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Conversations without Words

I fell in love with the guitar when I was three years old. That was when I saw The Beatles on television. It was John and George, those electric guitars hung high. It was the punch of the chords. It was the bright, ringing lead lines. It was how they flicked their knees in time to Ringo’s snare. It was how the girls screamed. I knew then: I was going to play guitar. My older brothers, five and eight years older, loved rock and roll, and they bought records. Thanks to them, I heard all the cool stuff long before my peers: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Hot Tuna. All of it good, all of it loud.

I picked up the guitar in earnest when I was ten years old. At summer music camp when I was supposed to be playing classical violin, I skipped lessons and hung out with the cooks in the kitchen. They taught me “Hey Jude” and “Purple Haze.” I tried to sound like Hendrix, but all I had was a little nylon string guitar with a double pickguard like Jose Feliciano.

A year later, a daughter of my mother’s best friend taught me to fingerpick. She was beautiful, maybe eight years older than I was, with long, flowing hair that hung over the strings as she played. She knew all the new songs by the great songwriters of the late 1960s and early 1970s—Carol King, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Joni Mitchell. She turned me on to Leonard Cohen. I can still remember us playing “Suzanne,” me pondering, as I picked the chords, those great lines about Jesus being like a sailor, and Suzanne bringing tea and oranges. I didn’t really know what Cohen meant, but I knew it was a deep draught of bittersweet water, and that I would come back for more again and again—as indeed I have. This was my first exposure to the power of words and music together—to poems with a backbeat. As my mother’s friend’s daughter played and sang these great songs, I hunkered over my guitar, searching the neck for notes and altered chords to respond.

The rest of it I mostly figured out on my own by listening to jazz, blues and singer-songwriter records. By then my brothers had moved out of the house. I was in high school—at my seventh school since first grade—and finding it hard to make new friends for what felt like the millionth time. One Saturday afternoon, when I was supposed to be reading Tale Of Two Cities or Moby-Dick for English, I wandered into the living room and discovered the old records they’d left behind. I began to play them, one after another. The sun had that early spring brightness—it was maybe March—time had no limits, and nothing existed except that room and the music pouring from the speakers. That was the day I first reached for my guitar and tried to mimic what I heard on the records.

I knew nothing about what I was hearing. I knew nothing about the recording process: how in the studio guitarists would overdub two or three different parts on different guitars and different tracks. I thought I was hearing one guitarist playing everything on one guitar in one take. That’s what I was trying to copy. That’s what I tried to teach myself to do.

I struggled to distinguish the different instruments and parts. My ear was totally undeveloped. There was no one in my life I could ask about this stuff. In a way, I was working in a vacuum, unaware of rules or tradition, approaching the guitar with little guidance except what I heard.

I’d listen to parts again and again. It was hazardous for the records, a clumsy kid lifting the needle and setting it down over and over, but it was what I had to do. I put a scratch in many a record. If I had a turntable, even now we could listen to the old Elton John soundtrack or the first Yes album, and you’d hear the pops and skips in the sections I tried so desperately to sort out. Those sections seem so obvious now.

Usually, after many attempts, I’d get something that sounded vaguely reminiscent of the original. After I thought I’d figured out “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” I saw a guy at school playing it, and I realized my version was all wrong; studying his fingers, I saw I’d been making the part way too difficult when in fact it was simple. I revised, relearning each chord and riff, making mental notes on my own misinterpretations. It was like developing a vocabulary list for a new language. Slowly, I was becoming bilingual.

I am a Southerner, born in Statesboro, Georgia. My father was an Episcopal priest, my mother a priest’s wife but also an incredible musician (classical, choral, sacred, opera, baroque, organ, voice, recorder, viola da gamba). Our lives revolved around the church. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s. The church was restless. So was the nation. Vietnam. Civil Rights. Drugs. Liberation. Protest. Addiction. Death. Racism. Freedom. These words ring through my brain even now. This is my bedrock. This is ground zero. Beatles to MLK, Jr.

