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.
Ben, thank you for taking on the hard work of being Sam. It’s a noble calling and you will be missed.
I appreciate everything about this piece, especially the writer. I stopped counting a long time ago how many albums I own that have Ben Shive’s productive fingerprints all over them. I certainly don’t know the first thing about making music or producing albums, but I have a great appreciation for people who make them. In Ben’s case, I have to listen and re-listen to the songs because there are always musical layers – tracks and instruments that have as much depth as the lyrics they illuminate. It is in that way that Ben’s production is always an extension of what he wrote here – illuminating the artist and art he is serving while not taking center stage.
It was such an encouraging article because I have long seen myself as a sideman in my ministry. It is great to know that there are others who have entered that struggle and come out appreciating the role of second place.
Lastly, I appreciate that Ben tied this to John the Baptist. How often our stories reflect the stories of Scripture!
Ben, anyone who is tied to the community of the Rabbit Room has been impacted by your work and service to the artists here. I hope I speak for all of us when I say that we are so thankful for you and your deep affection for art made excellent to the glory of Christ and the building up of His body on earth.
Thank you, Ben, for there never could have been a “David” without a “Jonathan”.
This makes me very sad (selfishly). But I wish the best for Ben in this new season of his life.
Ben, whenever I think of you, I think of Peter Brunone’s comment:
Sideman work is beautiful, difficult, and can be full of grace. I have admired and envied you for your role, and it’s encouraging to read how deeply you have engaged with it, wrestled with it, and grown through it. Thanks for reminding us that obscurity and servanthood are blessings in any calling.
Ben, thanks very much for sharing. Thanks for being AP’s sideman. Thanks for the innumerable touches your hands, keys, accordions, BGVs, and countless other whozits and whatsits have added to the tapestry of the music that has so impacted me, my family, and our journey toward the Far Country. It will all be missed.
The very best to you and your family going forward.
“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.” So beautifully put!
Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into your journey. Andrew has been mightily blessed to be surrounded by the most gifted musicians I know.
The best days are yet to come.
Ben…your quiet work has touched many lives. I for one, always notice that it’s you in the background. I’ll nudge my dad at a concert or whilst reading liner notes and say “Hey look, it’s Ben Shive!” Thank you for your faithfulness and the artistic touch of gold you come upon.
Ah, Ben, how thankful I am to have been in the audience several times when you accompanied AP. Yes, I was moved deelply by his words and compassion, but it was you whom I watched more closely because every move and sway told a story of a musician who was interested in more than rhythm and timing, who expressed with heart, soul, and body the songs of redemption. Other musicians play chords, but you translate music into passionate lament and praise. Thank you!
I second all the great comments that folks have already made. Thanks for all that you’ve contributed thus far along the journey.
So…more production? More solo work? Which direction will you be heading now?
Even if it won’t be your full-time gig anymore, I hope to catch you on stage with AP again sometime in the future, just because I think you guys are pretty fun to watch together. I’ve heard that the Olney Hymnal was intended to be not only a collection of hymns, but a testimony of a great friendship between Cowper and Newton. Thank you for being part of that kind of work, the kind through which the spirit of loving community and brotherhood shines through.
What an eloquent so-long. Ben, you will be missed.
Awww, Ben. You got me all choked up. Beautifully written.
Thank you for being my brother’s “sideman” and taking care of him for so long. You cannot be replaced, my friend. You are loved and will always be a part of us. See you around, Ben!
Ben, I’m reminded of the first time we met at MLT – before I could think, the first thing out of my mouth was “Oh, I’ve heard your name, you play with Andrew Peterson, right?” I’ve thought back to that reaction with some regret before, but it delights me to see how you have embraced God’s role for you alongside Andrew.
Since meeting you, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to your own music as well as several other albums you’ve produced. You are crazy talented, and while I know Andrew will miss having you with him (as will we all), I look forward to seeing how your talents are used in the the future.
Sad and good and “of course” and sigh and smile.
What excitement, with a touch of sadness — and yet…
“You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”
Your solo albums (though they don’t represent nearly as much of your income as they should) have been some of my most highly-anticipated releases of recent years. Your generous servanthood and shiny talent have done amazing things for many, and I love getting the occasional chance to sit down with you at a ‘moot.
We have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Until you sail from havens grey, we’ll be eager to see where you are led next.
Thank you, Ben Shive.
Thank you for the 12 years you gave us by being on the road. They were some good ones. I will miss seeing you at the shows. Thanks also for this beautiful post to let us know so we don’t have to ask Andrew questions at every show because we would have. 🙂 I look forward to seeing what’s next. Thank you Ben.
Wow! I didn’t know this little post would end up in the Rabbit Room, so I didn’t expect it’d be read by all of you and I certainly didn’t anticipate such kindness to be returned to me. I’m blown away by all the thoughtful, generous words here. Thank you all so much for your kindness today and through the years.
Mr. Ben Shive – Thanks for blessing my family in the multiple Andrew Peterson concerts we’ve seen over the years. Thanks for emulating the whole concept of a servant’s heart so well.
I still remember the time Andrew finished a song and purposely went over to shake your hand in the middle of the set because what you had just played in accompaniment was so beautiful. It was cool moment of friendship between you two that I’ll never forget. We’ll miss seeing you at Andrew’s shows but here’s to new beginnings for both you and Andrew. Excited to see where God takes you both in the coming years.
As a pianist, I’ve felt the pang you talk about often– since we tend to find our place in the shadows (literally and figuratively; why are the lights always dimmer on the sides of stages?). THANK YOU for this beautiful piece and for contributing so much of yourself this last decade. The keys on those recordings are now immortalized!
