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Derek Webb
[ interview ]


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I'd been looking forward to hearing Derek Webb's solo album for months. Everything I'd heard about it excited me, and my anticipation grew until that day when I got my pre-release in the mail. And then, all of my hopes and expectations were smashed, for it was better than I had ever imagined it would be.

So, when I had the opportunity to interview Derek, you can imagine how excited I was. The day before I was running around our town, digging up all the devices I would need to record the interview and preparing myself mentally for the interview.

Inexperience, however, must affect you in some way. And since this was my first interview, it was inevitable that I would make a mistake. Or two. Big ones, of course.

I'm not sure how long our interview was meant to be, but I kept Derek talking for about forty minutes, and by comparing lengths with other interviews, I'm quite sure that this was much too long. However, it's hard to be repentant when I learned so much from the interview and captured many great quotes from Derek. Unfortunately, however, I only had thirty minutes of tape time to record this interview, and thus, parts of this interview were lost forever.

What did you miss? My first two questions had to do with his marriage (to singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken) and how it affected him. Much of what he said can be found elsewhere, but the general theme of increased sanctification (my wording, not Derek's) filled most of his words. By observation, however, it seems that, unlike most testimonials from married men, Derek's clothing style hasn't changed. (I guess Sandra needs a bit more time for that one.)

To be serious, Derek said that Sandra's influence can be heard on his songwriting. Rather than exploring more of the pop/rock side of things, Derek has been moving towards roots music, and that influence is easily picked up from his record, particularly if you've ever listened to Bob Dylan.

Without further ado, we'll jump in at question number three.

You've mentioned that you had a set band with you in the studio—can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yeah, I did. As soon as I started making plans to record the record, as soon as we had the studio time booked to make the record, I knew exactly who I needed in there. Each guy—the engineer included—was crucial to the record being what it was, and if all things go according to plan, I have every intention of having the exact same lineup of guys in the studio for the next record. I would book those guys all the way through my record deal if I could, if they could book that far ahead.

On drums, it was Garett Buell who plays percussion in Caedmon's [Call]. He is just fantastic. He'll bring something really typical to you, so that you'll think you know exactly what he's gonna play, and he'll play something completely upside down from there. He just really kinda takes something typical and changes it just slightly and makes it something completely different. He's just unbelievable, just an incredible drummer/percussionist.

And then this guy Matt Pierson on bass, who is actually a veteran in Christian music. If you go through all your old Christian records, your Michael W. Smith and I don't know what else… He's been around for a long time, he's got a lot of experience in the industry, and plays on a lot of pretty slick records. But, secretly, he is this monster bass player: he just knows how to do anything. He's a guy with a lot of experience, and he was a voice of wisdom through that process. And he played on Sandra's last record, on Gypsy Flat Road, and she's gonna try to get him to play on her next record as well, at least a little bit.

And then on guitar, Kenny Meeks, who is a singer/songwriter in his own right as well. He's got a couple records out, he's got a couple new ones coming out this year, and he's another very wise man. He's a fantastic guitar player, and he is unsophisticated in the best sense of the word. He comes from a really strict kind of blues tradition, and he just owns that kind of guitar playing: nobody can do it like Kenny can. And I'm actually really fortunate to get him out on the road with me this spring during the Ginny Owens tour. Kenny also helped me produce the record, all four of the guys helped me produce it, but Kenny has the front seat. If anybody likes anything about the way my record sounds, they definitely need to go check out some Kenny Meeks' records, 'cause you will hear the similarities.

And then engineering, this guy Jimmy Jernigan who has got one of the best pair of ears in Nashville as far as engineering. He's just a super easy guy to work with, he's just a servant in the studio. If we asked for something, he'd just set the mics up and we'd do it. He doesn't tell you what a hassle it's gonna be, even if it is gonna be a hassle, he just does it.

Those guys, each one of those guys were carefully kind of picked, and man, I'll use them on everything I do for the rest of my career if I can.

That's great. I was wondering if it was you playing guitar, 'cause I know you play electric guitar, or if it was somebody else.
Yeah, he and I kinda played 50-50. That's probably not fair. He played a lot. I played a good bit, and I do play, but when Kenny Meeks is in the studio, I don't even pick up an electric guitar. The stuff I played was on the days when he wasn't there, 'cause I wouldn't dare play electric guitar when Kenny Meeks was sitting there. He sang a lot: the only background vocals on the record other than Jars guys and my wife are Kenny.

Yeah, and he sings the lead vocal on the little hidden track, doesn't he?
There is a hidden track that there is a story behind, but yeah, I think it's been called "The Gospel of Jesus" or something.

