One evening in 2008, I joined a few hundred people at Judson University's chapel to watch—and hear—a bit of history. Phil Keaggy, backed by a full band, was playing every note of his magnum opus, 1978's all-instrumental album The Master & the Musician. The maestro guitarist and his bandmates played the entire record in sequence, and received a rousing ovation afterward.
It was the 30th anniversary of that record's release, so Keaggy celebrated with a handful of such concerts. (Here's one of the songs from that tour). Many who attended were, like me, 50-somethings who had bought the album when it first came out. We were still young in our faith and excited about the new Jesus Music, which had not yet evolved into the mega-marketed, multi-million-dollar empire that we now know as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).
The Master & the Musician went on to become his best-selling record, and Keaggy went on to grow with the industry—sometimes comfortably in the middle of it, sometimes on its edges, sometimes eschewing it altogether with indie releases that included little, if any, overtly Christian content.
Keaggy didn't write for record companies. He didn't write for radio. He didn't write for the church. His songs weren't crafted to fit any sort of formula.
Keaggy just wrote the music he wanted to write, and released it to the world—Christian market, secular, crossover, it didn't matter—and let the listeners, and the critics, decide for themselves. Sometimes it was astonishingly good, sometimes not so good, and sometimes almost forgettable. But over the course of 50-plus solo albums, his music has always been imaginative, daring, pushing beyond boundaries, both real and perceived, of what "religious" music should sound like.
Those are just a few reasons Keaggy will receive the prestigious Golden Note Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) at its Christian Music Awards ceremony today in Franklin, Tennessee. The Golden Note, reserved for those who have achieved "extraordinary career milestones," has previously been won by Michael W. Smith, Lindsey Buckingham, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, and others.
An ASCAP spokesman said that Keaggy's "influence on both the contemporary Christian and mainstream music markets is immeasurable."
The Master & the Musician certainly illustrates this, as Keaggy deftly straddles the fence—or is he bridging the gap?—between the secular and sacred. By 1978 he had already released three acclaimed faith-based records—What a Day, Love Broke Thru, and Emerging—and was one of the most respected artists in the business.
But when Master came out on NewSong Records, a Christian label, people didn't know what to do with it. It was all-instrumental . . . nary a Jesus lyric to be found. How could it possibly be called "Christian"? Faith-based radio programmers and religious bookstore owners were left scratching their heads.
Thirty-five years later, such limited thinking seems quaint. But it's a reminder of how quickly Christian music had backed itself into a corner, where a narrow range of subjects and styles was considered "Christian." Keaggy showed no interest in staying in that corner—and burst out from it with a brilliant combination of styles and textures.
The album's tunes range from blistering electric guitar solos to medieval-inspired flute pieces, from a pulsing jungle boogie to a beat-box vocal ditty that would make Bobby McFerrin proud. As Mark Allan Powell wrote in his Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, while it is debatable whether Keaggy is the best guitar player of all time, "it is probably fair to say he is the most versatile guitarist who has ever lived. . . . It is easy to imagine both Jimi Hendrix and Andrés Segovia smiling down on [Keaggy], nodding their heads in approval, albeit with reference to completely different projects."
There's not enough space here to discuss Keaggy's "pre-Christian" (and drug-laced) era with the rock band Glass Harp. Or how he lost the middle finger on his right hand in a childhood accident—and still became a guitar guru with his remaining nine digits. Or how he came to Jesus after the tragic death of his mother. Or the longtime comparisons to Paul McCartney, both for his voice and for his songwriting style—comparisons that Keaggy initially embraced, then shunned, and now embraces again. (Keaggy's Sunday's Child, released in 1988, has been called the best album the Beatles never made.) Or the tragedies that he and wife Bernadette have survived, losing their first five children (including triplets) to miscarriage, stillbirth, and early infant death. Or Keaggy's longstanding friendship—and the stellar musical collaborations—with fellow Jesus Music pioneer Randy Stonehill. Or even his more recent, Windham Hill-esque instrumental duets with Jeff Johnson.
There's so much more that could be said about Keaggy, his skills, and his musical legacy. But if you had to sum it up in five words or less, I'd start here:
The Master. And the Musician.
Phil Keaggy is a master musician serving the Master of music. It's a collaboration for the ages, and a gift to any and all who have ears to hear.
Mark Moring is a former pop culture editor at Christianity Today. He now writes for Grizzard Communications in Atlanta, raising money for homeless shelters, food banks, and other ministries and relief organizations.