[Worship Musician] 15 years ago, when we published our first issue of Worship Musician magazine, you were on our cover!
[David Crowder] (laughter) That was the first one? No way!
[WM] Has it been more of a “I can’t believe it’s been that long,” kind of a feeling, or more of a “time flies when you’re having fun,” feeling?
[Crowder] Well this explains everything! We peaked too soon! We started out 15 years ago on the cover, and now I’ve been working my way back every since. (more laughter).
I can’t believe it’s been 15 years. I think that, along the way, every stage of this has felt crazy. It’s so much more than a career, or a job. I get to do what I love, and talk about and think about Jesus all the time. And all the people that have been around me for all of those years are talking about Jesus too.
I remember when we first started at the church in Waco, TX. It was the first Sunday, and there were probably 200 people there in a room that seated 100. So there were people flowing out the side doors and some were even outside the building and looking in the windows. And I thought, “This is crazy! I can’t believe we get to make music and sing together with this many people. This is insane!”
And then it grew really quickly and we moved to a big theater downtown, and I thought, “This is blowing my mind! I don’t even understand. This is nuts!”
Then we were invited to take our first trip outside of town to play at a conference for Youth Specialties, back when Mike Yaconelli was the president. There was a big conference for Youth Ministers in San Diego. Now, I had hardly travelled anywhere. The only places I had gone was on family vacations. We would drive to Florida and go to Destin beach and to Disneyworld. And that happened twice. Then one time we took a trip to Michigan to visit some of my parent’s family, and that was all I’d seen of anything. Then we, (the band) get this phone call to come to sunny San Diego, and to get on a plane! And that blew my mind.
Granted, we were just on a side stage. They had too many people to accommodate in the main room they were in, so we got to do the overflow. A dude by the name of James Ward was doing the main music. He had come to my church in Texarkana, Texas and done a concert. He was a jazz musician and a brilliant piano player, and I couldn’t believe that we were playing the same place that James Ward was playing. It was amazing!
So all along the way, it’s always just felt crazy. It feels unbelievable that something that I love so much could affect people, so it’s created a very heavy sense of responsibility all the time. I look at a room and think, “There’s 200 people here. . . . and I’m just a dumb college kid. . . Wow! I gotta work hard and do my homework and prepare, because I need to give my best to these people.”
You gotta be leaning forward all the time and making sure you are with people who feel the same way and are motivated in the same way. People who want to be more like Jesus, and who always are looking to treat people better and better, and will tell you if you’re not doing those things. If you’re doing that, then the rest of it kind of takes care of itself.
[WM] You have an interesting line in the bio that you wrote. You said, “There’s only one definitive line, and that’s the line between death and life. These are songs about the divides found on our behalf, and I pray they are subversive and healing and insistence on that reality.” Those are deep thoughts for a boy from Waco, Texas (laughter from David). Tell us more about that.
[Crowder] Well, when I signed to do the records for my latest contract, I signed for a three record deal. So I started working with a concept and trying to think about how they will all fit together, and how there could be a thread and a progression both to the content and the approach to the music. It may be loose some of the time, but there’s an idea there. So when I moved from Neon Steeple to American Prodigal, I started reflecting on how, with the David Crowder Band, we started dabbling with the Bluegrass sound. It was fun, and it’s a part of my roots, so we thought, “Why not?” Let’s see if we can insert it into the scene that we were in and see how it played. And it really took off. People responded and it was a blast, and everyone was having a great time. It’s kind of like ‘porch music’.
So in between the David Crowder Band and this new solo endeavor, I started to think about what I was going to do, and I was a little bit scared. I thought to myself, “Oh no! It’s all going to be my fault.” If humans are good at anything, then blame displacement has to be one of the things we’re best at. Remember Adam? “She gave me the fruit! It’s all on her!” So as I thought about a solo project, I started thinking about what it was going to sound like and what my concept was going to be. And also at this time I was stepping down from 16 years of being on staff at University Baptist Church in Waco. That had been a lot to balance during those years, with the way the David Crowder Band grew and what was on our plate also with being a part of a local church community. And it wasn’t just music responsibilities at the church. I was very heavily involved in the leadership side of things as well. We were just a bunch of college kids, and we never had much money. We got this old grocery store, and the renovations were mostly done by volunteers and the 3 of us on staff. I was setting up scaffolding to repaint the ceilings, or scraping the old concrete floors so that we could refinish them. You know, you just gotta do what you gotta do. But I was just going full speed all the time.
And the weight of responsibility in my local church and community was actually heavier than the platform that I had with the David Crowder Band. I had relationships with the college kids in my church (about 1500 of them), and I knew when someone’s mom died, or when someone’s brother had cancer. Plus, trying to figure out how to make community happen and how do you help teach that community how to love and support and carry the burdens of the other’s in the community?