Yeah, where he talks about, "I wish I knew that chord."
Oh, at the very end, the very last song. There's also a track hidden before "Crooked Deep Down." There's about a two-minute little improv track that Kenny sings that happened spontaneously. But then at the very end, one morning Jimmy Jernigan (our engineer) basically hit the record button and didn't tell us, but we were all in the studio. Each morning we would get in there, and we would talk through the material for the day 'cause the record's got pretty heavy material on it, so we would take time every day to pray a little bit and talk through the material and to kinda get focused, 'cause we were knocking songs out pretty fast. We basically went in for about eight days and recorded pretty much the whole record, and we did it live.

One of those mornings we were sitting in there, and we'd just finished praying, Kenny had a guitar, and he started to play some hymns, and Jimmy was listening from the control room, and he had the room mics up, so he could listen in. He just hit the record button, and where he hit record is where it starts and where he hit stop is where it stops. And it was really funny, because the last thing I think you hear me say is something about the song that Kenny had just sung, that's what we should be recording. And I think just I say that, you hear him hit the stop button. (Laughs) So, little did I know that we were recording.

You guys sound like you had a lot of fun on the record. In between songs, you know, there's like "The army of my national guitar" and little quips here and there that kind of balance out the serious side.
We did. Yeah, I mean, going into the studio, that's what you're aiming to do, to really capture that week or so that you're in there, you want to really capture that, and all the imperfections and all the banter, you want to have all that on the record. We left as much of that on there as we could.

I'm gonna get to the theological stuff now.

What is the response so far to "Wedding Dress"? I know that the album hasn't been given to the music-buying public, but the song is available on MP3 and stuff, and I was wondering what you've had response-wise.
The response has actually been, on the whole, it's been really, really encouraging, it's been really positive. Well, I guess the response is never exactly positive to a song like that, but it's been really encouraging. People have taken from it what I would hope they would have taken from it and not been hung up on things I would hope they wouldn't. People, on the whole, have not been distracted by the stuff that I was kind of worried about in that song. I mean, it's not an easy song to sing, it's not an easy to hear. But it's just been really good. So far, I definitely want to communicate that the overwhelming response has been really positive, and people are really taking from it what I prayed that they would and what I feel like the Lord has to say in that song.

But then, we've definitely had a little snag with a retailer. We've been really careful, and I made a really big deal with the label early on that I wanted to be communicating with every aspect of the people we'd be working with: the sales rep, the labels, the buyers, the stores, the consumers. Before they take them off the shelves, I want everyone to be prepared and to kind of know something about this record before they pick it up and hear a song like "Wedding Dress." Because without that context, it's kind of hard to accept that song; but if you have that context on the record, then I think it can do its work.

We did have an instance where, the day before manufacturing, we got called from some retailers saying that they weren't going to carry the record. And it was actually not for "Wedding Dress," but a lyric in another song.

Is that the "Crooked Deep Down" one?
It was actually "Saint and Sinner."

Sorry, I always get those two mixed up.
Yeah, well, they all have their moments, but this particular thing was about "Saint and Sinner." And that was basically a lyric I can justify biblically. (Editor's Note: The line in questions "I was a damned mess"... full lyrics can be found here) Considering what I'm trying to do, it would not be in my best interest to try to shoot myself in the foot by trying to prove something on this record and let my rebellious spirit run rampant all over it. Although it probably does, but I've tried to be really careful about that. And I definitely thought through and tested and asked around my pastor and all these different people, and I've tried to get a feel for even that particular lyric in "Saint and Sinner," and I felt really justified to have it on there and didn't think twice about it either. But that was the one that people were having a hard time with, and understandably. That's definitely pushing the limits a little bit as far as what Christian music is used to.

So all of this isn't going to be easy. I know that I'm not exactly putting out an adult contemporary record right now. And all of that said, I definitely have some fights ahead of me, but I didn't want that to be one of them. It just didn't make sense to me to be known right off the get go for the guy who fought to have "damned" on his record. Although, I really could justify it, 'cause that area of that song is taken from the beginning of Galatians were Paul uses the word anathema, which is the Greek word for "eternally damned by God." It's some of the strongest language used in the New Testament, so of course I probably picked a hard area to go into because it's really strong language, but it's really necessary when you're in that subject matter. Again, it was a lighthearted song, and I definitely took some liberties as a writer to use it, so I understood their concerns. And the retail plays such a huge role, and having a real partnership and understanding with the retail and them supporting you and understanding you is so important, that I immediately told them, "We're going to go in and take it out. 'Cause I'm not come this far and risk this whole thing on something that trivial, so let's go in and let's edit it." Which we did, so the record will be different by one word from the pre-releases.

