Saturday, January 31, 1999
By Linda Stonehocker
Photographs by Shari Lloyd
When five blind men stepped up to an elephant to examine it, so the story goes, each one came away with a different impression: one felt the tail and concluded a pachyderm was long and thin like a rope; another an ear, and declared the creature must be like a palm tree, and so on. They argued with each other, based on their individual impressions, and were never able to get the big picture of what an elephant actually looks like.
Charlie Peacock's varied career in music poses a similar problem. The facets of his career are so varied, a complete picture is difficult to put together. There is Charlie Peacock, the CCM Nashville record producer. There is Charlie Peacock, the radical musician whose songs have been banned from Christian radio and retail. There is Charlie Peacock the husband and father who enjoys fishing. There is the record label president. There is the visionary artist. The occasion of our conversation was the release of Charlie Peacock's first book, At the Crossroads. Through our talk, a fuller picture emerged of how Mr. Peacock fashions his identity out of these disparate roles.
Tollbooth - The last time I saw you play was at Cornerstone Festival in 1996. The Art House was going, and you'd just opened re:think Records. Please give an update from that point.
Peacock - Let me start with the Art House. We tried to keep the Art House going even after we started re:think. So we had an Art House worker who worked in the office with us at re:think. We did that for a year. Previous to that, my family and I had moved into the building that we used for Art House events, and it just became too much for us. So what we decided was, let's protect the vision, the Art House vision and ideas, and ask the Lord if He would morph them into a work that doesn't require 150 people coming to our house every week. That was important, too, for our children at that time, so we stopped having meetings there at the house. The Art House work became the book that I've got out now, At the Crossroads.
As far as re:think goes, I sold it over a year ago to EMI, which was a fancy way of saying I transferred the debt to them. I've been just operating as an overseer of it and making sure that Sarah Masen and Switchfoot are taken care of.
Tollbooth - So you kind of withdrew?
Peacock - Yeah, I did. In fact, I told the record company that I was retiring: "don't call me, I'll call you." I needed to not have anything dangled in front of me, any great opportunities, etc., but rather to have time to think and study. Probably starting around November of '97, I started working on my book. I worked on that pretty steady, with the exception of spending some time with my son in the studio. He was a senior in high school last year, home schooled, and so for his senior project we did a CD. He's showcasing for some record labels next week.
Tollbooth - And out of that time came this book. And now are you out of retirement?
Peacock - Yes, either retirement or out of money! I started up again in August. Sparrow called me and asked if I would do a couple of new songs on the Scott Christian Take, Out of the Grey, for a "best of" collection. So we went into the studio and did some work together. Then I started the Switchfoot record; I produced that, working on it for three months. I suppose it was around the end of November, the first of December that I started cutting tracks for my record. Since the new year started, I've been working on that mostly, and starting on book promotions, and pre-production on some other albums, Twyla Paris being one of them. We're getting ready to take Twyla into the studio the first of March.
We only did one record last year, that was Sarah Masen's second record. This year, we'll have four releases coming up. The first one came out the other day which is Darwin Hobbes, and that's a partnership that I did with EMI Gospel. It's a black gospel record. Then coming out next will be Switchfoot, their second record on re:think. Then my new record will come out in late May or early June, and in the fall, we plan to have another Sarah Masen release.
Tollbooth - Oh, really. The last word I'd had from her was that she was getting out of recording.
Peacock - She was going to be a librarian? Yeah, we've had discussions, many times with Sarah. I think today, she wants to keep going. I just recorded some demos with her last week in the studio. She's got some great new songs. And she's also going to have a baby.
Tollbooth - So she's not dropping out of sight by any means?
Peacock - No, I think there are artists who are really reluctant to be in the spotlight, and Sarah's one of them. She's a person who has all the gifts and talents that automatically send the signal to people like me, talent equippers, to move them forward into the picture, but her inclination is to be at the back of the picture. So we're trying to strike a balance there.
Tollbooth - Well, let's talk about the book. Tell me what it's about.
Peacock - Let me give you the history of it a little bit first. I started out writing a book on the imagination and creativity. I worked on that for about a year previous to this one and developed a presentation that I pitched to a couple book publishers like Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. But I got frustrated with that. I couldn't get people interested in this idea. I suspect that maybe my presentation of the idea wasn't the best, but I also got a sense that imagination and creativity weren't really salable ideas in the Christian marketplace.
One day I just sat down to do some writing and began to take a lot of those thoughts, and address them in the context of contemporary Christian music. As I began to think about the history of CCM, I started to see why some of the things I wanted to pursue maybe didn't work. They just don't resonate with anyone.
This book is an analysis of contemporary Christian music, from the late sixties forward. It's not a how-to book, and it's not a tell-all book. It's a philosophical book that helps the reader think through the core issues involved in the intersection of Christianity and contemporary music in the church. It does that by taking an in-depth look at the ideas present at the time when contemporary music was birthed, in the Jesus movement. Then once all that's examined and sorted out, it points to a way forward from the crossroads that, in my estimation, is a more faithful expression of what it would mean to make music to God's glory.
