musicians ANYWHERE. The talent was amazing. It really was as though God just poured something out nationwide and it was everywhere. I loved going to concerts and hearing the big name guys do their stuff, but I would just as soon sit in a small room and hear Barry Goss, Arnie Sanford, Dan Noojin, Nori Kelley or Don & Jennie Rakestraw do theirs. It was that good.

The coffeehouse (Free House) became an organization (Christian Brothers) that sponsored concerts and festivals. Our first series of concerts was the 1976 No Jive, Jesus Is Alive summer series. We had two or three all-day outdoor concerts at the ampitheater downtown featuring the best of local talent, and there was a lot of great local talent. Psalm, Dan & Chip, the Waddels, the Christian Brothers Band (the band that evolved from Don's & my duo--only now I was playing electric). Wendell Miller and friends in Birmingham began to sponsor concerts there and, following our 1977 Falls Festival, we were touring with Terry Talbot and doing sound for just about all the Contemporary Christian concerts in Bham, Atlanta, to Chattanooga areas, and some well beyond that. We had a chance to work with a lot of these Jesus Music heroes. I toured with Terry Talbot for about a year. We did sound for everybody on the above list (paragraph 5) except Norman and Stonehill.

Of course we were influenced by all this great music. I'll have to say that my greatest influence from Jesus Music was not all that musical. What I got was freedom. We could musically express ourselves in our own "language" and it was legit. I also saw that Christian albums did not have to be poorly produced and that the musicianship could be second to none. I lost of a lot of the cultural inferiority complex I had experienced as a young believer wondering if it was okay to play a distorted electric guitar or (gasp!) slide guitar or do a blues tune. There was some guy, Larry Something, who was preaching nationwide about flatted sevenths and backbeats being of the devil and encouraging bonfires of secular LPs. I remembered filling out my Moody Blues collection from a group of albums that were supposed to hit the fire. I asked, so it was okay. But there was still so much to learn about aesthetics and Christianity.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to biology class...

This post isn't primarily focused on music, but, trust me, it is definitely in the context of "influences."

I was practicing and hanging out with the band I mentioned last time while I was at Gadsden State Junior College. I was rebelling against God. God had pretty much messed up the first serious romance of my young life. I won't relay the story here, but the succession of events makes it clear. (Some of you may doubt that now without hearing the story. You need to look into that tendency; it's philosophically dishonest.) I was raised to be a good boy, but I rebelled and tried to break the rules and be a bad boy. I drank some but only once got outrageously drunk, so smashed that I spent four or five hours unconcious in my back yard, where my friends (not the band-mates) had let me off. I tried to come in very nonchalantly and make for my room thinking it was around midnight. Mom and Dad were waiting up. Busted. Grounded. But the other stuff--sex and drugs--never happened. Not because I didn't try. I can't tell the stories here, but I can tell you enough to say that, especially with sex, the opportunity was there more than once and each time there would be an interruption: a policeman with a flashlight, that kind of thing. Every time I would get mad and say to myself, "Damn! My parents are praying for me again." It was the only explanation. It was beyond coincidence.

So I was mad at God. You may ask how I knew there was a God. Well, with that kind of intrusion in my life, often with advance warning, I could just as well have rationally questioned the existence of President Nixon. I might have discounted the Vietnam draft with as much intellectual integrity as most agnostics I run into these days discount the "knowability" of God.

"I don't believe in the draft. I have plans. I am the captain of my soul. I am the master of my fate."

"And the number for November 17 is 98."

"There is no draft. Nanny nanny boo boo! I'mmm not listeninggg!"

Yeah, I was mad at God, but I had a problem. Biology. It was some kind of "programmed study" class where you go to a kiosk and listen to a lesson on cassette tape while filling in a workbook. There were also a couple of labs a week that were conducted by a real live teacher. It was a pass/fail class. You do the work, you get a C. You do extra, you get an A or B. There were tests. That determined the pass/fail part. I had goofed off and not kept up with the program. Monday was test day and Jerry Winters (the drummer) and I crammed at the student center. As we were walking to the science building to take the test, I ran into Beth Lane, who went to a prayer group my sisters and some others were in. She stopped and invited me to the meeting. I didn't avoid her in the first place because she was really pretty. But an invitation to a prayer meeting? I told her I'd see if I was free, thinking to myself that I had lots of things to do that night like listen to albums, watch a rerun of Mannix, I don't know, just about anything but go to a prayer meeting. Then it hit me. Walking toward the science building I offered a bargain to God: If you'll get me through this test, I'll go to the prayer meeting. What did I have to lose? I felt safe enough, because the only things I knew about the test material was what I had crammed in the 15 minutes Jerry and I had in the student center.