So there was a lot going on! And when I left the DC Band and stepped down from being on staff, I felt like, “This is going to be a breath of air. I’ve been working so hard for 16 years.” I was excited about that, and I really didn’t even know if I would do music. But I quickly discovered that I was going to keep doing music, because the songs kept coming, and I thought, “Okay, I guess this doesn’t go away.” So I decided to keep doing music. I felt like this is what I get to do, and what I’m called to do.
I struggle with the word “calling”. My dad is “called”. He’s an insurance agent, but he’s called to carry the story of God. His job is actually more complicated because he has to navigate commerce and culture and also insert the story of Jesus in the middle of the relationships that he’s developing. And. . . nobody likes their insurance agent! (laughter) But his calling is no less than mine; his platform just looks different. And he’s actually in people’s lives in some of their worst moments. He has an ability to do things in people’s lives that I only had a chance to do when I was on staff at the church.
From the platform, I just throw stuff out there that God has put on my chest and hope that the Holy Spirit can do something through it.
[WM] You have a knack for blending Americana folk music with an old ‘Holy Ghost Tent Revival’ feel, but somehow in the process you make it appealing to the modern worship music listener. What’s really going on here?
[Crowder] I don’t know! (laughs) With Neon Steeple I wanted it to be Bluegrass Appalachian Porch music meets EDM. I was able to get some cognitive threads that wove that together in my head. I asked myself, “What is Bluegrass/Porch music all about?” It’s all about community. You go have a good meal together, sit on the porch and make music together, and there’s community that’s formed. The music is played live, and then it’s gone. EDM is totally different. It’s totally future oriented. And most of the time it’s created by a dude, sitting by himself in some basement, and there’s no community built. Most of the time it never even gets out of the box. But it’s cool, really cool.
His intention though, and the genius of the DJ’s that are amazing and great, is to be in a setting where they put their finger on the pulse of a group of people and lead them on a journey, and all of a sudden this thing that is disconnected becomes community. The intention is the same. On a porch, community happens. At an EDM festival, community happens. And it won’t ever happen that same way again.
So on a rational level, I thought, “This should work. There shouldn’t be any dissonance.” In reality, it was much more difficult to pull off the Neon Steeple album to where it felt organic and not contrived. I had to figure out where it needed to breathe to create enough space to grab onto the porch, and support it with the future, EDM music. So I put the ‘Neon’ word, and the ‘Steeple’ word together, both pointing to the same place. Neon lights are meant to catch your attention, and is oftentimes pointing to something that is a poor substitute for what you are truly wanting inside. And the Steeple is pointing to something that transcends. I wanted to make the things that we currently have available to us point to something that transcends.
So I was already in that train of thought, and as I headed into the concept of American Prodigal it occurred to me that banjo is actually an African instrument. I had now been in Atlanta, Georgia for about 4 years, and I was blown away by what a global city it is. It’s not just black and white. It’s incredibly multi-ethnic. Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world, and there is this global influence of people coming in and out all of the time.
So when all the conversation started happening again about race in America, I thought I would take the same train of thought from Neon Steeple, and just turn the dial a little bit. I wanted the beats to be more similar to how hip-hop samples things. It would be less produced from electronic wave forms, but would be more just lifted from a rhythm that was organic and then sampled, the same way that people make urban music. The language on Neon Steeple was Southern Gospel. I’m just riffing off of Gaither music. I felt like that was a common language. Anyone who lives in America can relate to and appreciate Americana music. Now, on American Prodigal, it would be just a little shift of the dial. Black Gospel church language is so close to Southern Gospel language.
[WM] And isn’t Martin Luther King Jr. from Atlanta?
[Crowder] Yes! And the loft apartments that we ended up living in is an old renovated cotton mill that is part of a section of the city called Cabbagetown. The cotton mill owner would go up into the Appalachian mountains and bring down these Scotch-Irish families and employ them at the mill and house them in Cabbagetown. And, of course, they brought their music with them. What we know today Country and Bluegrass music got it’s start right there, even before it all got moved up to Nashville.
And Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s church, is right there too! And I had no idea, when we were thinking of moving to Atlanta, where we were going to end up. Right in the middle of all of this cultural and ethnic and musical history. And it completely informed my record. People started telling me all the stories of the neighborhood, and all about the music.
So, back to talking about making a record. When your making music, you never know if what you’re making will be timely or not, because you’re making it ahead of when it will actually find it’s legs. But who could have imagined an election cycle like we’ve had? Who could have imagined the racial tensions that are coming up again, or the discussions about immigration? So I hope my music is subversive in a healthy way. I’m not angry, or trying to point to anything wrong. I don’t think you can talk someone out of their point of view by just being a great articulator of ideas. But you sure can model and show something that’s different and compelling. And that’s what I was trying to do with the music and the record. I didn’t want to appear to be appropriating any particular culture. I wanted it to not be a ‘you and me,’ but to turn it into a ‘we.’ I wanted people to not know exactly what it was necessarily. My hope was that they wouldn’t get upset that I was making beats, and that I’m just a hillbilly talking fast in time, because KB came along and put his stamp of approval on it, and Tedashii. They’re my friends here in Atlanta, over at Reach Records. And I let them say what is in their chest and I put it in a container to try and bring healing. It was a ‘we’ effort.