And then everybody was fine and got back on board, except for one small regional chain down in the South. They basically came back and said that "Wedding Dress" was still an issue for them, and the language therein. And that, on the other hand, is a fight that I am willing to fight. I did not take the same kind of liberty, that is not a lighthearted song, and I think it's appropriate. If I can get up in front of my church, in front of my pastor and families and children and explain and sing that song, and feel encouraged, then I'm not going to think twice about playing it anywhere else. If my church is okay with it, and my wife is okay with it, then everybody else can get in line behind them. And so we left it that way. And the label was supportive and even other retail chains that had originally had issues with the record were behind us not changing any other lyrics, especially on "Wedding Dress." And so it stayed that way. So, I think initially there will be maybe just one chain that will not be carrying the record. But we still have a really great open dialogue with them, and I definitely understand where they're coming from, and so I hope that at some point in the near future we're going to be able to turn that around and maybe get it in those stores. I haven't given up on that, it's not like we're gonna just kind of be the martyrs or something. I want people to hear this record. I'm not interested as much in that controversy, but if it comes along, we're gonna definitely make sure people know the real story, we're not gonna let that controversy control us.

You include a lot of references to the sacraments, particularly the Lord's Supper, on your album. How do they influence what you believe, and how you live, and what you're saying?
I think in general, especially with so much of what goes on in more modern churches, I think it's easy to lose sight of the bigger story that we're all apart of, and the way our identity as the church, our identity in Christ, it transcends the moment the that we're in. It transcends the language that we speak and the color of our skin, it transcends even our century. And so, I feel like there are things that were instituted for us in Scripture and about our worship. There are things that were designed to keep us connected to that bigger story, that when we come together to worship, we come together as the church, and the church is God's people throughout all the ages.

Rich Mullins has this great quote about, he was talking specifically about liturgy, but also about the sacraments, I believe. He was talking about, and I'm paraphrasing, that when we come together as a church and we take communion, and the way that connects us, the way the whole story with Jesus and His disciples, doing it the same way they did, doing it the same way the church throughout the ages has, doing it the same way the church fathers, Augustine and all these folks have, and his quote was something along the lines of, "And if Augustine were alive today, he would be beside me, taking it with me, and maybe he is and maybe he did." And it's just an incredible image of being there in worship and having all the saints all around us worshiping God in that moment, and that really is what we do when the church meets the equicea, God's people from all eternity, when we meet together and we worship on the Sabbath day, that's what's happening. It's not just about us and our twenty-first century preferences and the evolution of our culture, it's not about those things. It's about being God's people at this moment and coming together to worship Him. And I think there's something about the sacraments that does that for us in a way that's really appropriate. It identifies us with the historical church and with who we are as a people.

You see a lot of modern churches taking the sacraments out of their worship service because they feel like it's "too churchy" or "too religious" and it's just kind of driving people away. And, in my opinion, having the Lord's Supper at your worship service, that drives away because they're discomforted. And I would say, "Let them go," personally. Because I think it's more inappropriate to hide the bread and the wine, to hide Christ's body from His people in order to cater to those who the Sabbath day worship service was not even necessarily designed for than it would be to have it out there and to let them observe that and see God's people reverently taking it, or, if it makes them uncomfortable, to leave. There is something about the Gospel, there's something about feeding or having need enough to have to feed on Christ and His body and blood, there's something about that that does make people uncomfortable, that people don't know what to do with and don't understand. You see it in Christ's very ministry when He began to talk in, I believe it was John 6, when He started to talk about His body was food and His blood was drink, and He began to use this language, and even His disciples were starting to say, "This is a really hard word—we don't know what to do with this." And there were those who did leave Him. I think it's more perfect for us to present the elements before the body of believers and to talk about that and why we do that in the image of Christ, and why He asked us to do that and why it is necessary for us to do that continually, to always be feeding on Christ. There's something necessary and appropriate about that, even if it does cause people to walk out. And this record being a word for the church, an encouragement for the church, maybe a challenge for the church on some levels, I think, considering that important in my own life and how that connects my little, disconnected story with the whole story of redemption, God's story that He's writing, and what that's meant to me, I thought it was real important to make sure that was really clear on the record, and that's why you see so much of it.

A lot of your songs discuss depravity at great length, and it kind of seems, though this may just be my own misunderstanding, but that only a passing mention is given to grace. Is this deliberate, or is this my misunderstanding?
Well, I don't know. I guess I'd have to know more specifically what you meant.