The test was like this: First you had to pass an oral portion where all students sat in a group and were randomly asked questions. You had to get two out of three right to qualify for the written test. Mrs. Bowen, the instructor, asked me the two things I DID know from cramming. I didn't even have to take a third question. Lucky, I thought. Then the written portion. Twenty multiple-choice questions as I recall. I sat there in the tiered lecture room staring stupidly at the questions. I did peek at a girl's test I could see and swiped a couple of answers. Turns out she failed the test. I hurriedly circled the As, Bs, Cs, Ds randomly and walked to the front of the room where Mrs. Bowen was grading the papers on the spot. She put her answer key next to my paper and ran down from top to bottom. Then she said, "Excellent, Mr. Finlayson. Perfect score!"

The door was right behind her and I walked out into the hall, and, as I remember it, leaned against the wall because my knees were weak. One thing was sure: I was going to prayer meeting on Monday.

The meeting was at somebody's house in North Gadsden. The meeting moved around. There were eight or ten people there; half of them I didn't know. It's hard to describe what happened. I felt love there. Not that I could distinguish the love of God. I couldn't. But as these people would earnestly pray for each other, I sensed a profound love that was clearly not human in origin. It was a love for each other, but not the kind I was used to. By contrast, my best friend (as I found out later) had hit on every girl I had ever dated (not that many). I found myself almost involuntarily confessing sin. It felt safe and I felt loved and accepted. This group was to be my spiritual umbilical cord for the next two or three years. I went home that night, kneeled by my bed, and asked God to forgive me for being so rebellious among other things. I didn't have a particularly emotional experience, but I felt a profound sense of relief, and, over time, I noticed a gradually changing perspective on my life, the people around me, and my place in the universe.

This had an effect on my music. Was it still OK to play the blues? Or even electric guitar for that matter? What about those "secular" songs? Did I need to play some kind of religious music? Did I have to get a haircut? Answers to these and more...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Going Eclectic

The first time I ever played in a band was in 1971. The band was Randy Sitz, lead guitar and vocals; myself, rhythm gutar and vocals; Jerry "Snake" Winters,drums; and Jim Bagley, bass. In the photo is Randy, Perry Teague (who was planning on playing keyboards with the band, but that never materialized), me, Jerry, and Jim. Randy was by far the most accomplished musician, with Snake in second place. I was a total novice. We played a hodge-podge of songs--whatever one of us happened to know and could introduce to the rest. I remember playing "Eighteen" by Alice Cooper, partly because it was easy, but mostly because the opening riff sounded so good doubled by the two guitars. We did "Mississippi Queen," "Won't Get Fooled Again." Lots of practice, but never played a gig. Still, it was fun hangin' with those guys, and it was a blast making music with a band, whether we had an audience or not.

Somewhere in here my musical influences became more random. I got way into the Allman Brothers and deeper into real roots blues (with those $1 LPs). Saw the ABB in Birmingham in the summer of '71 while Duane was still alive. I only wish I had been a little more musically mature to better enjoy such a rare treat. I got into Clapton. I liked Cream okay, but it was Derek and the Dominos that grabbed me. Layla is still one of my top ten favorite albums. The LP was better than the remastered CD. Listening to the LP you could hear a band member holler "Whoo!" when somebody else hit some inspired lick. The best one was (obviously) Clapton exclaiming when Duane Allman went into a delirium-inducing slide part on "Have You Ever Loved a Woman." Maybe it was "Key to the Highway." Anyway, I wore the grooves out. Also turned me into a Strat player. But that was later when I could afford to spend any kind or real money on a guitar.

On the other hand, I was pulled by the folk-rock scene. Neil Young, CSN, CSN&Y especially. What songwriting! What singing! By this time Don Rakestraw was dating my sister Jennie, and he would bring his guitar and play and sing "Rocky Raccoon" and the entire "Alice's Restaurant" complete with "eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining how each one was to be used as evidence against us." Don and I started playing together. We learned every song on Neil Young's "Harvest" LP and most of "Crosby, Stills, and Nash" and "Deja Vu." At first, he would play guitar and sing harmony while I played harmonica and sang lead. Later on I played guitar, too.

My guitars: My first guitar was a 1963 Fender Esquire (a one-pickup Tele) that I bought at Laverty Music for $15. The neck had a broken screw in it and showed a botched job of trying to drill it out. I bought it and walked out with the two pieces. I got the screw out, the neck on, and located a pickguard. I put a Gibson humbucker in the neck position. There was a hole in the pickguard, so I decided to fill it with something useful. David has it now. My first acoustic was an old sunburst Gibson J-45 ($75?). Then I bought a used Yamaha FG-180 ($37.50) that was one of the sweetest sounding guitars I've ever played. Dan Noojin has that one to this day.

Soon, though, everything was going to change. Especially me.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Continuing the Story

Okay, so Jennie got a six-string guitar. It was an Emperador which must have been Spanish for "wood and metal torture device." Let us just say that the action (the height of the strings above the neck) was high. She played it very well. I used it, too, and with three main effects: 1) I got calluses that I could stick needles through and impress my friends, 2) I developed a strong but slow left hand and still tend to squeeze a string like I'm trying to get the last of the toothpaste out of the tube, and 3) I developed an avoidance of barre chords for a while (although I played full chords by hooking my thumb over to get the top string).

