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?"

Rhett Walker

Rhett Walker

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.

Article continues below

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.

What was that transition like?

I didn't know what I was doing, to be honest. I wrote 50-something songs for this record. I grew up listening to bands like .38 Special, and one of my favorite all-time bands is Soundgarden. Pearl Jam. Even bands like Third Day and dc Talk. These bands wrote from the heart. They wrote from experiences. So that's what I did. I just wrote exactly what I'd seen and what I felt and what I lived. Our single, "When Mercy Found Me," is my testimony. It's just me talking about my life.

You've said that writing that song just about whooped you. How so?

It took forever to write. I was writing five days a week, sometimes twice a day. There are some songs that were 20-minute writes, because my style is putting pen to paper and whatever comes out comes out. For "When Mercy Found Me," I told the guy I was writing with, Jeff Pardo, "Let's be blatantly obvious: This is who Rhett was, this is who Rhett is, and this is who Rhett is striving to be." We wrote and we wrote. That song probably sounded 50 different ways before we finally had it where we wanted it to be. Sometimes songs go like that. Sometimes they're great. Sometimes they suck when they come out. I think you gotta work at it.

Article continues below

"Singing Stone" was written with Steven Delopoulos. How did that partnership come about?

I'd never met him before. I got a call from our publisher saying, "Hey, I'd love for you to write with Steven Delopoulos. He's from Burlap to Cashmere. He's from Jersey. It'll be cool." And I was like, "Well, it'll be something." He was one of the coolest guys—down to earth, loves the Lord. It was a really different kind of co-write. It made for a really cool moment in the studio.

There's a real tenderness to that song that stands out on the record.

Oh yeah, it's an intimate moment. I wanted to track the record live. I wanted to get in there with my friends and the guys in my band and just press "Record" and go. The vocals on that song are from a live track that day. We didn't go back in and change stuff. We just worshiped, and I think God blessed it.

You say the theme of this record is "grace with a calling." What do you mean by that?

I think it comes back to choosing to "man up." A lot of time it feels like we have a message of "Life's hard, but trust Jesus and it'll all work out." While that's true, it's also not true, because if you trust Jesus he's gonna work it out, but it might not work out like you had planned. For example, my aunt is one of the sweetest ladies you'll ever meet, but she's confined to her bed. She's a Christ-loving lady. So why her? Why is this woman who loves to share the gospel now stuck to her home, and her body doesn't work like she wants it to?

When God gives us grace, it comes with a calling to share the gospel. You can't just take that grace and keep it to yourself. You don't know what's coming. So we've gotta quit this whole culture of "Life is good. " 'Cause it ain't. Life sucks, and the world is an evil place. We've gotta go out there and conquer it and take it back. We've got people out there today like Joel Osteen who just want to preach therapy messages of feel-good stuff. Man, it's about Scripture. And sometimes it ain't that life is hard. It's that you screwed up. You need to seek Christ.