Well, you have a lot of songs like "Saint and Sinner," obviously, which you described as a "love song gone bad," and "Wedding Dress" and stuff, and it is kind of counterbalanced at the end with "The Church," which is kind of a hopeful song, but it almost seems as if we have a lot of talk about depravity, which is a very serious issue and one we ignore too often, there's not really a connection given for grace. Was that a deliberate emphasis on depravity, or is that a misunderstanding?
Honestly, I don't think you can emphasize depravity too much because the nature of our depravity is such that you can't really focus too much on it because what it does is throw you upon Jesus. I feel like in many of those songs, like in "Wedding Dress," talking about those images and saying how we're the whore and we're the prodigal, but the very next line being, "But I put You on like a wedding dress... I put You on like a ring of gold." Basically, "I am corrupt but You have taken my corruption and you have provided for me this wedding garment that makes me lovely, makes me able to come down the aisle to You." And, in fact, I think in a song like that even, I think it focuses even more on what is provided for us in Jesus, and the fact that we do run down the aisle to Him because of the wedding dress and because of the ring of gold that's been put on our fingers as the prodigal returning because we can run to Him.

And "Saint and Sinner," in its very title is saying the answer, it's equally both which is a Martin Luther-ism, how we are simultaneously saint and sinner because of our depravity and yet because of Christ's righteousness, we are counted as saints at the same time, and what a mystery that is. Even as you go through that song, it does not only talk about my sin, but my glory. Not only the things that are corrupt or depraved about me, but also the things that, because of Jesus, are beautiful and great about me because of who I am in Him.

I think the danger is, I think the reason that it looks different on my record than in other places you might hear it, is because I'm not in any sense trying to exalt anything about man. Because there's not a lot we can say about how great man is. But what we can do is we can talk continually about what a wreck man is and then talk a lot about Jesus and how great Jesus is. Because really, that's all there is to it.

Derek went on to point out, much more eloquently than I could, that looking long and hard at man's depravity causes us to throw ourselves on the grace of God. Thanks to my mistake, however, those words are no longer with us. Sad, isn't it?

Thankfully, I did manage to get the last question and answer in its entirety, and it is definitely the best.

The last song on your record is a reminder that if we love Christ, we must love the church. How does the church influence your life, and how ought we to be influenced by the church?
Well, in the early church you see patterns more of people living in communities together and gathering once a week on the day of rest, gathering together to take time to focus on worshiping God. But really there's a story to that. It was a community of people who all knew each other well enough to know how to preach the Gospel to each other. I think we're at a point now, I just think that our churches are a real mess. I think that churches in this country are kind of a wreck a little bit. And that's something we need to start to look at and figure out why and start to deal with it. And more than anything, that dialogue I hope to get started with this record.

I feel like what happens is we have needs, spiritual needs, we get hungry and we need God's Word. We're gonna have these needs, these things we have to do. But if we don't understand the importance of the church and the way that it is setup, like Christ Himself said, provides these things for us, if we don't understand that, we're gonna end up doing what a lot of Christians do. And that is, you have all of your other little organizations and your Bible studies that you go to, you have your parachurch organization and your college Bible studies and your single life Bible studies that are not church affiliated, and they're all great, there's nothing wrong with any of those things-those are great things. But what you're gonna end up with is people who have substituted those things for church. What people need to realize is that nothing can ever take the place of their local church, Christ did not come and love and give Himself for parachurch organizations, for random, disconnected groups of people. He came and gave Himself for His people, for His church. And that's us, that's all of us together. And, if nothing else, the way that connects us together makes our little disconnected individual stories into one story. And shows how we do relate to each other and how we do need each other. We need the church to be able to do this. Historically through the Christian church and Christian thought, it's been pretty well understood. But there's something about us and the time we're in, there's just this individualism, and everything's about meeting my own preferences and our own ideas about what we like and what we don't like. I like this kind of band and this kind of music, or I like a preacher who talks like this, I don't like one that acts like this. I like to see people being baptized and taking the Lord's Supper, I don't like seeing that. We have all these preferences and all these ideas about what we think is right. But we make all these decisions based on these preferences and our needs being met, but really, that shouldn't have anything to do with it. We are to submit ourselves to the Lord's preferences and the Lord's agenda, and He definitely has one. And that's what we need to submit ourselves to.

I just feel like it's all so splintered that people need to realize that we need each other. The Lord has set up this institution, the church, in such a way that we're dependent on each other, and we're dependent on Him primarily. And I think people just have a really hard time with that. But people need to be connected with a church because there are things you're gonna get in your church that you just can't get anywhere else. You can't go to your local Bible study that's not connected with your church and receive the sacraments, you can't receive discipline in a way that the church is designed to give us and do that for us. There's no accountability about receiving right, continual preaching of the gospel. The church is setup that way for a reason. I feel that for right now, we need to think about that, we need to think about not only the role the church plays in our lives but the role that our lives play in our churches. There's a certain amount of our sanctification that is really difficult outside the context of our local churches.

For more on Derek's record, She Must and Shall Go Free, see our review here. For more information on Derek himself, check out his official website (www.derekwebb.com).
- Jason Ewert
July 2003
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