The Resonator Award: Ben Shive

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[Editor’s note: On the first night of Hutchmoot 2018, Andrew Peterson suddenly took a break from his Resurrection Letters set to deliver a speech. As he made his way through the first few paragraphs, it became clear to everyone that some cherished soul in the room was about to win a very special award. Then, as the context clues came together, it was undoubtable that the recipient would be Ben Shive, seated modestly behind the piano on the far side of the stage.

By the end, many in the audience had shed tears, and we all realized we had witnessed a profound moment of love between friends. As a token of thanksgiving to Ben, the Rabbit Room will be pressing a limited edition vinyl of one of his records, yet to be determined. After you’ve read Andrew’s speech, click here to pre-order this vinyl in the store.]

Awards are funny. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the whole notion of something like the Grammys or the Doves—as long as you’ve never won one. “They mean nothing,” we say. “It’s never about true art,” we say. But then your friend, or someone you’re a fan of, wins one and you can’t help but feel satisfied, as if justice has been done. You’ll almost certainly congratulate the person—and mean it—when they’ve won. I don’t know about you, but that exposes some dishonesty in my own heart. I can’t say that awards only matter if my favorite person wins. The whole thing may be rigged, to a point, I can admit that. But there’s also something that feels right about recognizing someone for a job well done, or a life well-lived. If you’ll allow me get theological on you, I have a hunch that we resonate with it because the idea of crossing a finish line, or receiving an honor, is a foretaste of what is to come. When we see someone accept a well-deserved honor, our hearts quicken, I believe, because we’re glimpsing through a glass darkly something that the Lord has written into the fabric of time.

In 2 Timothy 4:7–8, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

Perseverance matters. Faithful work matters. And since this is Hutchmoot, I can’t not mention Tolkien. In the Lord of the Rings movies, when the throng at Minas Tirith kneels before the four hobbits, our hearts swell. Heck, even Princess Leia threw together a whole ceremony for the end of Star Wars. There’s a rightness that we feel when it happens.

This year we in the Rabbit Room decided to give an award of our own. The Rabbit Room, and Hutchmoot by extension, exists in part to draw attention to good and beautiful work that bears well the truth of the Gospel, work that sheds light, work that gives us that sweet foretaste of what is to come—whether by piquing our longing or outright declaring the truth in a lovely way. In the spirit of Philippians 4, we want to lift up whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise. We want to think about these things, and to encourage others to think about them, too.

We also believe that art grows best in community. Part of the role of community is to encourage, and one way to encourage is to acknowledge, before others, a job well done. Two years ago at Hutchmoot, Dr. Diana Glyer taught us about the community of the Inklings. She identified certain qualities that members of that group exhibited, qualities that led to the lovely, commendable, excellent works of art produced by Tolkien, Lewis, Willams, and others. She said that one crucial component of a good artistic community is resonators: people who resonate with your work, who see what you’re doing and tell you to keep doing it. People who feel a quickening when they read your story or hear your song, who give you the courage to keep going. People who see you and celebrate your gifting. If you hold down the damper pedal on a piano and strike a single note, you can hear all the other strings with resonant frequencies quietly singing along. We need Resonators. We want to be Resonators.

We want to honor someone whose work has struck a chord in us. Someone who has demonstrated a quiet and faithful devotion to their calling. Someone who has not only worked hard to compose their own songs year after year after year, but someone who has encouraged the work of countless artists.

I want to tell you a bit about the recipient of this year’s Resonator award.

He moved to Nashville about twenty years ago as a student at Belmont University. He distinguished himself as a piano player and an arranger. I first began to work with him when he arranged the strings for the 2001 Behold the Lamb of God concert. He and I toured together for about twelve years, and the first song I ever co-wrote with him featured harmony by none other than Alison Krauss. The opening line of that song, along with the timeless piano part, would demonstrate a musical sensibility and knowledge of Scripture that would mark the rest of his work.

