Russ Ramsey: On Andy Gullahorn’s previous release, “Reinventing the Wheel,” he sang, “I love the music that I grew up on, when the business was all about the song.” Jason, you have had the opportunity to write songs with Andy, and in fact one track the two of you wrote for your Acoustic Storytime record is also on Andy’s new record. Many people I know who have written with Gully have spoken very highly of his ability to craft a song.
As a songwriter, what does Andy contribute to your songwriting process that you might not have working alone?
Jason Gray: Well, let me begin by telling you that we have a stuffed Superman in our house that bears a remarkable resemblance to Andy, and I’ve told him that when I’m dealing with a particularly difficult lyric, I’ll prop up Super Andy to boost my morale. It’s comforting to imagine he’s there with me… (is that creepy?)
But let me back up and name my 5 favorite living songwriters:
Pierce Pettis, Paul Simon, Andrew Peterson, Tom Waits, and Andy Gullahorn. I’m grateful that I’ve met and spent time with three of them personally and can call two of them good friends and have written with one of them. I am a blessed man, indeed.
Fans of folk music will recognize the name of David Wilcox, whose very name is like a secret handshake among singer/songwriter enthusiasts. He’s a giant of the genre, the epitome of the literate, brilliant, quirky songwriter. And he’s a fan of Andy’s. That’s a huge endorsement – though Andy hardly needs it since his songs speak so much for themselves.
My experience has been that Andy is an artist’s artist, but he is also very conscientious of the audience he writes for, and you can sense that by how relatable his songs are. Some writers pander to their audience (which is not love but manipulation), other writers are so passionate about their art that they can become self-indulgent (which isn’t manipulation, but rather self-love). But Andy’s songs, while smart, are never out of reach for the average listener. And though he’s incredibly intelligent, he writes from and to the heart – (and sometimes the gut when he lands another amazing payoff line, the kind that takes the wind out of you a bit when it hits you – like a sucker punch of love!)
Our song “Why You Brought Me Here” is one of my three favorite songs I’ve been privileged to be a part of. To have it included on this record… Well… To be honest, I’m kind of geeking out over the whole thing. I love his recording of it.
You asked what Andy contributes to my process, maybe the best way to explain it is that, while you know you’re in the room with a master, he makes you feel like he’s a fan of you and what you bring to his table. He’s generous to write with.
I should say, too, that he’s refreshing to write with in a town where it’s either all about the commerce or all about the art. It’s hard to find a person who loves the art, but recognizes that if we’re to make a living doing this, you have to aim for a song connecting with an audience, and if we can shape a song to have a catchy hook that might help it’s chances at radio or with a broader audience, it’s a challenge he’s willing to take up. I think the work he’s done with his wife Jill Phillips demonstrates this. Why she isn’t the biggest female Christian artist out there, I have no idea. Both of them write songs of depth and intelligence that are so dang catchy… “Writing On The Wall” anyone? Why isn’t that a platinum record?!
But back to Andy’s new record: All the usual things that I’ve come to love and expect from an Andy Gullahorn record are here, but it all feels weightier to me. Andy and I are nearly the same age, and I know I’ve been grappling with getting older, realizing that many things I hoped I’d accomplish might be slipping beyond my reach, and a burgeoning awareness of how flawed I am and wrong about so many things – all of this accompanied by a mellowing and easy confidence in God’s grace and also who he’s made me to be. I feel all these things at play with this with this record. Parenthood, doubts, self-doubts, and even the clinging on to youth in the title track. And then there’s the beauty of a line like “I could be nobody as long as I’m someone to you…”
You perfectly summed up the Andy Gullahorn experience with your review of his last record in the words “nervous laughter”. What do you think the source of our nervous laughter is with this record?
Russ: Yeah, I was thinking about the whole “Nervous Laughter” concept with this new record. I’m going to risk the perils of comparison and talk about this record in the context of his other two—and please know I LOVE his other records, so the comparison I’m about to make is not about one record being better than another. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say I believe Gully is one of those rare artists whose “catalog” of work holds together and, if the listener is willing, can take us to deeply profound places of humility, repentance and worship.
His first record, “Room to Breathe,” is at the same time wise, sober and funny. It is a record we can take in from a distance if we want, as if Andy is standing out there in our front yard singing to us. The whole neighborhood comes out and listens. We learn. We laugh. It’s really great. Really.