About the same time I discovered The Who and "Tommy." I learned to do the Pete Townshend flamenco flail (see blurred right hand in above photo), and I learned every song on Tommy. Every one. Even the Underture, which I still think is an amazing piece of music. So most of my playing was acoustic rhythm at that point. When I picked up electric, it was a Gibson Les Paul-shaped Melody Maker I borrowed. Besides Who stuff, I discovered the blues. The first real blues I heard was B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone." on Top 40 radio. Like I said, there were no blues stations, no rock stations either. This was before album-cut FM stations. Anyway, I loved the blues and found all these great blues artists on $1.00 bargain albums. The recordings were raw, but it was the real deal. I learned to play the blues by discovering the pentatonic minor scale (I think I saw it in a book) and playing the notes over and over again while I had The Yardbirds (especially "New York City Blues" ( on the phonograph. I didn't know the soloist on that cut was Jeff Beck. Listen to him and hear where Duane Allman got a lot of his licks. Well, that's where I got a lot of my licks, too. I never was one for copying solos, but I sure stole a lot of ideas. I had no desire to be in a cover band, never saw the point of replaying something someone else had already done, but I was never above "borrowing" anything that might prove useful for my own purposes. Thus my motto: Copy nothing but steal anything. If you know what I mean.

Still no band, just lots of playing in my bedroom. By now I had "the jones." Any player knows what that is. It's the point you reach where you have to play every day, several times a day. You just have to. That's where I was.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Musical Influences

I've been asked what were my musical influences. I used to be asked that mostly about songwriting, more recently about guitar playing. Usually it was after playing somewhere and it wasn't like we could sit down at the Huddle House and talk about it until 4:00 A.M. That was reserved for more weighty topics among the closest of friends. So, the answer usually had to be delivered in a minute or less. And the answer is complicated. So, let's uncomplicate it.

First, let's narrow the discussion for now. Let's talk influences toward playing an instrument. Guitar was not my first choice. Unlike about every guitarist interviewed in Guitar Player, I did NOT grow up listening to Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker (or T-Bone Walker or Albert King, etc.) There were no blues stations in northeast Alabama in the 1950s and '60s. Still aren't. I loved the blues when I first heard it, but I was in high school before that happened. I didn't even grow up listening to Elvis Presley. You see, that was rock-n-roll and that was not allowed in our house. Rock-n-roll was sort of like musical porn. So, I grew up listening to orchestral arrangements of pop tunes and movie scores. I loved movie themes. I still think some of the best compositions in the last 50 years have been film scores. From Exodus to Blade Runner, John Barry's James Bond themes to Ennio Morricone's Italian westerns, there's a lot of great music written for film. Anyway, it was in junior high that I first heard the Beatles, then the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkle. I knew guys starting bands. I wanted to play, too.

At first I wanted to play drums. I loved drums. I don't know why they grabbed me so. I ached to play a trap kit. I listened to Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Cozy Cole. Later it was Ron Bushy's neverending drum solo in "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" ( I learned to play it tapping my foot and hitting things in the room (whatever room) with drumsticks. Boom boom boom boom Da Da DA boom. The long version. And then it was Keith Moon, who still gives me chillbumps. But I gave up on drums. All the drummers I knew learned how to play in junior high and high school band and I never was in the band. By that time I was wanting to play organ.

My sisters Jennie and Irene took piano. I'm not sure I was offered the chance. Kind of a girl thing, I guess. So, I had no headstart on keyboards. I just wanted to make that steady swirly sound. Everybody in town who played an organ played a Farfisa; you know the sound: "Wooly Bully," "96 Tears." Dana Laconto ( of The Bleus) had the only Hammond in town, at least that I recall. I still have his old Leslie 145. I looked into learning organ, but everyone wanted to teach me Bach, and I wanted to rach.

So, by default I ended up with guitar, although after a few years I learned to play some piano when I took music theory in the mid-70s. My first guitar hero was Al Caiola (think Magnificent Seven theme: That was electric guitar. Clear ringing notes with tremolo. I would imitate his guitar solos vocally, but I never actually learned to play guitar at the time. Later, Jennie got an arch-top four-string "tenor" guitar. She learned to fingerpick folk songs on it. She was good. Her finger-picking was very precise and her voice was--and is--one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices I've ever heard. But I didn't want to play "Freight Train." I heard a song that affected me enough to make me stop dreaming and start playing. It was the Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun." It had everything I loved: organ, drums, bass, and that fabulous arpeggiated guitar part (

So, guitar it was. "House of the Rising Sun" was the first song I ever learned. My first public performance was singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "Rising Sun" for my dad's Sunday school class. Next time, the Who, the White Album, the Allman Brothers, Derek and the Dominos, Neil Young, and a few others.

At Long Last--Blog

I decided this morning to start blogging. I haven't before for a number of reasons--lack of time, a habit of rewriting everything until it "feels right" as well as reads right, uncertainty about what to write. Until this morning. It hit me: I'll start by answering questions people have asked me over the years. I've been asked a lot of questions, and I've rarely had time to adequately answer them. Like I said, it's a start.