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Christmas greetings from the Gray household! I know that normally it’s a little early to be thinking about Christmas, and I’m typically a take-one-holiday-at-a-time kind of guy—we haven’t even had Halloween (don’t get me started) or Thanksgiving yet! But though the weather outside isn’t frightful, Christmas has come early to our little corner of the world with the release of my Christmas Stories: Repeat The Sounding Joy.
But before I get into that, a word about another record that you probably all know and love and that in its way shaped my record.
I’ve always been inspired by Andrew Peterson’s Behold The Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of The Coming Of Christ—not only for the beauty and AP-ishness of it, but also for the daring scope and sheer nerve of it. It stands in opposition to all the prevailing wisdom of the music business. Simply put, if you want to make a Christmas record that won’t sell, make one like Behold The Lamb Of God. It’s too conceptual, too heady, and not Christmas-y enough for your average holiday music consumer to buy into. His own record label at the time didn’t believe in it and passed on it.
But Andrew did it anyway. All on his own. And the punchline of the story is that—as I understand it—it’s his best-selling record to date.
The same is true of his Christmas tour. If you want to put together a Christmas tour destined to fail, do what Andrew did. Make sure there are no familiar Christmas carols, no costumes, and none of the accouterments of the holiday season that we’ve come to expect from a Christmas concert. And just to make sure it won’t work, make sure there is no chart-topping star power or dazzling production to put people in the seats. In fact, start the first half of the night with relatively obscure singer/songwriters sharing very personal songs about shame, death, loneliness, and skinny jeans. If the audience makes it through all of that, the “Christmas” music portion of the evening will be songs about slavery, rebellion, the messy-ness of child-birth, and one of the most tedious chapters in the Bible. Sure, ultimately these songs are about how these unlikely yet inevitable stories are always leading to God entering the world, but there could have at least been some sleigh bells to help the audience get their bearings.
The path to musical greatness is littered with artists who pursued their personal artistic vision at the expense of every other consideration. The difference with Andrew Peterson is that it worked. In Behold The Lamb of God Andrew has created a towering achievement both as a record and as one of the most consistently successful and coveted Christmas tours to go out each year. I was blessed to be a part of this tour for the last two years.
Why am I talking so much about his record when I should be talking about mine?
Well, when I met with my management and record company in November of 2011, I suggested that maybe it was a good time to make a Christmas record. As we talked about what kind of project it might be, I kept coming back to Andrew’s record, making a case for the trail he blazed. Behold The Lamb Of God showed us what a Christmas record could be, creating an enduring and meaningful work of art that defied expectations and carried the story of Emmanuel deep into the heart of listeners. In other words, I proposed that we didn’t have to record “The Little Drummer Boy” to sell records.
I also proposed that we think of the record in terms of the kind of story we could tell on a tour. I asked myself, “What would best serve the church? If I were a pastor, what kind of Christmas concert would I want to share with my people?”
Once I had these starting coordinates, I had to abandon any idea in my mind of my record’s relation to Andrew’s masterpiece. Behold The Lamb Of God is a kind of miracle and it was a creativity killer to linger in its immense shadow for any amount of time. However, it remained a guiding light. Andrew tells a kind of macro version of the greatest story ever told from beginning to end. I decided to tell very micro stories. I also decided to attempt telling very human stories in hopes that they would have relevance beyond the 4 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
One of my favorite things to do in the Christmas season is read from Frederick Buechner’s book Peculiar Treasures. In it he writes mini-biographical reflections on biblical characters whose stories have become so familiar that we experience them more as Sunday school lessons than as the lives of actual human beings. Buechner recaptures the humanity of these characters to give their stories back to us. And so it is that every year I read the entries of all the characters who appear in the Christmas narrative, discovering them once again as ordinary people very much like the rest of us caught up in an extraordinary story.
Eslewhere Buechner has said that “the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” In his own memoirs he believed that if he told his story as truthfully as he knew how, others would recognize themselves in it.
Taking my cue from both Andrew and Buechner, I set out to write a collection of songs either to or from the characters in the Christmas narrative, believing that if I told their stories as truthfully and humanly as I knew how, others might recognize themselves. Through people like Joseph (his heart broken by the girl he loves), Mary (carrying the wonder and burden of being chosen), the innkeeper (in desperate need of the rest that his life doesn’t have room for), I hoped people might find themselves in the Christmas story.
The time was short so the plan was to write six songs and then record familiar carols that would advance the narrative. However, the more I wrote the more I wanted each character to have their voice heard. In the end there were still characters I had to leave out (I did work on a Simeon and King Herod song that I was excited about. Maybe they’ll see the light of day if it ever makes sense to record a sequel :- ), but we quit writing at ten songs.
From the start I knew I wanted to work with Cason Cooley—one of the most gifted and good-hearted people I know. I’ve always been a fan, but at that time in particular I couldn’t get enough of Katie Herzig’s The Waking Sleep record that he produced—an exuberant, playful, and infectious project. My challenge to myself as a person inclined to melancholy reflections was to make a joyful Christmas record. I believed that Cason would get me there.
As I began to write the songs, however, I realized that I was dealing with characters who are in the midst of great drama and crisis. I was nervous that I was thwarting my own hope of making a joyful record! “Joy To The World” was always going to be the album closer, and as I wondered over all of these things, a beautiful truth emerged for me: that joy is not the absence of conflict, but rather the presence of God, and that in the midst of the crisis in their lives, the story is always leading them (and us) to Joy. This became one of the guiding themes of the record.
The other theme that was important to me was the idea of God coming to earth as a child in order to make us all children again. In particular, I was thinking of the G.K. Chesterton quote from Orthodoxy:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
God’s arrival as a baby seems to me to be the most aggressive and confrontational things he could have done. All that makes us old, all the ways we try to protect ourselves from the love and hope that put us at risk of disappointment, our greatest defenses against God himself—shame, fear, pride, religiosity—all of these fall before the manger. We are defenseless against a baby. There is nowhere to hide when confronted with the innocence of a child, meek and mild. The incarnation is the world making power of God swaddled in fragile weakness.
“Only a child could heal the wound of the fear that keeps me away from you…” is the closing line of “Easier” as it leads into “I Will Find A Way,” the Walt Wangerin inspired song of a God who stops at nothing in his relentless, resolute, and gentle pursuit of the one he loves—even coming as a child who will restore childlike innocence and wonder in the most hardened and heartbroken among us.
The album is bookended by two songs that speak of the call of Christmas to us here and now (“Christmas Is Coming” and “Children Again”) with the individual stories of the characters all lined up between them like little books on a shelf. The song of Emmanuel gives way to the voice of a child—my own little boy! One of my favorite moments on the record—and in my whole recording career—was when I got to have Gus take the lead for “Christmas For Jesus.” I also got to have my older sons, Kipper and Jacob, sing back up and clap their hands for “Christmas Is Coming.” These moments are what I will always treasure most about this record.
The beauty of making a Christmas album is that people may let these songs into a very special place in their lives. It humbles me to think that, for some, they may become part of the soundtrack of many Christmases to come. Cason Cooley helped me create some of my most personal and gratifying work to date, and I’m grateful to think that these songs may find good homes and a long life in people’s hearts.
[Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy is now available in the Rabbit Room store.]