Sad Stories Told for Laughs: Jill Phillips

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Hello, Jill, and welcome to Sad Stories Told for Laughs.

Thanks, I think?

As I think you know, the idea here is for you to tell stories of the hardships of being an artists…specifically, hardships involving public embarrassment.

I think my first promotional tour (before my Word record release in 1999) was my intro into challenging shows.

1999? So you were 14? That’s a hard age for anybody.

I was 21, thank you very much. I remember playing at a bookstore of some sort and the young male employee and several older ladies watched me with little interest and crossed arms. He then commented, “Well, she’s OK but she’s no Jennifer Knapp.”

Jennifer Knapp? Is she the one who quit playing Christian music and became Daisy Duke instead? 

Jennifer Knapp was one of the biggest singer-songwriters in CCM at that point.

The guy who said it—did he know you were going to overhear him?

Yes, I think he knew.
I also remember playing at a charismatic church on that tour and the guy picked something up on stage. Andy and I were sure it was a snake. Thank goodness it ended up being one of those horn things—a shofar.

Was he going to accompany you on the shofar?

I think it was a pre-concert shofar event.

You never know where you’re going to end up, I should think, or what the culture is where you end up. 

I think so. We were so young and new at music and we were playing anywhere that would have us. The people there actually ended up being lovely and really supporting us.

I bet you’ve experienced plenty of culture clash in church performances.

It is a gift to be able to travel around and see so many different kinds of places and see God at work—it’s humbling. I hope it gives me more grace for our differences. But there are definitely conversations or events you don’t forget.

I’m glad you keep that perspective. Because it’s true. It’s still a gift, even when wacky things are happening.

I remember one concert we played without any monitors somewhere in the Midwest. It was probably ten years ago or more. It was a difficult experience because we just couldn’t hear anything. We got there and there was nothing set up. We didn’t have any options, we just had to make the best of it. There was an older lady after the show who approached me and was curious as to how Andy and I could have ended up together. I didn’t really know where she was going but I was trying to smile and be polite. She kept saying, “But you’re so different!” with a really pained look on her face. I was starting to get the hint that she liked Andy better than she liked me. She finally ended with the kicker. “You’re like… you’re like… sweet and sour!”

Wait…which one of you was sour?

I WAS SOUR!!! Can you believe it? I told her, “At home I’m funny.” Pathetic.

That’s hilarious. You seem a little sweeter than Andy; I can’t see you as the sour one.

She really liked Andy. I’m good with playing the straight man on stage but that was hilarious. We still laugh about that story. I hope that people find us accessible and approachable, but it does give people license sometimes to say things after shows they would never say to a stranger.

You say people feel the license to say things they wouldn’t normally to a stranger. That’s interesting. Of course, to them, you aren’t a stranger.  Can you talk a little more about that?

I think most artists have felt that. It’s a double-edged sword because you want this connection and relationship with the people in the audience. I don’t want a separation. And yet, occasionally people will take the opportunity after shows to say things that are pointed or directive or give advice where it seems out of line.

The performer/audience is weird. It’s so personal in some ways and yet there’s this barrier. It’s a little bit like the guy in the next car picking his nose at the red light. He feels that he’s in this private space, but he’s on display. That’s not a perfect analogy—actually, it’s a pretty terrible analogy. My point is that it’s a strange social space, the stage.

I agree. You need the stage in order to perform, but in some ways I hate the distance. I will say, most people are lovely and wonderful. That’s the truth. That’s why it’s easy to remember the sweet and sour stories!

Yes. I know that. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Give me dirt!

I just had to establish that before I continued to gripe to you!
I do remember playing a pizza party at one church where I was pouring my heart out in song while people devoured Papa John’s and walked around chatting. The rest of the afternoon was spent shaking hands and hearing encouragement about “We’ll say we knew you when.” I think most of my bad concert stories are very moderate in the scheme of things. I have heard some really horrendous stories from Andrew Peterson. We really have not had it bad. I’m telling you.

Doesn’t sound like it.

Oh! I do have one!

Yes!

Andy and I played some shows in Denmark when I was pregnant with my daughter. I actually LOVED being over there. I loved the people I met and I loved seeing that part of the world. It was gorgeous.

Stop being so positive!

