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Jesus Christ's Superstar
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When most people think of “Country Rock,” they think of the slick, California-based sound of groups like the Eagles.

Some folks whose tastes run a little bit deeper, will likely cite pioneers like Don and Phil Everly, Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, and The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Then there of those of us record hounds that pore over dusty vinyl by acts like the International Submarine Band, Michael Nesmith, Dillard & Clark.

and Area Code 615, secure in the knowledge that little-known albums and singles by these acts represent some of the finest –and most seminal– examples of the popular crossover genre.

However, there are some folks who swear to this day that Mason Proffit was perhaps the finest country-rock group to ever emerge from that fertile creative period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

I can almost hear the collective response now. “Come again?”

Yep. Mason Proffit.

Back in the fall of 1969, this group (led by brothers Terry and John Michael Talbot) dropped their debut album, and over the next several years would go on to record and release 4 more LPs on the Warner Brothers label. They toured incessantly, and wound up drawing several thousand fans a night for half a decade. Yet, despite this massive rush of popularity, they are largely forgotten.

That’s due in no small part to the scarcity of their albums, most of which have been completely unavailable for decades. But it’s also due to the fact that for the majority of time since their heyday, the two Talbot brothers have “set their affections on things above.”

As the most successful of the two siblings, John Michael’s insistence on following his heart led him to write and record numerous trendsetting albums of radical, Jesus-themed pop and rock that would ultimately serve as the foundation for much of the contemporary Christian music industry that came in their wake.

With the help of his mentor Billy Ray Hearn (the founder of landmark Christian music label Sparrow Records), Talbot –in his words– “touched the pulse of many seekers and believers alike with a style and approach that did not depend so much on the fickle trends of CCM.”

In hindsight, the songwriter says he now realizes that “For better or worse I have also been about the only major artist in Christian music that has done this so completely, so I am almost the only

one to turn to for those seeking musical inspiration in a more contemplative life.”

While that may seem a bold statement from someone devoted to leading a humble and penitent existence, it’s borne out by the facts. Starting around 1976, he set forth on a path that ultimately led to him being crowned the single most successful and accomplished artist in the field of contemporary Christian music.

Over the course of close to 50 albums, he has composed in a variety of styles, from “pure charismatic praise and worship” to meditational music, to modern folk, to laid-back gospel, to mainstream choral and orchestral pieces (on the Light Eternal LP, a Dove Award-winning effort now viewed by many as a classic), and –following his conversion to Catholicism– he has even integrated Catholic Liturgy and daily monastic chants into his work.

Spurred on by his brother’s attempts to reunite the original Mason Proffit band, John Michael –who also serves as the founder and General Minister of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity (a unique and idiosyncratic Church-sanctioned religious community near Eureka Springs, Ar., which welcomes celibates, singles and families)–recently embraced some of his earliest musical roots. He’s now touring houses of worship with a retrospective show that includes a variety of his well-known tunes from years past, as well as new music from the latest phase of his mercurial career: “Monk Rock.”

Deacon Geri Lee Nelson of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, who organized Talbot’s upcoming Savannah concert, says she has high hopes that area faithful will turn out in droves to see such an icon of Christian music live and in person.

“My husband, Richard, and I attended one of John’s concerts in South Carolina some 4 years ago,” she offers.

“We were awe-struck by his peaceful and contemplative presence on the stage, as well as his incredible musical talent. Although we were well familiar with John’s music years previously, listening to him that evening was like hearing him again for the first time. He drew us and about 1500 others into the experience of worship in a way I thought was impossible with such a large group.”

This event will take place at Bull Street’s Christ Church, which Deacon Nelson says is a blessing in itself.

“It is a great venue for this concert,” she continues. “And we are so very grateful to them for welcoming John as they have. They are almost as excited about the concert as we are! Father Robertson, the rector of Christ Church is very familiar with John’s music and has been very supportive.”

The songwriter says that this new approach (and the accompanying CD) is proving popular with his older fans and is helping him to win newer ones.

“The recording is being received very well. In concert I still do the old favorites, so the evening ends up a great mix of fun electric stuff, with a second set of serious meditational music. I think that after the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in recent years people need to get together and just have some wholesome fun. Monk Rock is kind of in that spirit.”

He says his schedule of about 50 shows a year is plenty. Given his myriad other responsibilities, it seems unlikely he could handle more than that.

“Most artists in my position do about 150 concerts or more a year,” he explains. “I keep focused the way anyone else does: I spend about 6 hours every day in meditation and prayer, including the traditional monastic practice of sacred reading, leading to contemplation.”

Talbot says his conversion had “a radical change on his career.”

“I thought that when I converted that would be the end of my music ministry, which had a predominantly evangelical listener base. Instead, it opened me up to a wider range of styles and a more ancient tradition of mysticism and prayer. I discovered there is a huge group of non Catholics and Catholics alike who treasure this spiritual and artistic tradition. So my popularity grew in a rather phenomenal way.”

He also seems more than a bit disappointed in the evolution of the contemporary Christian music business.

“On one level the industry has grown up by becoming more accomplished. On another it has just become more worldly in trying to reach the world. So it has come dangerously close to losing its soul. It is a real challenge to keep these things in healthy balance. Some artists are more able to do so than others. I try my best, but do not always succeed either.”

He says that one of the keys to creating lasting music of true religious import is to include much more of what most of today’s Christian pop music avoids.

“Mysticism is the element that is most important to art that evokes the mysteries of life and love, both human and divine. Sadly, it is sometimes the one element of historic Christianity most lacking in CCM. This reflects an underdeveloped artistic and spiritual maturity by the artists often thrust into the spotlight by companies banking on their apparent commerciality.”

Deacon Nelson seems confident that there will be spirituality and mysticism to spare at this upcoming show.

“‘Come To The Quiet’ is one of my all-time favorites that john performs,” she confides. “Actually, ‘performs’ is the wrong word to use when describing John’s singing. Every song is really like a prayer, drawing our hearts to God.”

She says this concert holds untold riches for believers of all denominations.

“Anytime we share the love of Jesus Christ through our action, it’s a good thing! The way in which John has been called to show that love is very special. It’s important that each of us listen carefully for God’s call for our own lives. Every single person on earth has been created for a purpose and part of our work here is to find out what that is and follow it with integrity and faithfulness.”

Talbot himself says that he declined to take part in the aforementioned reunion of his old band because the group was playing “overtly secular venues,” and that he’s “pretty confident” God wants him to perform in “a more religious environment.”

Yet he has no qualms whatsoever about rocking out for the Lord.

“I am aware that the Abbot Primate of the worldwide Benedictine monastic family in the Catholic Church is an accomplished classical flutist who also plays in a rock band in Germany when he has time,” he adds. “As he says, ‘In order to reach them we must be among them.’ I figure if the Abbot Primate can do it, so can I!”

John Michael Talbot performs at Christ Church (28 Bull St.) on Thursday at 7 pm. Stewart Marshall appears as well. Tickets are $20 in advance at area Christian Bookstores, Christ Church and St. Thomas Episcopal, or $25 at the door. Call 355-3110.