Growing Up with Charlie Peacock

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Charlie Peacock released his new record, No Man’s Land, this past fall. Charlie and I have been friends for close to twenty years, and I was a huge fan for years before that so I asked him for an early copy to review here. He was gracious enough to oblige. I imagined I’d listen to the record, mention a few key high points and invite you to pick up a copy.

That was a few months ago. Yes, life has been busy. But the reason I’m so late in getting to this “review” is because I’ve been spending a lot of time with the record, and it’s stirring things in me that have not so much to do with the record itself (which is, in my estimation, his best work—and for me, that’s saying a lot) as with how a great artist’s work works on those who invest in it over the span of time.

Consider Paul Simon. It was only a few years ago when I discovered Paul Simon. Sure, I knew who he was. I’d heard a bunch of his songs. I even knew I was supposed to say yes if anyone asked if I thought Graceland was one of the best records ever made. I knew all that.

But recently, I jumped into Paul Simon’s ocean of work, and I’m still not done unpacking the complexity, brilliance, and wonder of his music. What a craftsman! I hope he keeps it coming.

As much as I love Paul Simon now, I lament that I will never have the experience of hearing Graceland in the context of its day, or most of his other works for that matter. I’m current from Surprise on. Anything before that and I’m late to the party.

It makes me wonder what I’m missing. I wonder if there are things I’ll never be able to appreciate about some of his songs because they don’t carry the nostalgia they would have had I been wearing Graceland out when I was in high school. I imagine in some ways I stand at a distance from that record simply because I missed it in its original context.

One of the beautiful qualities of good art is that you can spend a lifetime turning it over and over and never run out of new angles to see. Think of a record you fell in love with when you were first discovering music. Go back and listen to U2’s Achtung Baby! or Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball or Peter Gabriel’s So—whatever it is for you. Tell me dusting off an old favorite doesn’t do new things in you.

Okay, so I missed a lot of Paul Simon’s career and now I’m playing catch up. One of the happy by-products of recognizing this is that it’s got me thinking about how I’m getting old enough to know the joy of following some artists over the course of their creative careers. There are a few I’ve walked a long road with, and I receive new work from them in a different way than I receive from an artist I’m unfamiliar with or am only just coming to know.

It’s a rare thing, but every so often we find the good fortune of discovering a great artist—someone with a lifetime of things to say—closer to the beginning of their creative path than the end. When this happens, we don’t just become fans. We walk through life together. We hear their words or look at their creations in the context of an ongoing conversation we’ve been having for years. When they release a new record, book, or exhibit, it can be one of the best days of the year—as exciting as a birthday.

Not every artist can sustain this sort of run for very long. Some die young. Some run out of things to say or the means to say it. I have a few collections of records from musicians I was prepared to listen to for as long as they would make music, and they just disappeared. I have other collections of music from folks who seem, to me at least, to have gotten tired and run out of inspiration, even though they continue to make records. (That’s a sad section of the CD shelf.)

But if you find a thoughtful artist—one who trades in truth and beauty—to engage with over the trajectory of his career, you find a rare and precious jewel.

Charlie Peacock has been this sort of artist for me. It started like this.

In high school, I went on the road with a Christian Heavy Metal band to help with merchandise and whatever else they needed. I wasn’t kidding around either. My love for such music is well documented here on this site.

One day, we were setting up on a side-stage for an afternoon show at a festival somewhere in the Midwest. As I unpacked a box of CD’s, I heard music coming from across the fairgrounds—just an acoustic guitar and two voices—nothing metal about it. Nothing metal at all.

But in just a matter of seconds, I was Ulysses with no one to tie me to the mast. I left my post, walked across the fairgrounds, and watched in amazement as the Charlie Peacock Trio unknowingly changed my life forever. I wish you could have been there. You would have seen a diehard metalhead drift irreversibly into the tranquil waters of pop music, never to return. But even more, I’m certain you would have been amazed. That trio shared an uncommon chemistry. I still grieve that I will never again hear them like that this side of glory.

That was how I discovered Charlie Peacock. I had to ask someone who he was. Turns out, he had a few out of print records and a few bootlegs of demos and a record coming out soon. I went home and made my local record store order it all. And I’ve kept up ever since.

I’m not that kid anymore. A lot of life has happened since that day at the festival. But not a single year has passed since then where I wasn’t helped in some way by Charlie’s art. What I appreciate most about Charlie’s art is that it is so informed by his hard fought-for commitment to creating excellent work in an industry that doesn’t always require excellence. I know he’s not trying to waste anyone’s time. I know he’s a true artist. And I know he’s not done.