But then comes “Reinventing the Wheel.” It goes even deeper in its wisdom, sobriety and humor. All of the sudden Andy is standing in our living room. Now it’s just us and our closest family members and maybe a friend or two. He’s a bit more serious. He’s singing about miscarriage. He’s singing about how we become the people we are. He’s demanding that we not give up on our marriages. He’s telling us stories and challenging us to love well, live well and he’s still making us laugh. Only we’re wise to the fact that Andy’s humor demands something of us—vulnerability. But we trust each other, so we’re game. We’ll try to go where he wants to take us.
With “The Law of Gravity,” it is as if Andy singles me out and leads me into the kitchen to have a frank, man-to-man conversation. He’s asking me if I’m only playing at marriage? Would I quit if things go bad enough? Am I digging in, resisting the change in perspective parenting requires? Are my kids a burden or a joy? Am I investing in them, regardless of their response? Is there anything God could take from me that would make me want to walk away from Him? Without a shred of malice, his questions are earnest, pointed and personal.
I think this is one of the great benefits of having Andy’s entire catalog—we see him develop as a songwriter. But even more, if we’re careful listeners, we’ll see ourselves developing as men and women too.
Jason: Russ, you’re insights here are so good, this is exactly what this record feels like. Man, you should be Andy’s PR person! (I’m just wondering if he takes us to the kitchen for this record, where will he take us next – the bathroom? Yikes. What will he think when he finds Super Andy already there?)
As I listened to “The Law of Gravity” some more today one of the things that came into focus is the way Andy uses his amazing sense of humor. While most people use humor as a diversion – a way to hide and keep people at a safe distance – Andy does the exact opposite.
His sense of humor draws you in and puts you at ease, like it’s his way of whistling in the dark for us as he invites us on his guided tour of the darkened rooms of the heart that require our attention but that we might otherwise feel threatened by.
He writes funny lyrics, but it’s rarely the laugh that he’s going for. He’s going for our heart. A good example of this on the new record is “New Pair Of Eyes”:
All over my Sunday clothes
Just like a fire hose
That left me soaking
And you’d think
That anger would rage inside
But the opposite was true that night
Much to my surprise
Cause it’s amazing what you’ll do…
When it’s a new pair of eyes you’re looking through…
Then he cuts to the heart of parenting and how it’s the beautiful way that God begins to set us free from our selfishness with:
You might have kids of your own
And everything you think you know
Will be worth nothing at all
But if you doubt
you can love someone more than your life
I think you’re gonna find
When you hold that baby
It’s amazing what you’ll do…
When it’s a new pair of eyes you’re looking through…”
Another great example of this is “I Haven’t Either”:
Have you ever been so selfish that you let your baby cry
While you finished up a video game
I haven’t either
That’s pretty bad
He begins, and so does the nervous laughter, but then:
Have you ever made a promise to yourself a thousand times
Just to break it over and over again
I haven’t either
Only people with problems do that kind of thing…
And of course this is his way of helping us to take a good look in the mirror, helping us to face up to not only our selfishness, but the crippling shame that accompanies it. (readers will have to get the record to hear where the song goes from there ; -)
Andy’s sense of humor is like a dose of anesthetic before he begins heart surgery on us. I mentioned his relationship to David Wilcox earlier, and I’m remembering a conversation with Andy about how David really takes his vocation as a kind of healer very, very seriously. Andy recounted how he was at a retreat where David sang an impromptu song to someone who was going through a difficulty – like he opened his heart and mind up to be a conduit of God’s grace and healing and a song came in that moment that was like a blessing over the person he sang it to.
I wonder as I listen to this record of Andy’s if David’s reverence for their shared vocation informed these new songs. I don’t mean to get all mystical here, but it feels like there’s a renewed sense of purpose in these new songs, and as I listen they come to me like little prayers for our healing and wholeness.
Russ: I remember in seminary how one of my professors tried to convey to us that we were probably misreading the Old Testament if we were imposing pop-psychology on people like Abraham, Moses or David, reading their words and then asking “What did they mean by that? What were they feeling when they said it.”
His point was that the Hebrew culture in those days was pretty direct. They were much more pragmatic than mystical. If Jacob thought Rachel was pretty, it was probably because she was, forgive me, smokin’ hot, not because she reminded him of his first broken heart from when he was just a teenager and the local bully danced with his girlfriend all night at homecoming.
I say this because while you and I both notice and appreciate a mystical quality to Andy’s ability to craft and then deliver a song, correct me if this hasn’t been your experience, but Andy comes across as one of the least mystical guys I know. Don’t misunderstand. He is brilliant, sensitive, thoughtful—every bit the artist.
