The night before our interview I watched Randy Stonehill on stage. Later that same evening, a mishap at a different performance left him with a broken right arm. Still, Randy showed up for the interview as scheduled... only the arm that the night before had worked wonderful things from his guitar was now in a sling. Bolstered by aspirin (and coffee of questionable merit), Randy went ahead with the interview.
August 1995 marks 25 years that Randy Stonehill has been in contemporary Christian music, and he's able to celebrate that anniversary with an album that has already produced two #1 songs: "I Turn to You" and "In Jesus' Name."
The following interview took place in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nancy--You've been involved in the contemporary Christian music scene for something like a quarter of a century. So...does that make you a legend?
Randy--(laughs) "'A legend in my own mind,' he says humorously." No, I wouldn't describe myself like that! I would describe myself as a richly-blessed man, because it's a privilege. I think there are very few people who get to do what they love to do, and probably fewer still that get to combine that with a sense of being called to it. So, for me to have been in music ministry, at the ground-floor of a new genre -- you know, when it was called "contemporary Christian what?!" -- for me to be in at the ground-floor of a genre, and to be doing this for as long as I have, is just a very special privilege, and I never lose sight of that.
Nancy--How and when did you become a Christian? Is this something you grew up with?
Randy--No. The Lord intervened in my life at a crucial crossroads, when I first left home at the age of 17 in 1970. Just a young man with a dream and a song on my lips (he laughs), I went to Los Angeles to seek my fame and fortune. There, on my own for the first time and trying to make sense of it all, I ended up meeting other musicians, who also happened to be Christians. We could relate on a cultural level, we could talk shop -- but at the center of their lives and their music was this Jesus. I think it was the Spirit of God in the music and in their lives that really defined my own personal spiritual hunger, and brought me to a place where I realized that if I were going to really be a man I had to deal with this issue of God straight on in a forthright manner. I couldn't just sweep it under the rug because it made me nervous.
It was August 12, 1970. I was having a conversation with a friend, and he just asked simple questions, like "How are you?" I guess it was my time in God's eyes, because suddenly that question was no longer casual; it was like, "How are you really? In your heart of hearts how are you?" It sort of echoed though the core of my being, and that's when I realized that I needed to find out once and for all if Jesus was the dream of desperate men or if He was Who He claimed to be. So I prayed a simple prayer in this guy's kitchen, and confessed my lostness. I didn't use words like "sin" -- that was foreign to my vocabulary -- but I knew what it meant, because I knew that I was self-destructive and I, like everybody without Christ, ultimately felt alone. I knew I was in trouble. I didn't know why, and I didn't know how to get out of it.
In the conversation it came up, "Okay, look: If God is real and He loves you, that's the best news you'll ever hear in your life. Why does that frighten you?" And that's when the buzzer went off. I realized, "It's because I'm a sinner, because I'm playing God." When I saw that in myself, I realized how desperately lost I was, if I would turn away from the only true love in existence. So that's when I said, "Okay, Jesus. If You're real, here I am, no holds barred. Come into my life." I prayed a simple sinner's prayer, sort of in my own words, and confessed my need, and said, "Here I am. Let the wind of Your Spirit blow through me."
When I did that, I had what you'd call your textbook-case, kind of lightning-bolt experience in the Spirit. I don't know why that is. Maybe it's because Jesus knew I was so thick-headed, and that I was used to getting high and loud rock-and-roll, and He was going to make sure that I knew exactly Who it was I was dealing with! I guess He had to do something really dramatic to make sure that I never forgot -- that this was not just some little emotional moment in my life.
Nancy--Your current album, The Lazarus Heart, has already garnered two number-one songs, and I was going to ask if the tour were still going on. But looking at your arm, you don't look like you're going to be touring for the next few weeks.
Randy--Well, we'll call it a "mini-vacation." But, no, actually I appreciate that question. The radio success....It's still always a surprise and a delight when you produce something that you feel is true to who you are artistically and spiritually, and then it's also embraced by this broad radio audience. And the wonderful thing about that is, it creates a higher profile for you, and renewed interest in what you're doing.
Nancy--Do you need a higher profile?
Randy--Oh, yeah, I think so. In this day and age, in a country this big, with as much music as there is...certainly! Contemporary Christian music started on a grass-roots level, and now it's a multi-billion-dollar industry with hundreds of artists and new ones every day. That's the wonderful thing about radio: It gets the heads of the public and the heads of the industry to turn in your direction again and get a sense of what you're doing. So there's renewed interest, and you then try to follow-up on it by going across the country and playing these songs for the living, breathing people that you write them for. Radio is a great kind of "flare," so to speak, that gets shot up in the sky, and then you have opportunity to really take the songs to the audience. But also, then at that point you hope that those people will turn around and, after hearing you on the radio and then seeing the real deal live, that they'll go and buy the records.
Stonehill lives in southern California with his wife Sandi and daughter Heather. Over the years, most of Stonehill's albums (including some produced by the late Mark Heard) have been recorded in California.