For me, over the span of all these years, his records reveal an artist finding his way across genres and across the country—but not like someone trying to find himself. It’s more like every genre from every corner of the world fascinates him and he wants to do it all if he can do it well.

It has been a tremendously rewarding thing to follow Charlie’s career as a fan first and now, to my great pleasure, as his friend. I hope he never stops making new music. I welcome No Man’s Land like I would a new canvas from Vincent van Gogh. The new songs belong not just to this new record, but to his body of work—one I’ve grown up with, and I am happy to report, am still growing with because it just keeps getting better and Charlie has not run out of things to say.

Here’s the video of “Death Trap,” his first single from No Man’s Land.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


7 Comments

  1. Aaron

    I only recently had an experience of discovery with Charlie’s music. I knew and appreciated his music casually, but when my friends and I went to see him at a bar in Sacramento this past fall my mind was blown. I wish I’d truly discovered him earlier.

  2. Brenda Branson

    You have beautifully put into words the impact a musician/songwriter can have on an individual. Todd Agnew has had that effect on my life, and the path from being a fan to a friend is similar. I think I’ll print out this article so I can give it to friends and family who roll their eyes and misunderstand this treasure as an obsession.

    Charlie Peacock’s work is amazing, and I’m looking forward to more new songs, as well as getting better acquainted with his past work. One of my favorites is Down in the Lowlands. Todd does an amazing cover of that one.

  3. Sam

    Last year, at age 52, I had the same kind of experience with the music of Keb Mo’. I went around to all my music-loving friends and said, “Have you known about this? Why haven’t you told me about it?”

  4. Tony Heringer

    Russ,

    First off, the video and song definitely has that Cajun feel to it so I was happy to see it was shot in Louisiana.

    I concur with the idea of a song or album or body of work by an artist having a life long impact. I was listening to Gracland when it came out (the documentary of its making is on Netflix) and because of all the events going on in South Africa there was a different edge to the work then. Now when I listen my mind is not so much on the politics of the day but on the relationships and stories of the songs – especially the title track, Diamonds…, and That Was Your Mother. That whole album is special.

    These thoughts dovetail nicely with Andrew’s post on Sacred Places. It’s the same sort of idea and fits in with how God has made us to live in a rhythmic way. As Eugene Peterson notes in Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, our first recorded words are poetry (Gen. 2:23) and technically could also have been the first love song too.

    What is great about this process is that where we jump into the musical journey for an artist, or in the case of your discovery of something outside of metal, a genre is irrelevant. What matters is taking those steps and seeing where they lead. Some trips are short, some are dead ends, and those we hold dear go on and on. I also love the experience we have here of sharing music with each other. I have the same sort of fun with my family. They too have given me road maps to artists and genres I haven’t explored or maybe have ignored for a while.

    For example, my daughter left a CD with the soundtrack for We Bought A Zoo in one of our cars – one she drove to work all summer.. I didn’t know it at he time I first heard this wonderful music but it was something she listed too most of he summer to and from work at a day camp. When she told me that story it gave me a different perspective on he music. I liked it before but now I have a personal story to tie to it.

    Thanks bro! This was a great reflection for he end of he day.

  5. Mark Geil

    Well said, Russ. One line has got me thinking:
    “It has been a tremendously rewarding thing to follow Charlie’s career as a fan first and now, to my great pleasure, as his friend.”

    I have a handful of artists who are for me your Peacock, or Brenda’s Agnew. They are my highest echelon of fandom and appreciation.

    Since I have occasion to write about music and interview artists and, thanks to the RR and Hutchmoot, engage some of my musical heroes on a more personal level, I feel like I have broken the “fourth wall” with several members of my highest echelon. It is, as you say, a great pleasure.

    But then there are the others, the untouchables. Sadly, I’ll never get to speak to Rich Mullins this side of Heaven. I have geeked out over U2 since I taped my brother’s tape of his friend’s War record, but I am confident that I’ll never interview Bono or chat him up in a corner of a church in Nashville to find out if he really had more lyrics written for the song October and what they were. I will forever remain a distant, but most appreciative, fan.

    There is a mystique to being a “distant fan”, and the danger of placing your heroes on a pedestal. Should we meet, I might not like how Bono treats me. He would probably reek of cigarettes and I might wrinkle my nose. Unless you’re a preteen girl drooling over a boy band, the mystique of distance is tempered by the undercurrent of humanity and its failings. There’s clearly some longing for Eden in our desire to project perfection on our idols and to keep a safe arm’s length separation from their faults.

    Part of that “fan-to-friend” transition must be an understanding that this is not Eden, and because it’s not there are no pedestals save the one Christ built for us. Because it’s not, we can tell stories of victory, struggle, redemption, and grace. It’s a good lesson to learn.

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