Earlier this year, John Michael Talbot's wife, Viola, put together a surprise celebration of his 25-year ministry as a Christian musician. Talbot heard tributes from old friends such as his longtime producer (and Sparrow Records founder) Billy Ray Hearn, and musicians Phil Keaggy and Barry McGuire. He received praising letters from Roman Catholic cardinals and a blessing from Pope John Paul II.
"You're aware of your achievements," Talbot tells Christianity Today, "but sometimes you wonder: Is it all worth it?" The tributes from friends helped answer that question, and Talbot was thankful for the gathering.
His friends' tributes reminded Talbot of how far he has journeyed—from Mason Proffit, the folk-rock duo he fronted with his older brother, Terry, to his more than 25 years as a self-described troubadour for the Lord.
If not for decisions Talbot made along the way, the Talbot brothers could be playing on Southern rock nostalgia shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers Band. Instead, Talbot lives among the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, the religious community he founded 20 years ago and serves as general minister. The community lives at The Little Portion Hermitage, located on property in the Ozark Mountains that Talbot purchased when he was still a budding rock & roll musician.
The two most important choices Talbot made were leaving Mason Proffit (to record contemporary Christian albums with his brother) and becoming a Roman Catholic (and joining the secular Franciscans, who live in the world but commit themselves to Franciscan disciplines) in 1978.
"Leaving Mason Proffit was a fairly natural decision. The band had pretty much run its course, and it was beginning to fall apart," Talbot says. "The story of my becoming a Catholic had far more impact, on my music and on my life, than leaving a band. When I became a Catholic, I thought I would never work in Christian music again."
Quite the contrary: Since 1978, Talbot has released 39 more recordings (and three collections of previous recordings). Despite protests in some evangelical circles when Talbot recorded an album (Brother to Brother) and toured with Michael Card in 1996, Talbot has maintained a core audience of Christians across denominations who appreciate his musical component of liturgical worship.
An Uneasy Peace with CCM
After his conversion, Talbot began combining his earlier work in folk with "a musical style I wasn't trained for"—classical guitar. "As I laid the music down, the Lord brought it back up in a way that I never would have done naturally," Talbot says.
Talbot's resulting music led to a Dove Award in 1982 (for Light Eternal), numerous Dove Award nominations throughout the 1980s, and various honors from music magazines such as Billboard and Pulse!
But Talbot is not making music designed to attract teenagers looking for the next new thing in CCM. Talbot calls his work "meditative music."
"In my music, silence is just as important as the notes. There is an aspect of music, of sacred music, that can speak the unspeakable," he says. "The only other style of music that attempts to go to the deeper place of the silence that is music is New Age music."
Talbot says that contemporary Christian music has become an industry, which he sees as both good and bad.
Talbot appreciates that CCM takes gospel messages deeper into popular culture than in the 1970s, when getting CCM onto radio stations was still mostly just a dream.
But he is concerned that CCM, like other aspects of Christianity's pop-subculture, can represent a "lifestyle heresy" of "being totally infatuated with the world while thinking it's being so countercultural."
American pop culture glorifies independence and individualism, Talbot says, and he believes evangelicals' pop culture often does the same. "People are looking for something that's the real deal. If Christianity isn't bringing forth change, it's not the real deal," he says.
"I'm sure if I were having to submit tapes for approval today, I would be turned away," Talbot says. Talbot continues to tour, both as a solo artist and (during 2000) in reunion concerts with his brother and with folk-rock legend Barry McGuire.
But most of his life centers not on his recording albums or writing books, but on his being in God and living at The Little Portion Hermitage, which is composed of celibate sisters, celibate brothers, married couples, and families with children.
In Ephesians 4:22, the apostle Paul speaks of putting off the old man.
"I call my old man Johnny Mike," says John Michael Talbot. "I am here to lose Johnny Mike."
Douglas LeBlanc edits The CT Review.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Talbot's music is available at Christianbook.com.
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