Phil Madeira has had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest folk musicians on the planet—Alison Krauss, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, The Civil Wars, Buddy & Julie Miller, Steve Earle, and many more—so when he says he'd love to someday work with Bob Dylan, it doesn't seem far-fetched.
Given Madeira's reputation, both as a songwriter and as a musician, it's not surprising that he had little trouble rounding up an impressive lineup for his new album, Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us. The 12-track album (our review) includes guest appearances by Harris, the Civil Wars, Buddy Miller, Mat Kearney, Cindy Morgan, jazz guitarist John Scofield, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and more.
"This is a beautiful record," says Miller, who sings "I Believe in You," and indeed, it is. But what it is not is a Christian record, though many of the songs could certainly fit well into the genre. But Madeira pushes back against such a label not just because it's too narrow, but also because of his own spiritual journey.
He's a graduate of the fairly conservative Taylor University, but he wouldn't call himself a conservative—or likely even an "evangelical," for that matter. "My faith in Christ has moved me away from the organization we call 'the Church,' and into what feels like a more intimate and even mystical 'relationship' with the Spirit," Madeira says. He adds that he wouldn't disagree with universalism.
It's this "inclusive" theology, combined with the angry shouting of the 2008 presidential primaries, that prompted Madeira to want to do an album of "hymns for the rest of us," and thus the seeds for Mercyland were planted. Four years later, we now have a stirring collection of songs in the Americana tradition, much of it quite "Christian," with a bit of vague spirituality mixed in.
We interviewed Madeira via e-mail.
Tell me a bit about your own spiritual journey.
Raised by people of deep beliefs, I was surrounded by the notion of a personal God. My parents' faith was gracious and as inclusive as possible for Evangelicals in the 60s. They were devout Christians with a social conscience, something rare these days, in my opinion.
Jesus appealed to me, but church culture did not, with the exception of several writers (C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner, Madeleine L'Engle) who made me feel that spirituality and creativity were twin sisters.
And you went to Taylor University?
Yes. I don't regret my college days at all; I learned a great deal and had a good time, and was at once drawn to faith while never feeling quite at home with the faithful. Yet I still have many good friends from those days, who perhaps felt the same way.
When I attend services, I go to the Episcopal Church. I like the creeds and prayers, and the fact that they truly mean it when they say all are welcome. Yet, my faith in Christ has moved me away from the organization we call "the Church," and into what feels like a more intimate and even mystical "relationship" with the Spirit. I think there's something to the biblical notion of "where two or three are gathered"—and more often than not, two seems to be the winning number.
How did this album come about?
My parents were very supportive of the civil rights movement of the '60s, and my mother's great affection for Mahalia Jackson was rooted in the sheer passion of the woman's voice, which embodied the struggle of African Americans to be seen as equals in white America. So, that tidbit of my childhood is essential to my making Mercyland. I'm just carrying the same torch, one that hopefully illuminates the idea that faith is a journey that isn't exclusive, a pilgrimage everyone is on which requires openness and dialogue. Giving voice to "the rest of us" was a calling, if you will.