Writing about Abraham about to say “Yes” to the Lord’s call to go on a great journey of faith, he threw out these lines:

Sarah, take me by my arm. Tomorrow we are Canaan Bound, where westward sails the golden sun and Hebron’s hills are amber crowned.

After that album he co-produced Behold the Lamb of God with Andrew Osenga, and then my album The Far Country. That album featured his song “The Havens Gray,” with deft, Tolkien-infused lyrics like,

Even though you know your heart is breaking, for a little longer still you must be whole; to love the life that’s given for the taking, and to give the love the living’s given for.

Around that same time he wrote more of Abraham’s story in the verses of the song “Holy Is the Lord:”

I waited on the Lord, and in a waking dream he came, riding on a wind across the sky, he spoke my name. “Here I am,” I whispered, and I waited in the dark, and the answer was a sword that came down hard upon my heart.

He produced, along with Andy Gullahorn, my album Resurrection Letters, Vol. II, which included yet another of his beautiful and scriptural lyrics:

The blood of Jesus, it is like the widow’s oil; it’s enough to pay the price to set you free. It’ll fill up every jar and every heart that ever beat. When it’s all you have it’s all you’ll ever need.

Meanwhile, he was producing album after album for artist after artist. His resume is bursting with names like:

Randall Goodgame
Christa Wells
Sanctus Real
Marc Martel
The Gray Havens
John Thurlow
Melanie Penn
John Tibbs
JJ Heller
Ellie Holcomb
Jenny and Tyler
Hannah Godsey
Mercy Me
Rend Collective
Dave Barnes
Colony House
Brandon Heath
Son of Laughter
Molly Lockwood
Jeremy Camp
Bebo Norman
Matt Wertz
Eric Peters
Barbara Haynes
Point of Grace
Megan Isaacson
Carousel Rogues
Sara Groves

And writing and arranging for artists like:

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors
Ben Rector
Sixpence None the Richer

And playing on albums by artists like:

Amy Grant
Steven Curtis Chapman
Bethany Dillon
Jonny Diaz
Big Daddy Weave
The Lost Dogs
Matt Maher
Sidewalk Prophets
Laura Story
Andy Gullahorn
Jill Phillips
Andrew Osenga

…to name a few.

Somehow, with all the extra time on his hands, he and his wife Beth are raising four children, he’s an elder at his church, he teaches Sunday School, he mentors younger artists and producers (like my son Asher), and he released two solo albums, along with many songs written for his family and church.

I speak for thousands of people when I say that my faith has been edified, my life enriched, and my love for Christ and his church strengthened by this man.

Andrew Peterson

Those solo albums are sources of astonishment to every songwriter I know. The songs on his solo projects contain some of the most creative and musically gob-smacking sounds as well as some of the finest lyric writing you’ll ever experience. I’m not exaggerating. If I were, we wouldn’t be giving this award. The songs on his albums are exquisitely written, full of brilliant turns of phrase, perfectly employed metaphors, clever rhymes that are so natural you forget they rhyme, and—perhaps most wonderful of all—they’re brimming with scriptural allusions that could only have been written by someone who doesn’t just know God’s word, but who loves it and has written it on his heart.

A few examples:

In the song “A Name, A Name, A Name,” he describes a woman going to work in the morning, a woman who’s tired of life but suspects that there’s some great beauty calling to her through the mundanity:

She steps off of the train and then out in the rain,
Carried away on a sea of strangers.
Men gaping up from their papers
At ladies weightless as vapors
Make her tired.
So tired.

The telephone calls and the windowless walls
Siphon the life from the halls where all these
Half-human beings sit staring at screens
Repeating routines without meaning
Leaving her tired.
So tired.

She closes the door to her office and sits in her chair
And there in the quiet, she hears it,

A name she knows from somewhere.

That name, of course, is Jesus.

He writes of his love for old and out-of-tune pianos, comparing himself to that brokenness that still, against all hope, longs to sing and to be beautiful:

In the corner of the room,
Down and out of tune,
A lonely old upright
With a jagged set of keys
That unlock old memories–

Sentimental melodies,
Voices echoing,
Beautiful funeral flowers.

