We asked Greg Evans about his songwriting efforts and the impact that music has made on his life.
InSpire – Greg, as a singer/songwriter you have developed quite a niche for yourself in music within the Adventist community and beyond. How did it all began? When did you first pick up a guitar and discover that you wanted to keep doing it?
Evans – I was 10 years old, and I was in 4th grade…it was 1964. On February 9 of that year, like most Americans I watched the Fab Four appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. These ‘Beatles’ played the most exciting music that I had ever heard. Even as a 10 year old, I was already listening to the music of the day. It truly captured my heart when I heard it. When I heard them, I knew it was unique and different. I wanted to be able to do that.
So, to that end, my older brother Gary and I each looked at my parents and said, “That’s what I want to play!.” I’d like to attribute it all to the music, but keep in mind that they had pretty girls screaming at them too. Shortly after that, Gary got a guitar and as I watched and listened to him learn how to play, I wanted my own. To this day, Gary is a major reason why I started playing and was a major musical inspiration during that time and to a greater extent many years later when he became a member of Wedgwood at the age of 17. I still listen to their recordings such as the “Country Church” album, “Dove” and ‘Wedgwood Live’ and marvel at his vocal and guitar work as well as the arrangements that they all came up with collectively.
Well, my parents obliged my wish and soon both of us were taking guitar lessons. My first guitar was called a Stella by Harmony. It was a very small, black and sunburst beast that might have been made out of plywood. It set my dad back $27. A year or two later, when I wanted to upgrade, he bought me a Harmony Sovereign…costing $85. At the time, he told me that “$85 is quite a bit of money Greg, and if you think you are going to continue playing and take this seriously, then I’ll buy it for you”. Forty-seven years later I’m still playing and my dad and mom still come to every gig that they possibly can. I hope that he feels he got his money’s worth. As a side note, some years ago I saw a Stella for sale on e-Bay…I got it and still play it. It’s the worst sounding thing ever made but I wouldn’t trade it for any of my high end custom made acoustics.
Sometime during the next school year I played my first gig. My pal Roger Bloomquist and I played ‘Give Me Oil In My Lamp’ for MV to our 5th grade class at Glendale Adventist Academy. Does anyone remember MV…Missionary Volunteers? I played my Stella and Roger played the new electric guitar, a Fender Mustang, that my mom and dad bought my brother and I for a Christmas present. Any idea what a 1965 Fender Mustang would be worth today? I cry just thinking about it…and have no idea where that guitar is.
As the years went on, more and more opportunities came to play and I kept trying to get better by listening to the ‘guitar heroes’ of the day. Whether it was Stephen Stills, George Harrison, Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow, Gordon Lightfoot, John Renbourn, Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton, just to name a few…I soaked in everything that they played and tried to copy it. Sometimes I pulled it off and other times I didn’t. But in spite of the fact that my influences were secular musicians (there wasn’t any such thing as Contemporary Christian Music at the time), I kept learning the instrument and applied it to songs that were acceptable to play in church, because thankfully, the church and Christian school that I attended kept giving me opportunities to play.
It wasn’t always easy though. There was a tremendous amount of resistance to guitars in church or at a church school, even in “SDA liberal” Southern California. Many of my contemporaries and I got blasted as a result of people who were operating out of fear of change. It’s a sad but true commentary about church organizational structures.
In spite of that, we kept pushing on, breaking down barrier by barrier. That was not done with any high or idealistic intentions, and I wasn’t consciously trying to break any barriers…I just wanted to play music. I wanted the artistic voice that was within me and placed there by the Holy Spirit to come out. It has to. And even though I didn’t really have a full grasp of the true workings of the Holy Spirit, when I look back on it, I know that was the origin of my desire to keep playing. Thankfully, acceptance came, probably because I simply refused to go away. But not everyone has as positive of a story about those years.
inSpire – What a story! That’s classic. Thankfully, our churches are more open to alternative kinds of music today. We’re glad you’re still in the church and that you are still using your music to point people to Jesus. But let’s go a little deeper. You don’t just play guitar, you also write your own music. How did you get started with this?
Evans – I came to songwriting relatively late in life. Other than a couple of love-lost, love-lorn songs about teenage angst, probably after getting dumped by a girl…I really was not a songwriter growing up as a musician. And by the way, those songs have never been played in public and they never will. They’re absolutely awful (laughing). I actually went through a significant period of time when I stopped doing music…several years. I had become ensnared in chemical dependency and I lost interest in it. The bad decisions in my life caused me to lose a lot of things, but you never feel those things disappearing as you lose them. It’s only when you get them back that you realize how much you missed it. God brought music back into my life in a profound way, which I will get to.
