Terry Scott Taylor

After the Altar Call

Conversations with Jim Long

CCM October 1995

Who's to say what stirs the creative mind? What impulse sparks ideas? How a concept can begin life as a few random notes, yet end in a song? A kaleidoscopic swirl of colorful images--patterns of thought--twist together. They reflect off one another, then, perhaps, converge; perhaps repel. An idea forms. Art in embryo. Craftsmanship shapes raw ideas into finished product, shot through with the light of faith.

Terry Scott Taylor wrote a song. He was a kid, and he was Zorro, and he was inspired by Twilla Taylor, his fifth grade teacher, who taught him to square dance and nudged him out of his insecurities. Nudged him out of his insecurities enough to see his possibilities. And Terry Taylor wrote a song--more than 300 of them that have seen the light of day. Terry's the one sitting in the corner, ready to dive into fast food and unhurried conversation amid the lunchtime commotion. Yes, sitting there, patient as he fields questions, reliving an odyssey. A journey. A drama. Sitting there, in Huntington Beach, near the studio just a few long blocks away-or a mile (give or take a few hundred yards). What does the geography matter? Art happens there. But it is not confined to those walls, hard-wired to a console. Art is mobile. It travels in your head. Or follows you around.

His granddad called him T-Bone, no one quite knows why, although Terry will tell you it is an improvement over being called Porterhouse. Or Prime Rib. Terry is sitting there, in the corner, articulate, in a shy way. The creative force behind Daniel Amos, D.A., Da, Swirling Eddies, Lost Dogs-two decades' worth of bands and artistic ventures. His creative fingerprints are all over Horrendous Disk, Motorcycle, The Alarma! Chronicles, Knowledge and Innocence, Fearful Symmetry. Thank you, William Blake, Frederick Buechner, C.S. Lewis. Good influences, they have been. All of them. Who can figure this ceaseless drive to invent and reinvent? Create and re-create? “Father's Arms.” “Hide the Beer the Pastor's Here.” “Sanctuary.” “Home Permanent.” “Amber Waves.” “Shotgun Angel.” “Zoom Daddy.” “Kalhoun.” Odd connections. Ambient humor. Imagination on uppers. Brain food, cleverly disguised as entertainment. Art.

Terry remembers putting flowers on his great-great grandmother's grave, and he cannot forget his grandfather's death. They were close, Terry and his grandpa, and that one death, more than any other transition, has left its mark on the artist and the man. “I've experienced everything from praising God to screaming matches with him.” Terry says this without dramatic flourish. It just is. And he affirms his Father's caring hand at the passing of his grandpa. “I felt everything. I felt anger. I felt sorrow. All the things that you feel. But God has comforted me when I've had tragedy in my life.” He felt sorrow. He felt anger. He also felt gratitude. Terry Scott Taylor was shaped by his grandfather. “The best memories I have from early childhood were always associated with my grandpa. He was a kind, gentle, Christian man, and very affectionate.”

It is not surprising then, that a gentle writer has left such an impression on Terry Scott Taylor. “Frederick Buechner has such an ability to articulate God's grace. I think that is his best quality--that, and his sense of the mystery of God. There are certain aspects of God's character that are unknowable, that leave a sense of awe in our lives.” In saying all this, this grace and mystery, unknowingly Terry Taylor is placing a key on the table before him. He is pushing it across the wood grain, to be picked up and examined by us all. A key that unlocks his own creative development. A key that opens a doorway on his progress as an artist. Twenty years ago, God was simpler. Twenty years ago, there was not this sense of mystery. Twenty years ago, faith was black and white. Twenty years ago, grace had an attitude problem. Terry has spoken for an hour or more, and now, for the first time, he winces. “I wrote a lyric, one of Daniel Amos' early songs from the first record. That lyric said, Oh my, you'll fry as we wave good- bye to you. When we would perform that song in church and come to that line, people would literally applaud. It was cute, a sort of clever evangelical line which said, 'You're gonna get yours in the end. We may try to persuade you, but in the end, you're going to be frying in the fires of Hell, and we're going to be waving good-bye.' People loved that! They loved it! And it's shameful. I look at it now, and I just cringe.” It's not that Terry Taylor, the songwriter, did not know what he was doing when he wrote that. He knew exactly what he was doing. That line was in the song because he knew it would work. “You'd build those things into your lyrics, knowing they would generate a major response.” Songwriting was a tool, you see. It was propaganda.

Twenty years have passed, and Terry is now more inclined to examine his own short-comings and foibles, less inclined to make judgmental pronouncements on others. Twenty years have brought a sense of God's mystery. Twenty years have shed light on the complexities of life. Twenty years have brought grace into sharper focus. Twenty years have changed the artist. “My songwriting has become more personal. It's about my life, how God is at work in spite of my failures or victories. And I do have some failures. I'm getting to the place where I don't have to worry so much if people don't like me.” Here's the difference. Ask Terry Scott Taylor what he wants to accomplish through his art. Twenty years ago, he was on a mission. Music was the set-up for an altar call, and he was certain there could be no greater mission. But he was always uncomfortable in that role. He does not deny that God used the music. He is certain God touched lives through it all. Today, however, the question gets a different answer. “What do I want to accomplish through my art? To me, the best songwriters are those that do not necessarily have an agenda, other than being true to themselves, and true to their faith. They express their faith from their heart and are honest and transparent in doing so. In the process, they will have an impact on people.” Terry Scott Taylor becomes more enthusiastic, the pace of his speech quickens, his face brightens as he talks about the way God has visited his art. “When I became less aware of my role, it was simply God giving a gift and asking me to exercise it, asking me to be true to Him. I am an incredibly blessed person to be able to do what I do, to wake up in the morning and say, 'I get to go do some music today!' That is an incredible thing!” He talks about the letters that come in from across the country--letters from people who have been touched by art. Maybe they have been close to death or walked through some other tragedy. They have questions about faith. They feel alone. And somehow, somewhere, music reached them. “The idea that God would take something I'm doing and make it personal to somebody in Australia, for instance, to me is astounding! And it's ministry. It's subtle, you don't get up in front of a church and brag about it. You can't always see it But God is at work here, even in spite of me, at times.”

Terry Scott Taylor grows quiet, thoughtful. Then in an almost hushed wonder he says, “I've had God give me back my own songs. I've had moments when I was depressed about something or going through a time of pain and, of all things, a lyric will pop into my brain. It is something I wrote, but God is reinspiring it, placing it in my mind once again. And when he does that, it gives me the sense that it didn't really come from me at all. It was a word from Him.” “That is mysterious,” he says. “And it's very humbling.”

Author JIM LONG lives in Wheaton, Illinois.