Tollbooth - Do you address the commercial aspect of CCM?
Peacock - Definitely. The device that I came up with in terms of addressing all these issues is just to find voices in the community that have spoken either in the press or in public, who have made some sort of statement about why they are upset with CCM, and to take those voices and say, as an insider, I think these voices represent everyone's problems with CCM. And I sort of jump on it from there.
Tollbooth - So how do you see CCM going forward?
Peacock - Well, unlike some other critics, I don't see a dismantling of it as being productive. I've lived long enough to know that most systems of thought aren't changed in that way unless you have a revolution and kill a bunch of people, and I'm not (laughs) going to advocate that. I think that slow, incremental growth that's driven by love and compassion for people is what works best-a charity, a leniency in judging, giving people time to absorb new ideas and to go to the scriptures, to pray. I think that approach takes time. That means you have to stick in there with people.
I'm not expecting everyone to agree with it. But I'm hoping what it does is start a dialogue and get people talking about it and entering into the messiness of it. Having a commitment to get messy with each other, and struggle through and wrestle the issues. So what I've tried to do is to paint a big picture of what the music can be so that people can dream bigger dreams for it.
Tollbooth - Do you think that's a vision that's lacking now?
Peacock - It's lacking as a consensus. There are people around who share that particular vision, but it's hard to get everybody on the same page. I think it takes this sort of overview and analysis, recognizing what's good and what's not. See, I'm completely in favor of Christian music as it is presently constituted. In fact, I hope I go a long ways toward helping people recognize that we should be championing Steve Green, with his traditional ministry, as much as we should be championing Sixpence None the Richer and the work they're doing, with a video on VH1. That's what I've tried to provide, that service. Because most people don't have the opportunity to take a year off and study a subject.
Tollbooth - If you had known all this fifteen years ago, at the start of your career, would that have changed the way you would have gone about doing anything?
Peacock - No, I did know that fifteen years ago! (laughs) I got involved in Christian music when a Christian saxophonist led me to Christ at the top of a Holiday Inn where I was playing a cocktail gig with him. I already had a band going, I'd already been involved with mainstream labels, I'd already done a development deal with A & M Records, I'd already sold songs to mainstream music publishers. So when I got saved, I was a Christian who was playing in clubs and had a popular band in the Sacramento area. I met other Christian musicians because they came up to the clubs to see me play. Then they introduced me to this world of CCM. I made that first Vector record back in 1983, and then my solo record, and from there, I met John Huie, who was working with Frontier Booking International, and he put me out on the road opening for The Fixx, General Public, Missing Persons, all these different eighties groups. I toured around America and Canada as an opening act. Keep in mind that up to this time, I'd never played in a church in my life. I just continued to do what I'd been doing.
In the middle eighties, I signed with CBS Songs as a songwriter, and then did the record on Island Records. I think my first Christian event in America was Cornerstone, maybe in 1987 or 1988. Because I was a Christian who was working in the mainstream and England was a little more progressive, I'd already played at the Greenbelt Festival. [editor's note: Peacock's first American Christian event was probably Newsound '87, a festival held in Rhode Island a week before Cornerstone, in which he, Jimmy A, Vince Ebo, and others proved conclusively what a great live band should be. It's a show I'll never forget.]
I guess the point that I'm making is that I was already aware from having read Francis Schaeffer that God is the Lord over all of life, and that He calls His children to every sphere of existence. So I was eager to be wherever God called me. I didn't have an axe to grind with the church, and was happy to play in churches, but I just wasn't doing it at the time.
Tollbooth - So this isn't a new revelation. You just been able to think it through?
Peacock - Well, yeah. I think it's a refining and a way of talking about it with people that hopefully is inviting rather than putting people on the defensive.
Tollbooth - Is the new stuff you're writing going to fit within the strictures of CCM formats these days, or are you going to be able to broaden that a little bit?
Peacock - I don't know. My lack of popularity (laughs) must mean that I don't think about that too much. And hopefully if you look at it, you'll see that I let the creative choices happen based on what I think my calling is. And if they come into alignment where CCM is at that particular time, then fine. I'm happy for that.
A great example of that is the Love Life album which has both "In the Light" and "Kiss Me Like a Woman." Now bookstores sent that record back in droves because of the latter song, and now "In the Light" is a song that's all around the world. So you can just tell by that model that I wasn't trying to push a button one way or another. That's just a natural expression of having thought of the Lord as being Lord over all of life.
Tollbooth - But you have to convince people to invest money in that if you want to get it produced and published and distributed.
Peacock - Oh, yeah. Well I think there's something about the people that I work with. They like to have me around. Something about it. As long as they don't have to spend too much money on it, they get a kick out of just having me around, I think.