You make things with your friends, and that’s when it’s the best. And when I came to town, I wanted to take the whole ‘love your neighbor’ thing seriously, so I went over to Reach Records and talked with LeCrae and the guys. And they were so welcoming and excited about getting together to just hang out and share music and stories and life together. And pretty soon all the dividing lines get erased and it’s just. . . ‘we.’
That’s why I say in my bio that the only real dividing line is between death and life. We are all so much closer together than we think we are. When we realize that, then it becomes much easier to have conversations that transcend the every day issues we’re presented with. Grace works the same for everyone. Redemption and forgiveness and love all work the same, regardless of culture, race, color, or income.
[WM] At times on American Prodigal you have a Tsunami of sound coming at your listener, and sometimes a stripped down to bare bones touch… very well done. Tell us about your choice of arrangements.
[Crowder] Thank you for your kind words. Well, I love big and small next together. I think both are better off with the other nearby.
[WM] You know I am a fan of vintage instruments. Tell us about your old Gibson acoustic.
[Crowder] Ha! I have two that I use most. One is a 1948 Gibson SJ, and one is a 1946 J-45. They are called, Ray, and, Not Ray. I picked up both of them at a guitar shop in New York City called Matt Uminov’s. If I’m in NYC, I’m making a stop there, and then eating pizza across the street at Johnny’s. Ray was hanging behind the counter and it said “Ray” on it. I asked who Ray was, and they said they had no idea. I’ve been looking for Ray ever since. The day I took Ray off their hands I also picked up a Gibson 1918 arch top that has a nice Jack Johnson type vibe to it. That shop has been magic to me.
[WM] What other vintage instruments and amps are you using?
[Crowder] For recording, mostly small trashy amps. Little Silvertones and a couple of weird things I picked up along the way that I honestly don’t know who made them or what’s in them. I have an old Silverstone electric that I use a lot and an EKO 500 that fit some of my tunes.
[WM] Are you learning to play any new instruments right now?
[Crowder] I don’t know that I ever actually “learn” a new instrument, but I sure will poke at anything around me. We picked up a few of those 3-string cigar box, electric cigars. You would not believe what those things sound like through my Marshall head/Mesa cab with a Ratt on it. Huge! Metal heads would flip. Makes drop C feel barney thin. Bill from Mastodon played on the Overcome track that I wrote with Oz Fox of Stryper fame, and when you have those raucous rockers on a track you got to do something. So the electric cigar is now in the arsenal.
I’m looking for a harp. I think it would be a trip to write a tune on a legit harp. They ain’t cheap, so I’m biding my time. It’ll pop up eventually. I’ve been prowling for one since the Neon Steeple album.
[WM] How much of your music do you write with the intention of it being sung by the church for use in a worship service?
[Crowder] All of it. I realize some of them might be looking for the right church or service, but the point of them is to both create an experience from front to back, and also be useful in group settings. Most of them are really simple if you just have a guitar or piano. The production often makes them seem a bit daunting.
[WM] Your mandolin player’s brother is now writing our mandolin column in Worship Musician. Tell us about your touring band.
[Crowder] The dudes playing with me are stupid good. Hank Bently is one of the auxiliary players. He does a ton of songwriting and production. He wrote that song, “First,” that’s on the Lauren Daigle record. He plays Guitar, Piano, Bazuki, Dobro, Accordion, etc. Kenny Hutson is the other Aux player and I have him mostly on Banjo, Pedal Steel, Lap Steel, Mando, and Harmonica, but he plays everything too. BJ is the Fiddle, Mando player but he plays it all as well. JR is on Bass, upright and electric, but it’s a lot of analog synth bass. He’s also running our tracks and keeping us together as our MD. Todd Bragg, of Caedmon’s call fame (he was their drummer), plays percussion for us. It’s more a yard sale looking set up. I’m not sure there’s much there you could pick up at Guitar Center, but you might find it in your garage. And Twain on drums. His name is Antwan, and I’m not sure why we call him Twain.
[WM] What are you using to record with at your home studio? Digital or analog? What type of mics and preamps?
[Crowder] I’m in the box and use Protools 11 with Rewire running Ableton and Reason. I have one of those Blue capsule mics that is really versatile, but most of my vocals were cut on an SM9, a U87, or a Manley Reference Cardiod. Typical pre was either API 3124s or Neve 1073, and I love the Purple MC77 compressor.
[WM] What are some of your favorite worship artists you like to listen to?
[Crowder] I love what is quite prevalent: United, and Young and Free, Bethel, Jesus Culture, but I love me some Gospel and Southern Gospel.
[WM] What songwriters inspire you?
[Crowder] Old school country.
[WM] When all is said and done, what would you have said about you?
[Crowder] He loved bacon.