Jim Mathis

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Predestination vs free-will

For millenniums, theologians have been debating predestination verses free-will. Has God a specific plan that we follow whether we know it or not, or has He given us authority to do whatever we want?

The way I have come to grips with this question is to think of it in musical terms. If we are predestined to lead a very specific life, life would be like a symphony orchestra. The score has been carefully written out by a composer. The musician’s role is to play the notes as written. There may be some room for interpretation, but very little. The composer knew what he wanted the music to sound like and the musician’s role is largely passive.

If we all had total free-will, life would just be noise with no form or purpose. Instead, I believe that life is more like jazz. Don Miller talks about this in his book “Blue Like Jazz.” There are key signatures, time signatures, chord progressions, and melodies and variations. In other words there are forms and guidelines to follow, but beyond that we are free to be as creative and wild as we want.

To me life is like blues and jazz. I need to be in the right key, I need to know where the chords are going, I need to stay in time, or at least remember where the beat is, but beyond that I can be free to be as creative as I dare. I think God smiles every now and then and says, “Nice lick,” “Tasty solo there.” Other times He might say, “That didn’t fit so well, do something different on the next chorus.”

That’s the fun and adventure to life. I don’t care for scripted music or music that is too well rehearsed. Life is not like that. We need to work on our chops and be ready to take a solo when it is tossed our way. God intended for life to be an adventure – like jazz.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Geography is important. As Jimmy Buffet said, “Changes in latitude, changes in attitude, nothing remains quite the same.”

This year, Louise and I have had the opportunity to visit some landmarks important to musicians. In January we went to Memphis – the birthplace of rock & roll. We hung out on Beale Street, went to Sun Studios, The Rock & Soul Museum, the Gibson guitar factory, and of course, Graceland, home of Elvis Presley.

In July on a trip to Los Angeles, we not only hit some Beach Boys sights, but drove up Laurel Canyon where in the 1970’s a lot of musicians lived and jammed. Out of Laurel Canyon, home to Joni Mitchell, Jackie DeShannon, Frank Zappa, David Crosby, and many more, came the Eagles, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills and Nash, among others.

We’ve been to Nashville many times to see the Ryman and the Country Music Hall of Fame. So this week we went to Cleveland to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. This was actually my birthday trip to celebrate my sixtieth birthday.

The term “Rock & Roll” was coined by Cleveland disc-jockey, Alan Freed who also promoted what would be become the world’s first rock concert.

The rock hall contains thousands of artifacts such as Janis Joplin’s Porsche and the tape recorder used to record Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Clothes, guitars, hand written songs, and thousands of other pieces of history are enshrined in this museum to American culture.

Since I have lived every minute of the history of rock and roll, this was a significant place for me. I was born the same year that the LP was invented and I was two when the first rock song was recorded. I got my driver’s license the year that the Beatles had their first hit. I worked my way through college playing rock and roll music and am still playing every chance I get.

If you can relate to any of these things, you need to go to Cleveland to see all the stuff that made us what we are today.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Songs and the Show

My good friend and ace guitar picker, Bob KW reminded me this week that Sky Blue is all about the songs and the show. That got me thinking about the business of music. Music is really retail. Especially as independents, we take the product directly to the consumer. This applies whether it is secular or Christian.

In retailing the two most important ingredients are the products and the showroom or display. The comparably items in music are the songs and the show.

First we have to either to write or find good songs. From my 35 years in retailing, I know it is very hard to sell junk. But even if you have good products, they have to be displayed in an appealing manner if we expect people to buy them.

As musicians, our repertoire is our inventory. We need to decide what to put out, when and how to display it in such a way that people will buy it. If not literally in the form of a CD or download, at least “buy” it in their hearts and remember it.

When we are trying to find gigs, we are really just looking for a place to show our wares. Even more important is having high quality, unique products that people want, presented in a manner that they want to see.

Taking this idea a little further, If you are a mouse in the same room as an elephant, your main job is staying out of the elephant’s way. In retailing the elephant is Wal-mart. The first step to success in retailing is to go to Wal-mart, see what they have, and don’t sell anything they sell. Just stay out of their way.

This is a contrarian approach. Music business experts will tell you to just listen to the radio to see what people like and write music like you’re hearing on the radio. To me that is like a small boutique butting heads with Wal-mart and K-Mart. Doesn’t it make more since to listen to the radio to see what is bland and ordinary and try to do something else?

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Music Wars

The Music Wars have claimed another casualty. The music minister at our church resigned this week amid some controversy. Whether he was in the wrong position for his gifts or didn’t have thick enough skin, the situation remains troubling. He has talent by the bushel, so that is certainly not it.

We regularly put gifted singers, songwriters, musicians, and all around great worship leaders in high positions of responsibility in the church and then nag at them until they leave with their tails between their legs.

