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Twelve years ago at a Wesleyan college in Indiana, I played my first show as Andrew Peterson’s full-time right-hand man. Tonight in Greeley, Colorado, I played my last. At least for now.
In January of 2002 I was 22 years old and newly married. I had come to Nashville two years prior to pursue my goal of playing sessions. I also hoped to be a sideman to a great songwriter. I just didn’t know who that might be. Rich Mullins had died in 1997, my freshman year of college. I figured eventually somebody had to pick up that torch and run with it. I wanted to run alongside.
I met Andrew through my friend Mark, who was AP’s college roommate. Mark told me I was meeting the next Rich Mullins. The magic words! I wrote a string arrangement of Andrew’s song “Faith To Be Strong” for a class project and sent the recording to AP. It worked. He hired me to write strings for Behold The Lamb Of God, which was then in its second year of touring. After the show, AP asked me to come on the road in the spring.
Little did I know . . .
Now it’s March 2nd, 2014. Beth and I have been married almost thirteen years. We have four kids. Our oldest is 10 and our youngest is 5. The goal of being a session player never quite came to full fruition for the best reason possible: production got in the way. I spend nearly every day in the studio helping one artist or another shape her best songs into a cohesive, inspiring, truthful recording that will help her say what she needs to say and take the next step on the path marked out for her.
I always said I’d travel with Andrew until he made me stop. But anyone who’s been around record-making can tell you that production is a more-than-full-time job. Sometimes I work average hours, but when the river’s in flood you can find me in the studio 15 hours a day for days on end. In those seasons I am keenly aware that I am just one man. It took me a while to admit—because I didn’t want it to be true—that I can’t be the husband, dad, and producer I’m called to be AND be the drop-everything, fully-present sideman I want AP to have.
Here’s a sidebar about sidemen. The artist’s ministry is to the audience; the sideman’s ministry is to the artist. The artist carries a heavy burden, and when that gets too heavy the sideman carries the artist. It’s Sam Gamgee work. Sometimes I was good at it. Most of the time I flat-out sucked.
Sidemen have our own signature blend of psychoses. The sideman feels like he’s always about ten feet away from someone really interesting. I think there’s a movie with a similar title now, and that only corroborates my story. The sideman finishes second every night. As AP has said, if he does his job right, he becomes invisible. People have come up to me five minutes after I played my heart out and said, “Weren’t you the drummer?” Yes. Yes I was.
Boo hoo, Ben! Woe is you! That’s not my point. My point is that everything I’ve just said about sideman work turns out to be what’s lovely and sanctifying about it.
So John the Baptist has this great ministry going. He’s baptizing in the desert and people are coming out in droves. Then Jesus comes along and takes the limelight. What does John say? “He must increase, I must decrease.” And there was never one greater than John the Baptist!
Then Jesus starts his ministry and what does he say? “I do nothing on my own but only what I see my father doing.”
I love the way the Message translates Colossians 3:3. “Be content with obscurity, like Christ.” Obscurity is appropriate attire for human beings. It looks really good on us. The sad fact is, I have a fame idol. Not a front-page fame idol. More like an “everybody whose opinion matters knows who Ben is and thinks he’s the best at everything” fame idol. And now that I’ve made my most humbling admission, you have to send me yours.
What could kill a fame idol deader than a nightly spoonful of second-place? I used to think it tasted bitter. Now I like to keep it in a hip flask and sip it. Production, for example, tastes so much better spiked with obscurity. My best days in the studio are preceded by the following prayer: “Lord, I am going to the studio today not to be served but to serve and to give my life.”
So I recommend sideman work, with all its glorious difficulties. Especially if you can find an Andrew Peterson.
Andrew knows his calling and because of this he has incredible spine. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him make a move that wasn’t in keeping with his calling. And it’s a worthy one. It’s all about mining the depths of his own wounded-ness and coming up with the kind of rare jewels in which the poor in spirit see their own reflection. His songs are like Harry Potter’s thestrals; you can only see the winged horses if you’ve experienced death. The people who appreciate Andrew’s music the most are the ones who’ve known real sorrow.
AP himself has been Job-tested as of late, kind of punched in the gut over and over by the accuser. I’m proud of him for hanging in there, staying in community, seeking out counsel and encouragement. Go and do likewise.
As for our relationship, Andrew and I have spent enough time together to know every last one of each other’s stories and most of each other’s flaws. And yet I’ve never questioned whether our friendship mattered to him. Andrew takes community very seriously. He meets conflict head-on because he sees the kingdom coming and he wants to enter it alongside his brothers. He’s prone to point out the elephant in the room with disarming bluntness. Some of the words I most needed to hear, whether I welcomed them or not, were spoken by AP.
Finally, it goes without saying that Andrew possesses a hard-to-match creative intelligence. It manifests itself in story, wit, and insight. He wrote Light For The Lost Boy (the whole record) in about two weeks. He’s always adding irons to the fire, new projects that will keep him fresh and engaged. Or wear him out! When you engage in a critical discussion with Andrew, you know you’ve met your match. To say working with Andrew has sharpened me as a writer doesn’t do the last 12 years justice. I learned the writing life from Andrew.
Tonight we closed the show with “Don’t You Want To Thank Someone.” It’s my favorite AP song. Yes, I do want to thank someone. Thank you, Lord, for giving me the gift of these years. As I walked off stage tonight I glanced back at my keyboard world. I thought, “Goodbye, little domain; it’s time for me to go.”
Thank you, Lord for the time I spent on that piano bench, ten feet from someone really interesting.
Thank you for the whole trip. From the car to the shuttle to the ticket counter, through security, to Starbucks, to the gate, to the jetway, to the plane, to the jetway, to baggage, to the rental car, to Chipotle, to the used book store, to the venue, to soundcheck, to dinner, to the green room, to the stage, to the green room, to the rental car, to the hotel, and eventually to bed. Goodnight AP. I’ll see you one of these mornings and we’ll do it again.