I remember when I used to be
Part of the family
When I was younger.
But now the glory days are gone
I’m no use to anyone.
Out of shape and out of key,
they’ve all forgotten me.

But then the lonely old upright begs to be touched by God, to be played and listened to, to be given some hope:

But if you’ve got the mind to take a swing,
I’ve got the hammer and the string.
And when the player plays
I was made to resonate.

So come and sit beside me
Come and touch me again.
Come and press a message into my hand
If you can take a good dissonance
Like a man.

Your love is a hand in the dark
And hope is the sound of the song
That it plays in my heart.

In the song “4th of July,” he sings of the transience of great civilizations like America, compared to the eternal Kingdom of God:

The first star of the evening
Was singing in the sky,
High above our blanket in the park,
And by the twilight’s gleaming
On the fourth day of July
The city band played on into the dark.

And then a cannon blast.
A golden flame unfolding
Exploded in a momentary bloom.
The petals fell and scattered
Like ashes on the ocean
As another volley burst into the blue.

But the first star of the evening never moved.

There’s a sweet melancholy that runs through much of his music and lyrics, a gut-level ache for healing that gives wings to his fierce hope in the love of God. As it was for Tolkien, the power of the beauty was partly the sadness.

In “Nothing for the Ache,” he bears his soul:

There’s nothing for the ache,
The groaning of a heart about to break
You’ll notice when you lie in bed awake,
Feeling like you’re falling.

And there’s nothing for you here.
Your life is like a mist that disappears,
Fading like a ringing in the ears–
You strain to hear the sound and then it’s gone.

How my heart is bleeding.
I cry with every beating.
Tell me why are we born with these souls inside
That burst and break us open?

Why,

If there’s nothing for the ache?

The question begs an answer. An answer which he offers up in song after song, though not always in an obvious way.

In the song, “Listen!” he tells us to pay attention to the God whose presence moves through the world like a train passing in the night:

Shrouded in steam and smoke
On a dark cloud he approaches
And the tails of his coal-black coat
Are a train of lumbering coaches
He passes unseen like a ghost
But he thunders like a herd of horses
And he calls to the heavenly host
To join with their airy voices

Listen!

And in a song no other person on earth could have written, “EGBDF,” he compares his own journey from law to grace, from the Old Testament to the New, to, of all things, his journey from piano lessons with Beethoven to his love of rock and roll by way of the Beatles:

There were venerated volumes of rhythm and melody
The grave embalmings of a language dead for a century
To read, to recite, to repeat
Without even thinking to learn to speak

‘Cause good boys do fine
Always hearing,
We never understand
We see without perceiving
And speak of what we can’t comprehend

Old Testament. Then…

Sir Paul McCartney appeared to me in Day-Glo
With an english horn
Speaking words I thought were dead
Now strangely reborn
And I heard unearthly voices
That sang in distant doorways and rooms
He was conducting kite strings
Winds that filled me and I flew

Now the harmony is written on my heart
Yeah, the language is on my tongue
And I barely understand it
But I’ve only just begun

New Testament, now written on his heart, in a language he’s just beginning to learn.

I could go on and on.

More, though, than his tireless work, more than his stellar playing and writing, more than his willingness to pour his own gifting into that of others, is his kindness. His willingness to listen. His willingness to humble himself before scripture. His willingness to serve his wife and children and church. I speak for thousands of people when I say that my faith has been edified, my life enriched, and my love for Christ and his church strengthened by this man.

I truly believe that he’s an exemplar of what it means to serve the Kingdom of God with his gifting and to do so joyfully, with integrity, with excellence, and with love. On behalf of the Rabbit Room community it brings me great pleasure to present the Resonator Award to Ben Shive.

Click here to pre-order a limited edition vinyl copy of one of Ben’s records (yet to be determined).

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


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