The basic problem is that people don’t like change and music is always changing. People get stuck with the music of their youth and refuse to listen to anything else. A healthy church body is by definition multi-generational, so conflicts about style are inevitable.

Healthy churches also have on-going dialog to help people through change and help people understand that the church is or should be adapting its style to the community of people which it serves. That doesn’t mean the message changes - God never changes – but the language, music, and culture are always changing whether we like it or not.

On several occasions the Apostle Paul said to praise God and encourage one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. It is not clear what the differences between psalms and hymns and spiritual songs were to Paul, but it is clear that he used that phrase to mean all kinds of music. I would paraphrase Paul by saying, “Sing traditional hymns, contemporary praise songs, blues, country, rock, gospel, and anything else you can think off with thanksgiving in your hearts to God.”

Another basic problem is that musicians are always looking for a new sound and audiences always want to hear the old stuff. This applies to popular secular music as well as Christian music. But the Bible says to sing with a new song and we know that God is a creative God; therefore I believe that God would have us look for new ways and new songs to praise Him.

I have heard that there are two types of people: creatives and critics. I know which group I want to be in.

The ideal music minister would chart a well-rounded program with a variety of music, and then stay focused without being strayed or discouraged by those who complain about everything that doesn’t suite their taste.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Techies vs Musicians

We had an eight hour seminar at our church this weekend about sound reinforcement. Two consultants from out of town came to help us out.

As expected, the technical information they presented was right-on, but some of us had a different philosophy concerning who is responsible for the sound quality. In fact they would probably object to my term “sound reinforcement.” Sound reinforcement implies helping the sound that is already there, not recreating all new sound. It all comes down to who is in control – the performers or the sound people.

I have been involved in music for over fifty years. I am sixty and I started playing when I was eight. Those fifty years have been has roughly divided in half as running sound and performing, a years of one and then a few years of the other, or mixed up, so I believe I have a balanced view. I believe that whoever is on stage is responsible for what they sound like. The sound people are there to help and advice. If your name is on the marquis and the ticket stubs, you are ultimately responsible for everything from the quality of the sound to whether the T-shirts shrink. Leading worship is not that much different. If you are up front, you are responsible for your sound.

The consultants we heard from strongly suggested that 1. the sound person is in a better place to hear (possibly) and 2. the musicians don’t know what they are doing anyway (not likely.)

They would want 100% of the control of the sound to be from the sound booth. This would involve eliminating all acoustic instruments such as drums and grand piano, and eliminating all amplifiers from the stage. The bass, guitars, keyboard, electronic drums would all go directly into the house mix and everything would be controlled from the back.

I would suggest that if the musicians have no control over the sound, the next step is to just play tracks. This would certainly make the sound person’s job easier.

I played for years with the mixer on the stage so the members of the band could reach it. (We seldom needed to.) I am thinking of going back to that system. If we play in a large venue, we could just give the sound tech one line out and we would keep all of the control on the stage. I have played at large festivals where every band sounded bad because of incompetent sound people, but nobody (musicians) was willing to do anything about it.

When my band plays a large venue (over 500 people) where a sound person might be necessary, I always tell them to set the stage monitors so we are hearing exactly what the audience is hearing. I then ask them to give us four microphones, all alike and set the same so that we can use them interchangeably. After a short sound check, leave everything alone so we can tell what we are doing. For smaller venues, we only mike the vocals. I know this is old school, but new ways aren’t always better.

I realize that this is a minority view and most sound techs would never give up the control they think they need.

One common mistake that artists make is giving up control of all sorts of stuff. They might hire a manger, get a record deal, hire a tech crew, etc. In each case, they are losing control of the product – the music, and themselves. Avoid this as much as possible.

Two different approaches to sound. Which is right and which is wrong? This is my opinion.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Genesis 4:21 mentions a man named Jubal. He was the son a Lamech and Adah. The Bible describes him as the father of all who play the harp and flute. It is hard to tell if he was the first to invent musical instruments, the first to play professionally, or just a key figure in the history of music. What we do know is that he was the first person mentioned in ancient history with some sort of a passion for music.

Genesis 4 also mentions his brother, Jabal, as the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock, and another brother, Tubal-Cain, as the father of those who work with bronze and iron. It would not take much interpretation to say that rancher, metal worker, and musician are the first three professions clearly spelled out in the Bible. A few verses later the scripture says that “at that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.” Worship of God was closely associated with music from the beginning.

It also appears that these three professions provide for some clearly basic needs of people. The rancher raises food, the metal worker makes tools, equipment, and decorative ideas for pleasure; while the musician connects with our emotions and provides the pleasure needed after working cattle, providing food, and working with tools all day.

In Genesis 31, when Jacob was fleeing Laban, his father-in-law (and uncle.) Laban caught up with him and scolded him saying, “Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn't you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of tambourines and harps?” Hey, if knew he was leaving he would have hired a band.