Nancy--This album was done in Nashville, and I understand that's kind of unusual for you. Considering the way this came out, will you probably record in Nashville the next time?
Randy--Yeah, I imagine I will. I have recorded in California for the most part, but I came to Nashville because I wanted to stretch, to try some new artistic chemistry, and there's plenty of it here. I do imagine that I would do the next project here. This was a delightful experience for me, both artistically and personally. I mean, here you've got this great musical and spiritual community, and I really did feel warmly welcomed. I came here because the producer that I felt strongly about working with is based here. I really do think, because I was willing to take chances and because there is so much talent here, that I was able to produce something that is a new musical high-water mark for me. So I am excited about coming back, probably in the fall, and trying it again -- and putting a fresh spin on it again.
So many records that are produced here can have a similar sound; I guess because you've got the same handful of producers, and they're also using the same musicians. It was exciting to be able to tap into all the amazing ability here, but at the same time create a project that was really true to who I am. I think The Lazarus Heart is by far the best-sounding record I've made, and the most salable one.
Nancy--And it's very well-produced.
Randy--Oh, yeah! Frankly, I think Jimmie Sloas is a bit of a genius. You mentioned that I've been doing this for 25 years: Jimmy told me that he'd been listening to my work since he was in high school in Sandy Hook, Kentucky. So I thought the two of us made an interesting team. Here was a guy who knew my history enough to know what the heartbeat of the work is about -- what not to mess with -- and yet he came to the table with his own very strong abilities and was able to then frame my work in a powerful way. I really love him personally and I love working with him professionally, and I want to do it again.
Stonehill's music has come in a plethora of styles and subject matter. Sometimes he humorously pins the absurdities of our culture to a display board, in songs like "Cosmetic Fixation" or "Great Big Stupid World." The more serious "Can Hell Burn Hot Enough" deals with injustice and human suffering. Still other songs, like "Breath of God," "I Don't Ever Want to Live Without You," and "When I Look to the Mountains," reflect an intimate longing for God.
Nancy--Your name turns up occasionally with a co-writer, but largely, when I think of Randy Stonehill music, I think of material that you write. How much of your own relationship with God, or autobiographical stuff, turns up in your songs?
Randy--A great deal. Now that you mention it, though I did a lot of collaboration work on The Lazarus Heart, I still ended up writing the bulk of the lyrics. Even Jimmy once said, "I've never seen anyone labor so intensely over a lyric." And I told him, "To me, it's just the heart of the matter." I mean, you can have a great melody, you can have a great arrangement, but if you're not finding a fresher, deeper way of saying something, then to me as a listener it's ultimately disappointing. So because I'm that way as a listener, I take that on as a personal challenge as a writer.
Nancy--And you draw a lot from your own experience?
Randy--Yeah. You know, it's been said, "write about what you know, because that will be real." And so I do; I write about my own struggles and victories as a human and as a Christian, and also my observations about the world in which we dwell.
Nancy--Do you have any songs out of the last quarter-century that stand out in your mind as, "These are examples of what I really wanted to say to the world"?
Randy--Everything that I write, I write it because I think it matters, and then I try to articulate it honestly. There are certain pinnacle moments, though, where I feel as a writer I was able to do that in an especially powerful way.
Sometimes I look at the whole process and say, "I'm not altogether sure how this works. I know it's a lot of thinking and a lot of sweat, but also, somehow, God sends the muse or something. I'm not sure." So believe me, I'm not cocky about it. But there are moments where you'll stand back and you'll say, "Now that song, by golly, that sounds like it was created by a real songwriter."
There are songs that stand out over the years, like "King of Hearts" from Welcome to Paradise, which came out in '76. It's just sort of a touchstone song. "Who Will Save the Children?," which articulates the tragedy of world hunger and poverty. If you come up to recent days, maybe songs like "Rachel Delevoryas," which talks about people's sense of alienation, and songs like "That's Why We Don't Love God" or "In Jesus' Name," from The Lazarus Heart.
Nancy--It's interesting that those last two songs came up, because I have a note here to ask you about them! What about those songs?
Randy--"That's Why We Don't Love God" was born out of this foundational question that I had asked about the church and I had asked, more specifically, about myself: Why is it that, if God indeed loves us and has intervened in our lives, we are so slow to repent? Why are we so slow to truly lay down our lives, and trust Him? I look at the church and, with all the good things, I still see how splintered it is and what a confusing picture it is to the world. I look at my own life, and wonder why it's almost as if I'm my own worst enemy at times.