I converted to Christianity when I was sixteen. It was a rough rebirth, hard re-labor. My father’s church was swept up in the charismatic movement. Their names long forgotten, I remember praying for salvation each week with the eager youth leaders, but since I didn’t speak in tongues they figured it hadn’t happened. I must, they reasoned, have some hidden sins that needed to be dealt with, confessed. Finally, in desperation, one week I mumbled some incoherent sounds, not out of spite but more out of embarrassment and wishful thinking. For a long time I wondered if my conversion was real or not.

I went to a “Christian” college the next year—clueless about what I wanted to do with my life, ever the daydreamer, never the serious student, hungry about faith, intense. But I was random as rain. I ate up the Christian influence as fast as it was served. I read the books, hung out at weekly meetings (called “fellowships”), went to concerts. It was as if my receptors had been turned on full blast. Everything seemed more real, deeper, more connected to something beyond the physical world. Music came alive—it became a sacred experience, like a conversation that needed no words. When I played, I felt like I was speaking my native tongue. Playing seemed a natural extension of the faith I proclaimed. Still does.

Slowly, however, I became aware that what I took as a given—that I was a Christian and hence, free to simply play guitar, sing old blues or folk songs, listen to jazz, and write songs that had little to do with overtly converting others to my way of thinking—was at odds with the Christian community of which I was a part. I didn’t fit. I was a misfit. And eventually, misfits exist only on the outskirts of a community. Or they leave altogether.

Caught in this world between worlds, one day doubting the rightness of my life and convictions, the next defending it to myself with a zealot’s fervor, I was hearing singer-songwriter music that rang so true to real human experience, was so universal, that I felt a challenge: Why would I, a professed Christian, write anything other than music like that? Wouldn’t my awareness and professed belief in the creator of the universe compel me to dig in as deep as I could?

Unfortunately, I found little support in the church for this conviction. It was a lonely plain on which to exist. I assumed I was a meager Christian, a spiritual bankrupt with one foot in the church and the other in the secular world. Most likely Jesus, acting through his “faithful” servants, would spew me from the church like he’d spew lukewarm water from his mouth. I was a mess.

Seeing Mark Heard in concert for the first time changed my life. Here was a guy wearing hiking boots, jeans and a flannel shirt, playing rock and roll chords on a Martin acoustic guitar, and singing about life, faith and love—in a vocabulary I could relate to. He was funny; he was real. He didn’t flinch. Shortly after that, the dam broke open. Somehow my radar got turned on, and I began tuning in to a rag-tag group of musicians, poets, writers, monks, and activists. I heard about the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. I read Sojourners and The Other Side. It was a rich decade. I was singing “40” at U2 concerts, Bruce Cockburn was singing about “Rumors Of Glory,” Van Morrison was onto a “Beautiful Vision.” Thomas Merton wrestled with pacifism and the Catholic Church, with silence and the need to speak out. Ernesto Cardenal wrote about the Gospel’s impact on a group of artists and laborers at Solentiname in Nicaragua, how it fueled the fire of revolution. Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote, through story, of a deeply mystical faith, faith that’s a long, arduous journey, and about how the battle between good and evil is very real. Will Campbell wrote about the South and the church and hypocrisy and truth. There were the blues and acoustic guitar gurus, too, cutting-edge players who took the instrument to a place no one had been before: John Martyn, Nick Drake, Michael Hedges, Mark Knopfler, Pat Metheny, Joseph Spence, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Blind Willie Johnson. All this fed my creative soul, and I funneled it into my music.

The next logical step was to get gigs and put out recordings. I pursued every opportunity that came my way—big, little, mainstream, fringe, folky, bluesy, Christian, other. I played every venue that paid, and some that didn’t. What surprised me was that my music received only marginal acceptance in the church and almost none in the Christian music industry, while in bars, clubs and coffeehouses I was finding increasing support—and increasing numbers of gigs. Always, though, it was an uneasy alliance, and I’ve been inching my way along that tightrope ever since. Challenges and compromise, disappointments and apparent failures balanced against success and growth. Plus, music is also a business—and art and commerce have the uneasiest alliance of all.