What I didn’t know was that my pregnant self had to stay in a cottage a very long walk from a bathroom and the showers required coins of which I had a small ration. After the long flight I literally got to the cottage and started crying. Andy was trying desperately to make me feel better and it just wasn’t working. I had to walk to the bathroom several times every night. Then I realized we would have to eat at the festival all day and night for several days. The choices were pate and hot dogs, neither of which are great for a pregnant woman. I ate hot dogs morning, noon and night for several days.

But even that—I mean, it was in Denmark! And we got to see Legoland. And meet cool people. So that’s not even terrible.

Were they some kind of special Danish hot dogs? Or unusually gross hot dogs? Give me something to work with, Jill.

They did have a weird hot dog bun. Kind of like a very large pig in a blanket. I think they would have been good if it wasn’t my only sustenance.

What’s a strange venue you’ve played? Have you ever gotten mixed up with a shady promoter?

Oh yes. Andrew Peterson, Eric Peters, and Andy and I played a show in Chattanooga with a shady promoter who never paid us. Andy, who is a bit of a detective at heart, finally tracked him down. He actually talked to his mother and realized he was in jail for a number of other things, including forging checks. We felt terrible and let it go. It was a really sad story.

Good “bad show” stories often revolve around the fact that artists expect their art to do something for them (self esteem, etc.) that art just can’t do. I’m beginning to suspect that you’re too well-adjusted to have good “bad show” stories.

Ha! I’m not sure about that. I had pretty low self-esteem opening for Caedmon’s Call on their 40 Acres tour. Bebo Norman was their second opener and had toured with them before so he was already beloved. I remember playing at Ole Miss and all these girls just wanted to see him. You would walk out after every show and they would ask, “Where’s Bebo?” I was on the bus and people were beating on it and shaking it trying to get to him. When I opened the door this girl had a gift basket for him including a ticket for “one hug” from her. Maybe I am way too boring to have bad show stories. Ask Bebo!

A ticket for one hug! Can you imagine if a boy fan gave you a ticket for one hug?

Gag me. Almost as pathetic as me telling that lady I was funny at home.

Were you married before you strated touring?

Yes. And Andy was on the road with me. I think that saved me from a lot of that craziness. Bebo wasn’t married at the time. But honestly, I just don’t think I have that kind of charisma. I really am pretty boring.

I am sure it made a huge difference to be married–and with your husband–when touring.

I was really grateful. I think being out there alone on my first tour would have been terrifying.

What has “putting yourself out there” taught you about the rest of life?

I think in general I have learned that vulnerability and honesty about your failings and struggles leads to real connection. Not anything new, but it is so counter-intuitive. Especially from stage when everything you’ve ever seen tells you to put on a show and perform. There is an element of that for sure, but I want to be the same person there that I am off stage. Anything else and I couldn’t live with myself. If that leads to the occasionally crazy post-show comment I think it’s a good trade-off.

So, to what extent can you be yourself on stage? Jill Phillips the performer vs. Jill Phillips Gullahorn the person: how much do the circles on the Venn diagram overlap?

That’s a great question. I think I am myself but limit the details of my life to what would be appropriate to share with strangers. One on one conversations are a different thing and long-term friendships are a different thing. But I do think there is real connection that can take place in a concert setting. I can do what I can do but that connecting work is the Holy Spirit’s job.

I am always grateful when people feel comfortable to share something with me after a show or through a letter or e-mail. I know that may be our only connection in person so I try to give it my full attention. I heard someone say that Amy Grant is a master of that and is very intentional about that.

Have you ever seen Bruce Springsteen in concert? I saw him play at the big arena in Nashville, and I was struck by how much that guy loved his audience.

I’ve never seen him play but he is legendary for that. I love that about him.

He loved his art, and he loved his audience, and he seemed to take great joy in bringing the two together.

But the most beautiful moment—he went out into the audience and picked up a woman and carried hier onto the stage to sing to her. Only she wasn’t a young, beautiful, skinny woman. She was a plain-looking, middle-aged woman who wasn’t tiny, and not especially easy to pick up. And I thought, “This isn’t self-gratification.” In the old video from the 80s, it’s Courtney Cox he brings onto the stage. But now the elder statesman, he picks up this very different woman.

I love that too. It’s obvious he still identifies and relates to his everyman roots. That’s so awesome.

You have to have gratitude for what you get to do. If you lose the gratitude you run the risk of losing it all.

Yes! That’s perfect. You’re great…almost too great for horrible stories like the ones that your friends tell.

I wish I had more really bad stories to make everyone laugh- I have a feeling my bad show days aren’t over!

 

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Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


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