Tollbooth - As a conscience or creative force?
Peacock - I don't know what it is, I don't know. Every three years they throw me a bone, and I get to make another record.
Tollbooth - You have moved, too, to the heart of all these problems, Nashville, correct? For some reason, I thought you had left, in a huff, a year ago, to write this book, but that's not the case?
Peacock - No, we love living in Nashville. We've got great friends there, we've got a real interesting piece of property that we've worked on really hard for the last eight years. I don't think we're going anywhere for a while. Our kids are pretty rooted there. My daughter just got married; they plan on staying there. I do have to leave there, though, to find places to fish.
Tollbooth - Oh, really? Not much deep water? What kind of fishing do you like to do?
Peacock - Well, I like to trout fish mostly. There's not much trout fishing right in Nashville; it's about an hour-and-a-half outside.
Tollbooth - Oh. I would think that you'd have to go north, or to higher elevations to get any trout.
Peacock - Yeah, go to California or Colorado. Do you know Bob Briner? He's an author, a really dear man. He and I are fishing buddies. We go down to the Keys, in search of tarpin. There are no tarpin in Nashville. Bass, though. The south love their bass.
Tollbooth - What's your immediate future look like?
Peacock - I think my hope is to have the opportunity to talk to people about the book, that the book will do a good work in people's hearts and minds, that the Lord will use it and cause incremental growth, to make people more like Jesus. That's my dream and my hope. And if I can continue doing that kind of work, that would be a real privilege because I do enjoy it. I enjoy getting the opportunity to teach and to talk about that subject.
Tollbooth - What could the average consumer or fan do to move this vision forward?
Peacock - Well, one of the things I talk about in the book is the responsibility of the consumer, the fan out there, to invest in the artwork. Invest in the material. Don't approach it just on a superficial level. And this is probably not so much for your audience, for the Cornerstone audience, but more an audience who is quickly impressed with the usage of religious language. That will require the person in the audience to be able to cultivate the ability to say, "Is what I'm hearing lyrically congruent with the historic Christian faith?" Without the buzzwords. See, then you've got to think about it, see?
Because what ends up happening is we've created a system where a young person can come along and just say all the right things, lead everybody in the Jesus cheer from the stage, and all of a sudden, they're the person who really has the commitment to Christ. They're the person that youth pastors want to get out to their church and so on and so forth. But in reality, they could be extremely immature. They're just inculturated to think that's how they should behave. And that 's not to say that you shouldn't put the name of the Lord in a song, absolutely! If the Holy Spirit encourages you to, and you don't, then that's a sin. That is not the issue. It's just that I think what I want to encourage people is to think Christianly about life. Thinking with a Christian world and life view, rather than just using the inculturated buzzwords so that you as a listener can immediately recognize, "Oh, that's a Christian song."
You see, a lot of times the ability to immediately recognize something causes you to write it off. You don't really invest in, "What are they saying? Is this really congruent with my belief system?"
Tollbooth - What about a group like Creed that's putting out some pretty powerful imagery from who-knows-what kind of a perspective, and yet getting a lot of airplay. What should people be doing with something like that?
Peacock - Creed is a great lesson for Christian artists. Because you'll oftentimes have this knee jerk reaction, with younger artists specifically, where they'll say, "Yeah, we've got to take all the God language out;" so that they can fit in, or to make sure they make it interesting. But no. It's always about telling a compelling story. The gospel is THE most compelling story there is. The reality of God and God's creation is THE most compelling story. But you've got to be a good story-teller. You've got to cultivate the ability to tell those stories!
So it's not just about taking out the name of the Lord, and all of a sudden, you're relevant to culture. Absolutely not! In fact, so many times, artists who do not profess Jesus as a savior will put the name of the Lord in the song and tell a story in a compelling way. Now I don't know where Creed stand, although I have heard that the main fellow in the band is a Christian, but I think, again, it's the delivery of it, it's the passion, the commitment, all those things come through in that music. I was driving through Atlanta when I first heard that song. I was just absolutely taken by it. I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to know what he's singing about? I wanted to get the whole album. That's what Christian music should do to people. It's not that you put all the right words in or that you take them out. It's, what are you thinking about? What is the intent behind your music and the language you use?
Tollbooth - Would it also be a matter of quality? Do you think we need to ask more from our Christian artists?
Peacock - Sure, sure, but I'll tell you what. I don't know about you, but we've come a long way. When I first heard Christian music back in 1982, it was pretty scary, and there was a different standard. But I think the bar has definitely been raised. And we need to continue to make that a part of that. "Excellence unto the Lord in all things."
Tollbooth - So it's fair to judge a Christian artist, would you say, by their talents and craftsmanship and musicianship?
Peacock - No. What is fair is to judge them by the degree that they've used the talents that God has given them.
Tollbooth - ...and developed them?
Peacock - Yeah. To have somebody
who God has equipped . . . how do you explain that mystery?