(this picture is from 1996. That’s me with the striped shirt.)
I first met the guys in Jars of Clay in Augusta, Georgia at an alternative radio station there, in 1996. Their first full-length album had been released not too long before that, and they were touring radio stations in support of that album and of the breakout hit “Flood”, which was slightly remixed for radio from legendary musician and producer Adrian Belew of King Crimson fame. The track went to #1 on many alternative stations around the country.
And while these friends from Greenville College (and the addition of Matt Odmark, who went to the University of Rochester), became known as a “Christian rock” band, it would become a label they tried to shake off for almost 20 years. While it is commonly known the band was composed of followers of Christ, they spent their years trying to live out their faith through the lives and writing songs through the lens of compassion and grace. When asked about their faith, lead singer Dan Haseltine responded (in the NPR Weekend Edition Interview with Scott Simon) “Ours songs are not really there to explain our faith. They’re written about our life, that is affected by our faith.”
Throughout their 20 years of writing and recording music, they’ve tried their best to walk the fine line of writing songs about the place where their faith and lives intersected, without being preachers or evangelists. They have written songs about the things that are most important to all of us, no matter our religious affiliations. They’ve written about the value of community and how to build it. They’ve written about sadness and of hope. They’ve inspired people to think about the world around them, and to act. They’ve written songs that have challenged me greatly as a person, and there’s not a time that I hear “Oh, My God” that I don’t tear up. Why? The lines speak to our ravished societies and souls.
Over the course of my 16 years or so of knowing the guys in Jars of Clay, I’ve always been impressed with not only how humble and gracious they are, but how they genuinely care about this world and it’s people. After a trip to Africa, the guys started Blood:Water Mission, an organization that funds clean water projects and provides HIV/AIDS medication and assistance to folks all over Eastern Africa. Many of you know that my wife and I joined the Blood:Water folks on a trip to Uganda in October, and it changed my life. We saw first hand how large the need is, and we saw the impact that this work is making on a daily basis. We heard from the very people it impacts, people who would be dead if not for the life-saving HIV medications clinics like the New Life Clinic in Kitgum, Uganda offer everyday.
And this is the work that inspires the Jars guys so much even to this day, and the bulk of the work they’ve done it to promote this and to see genuine, lasting change from it for the people of Africa. In 2005 the guys launched the “1000 Wells Project”, with the goal of creating 1000 wells or clean water projects all over Africa. They achieved that goal in late 2010, and April and I were there in Nashville to celebrate the occasion. They raised over 7 million dollars to make it happen. This is the work that they’ve put their plow to, and it’s been amazing work.
The other thing that I’ve always loved and appreciated about the guys, is that they’re just normal guys. They love great music, and I trade music with one of the guys often, they love good food, good beers, and good coffee. They also love their families deeply. They love the idea of community, and work hard to engage, handling all their own social media, writing great blogs and connect with their fans daily. And they’re open about their failures as much as their successes. I’ll never forget the article lead singer Dan Haseltine wrote about the challenges he faced from being on the road all the time. I love that they’ve worked incredibly hard to just be them. Dan Haseltine has had the same Jeep Grand Cherokee for as long as I can remember. These are incredibly normal guys, who carry their own gear to shows in Nashville, unload it, set it up, and take it back down.
Which brings me to their new album. When they decided to record their new album, they knew they wanted to do things differently, to breath fresh air, and to look at it from a different lens. So, instead of recording at Gray Matters, the studio they own in Nashville and have recorded several albums at, they went to Portland, Oregon, and worked with producer Tucker Martine. Tucker’s most known for his work producing the last two The Decemberists albums (including one of my top 2 albums of 2011, “The King is Dead.”) He brought a new life into the soul of the sound of Jars of Clay, and I think musically, you’ll see a more organic and pure Jars of Clay. Lyrically, you can expect to see a lot more honesty, and a breaking down this perception they’re a “Christian rock” band.
Lead singer Dan Haseltine wrote an amazingly honest blogpost about the new album back in July of last year, and I love what he had to say about it:
“I fear these recordings may get dismissed because Jars of Clay has a fairly entrenched brand conception. People outside of the general church community may not seek this record out. And since the themes of the record are very far from evangelical Christianity, the church community will most likely not embrace this record. Which, on one hand, is a relief. I am pretty weary from years of pretending to be more of something than I am. I am tired of carrying evangelical expectations on my shoulders. I have never been so sure of my faith that I was able to find a true home in the church communities where we played most of our shows. Our particular style of writing and the perspective that we have written from has not been an easy fit into an artistic community that has such a massive agenda and only a single idea of how that agenda gets accomplished. I don’t fit there. I may have at one point. I did grow up as a youth group kid wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it. I did drive a car with a “Christian” bumper sticker on it. And at one point, I was sure of who God was, and how God operated. But I am not that way now. And so it is impossible to write from that old version of myself. I am in the middle space. “
It’s as if they’re finally ready to come out, to be who they’ve wanted to be, to tell the stories they’ve wanted to tell, and to just be them. This is the album I’ve been waiting on them to release. This is the freedom they’ve been needing and wanting. This is the chapter that needed to be written. April and I were at their New Years Party in Nashville, and while there, I was asked if I wanted to hear one of the new songs, which had just been finished and sent to them for approval. Of course I said “yes”, and sat and listened to five minutes of music that I’ve been waiting to hear from them for years. It was like a fresh breeze of air in the form of music notes and melodic harmonies. This is their coming out.
I’m hearing that the new album will be out by June or July, and I recommend you give them another listen when it does. I think you will find something genuine, something refreshing, something surprising and something exciting. If you only remember them from their song “Flood”, you’ll be amazed at how far they’ve come, and how 20 years later, they’re still making very relevant and incredible music. If you only listen to “Christian radio”, this album may be too deep and full of substance for you. It will not be an easily digestible record. I, for one, can’t wait.
They also have a new EP coming out Monday, March 17th. “Under The Weather” that can be purchased at www.jarsofclay.com.
(photo credit : Pope St. Victor.)