How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

 

FAR FROM HOME

There we were, sitting in the office of one of the most powerful people in the entire music industry. Tom Whalley. The CEO of Warner Brothers. The freaking CEO. We were in our early twenties and ready to take on the world. We were four small-town boys from Ohio that had no business being there but we didn’t care. We had been through “adversity”. We had the songs. We were prepared. We had worked our butts off. And the CEO of Warner brothers was on our side. The world was about to be our oyster and we were going to savor every second.

But then, everything turned on it’s head.

Before I tell you the rest of that story, we should start at the beginning. This is my story. It’s a tale of struggle, battle, victory and loss in the music business and in life, and I hope it’s also one of love and redemption.

As a kid, I never had dreams of playing music. I wanted to race cars. (Still do). Around age 13 I had an experience that changed all of that. You see, my childhood was focused around my church. My dad worked for a church, and we had to adhere to certain rules. Music was one of them. I went through all the stereotypical “rock and roll is evil” sermons and drums are bad and don’t even think about dancing lest ye endeth up in hell. I always wondered why my church had an electric guitar and a bass but no drums. It’s as if we left out certain verses in Psalms. At age 13, my dad took another job and things loosened up, and for the first time I was exposed to this thing called “Contemporary Christian Music”.. or CCM for short. My friend exposed me to this band called FFH (Far From Home), and I was hooked. I remember listening to it on the way to school and feeling like I was pushing the envelope. There were drums. Hooks. A freaking guitar solo. But they were singing about Jesus so I was a little confused. The only other “Christian Rock” band I had heard of was Jars of Clay and they were way too risqué. I borrowed the CD from my friend and showed it to my dad, not sure what he would say. At the time my dad’s musical interests mostly were made up by Christian acapela groups (I didn’t yet know of his love for Cat Stevens and the Beatles).  To my surprise, he enjoyed it, and my path towards fanboy began. We went to see FFH, and again, and again. One time after a show, when I was probably 14 or 15, they got their guitars back out and we sat around in a circle and sang their songs. I cried afterwards. I loved their songs, their accessibility, but I was really drawn to their live show. They were pros, and they used their platform to point to Jesus, and I could see that it had a massive impact. I couldn’t help but think that someday I wanted to do the same.

I picked up my dad’s old guitar and took some lessons. I practiced non stop. My mom would get on my case for playing FFH songs way more than I practiced from my guitar book.I spent a summer mowing lawns and bought my first decent guitar. A Tacoma, with the sound hole in the upper right hand corner that looked kind of like FFH’s. Then, at age 16, I had my first big opportunity. FFH was having a contest. They were at the peak of their popularity at the time. They had hits on the radio and sold a few hundred thousand records, and made a decent following for themselves, and had a fan club, and you can bet I was in it. The contest? Record yourself singing one of their songs and send it in. Winner gets to fly to Orlando to hang with them and go to Universal Studios. This was right in my wheelhouse. My future father in law set up an appointment with a producer he knew and we went to a little garage in Toledo to record it. (We talk all the time about how we both lost the audio file). This saved me from sending in a demo made on a 4 track cassette recorder in my basement that sounded like the air being let out of a balloon. We recorded a medley of their songs, put it on a disc, mailed it in, and waited.

Later that summer, while at church camp, you know, one of the ones telling us rock and roll drum beats lead down a dark path, a message was relayed to me that I had won. My friend Jerod had checked my email from my home computer and called my dad at this camp. I got home to a voicemail from Jeromy, the lead singer of FFH. I don’t think I was coherent enough to really remember what he said, but it included, “can’t wait to see you in florida”, and “bring your guitar, you’re playing on stage with us”. That originally wasn’t part of the prize, but for some reason they wanted me to join them on stage. What I didn’t know was that this was a youth conference, with about 3000 teenagers in attendance. Up to that point the biggest crowd I’d played for was 40 in my school’s chapel services. We flew to Orlando in December of 2001, just after Christmas. As a 16 year old I picked my hippest outfit, put some gel in my hair, made sure there was nothing caught in my braces, put my cool Uncle Sam guitar strap on my guitar, tried to fake calm, and walked on stage near the end of their show and played my guitar and sang my nasally voice out.

Had I known before that this performance would be the catalyst for what shaped the arc of my life, I would have had second and third and fourth thoughts about doing it. It could’ve saved me a lot of suffering and heartache. But I walked off that stage, and I was hooked. 3,000 of my peers cheering for me? Are you kidding? And you can get PAID FOR THIS??? Are you serious? Naive, I know.

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The next two years I was an average student. I skirted through math and algebra and physics and history because I had one thing on my mind. Music. I knew school didn’t really matter because my future was set in stone.  I started playing church youth groups and selling burned copies of a demo I made for $5. I played anywhere and everywhere I could chasing what I thought would be my future….

Funny how things play out.

(To Be Continued…)

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

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