But he is also very much a meat and potatoes sort of guy—which is evident throughout the minimalist production and instrumentation in every one of his recordings. And this is one of the places where I believe Andy is contributing something very important.
I believe artists often run to a haven of emotionalism and mystical vagueness because we find in it a place where no one can really question our motives or recognize that our inaction is based in fear. We can talk about the messiness of our lives, but not in a way where we ever have to answer for it because we present ourselves as people who are too deep to know, too wise to access and too allegorical to question directly.
Andy, on the other hand, stands with his feet on the ground. He doesn’t mince words. For example, he sings a song about how selfishness in marriage takes time to overcome. But we don’t have to wonder if his aim is merely that we would nod in agreement at his astute observation, because he ends that song with the ever so clear “Don’t throw in the towel.”
In his songwriting, Andy isn’t just showing off his catalog of wisdom and insight. He is sharing his insights and then taking a stand, planting his feet with a clear statement we can either reject or accept. But at least it is clear.
I think for any artist who really takes the time to digest what Andy creates, he will raise their game. He will help them be more honest, more direct, more transparent. He will help them be more than they are.
Jason: This is something I was trying to get to earlier in our conversation, that he isn’t like most artist’s I know. He doesn’t have the typical artist temperament. He is very meat and potatoes, you’re right, and also brilliant (not that the two are mutually exclusive). And even though he jokes about it on this record, he really does write songs for the “workin’ man” in that they are attainable for anyone – Andy knows some Kingdom secrets, but instead of making them the domain of the privileged elite, he’s making copies of the keys to unlock them and handing them out at the tail-gate party before the big game.
I think too that his smarts are very inconspicuous, and with each album increasingly invisible, meaning that his intelligence doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s the best kind of humility.
And you’re right, there’s no ambiguity to what he’s saying. Now I do love mystery and the mystical in art from time to time, and I can be a fan of arcane lyrics – I think of Sufjan Stevens, Mark Heard, or even Peter Gabriel – but even though Andy’s lyrics are straightforward, the truth is that he’s still mining the great mysteries. And in fact, my own experience has been that the hardest song to write is the song of depth and complexity that has a simple lyric. He makes it sound easy.
The funny thing about you and me talking about him like this is I imagine it might make him laugh – because every time I try to describe him, the descriptors I keep reaching for make him sound larger than life, but like you’re saying: he’s just Andy.
Russ: Ha! I’m so glad you mentioned wondering about Andy’s reaction to this little conversation about him behind his back. You think he’d laugh. At a couple points I’m figuring he’s rolling his eyes. And yet that’s the intangible quality I think we’re both admiring here– his apparent effortlessness in saying something simply, clearly and powerfully.
Jason: I suppose we should talk about the songs on the record a bit.
I’ve only had it a few days, so I’m still digesting it, but my early favorites are “Someone To You” and the two that were on Jill’s last record, “Any Other Way” and “Resurrection”.
And though it feels a bit immodest, “Why You Brought Me Here”. Andy’s version is so great! He made a few lyric tweeks since I recorded it that I love and I think it’s just a great production. I recorded it for a live record very shortly after we wrote it and barely knew it at that point. Andy’s performance of it here sounds so mature and “lived-in”.
And that guitar playing. Dang.
There’s more production on this record than the previous ones – drums even – but it’s so inconspicuous you hardly realize it. It’s all serving the lyric. And the strings on this record sound really good, too – both the parts and the way they were recorded/mixed. I think this is Andy’s best sounding record as well as some of his best songs.
Russ: I love “Sins of the Father” because this is right where I’m living. I love how Andy doesn’t apologize for the fact that his best efforts as a dad probably still hit his kids the same as most other’s parents best efforts do. Some take root, some fall flat. Oh how we wish our kids could hear us. There isn’t a shred of “Let me teach you how to parent “God’s Way” with Andy, just a humble appeal for the grace of God to work through what he has to give, with a committment to stay engaged in his kids lives.
Also, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the opening line to the record. “If you came expecting to get nothing back, you’ll get nothing back. What did you expect?” It lands like a punch that asks the hearer if we’re willing to have our cynicism challenged. That line itself tells you the rest of the song will be top shelf.
Jason: Yeah, that is a GREAT opening line. I remember Andrew Peterson sending me my first Andy Gullahorn record a number of years ago, and he told me that Andy was a part of a group of guys that would meet regularly and swap new songs they were working on. He said it was a little irritating because Andy always won.
Russ: Yeah, AP always says it wasn’t a contest, but Gullahorn still always won. I wonder if Gully ever cared about that? I seriously doubt he’ll tell us.