The EarReverent Story: According To Scott

Before we were teenagers, my friend Jason and I spent lots of time doing what many people of that age did before us and have continued to do since: we basked in the wonders of recorded sound. Jason was the first between us to save enough money to buy his own room-and-sometimes-house-monopolizing component system. It had bright blue foam covering the large tweeter/midrange/woofer cabinets. We spent lots of lawn-mowing money on it and over the course of our vinyl-acquisition years, we witnessed the passage from Hi-Fi mono to Stereophonic, and even made it through the short-lived Quadraphonic platform. This was before video killed the radio star. Jason and I sat enthralled by the overwhelming clarity of professionally reproduced pop, looking at the shiny rectangular machines linked up by cables. Red and green lights blinked from the state-of-the-art electronics, indicating mysterious electro-sonic calculations. Miracles of rock n’ roll beatitude, processed through the hands of our pre-canonized masters, Saints John, Paul, George and Ringo, were delivered all the way from Abbey Road, London, England to Highland Drive, McMurray, PA. We never looked out the windows from Jason’s second floor room. Instead, we peered into liner notes, and we imagined seeing our own names printed thereupon someday. It never really happened as we hoped it might.

One time, we got bored enough to attempt our own recording experiment. Jason took his hand-held recorder, connected headphones to the amplifier and clamped those headphones to his temples as the record played “Don’t Let Me Down” into his brain, then he sang along onto the tape. Since he could not hear himself singing, the performance ended up hilariously off-pitch, and we of course listened to the product over and over again, holding our sides as we laughed endlessly. Jason had a special way of laughing that revealed his upper teeth. Together, we might have been a good inspiration for the eventual Beavis and Butthead. Even though we were devoted to audio and its technology, we spent just as much time outside as in, so when we were down at the creek capturing salamanders or snakes, up in the three-story tree house that we built with Mark and Greg, or walking through the farmer’s field on our way to the store or movies, Jason and I might slip ritualistically into an imitation of that imitation of the Beatles, making sure to hit that last word and its sour note in just the “wrong” way.

In the mediated age, everybody wants some kind of show-biz career, regardless of his or her true calling or God-given abilities. Jason ended up there and still serves professionally in the capacity of audio production. My career took me into teaching. But I came by my musical aspirations naturally, and I’ve been following through on them as best I can ever since. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in our living room before a small china cabinet the bottom of which contained my father’s small but growing collection of LPs. From a sensory standpoint, those cardboard and vinyl objects played as influential a role in my personal formation as the Lutheran catechism and liturgy in which I was thoroughly soaked by the age of 12. It wasn’t long before Dad convinced Pastor Garth to let us take drums and bass, etc. into the sanctuary and play a couple of spiritual numbers for the congregation. This was the same bass guitar on which all of us had taken a turn playing the ubiquitous opening line from “Smoke on the Water.” Down in the church basement, during a lull in youth group, you could play it all on the lowest string. Looking back, I think we may have been the original Praise Band. Most of the good Missouri Synod Lutherans accepted the move, I guess, but my Dad told me one of his choir companions apparently had a word for any attempt at permeating the line between secular and sacred inside the church building: “schmaltzy.”

For some reason, many of us officially charged with crossing that line over the years (i.e. “contemporary worship leaders”) seem to have taken this characteristic as a mission statement: “Schmaltzy: of, relating to, or marked by excessive or maudlin sentimentality.” Getting at it from the direction of the thesaurus: “hokey, kitschy, maudlin, mawkish, schmalzy, bathetic, sentimental, slushy, soppy, soupy, mushy, drippy.” The over-compensating cure for schmaltz, of course, is coolness, a quality as elusive to the touch as a blob of mercury. I didn’t try to achieve coolness in church until after I had tried it at sundry times and diverse manners outside the church. By the time I returned, in the late 1980s, those of us in newly acquired musical leadership positions satisfied our urge to speak the language of Christian worship in our own musical vernacular while ostensibly justifying the project as follows: we were bringing appeal to the dusty act of going to church for those disaffected members of “the younger generation.” Any coolness we eventually appropriated derived from the sonic dens of FM, LP, Dolby-cassette, and CD, and we tried to hit two cultural birds with one musical stone. But sooner or later members of the past few generations found out that the Kingdom of Coolness is a hobo train car paneled inside with mirrors. When you catch a glimpse of your own reflection, you either have to hold your sides laughing, turn into Narcissus, or look elsewhere for artistic meaning and purpose.