One autumn I was on tour in Ireland, and the Irish equivalent of Rolling Stone magazine came to review a gig. This was big news, a big break for me. Unfortunately, instead of coming to my Dublin CD release gig on Saturday night, the writer decided to come to my Friday gig in a little village a few hours south of Dublin. A hard-working, blue-collar town. A town that likes its beer. My agent had told me that this would be the least exciting gig on the tour. When we heard the magazine had chosen this gig to review, we both panicked and called and tried to persuade them to come to Dublin, but they would not be swayed. Worse, the club owner decided to guarantee a full house—and hence my pay—by running a beer promotion. You could buy numerous pints of this beer for some ridiculously small amount. In fact, if you bought a certain number of pints of this particular beer, you got into the gig free. Glory Alleluia!

It was a full house. Everyone was hammered. I remember hearing myself briefly, for maybe the first five or six notes of my first song. After that, the din was incredible. The more we turned up the PA, the louder the room got. Fermented hops versus electronics: no contest. Hops win! As the crowd consumed more and more pints, I died the slow horrible death of every bar-gig performer in the world: I was sonic wallpaper, playing second fiddle to beer. I spotted the magazine writer. He looked annoyed, but I couldn’t watch him long because I had to close my eyes just to hear myself. When I opened them, he was gone. And with him a huge opportunity for a good review—lost in the noise and smoke. Had he chosen to come either the night before or after, he’d have heard me singing to an eager audience of fans in a cool listening room. But that’s water under the Liffey Bridge.

Another time, I was on stage at a major festival with a new artist whose career was skyrocketing. Most of the people at our stage were there to see her. In the previous months she’d been on major tours opening for major acts, her CD was getting lots of airplay, and she’d been interviewed on all the big NPR shows. For this particular set we were to swap songs back and forth—a folkie thing to do—and talk about how we’d come to write them. Toward the end of the set she introduced one of her new songs. It had been inspired by one of mine, she said. I was flattered. She went on to elaborate: My song sounded good, with lush chords, but it was very naïve because it was essentially about faith. And faith, she said, is fundamentally naïve. I couldn’t believe my ears.

She played her song. Of course, it was beautiful and exquisitely written. The audience loved it, and the applause was deafening. I felt like a heel. I’ve never felt more alone than that moment on that stage—like the only person in a group of two hundred people who didn’t feel that faith was naïve. I was unable to utter one syllable in defense of what I believed. I couldn’t even defend my own song. Disheartened, I closed out the set with a mournful slide guitar instrumental.

Later, as I was packing up my guitar backstage, her manager asked me if I was honored that one of my songs had inspired such a great song by his artist. He went on to say that it wasn’t just there she’d given me a plug, but all over the country, even on All Things Considered, and what did I think about that free promotion?
I could say nothing. Even years later, I find this difficult to talk about. This woman was definitely more articulate about unbelief than I was about belief. And honestly, given how Christians screw things up, I’d have to say that sometimes her summary is true. What do I do with that realization? Based on her song and its introduction, faith is wimpy, weak, flaccid. The mood of the audience went with her on this. Indeed the world.

Compromise. That fine line between pushing the artistic envelope and lusting after fame, fortune or notoriety. Once after a gig at The Bottom Line in New York City, one of the veterans of the acoustic music scene came up and introduced herself. Later, in the dressing room, she gave me some career advice. Her main suggestion was this: “If you take your wedding ring off you’ll sell more CDs at your gigs.” I laughed at her, but after she left I began to think about it. Off and on for the next few months—years?—I tried it. Sadly, she was right. Which distresses me more: the fact that our culture is so shallow that image, youth, and sex determine everything, or the fact that I took her suggestion?

Another time, after a concert in Chicago at a prestigious club I’d been trying to play for years, I was in a restaurant with the promoter. I’d been perplexed by her hesitancy to book me, but that was all wiped out now. The show had gone well. I could see she was relieved too. Over plates of hot Thai food and shots of vodka she said, “Everyone said you’d be no fun, like some kind of Christian or something, but you’re a blast!” I had another shot just to prove how much fun I could be. And another. I never bothered to mention that I was a Christian, or to defend myself, or faith in general. I got so drunk I could hardly walk back to my hotel room.