The vision for the song was galvanized during a conversation I had with a pastor, Scotty Smith. I was having lunch with Michael Card and Scotty Smith. Michael and I were kicking around song ideas and I mentioned the title to him, and his eyes just got wide, because it intrigued him. I said, "Scotty, what are your perceptions as a minister? Is it that we're simply afraid? That we know we don't deserve this kind of grace, so we just can't trust it?" And he said, "Yes, but it's more than that. It's that at the heart of our sinful nature we don't believe that we're all that bad. In other words, you can't even pierce the depth of our meanness and our darkness. We're so messed up that we don't even know how sick we are. And so we say in our sinful pride, 'Well come now, Lord. Maybe I need some counseling, maybe I need a little clean-up job, you know -- maybe a 12-step program -- but rebirth? Christ's death on the cross? C'mon, I'm not that bad.' So the very grace that draws us also repels us."
When he said that, it hit such a primal chord of recognition in my own sinful heart that I actually gasped, and slid down in my seat. I woke up at four in the morning with the lyrics going through my head, and I fumbled around in the darkness and grabbed the cassette recorder on the nightstand and started singing into it.
"In Jesus' Name" is a song about the church, a song to the church. It reminds me about what Oswald Chambers said about Jesus calling us His friends. So then, if we are to call Him "Friend" in return, we need to stand loyal to our Friend, even when circumstances all around would pull at us to be disloyal -- and we need to remember that what we do in our bodily life will either bring honor or dishonor to our Friend. I just wanted to say, "Look, people: God is faithful, we are His family, and He is using us -- but let us never underestimate the impact of what we do, either good or bad, in Jesus' name."
During the last 25 years, Stonehill has released 16 albums, three-quarters of which are now out of print and thus are no longer easily available. The Lazarus Heart album was released on "Street Level Records," a company Stonehill himself founded with some long-term associates in 1994.
Nancy--Have you ever thought of re-releasing some of your albums that are out of print, now that you have a new record company at your beck and call?
Randy--Yes I have. However, this is a new record company, and it's first things first: we're just trying to get the record company rooted and strong enough that we can then consider doing other projects of that nature.
The good news is that I was with Word Records probably longer than any other artist on their roster -- it was like 17 years -- so they have an extensive catalog of my work. They came to me just recently and asked if I would consider contributing additional liner notes and photographs for re-releases of the first four Myrrh projects, that were created before the advent of CD's. And I said, "Absolutely!"
Nancy--That will be exciting to all those people whose vinyl is getting to be transparent!
Randy--(laughs) Yeah, right -- or whose tapes have lots of drop-out spots on them. Word talked about re-releasing the first four projects back-to-back this fall, so I hope they'll do that. It's nice to see that there is continued interest in the older work. That's encouraging for a songwriter -- that sense that these songs have stood the acid test of time. Seems like everywhere I go on tour, I get asked about re-releasing the early projects, and that's great.
Nancy--What is God doing in your life right now?
Randy--This is a really active growth time for me. He's bringing me into a place of deeper and more total trust and reliance on Him, and I think that was born partially out of my desire to risk it all and create this new record company. I just realized at that point how, first of all, I was determined to keep Jesus at the center of every aspect of the company. But second of all, I felt a little bit like Peter walking on the water, because if you look around you at the competition and at the industry, you just panic and say, "There's no way this is gonna survive!" So the very act of moving out in this way with my own artistic vision really spurred a fresh focus of my attention on the Lord. I've realized that ultimately it's all in His hands. He is either going to make a way for Street Level Records -- let this ship float -- or He's going to sink it. That reliance and focus on Him has bled into every area of my life. I find myself understanding more clearly that this life is all about communion with God. I've just been trying to abandon my heart to Him on a daily basis, I think more intensely than I ever have in my life.
Nancy--Where is it hard for you to let go and trust God? You still stepped out with your new company, despite the fact that it was risky....
Randy--Well, yes, certainly it's a big risk, because giving it all to God does not necessarily mean that He will allow you to be successful by your own definition of those terms. He might say, "No, your season of time here is up," or, "Now I want you to do something else." But you know what? I find it a strangely heady experience. It's really exhilarating just to say, "The Lord will be the manager of this company." I'm the president; I guess I'm kind of the spiritual shepherd of the company. Maybe I don't know all the nuts and bolts of being a CEO, but I am determined on an artistic level and on a business level to make sure that everything is done with Christ at the center of it, and that He will be honored -- or I'd try to shut it down. So that's exhilarating!
I think the place where it's harder for me to trust is on a more personal level: It's harder for me to continue to find my identity and my security in Him, and not be haunted by my own weaknesses in the midst of a kind of work that would really play on those things. You're in the spotlight all the time, you know, so there's ample opportunity to be rejected by large groups of people in one fell swoop. So that's the hardest area for me, just to say, "I'm going to abide in You. I'm not going to be a control freak here, and be backstage biting my lip until it bleeds," y'know? This work has always been a thrill for me, but also very hard. The only healthy way to deal with it all is to just free-fall into God's arms! He is God!
Randy Stonehill was not long out of commission because of his injury. A couple of weeks later he was on stage again, taking what he called "a kinder, gentler, Alan Alda approach to guitar playing" while his arm healed.