P.S. “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone” has got to be on my Top 2 as well. Incredible while listening inside a car during a thunderstorm. 🙂
Ah, Ben! It has always been a great pleasure to watch you perform whether with the BTLOG tour or smaller venues with just Andrew, Andy, and you and yes, I too, want to thank someone!
Thank you for the musical artistry and excellence, along with a sense of joy, you have brought to each and every performance we have seen. Thank you for always taking the time, after an undoubtedly long day, to chat with my family and to sign my kid’s t-shirts (and to pose for pictures!). Thank you for being gracious and kind. Thank you for the two incredible albums of your own (of which I hope there will be more) that have ministered to my spirit as well as the numerous other artists you have produced. Thank you for helping to make some very wonderful memories for my family and friends.
You will be missed–and you will be prayed for as you enter this new season. Peace to you, brother!
So sad! I always looked for Ben at Andrew’s concerts and would elbow the person next to saying “I love that guy.” I am hoping for “guest appearances” with Andrew on BTLOG or other venues. Keep up the great work for the Lord!
I’ll admit it along with you Ben, I’m a fame idol, and I have no chops to even back it up. I have a flimsy first book that I re-wrote and haven’t finished, and a bunch of side works that I probably won’t finish because I have a real job. I’ll keep writing though, because I love to do it, and my broken heart cries out for it.
As it shows here, you are more famous than you know, don’t let it go to your head. I’ve only been to one AP concert, a free one (yeah, I know) in Cincy in 2012. I noticed you playing your keyboard, but I already knew your music and your signature on many other Rabbitroom rabbit trails of music. I sincerely hope that I still see Ben Shive: Producer on the back of cd covers and I wouldn’t mind an occasional album either.
Anyway, keep up the good work and here’s to obscurity and humility, may we all have then in unlimited measure.
You are not obscure to my family. My 11 year old son has a true musical gift from God. He wants to use it to tell the Truth and to help others share the Story. Who does he aspire to be like? Ask him that, and his immediate answer is “Ben Shive.” So yes, I think we want to that someone…
There are so many things I want to say about this post, but it would end up blathering on and on, so I’ll stick with the tried and true, “Thank you!” Thank you, Ben, for modeling Christ-like humility and for doing excellent work in each job you take on. It shines.
Thank you, Mr Ben Shive. You have made a difference. Frodo wouldn’t have got very far without Sam.
And thank you also for your humility. I also struggle with that fame idol. And it is good to see how God is crippling that hindrance in your life. It gives me hope.
Ben, your testimony is truly inspiring. Thank you so much for writing this.
Thank you for your unintentional RR post. I am a priest who has been called to the sideman type work in the church, and have found all of your words true. This morning you gave me the proof that I’m not crazy, but God has this type of strange calling on His people.
In regards to your music, every time my daughter, who is nine, and I listen to one of your songs, or one of the many you have played in or produced, I remind her that it was the piano player we saw in Yukon Oklahoma two years ago. You blessed us so much that night with your talent, and gave my daughter a glimpse of how cool being a pianist could be.
I’ll end this crazy post by saying God bless you, and may you keep on doing what He has called you to. It has meant a great deal to me and my family.
From the little bookstore in Lawrence Ks., to Lincoln, Ne., to multiple trips to Nashville, my family has enjoyed your ministry as you have served with AP. As a songwriter, I admire your strength to leave. I am envious of your experience and if it was myself I probably would have stayed till the end.
What a lovely post. I’ve enjoyed your work at the concerts, for sure. This is one of the best meditations I’ve ever read on No. 2. Blessings to you and your family.
Beautifully written! Ben, I found myself watching your enthusiasm as you played on the Light For the Lostboy tour. (Admittedly, my mother is a pianist, so I find myself always watching the keyboardist…) I meant to tell AP after the show how lucky he was to have someone like you at his side. (Though, I expect he already knew that.) I could tell by your enthusiasm and your facial expressions throughout the night that you were not just there to play an instrument but were there to serve the ministry. I’m grateful to have had the chance to see you serving. Thank you for giving of yourself.
Ben, it’s hard to express what your work with Andrew (and your own) has meant to me and so many others. I am thankful to have been able to listen.
Ben, I’m really going to miss you at your keyboard. Maybe it’s the budding Samwise in me.
When I first heard you play “Someone Is Asking” at BTLOG, I marvelled that you’d found earthly words and notes for the utterly otherworldly. I couldn’t understand why every show wasn’t your show. You clearly weren’t going to steal it. I waited in vain for the Ben Shive solo tour.
It took awhile to appreciate the beauty in your Helper role. The holy force you and AP are as you reflect the united trinity in focus and fellowship. I had to admit to myself that I was repulsed at the concept of laying my own creative capacities down in submission to a divine artistic vision that placed me forever in the obscure supporting role.
But you were right. Obscurity looks good on us. Thanks for modelling your obscurity so humanly and accessibly. This Samwise is eternally grateful.
Ben, I am left with the simplest of words… Thank you.
I remember sitting with you at dinner prior to a BTLOG concert in Wichita Falls a couple of years ago when you quietly and wistfully spoke of your children and family. Even at the time I faintly hoped for a time that you could be with them as much as I knew the sound of your voice gave away the desire in your heart.
The blessings you have provided to countless numbers of listeners will echo long after you have left the keyboard next to Andrew. Here’s to your next opportunity to “shine your light” as you did that night in Yukon, Oklahoma…
God bless you and your family.
Such a great memory to think on that spring 2002 tour, and to be able to say I was on that same Indiana stage when you and AP played your first show together. A gift then, as it is now. (I also remember, during my opening set, highly recommending an R-rated film to a bunch of private Christian college students. Pretty sure I made AP nervously sweat.)
You’re the stuff, Ben. Wise beyond your years. Thanks for writing this piece.
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