This is how I see it: I’m connected to too many circles while at the same time I’m not connected to any circles. That’s how it feels. Christian. Acoustic guitarist. Songwriter. Singer. Blues cat. Folkie. Contemporary acoustic dude. I’m connected to all these circles, where they all join, yet I’m outside every single one. This is a hard place to find yourself. It’s easier to be one or another of these things, not all them. That’s way too many hyphens! Where is my emotional and spiritual home? How do I market this kind of music? How do I describe it to my friends? I once produced for a band that had a very rootsy American sound, like bluegrass but hipper. As I worked with them I realized that they were destined for success not only because they were excellent musicians but because they were so easy to categorize. I envied them their focus, and I grew to despise my many facets. I was too folkie for the blues crowd, too bluesy for the folkie crowd, too Christian for the folkies, too folkie for the Christians, too bluesy for the contemporary acoustic crowd, too contemporary for the blues crowd, too jazzy for the singing crowd, had too many songs for the guitar crowd, was too religious for the secular crowd, not religious enough for the religious crowd.... See what I mean? It’ll drive you crazy if you let it. I almost did.

So what am I to do with this passion I feel for the guitar—passion that sometimes feels so selfish, so self-absorbed? What am I to do when I feel like people are looking for words and all I have for them are notes? Music is the language, the words I can’t articulate. It speaks for me when my brain and tongue fail. God reaches me through music. When I listen. When I play. Is this how I work out my salvation, whatever that means? Is it about living in the skin I was given and not trying to slip into someone else’s? There’s got to be more to it than that. Doesn’t there?

I hold back—afraid to be myself, afraid to believe in this gift because I am neither famous nor phenomenally gifted, afraid that I am merely arrogant and overstate what is simply a little skill at making a few strings strung over a wooden box resonate. Hesitation, that’s the problem. You can’t dance if you keep halting—the music goes on and leaves you flat-footed on the dance floor. If only I were bold enough to strip down and dance with abandon like David before the house of God, to shake my arms to those tambourines, to move in time to those drums. Maybe I do—once in awhile. Maybe I will—someday. Or maybe I’m too aware of the Michals in the audience, watching, judging, despising.

The questions are real. They never stop—like the steady summer rain falling outside my window. I’ve got Miles Davis on the stereo. It’s a “Kind Of Blue” kind of day, if you know what I mean. Some truth is waiting here to be collected, placed on my tongue like a wafer in communion, if only I could ask the right questions. Who is Jesus? What difference does it make in my day-to-day life? Wouldn’t it be easier to be simply an artist and not, dear God, a Christian artist? How are we to be peacemakers and not a doormat for the world? How, and my own inner house ever be in order? Will I ever not be swayed by the world and culture and our place in it? Will I ever be able to clear my head of petty thoughts long enough to walk the war-torn, bloodstained streets of Belfast, for example, and feel more than that this is good song material? This bothers me. Why is it so hard to keep a relationship alive? This bothers me. Why do men and women fundamentally break each other’s hearts? This bothers me too. Humans are fallen, humans are ethereal. The world is corrupt, the world is beautiful. I hate you, I love you. I keep wishing the fundamentalists are right—that everything is cause and effect, black and white. But I stare up into the mystery, and it’s gray and thick like humid summer rain.

Copyright © 2001 by Brooks Williams for Image

Brooks Williams' personal essay "Conversations without Words" was featured in Image #29, Winter 2000-I. Brooks is a singer/songwriter who has released 14 albums since 1990. His most recent CD is Nectar (Signature 2003), produced by Phil Madeira. No Depression Magazine wrote: "Deeply soulful and softy melodic rhythms lilt and roll, emanating equal parts glory and resignation. For all the hauteur endemic in William's dusky sweet voice and accomplished musicianship, not to mention his altruistic songwriting, Nectar remains a simple, earthy testament to the everyday that doesn't blur reality. It seems that for Williams, existence, and how you treat it, is grand enough. Visit Brooks' website at for more info.

This article is taken from issue #29 of
Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.
Used by kind permission. All rights reserved.
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