Terri and I recently drove to Nashville to hear one of our dearest friends perform at the renowned Bluebird Café, a venue for some of the greatest singer-songwriters in the land.
We’ve known Walt since he was a teenager. I was his youth minister — me at the ripe age of 24 and he a wise-cracking 18-year-old. You might say we grew up together. A few summers later, Walt “worked” with me as an intern. Oh my. God is gracious, is all I can say, and looks out for fools.
After college, Walt made his way to Louisville to see if seminary and ministry might be his path. It clearly wasn’t, at least not in the traditional sense.
But on that recent night at the Bluebird, we had church. A rapt audience became a community of grace as we received song after song of passion and spirit, about things that matter most in life all wrapped in engaging melody and rhythm and story. It was preaching in the most primal and profound sense.
Many of the songs took us back to a time when Walt was only starting to discover his call. He and others would gather around our kitchen table on Friday nights until the wee hours of Saturday mornings to hone their craft, trade turns of phrase and guitar licks, encourage each other, and sit in wonder in the echo of those moments when voices converged and harmonies interlocked and something bigger than the sum of its parts was present.
As a writer from a different genre says, “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.”
But they did. Walt moved to Nashville. We moved to Louisville. And though we still have the kitchen table, its magnetism for drawing singers and listeners seems to have lost its pull.
Hearing Walt again in the intimate venue of the Bluebird conjured up those days. His music is “like a coat from the cold,” to quote one of his earliest songs.
The evening also brought to mind the last time I’d heard Walt in Nashville. It was 2007, and I was in the city for a gathering called the Festival of Homiletics, a national preachers’ gathering that is far more engaging than it sounds. Walt was mostly on the road then with a traveling band, but he was back in Nashville on the night before the festival to play a benefit concert for a beloved fellow singer-songwriter who’d died and left a family with few resources. It was a great night of music, laughter and tears.
Early the next morning came a call to my hotel room with the news from Louisville that our son, Bobby, had been killed in an apartment fire.
Terri and I recalled those days on our way home from the Bluebird as we exchanged stories of that morning four years ago — where we were, the chronology, how we heard, who told us, who was with us, what we did next. It was a painful remembering, a grief rekindled, a recalling of details not previously shared, probably not the wisest activity while one is hurling a car down the road at 70 miles per hour.
I realized I was driving that very stretch of Interstate 65 in much the same condition four years ago when the news was fresh, not fully assimilated, more of a nightmare than a reality.
As we stood in line to enter the Bluebird a few weeks ago, our mutual friend, Judy, handed us a CD of a Walt performance I’d missed in my quick exit from the Festival of Homiletics. We listened to the voice of the emcee from four years ago call our names in remembrance. We heard our story told to those gathered. There was a call for a moment of silent prayer that, though four years old, retained the power to hold us in sacred suspension. Then the music and stories came and wove their way into our hearts.
We cried our way home. And though exhausted, we felt strangely healed and connected — to each other, to our friends who held us those years ago, to Bobby, to God. Remembering became an act of love, binding up wounds and binding us together.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church. Contact him at www.hbclouisville.org.