Somewhere along the line, I hoped to do more than strum passionately along at the front of the room. Like all presumptuous owners of a six-string possessing mastery of the shift from a major chord to a suspended chord and back again, I figured I could write contemporary congregational music just as well as the next guy. So, between 1993 and 2004, under the wing and embrace of Grace Evangelical Free Church, I trotted out a string of freshly penned “praise songs” and invited (read: “made”) the casually-dressed attendees to look at the words projected on the wall and then try to sing along. My first installment emerged from a kitchen writing session where I opened the Old Testament during Advent and wrote a song called “With Us Jesus” right out of Isaiah 9. This habit of keeping the songs grounded in the lyrical language of scripture (and the rhythms of the lectionary calendar), using multiple texts to comment back and forth on each other, became a songwriting principle. The name “EarReverent” was a cheeky pun meant to declare opposite refusals and complimentary demands. Church songs need not be organ-classical nor must they be “happy-clappy” kitsch. At the same time, they should merge current musical strains with timeless, “pre-Modern” truth and the liturgical posture of the ageless church. The music we envisioned would be naturally tied to the folk-rock roots of our existing abilities and proclivities but would also strive to transcend that contemporary delivery system by seeking sufficient depth of content and liturgical purpose. Songs crawled and jumped out of the sound holes of an Ibanez, an Ovation or a Takamine: droning confessions (“Forgiveness Prayer”), moody Psalms (“Out of the Deep”), and celebratory hand-clappers (“O Most High”). When the song had the right musical feel (that’s the Ear side) and the appropriate liturgical function and language (that’s the Reverent side), it would march right up to the overhead projector and have a go. Nothing could really stop it from the human side (that is, sometimes unfortunately, no one has the heart to tell a worship leader “No”). Nevertheless, excusing the boldness of the following observation, quite often there seemed to be a big “Yes” from the divine side. We sought to hallow the everyday while wrenching the familiar out of its given shape and remolding it for holier use. Every once in while, it seemed to work. To me, “Raise a Song” said it best, borrowing from Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14: “I will sing with my mind, and my heart, and my soul.”

To put all this on a slightly more elevated plane: every Christian in each historical generation and cultural setting has to find their place in the liturgy, the way things are done by the people of God, in time and across it. Those of us writing and singing and recording under the EarReverent label were finding a way to be responsibly creative during transcendent moments that transpire in sacred space, such as, say, the carpeted main room of the Busy Bee day care center, the tiled store-front of a rented strip mall unit, the wooden floor of a rented roller-rink, the rented terrazzo floor of an extinct Begley Drugs, the rented basketball parquet of a private school, and the rented warehouse of a catalogue distribution outfit—we at Grace Church were doing a lot of renting, on the move around Lynchburg, growing gradually, and upgrading our PA system accordingly.

May God bless those adults who let us kids play around with the church music. In this spirit of gratitude, I’ll end by calling to your attention Harold Best’s Unceasing Worship. In it, Best provides an update on a statement attributed to G. K. Chesterton, who said something like, “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Best improves this by focusing on improvement itself: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, but not for long.” Hopefully, this selection of songs wears the stamp of successive growth in quality and depth. I know that I am not the only songwriter/music leader out there who finds himself worrying about one thing especially: what warrant do I and others like me have for adding to the sonic glut that we call “music,” especially if we’re non-professionals? None at all, it is a privilege to be taken both seriously and lightly. If you elect to include any of these selections in your church’s gathering-song, may you find a way to make them more EarReverent than they were when they started out. Let’s leave this place better than we found it.

— C. Scott Baker