A short time later, this would be the early 90’s…I went to a Men’s Retreat at Leoni Meadows, a beautiful retreat and conference center in Northern California. There was a group of guys doing the music for the weekend, a really good band named Promise. I’m still good friends with all of them, Bart, Richard, Debra, Paul…such great people and amazing musicians. But back to the retreat, my brother-in-law Dave and I were sitting eating dinner with the band. I am always just naturally attracted to the musicians, and always sat with them. I had been a bass player and Dave looks at their bass player Paul, and says, ‘my brother-in-law wants to play your bass’. Well, you just don’t walk up to a band member and tell them something like that. I immediately said, ‘no I don’t’. Paul to his credit replies ‘no problem, I’d love you to play it’.
Well, I was stuck and felt like it was just too intrusive. But, the band leader said to me that they were going to rehearse in a little while and that I should come. I showed up and Paul informed me that he would rather play guitar on the song that they were going to go through and handed me his bass. They gave me a lyric and chord sheet and I pretty quickly came up with a part for a song called ‘Shepherd Seeks’. The band was happy with it and I joined them on the next set. By the end of the weekend, I was the bass player in the band. Paul told me he would rather play guitar anyway, so I didn’t feel bad taking his gig.
Amazing story…right after the rehearsal, I went back downstairs to the cafeteria to join the guys that I had come to the retreat with for a cup of hot chocolate on a the cold winter night. Going down those stairs, I bounded down and didn’t touch one of them…I was on Cloud 9! When I got to the table my friends were sitting at, one of them looked at me and said, “dude, what happened to you?” I asked him “what do you mean?.” He said that he had never seen me look like that, apparently I was lit up. Of course, I had just played music for the first time in years. There was no hiding my joy!
Upon joining the group, I discovered that three or four of the group members were terrific songwriters and they kept bringing these amazing songs to rehearsals and I never brought anything. I spent a few years playing with those guys but never really wrote anything good enough to bring. I’ll admit to being intimidated by their strong songwriting skills and I just wasn’t in their league yet. So, I just kept learning from them. A few years later, after we parted ways, I’m in my late 30’s by this time…I wrote the first song that I felt was good enough to perform publicly. It was commissioned by a dear friend and fellow church member who had asked me to write a song for a Homecoming Sabbath, in which former members were being invited back to church. The song was called ‘Coming Home’ and I still do it regularly.
That song got me started and shortly thereafter, music just came out of me. It was like all the years of my life had been stored on my internal hard drive and it just came out and kept coming and coming and coming. Most of the songs from that era deal with my recovery from the insanity of my lifestyle and how God saved me ‘like a thief upon the cross’, as my song ‘If I Saw the Light’ says. They talk about the path that I took myself down on, and how Jesus lifted me up. I still do most of them and they have a lot of meaning for me personally. Of course, every songwriter wants the songs to be meaningful to others as well, and I get a lot of positive feedback about that.
inSpire – Is there anything you want to say that I haven’t asked about, or would you like to say something in particular to other Adventist singer/songwriters who might be reading this?
Evans – Evans – Well, first to the Adventist musicians…don’t ever stop playing. There is a long and occasionally wearisome history of troubles with music in our church, specifically with young contemporary artists, which is really a club of which I am no longer a member! But do not allow that to trouble your heart. Don’t ever allow someone to dissuade you from the gift that has been given to you from God. There will be those that might try to discourage you. I don’t wish for it to happen to anyone, things are much better than they used to be…but it may.
Just recently, I read the autobiography of Steve Martin, the actor/comedian/banjoist extraordinaire. He kept being told “no” in the early part of his career. His first show business job was in the magic shop at Disneyland, which is hardly high level show business. Then he was advanced to one of the performance shows and it went onward and upward from there. His advice to people who want to follow the path of creative endeavor? He said, “Be so good, that they can’t ignore you.” Keep practicing, keep getting better.
The psalmist says that music should be played “skillfully” and “with excellence.” You have to be good, you have to have people that want to listen to you. Getting to that level requires years of work, practice, frustration and even failure…but when it all comes together, you will receive immeasurable amounts of joy. So, stay the course and always keep your focus on uplifting His name and I believe that you will always be given the opportunity to share your gift. Remember the power of prayer, if a music ministry is what you are being called to on a full time or even a part time basis, he’ll give you what you ask…His requirements are always met by His enablements.
In terms of my music, I just want Jesus to shine through my songs. I want people to see a loving Saviour and a God of almighty power that changes lives. I always try to make people in the audience laugh a little bit and I try to make them cry a little bit. When I see people wiping their face, it means that they have dropped their guard…maybe just a little. When those walls start to break down, they allow The Holy Spirit entrance into their heart. When The Holy Spirit enters, that’s when those very real and sincere emotional responses come out. The privilege of being part of that is beyond any words that I am able to express. I am so grateful when I am allowed to be a small part of that process. I love being used by Him.
inSpire – Those are inspired thoughts. When we make ourselves available to the Holy Spirit incredible thing will happen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and keep making new music for us to enjoy!
Listen to “If I Saw the Light” by Greg Evans
This interview was conducted by Rich DuBose, Director of Pacific Union Conference Church Support Services and the inSpire project.© 2017 - 2021 ASA. All rights reserved. Click here for content usage information.