You've likely heard plenty of Christian music made by a pastor's kid who eventually became a worship leader. That's the 10-cent description of Rhett Walker, whose debut rock record, Come to the River, released last week.
But Walker's journey from churchgoing son of a pastor to lead singer of the Rhett Walker Band was a rocky, circuitous one, involving drugs and a girlfriend's unexpected pregnancy during his rebellious teen years. Walker's fork-in-the-road moment came when he was just 17, but, spurred on by a challenge from his father, he went in a direction most 17-year-olds wouldn't.
Walker drew directly from those experiences for Come to the River, helped by co-writers such as Jason Ingram, David Leonard of All Sons & Daughters, and Steven Delopoulos of Burlap to Cashmere. When we spoke, Walker didn't shy away from his troubled past as he talked about grace, boldness, and how bands like Soundgarden and .38 Special have inspired him.
Tell me about what you were like as a teenager.
My dad's a pastor, and we'd just moved to South Carolina, and it was like starting over. I was young and dumb. You know how it is when you're 16. You're just getting your license and things are starting to go smoothly. Then I just went crazy. I started messing in stuff I didn't need to. I got expelled from my high school. I had to go to this Christian school down the road. All along my dad is a pastor at this new church, and people are like, "How can you lead a church if you can't even raise your family?"
So I get to this new school and, same thing: living life like I wanted to, messing with drugs. Next thing you know, my girlfriend's pregnant. That was the moment where it was like, "What have I done? This is forever." I didn't know what to do. I told my dad, and he said, "Now's the time to man up. No matter what happens, you'll forever take care of this girl, and you'll forever take care of this baby." I told April, who was my girlfriend and is now my wife of eight years, "We've done everything wrong that we possibly can. Let's try to do it right from here on out."
We were 17 and had to get our parents to sign off to get married. We went before my dad's church, walked right up front and told them what was happening, that we're expecting a baby. They ended up throwing baby showers on their own dime. So we were able to see the way a church body is supposed to exist, with brothers and sisters helping each other. The church could have easily turned their back on us. But they really jumped in there. I was seeing firsthand that Christ does love me. I've done everything possible to screw it up, and he's still there to help me and protect me, and now he can help me raise a family as a 17-year-old.
Given that history, do you feel like you're especially gifted to sing about grace?
I don't know if I'm especially gifted, but I know I've seen it firsthand. I played drums and I was playing in my dad's worship band when we were married and back in church. My wife started pushing me to sing. One time at our church, the worship leader asked me to come off the drums for the next Sunday and sing a song, Todd Agnew's "Grace Like Rain." I thought, I don't know if you're drunk or what, but I will. So I did, and it was terrible. People at the church were like, "You were singing to the Lord!" It's a nice way of saying, "We thought it was terrible, but God loved it." But they never let me go back to drums.
So I started singing and leading worship. After months of doing that, I started getting opportunities to lead worship other places. God was just opening doors, and we wanted to do whatever he asked. I was happy doing Passion covers and Hillsong songs and stuff like that, but from what I'd seen and the kind of life I'd lived, I felt like I had a story to tell with what Christ has done in my life. So I started writing songs and pursuing music. I felt like God was pushing me toward Nashville, so I did the easy cop-out and said, "Well, I'll pray about it." The next week my mom called me and said, "You ever thought about moving to Nashville?" Two weeks later we were in Nashville. We've been here four years now.