The point is music dates back to the earliest days of mankind. It has been used to worship God, celebrate special occasions, heal wounds, bring down walls, and lift spirits. In I Samuel 16, King Saul falls into a depression and he calls for his counselors to find him a good harp player to cheer him up. David is summoned and plays so beautifully that the King’s spirits are restored. It turns out that even ancient Kings liked to hear some blues and David becomes a permanent fixture in the Kings court. David goes on the write the definitive hymn book called the Book of Psalms.

In the New Testament, Paul consistently challenges us to worship God with “psalm, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Rather than defining each style, let’s just say that we should play and sing all kinds of music to God and all kinds of music to each other.

It is clear from the book of Genesis on, that God made everybody to be different. Cain raised crops and Abel tended flocks. God made some of us to be work with animals, other to work with numbers, some to work with pictures, and some with sounds. Every person is different and designed for a purpose by our Creator.

We may call these differences a calling, a gift, a talent, a knack, or just an inclination, but clearly God had something in mind when he made us. For some of us the desire to make music is so strong that it extends throughout our entire lives and affects everything we do. I would call that “The Gift of Music.” (Some might call it a curse, but I wouldn’t.) I don’t think it is a spiritual gift of the type mentioned in I Corinthians 12. Music is so important that if were a spiritual gift such as healing, prophecy, teaching, mercy, etc. Paul would have put music in the list with capital letters. Instead, it is not mentioned in this passage. I think, rather, music should be listed among the great passions and pursuits of life.

For one thing, the Spirit doesn’t just come over us and one day we can play. It takes practice and work to become proficient, even for the most naturally gifted.

One concern is young people who show tremendous musical skills and promise, but stop playing and singing after college, as they become distracted by the routine of a job, mortgage, and the daily pressures of life. Our society is not at all kind to artists of any kind.

But some don’t get distracted. A very few make a living playing music, but a few more continue their passion as a hobby, part-time job, or church musician. These are the heroes. The people who keep practicing, keep playing, and keep singing because God gave them a desire to do so. They know the chances of having a hit record are slim to none, but they keep bringing joy to those fortunate enough to hear them at a coffeehouse, at a church dinner, or pick-up their CD in the narthex of the church after a Sunday evening concert.

The tradition goes back to “our father” Jabal. We are an old and noble tribe.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Time to hang it up?

MSN’s music web site today carried an article titled “Ten performers who should stop singing.” The implication was that music is for young people and people like The Rolling Stones, Carly Simon, The Who, or Elton John should hang it up.

I hope I don’t have to tell you how I feel about this subject. I presume the article was written by somebody under 30. It is possible that when I was thirty I thought Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra should have retired, but hopefully I am smarter than that now.

The music industry is full of people who were put out to pasture at the peak of their abilities and experience. Some such as Johnny Cash or Al Green were able to find a new audience. Others just keep on doing their thing because they love what they do and will keep playing as long as someone will listen. These people are my heroes.

See my web site: www.ThePassionNeverFades.com

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Voice lessons

I take voice lessons. My teacher/coach is Ronni Ward (www.ronniward.com). I take lessons for the simple reason that I want to be a better singer. I want to see continued improvement in everything I do. I try to practice regularly and have some sort of disciplined approach to the things that are important to me.

I have kind of a running joke with Ronni that I could refer a lot of people to her, but I feel funny walking up to singers saying, “Hey, you need to take some singing lessons!” I would think that they would already know that.

I am continually amazed hearing people sing or play an instrument, who could improve dramatically with a little coaching or instruction, but instead struggle along for years, never improving, always thinking they know everything.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm Still Here

As most of you know, I am no longer affiliated with Homer's Coffee House. Glenn Winkler is the new manager and is in charge of booking the performers. Glenn's criteria will probably be similar to mine with a few adjustments for taste and him being less than half my age. He will still want people who put on a professional show, can play 2 hours of interesting music, help people see Christ more clearly, don't insult the audience, are easy to get along with - things like that.

Surprisingly, these things are less common than you would expect. I am going to continue to be involved with music since that is one of my passions. I am still going to send out tips from time to time as I think of stuff. In fact, I have opened a new blog at: www.JimMathisMusic.com where you can check out my latest thoughts on Christian music, musicians, and music in general.

I am energetically promoting my photography business to the performing arts community, so feel free to pass my name on to anyone needing photographs for promotion, CD covers, posters, etc.

Please stay in touch.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


A few of us were sitting around after a lovely dinner last weekend discussing what makes a good musician. Some of the qualities of a good musician are: good sense of timing, good pitch, knowledge of music theory, showing up on time, being able to play a lot of different styles, tearing through a startling solo, and so forth. But we all agreed that the most important characteristic of a good musician is the willingness and ability to listen.

Playing in a band is like a conversation. Just waiting your turn to talk or talking when somebody else is talking is not a conversation. In a real conversation, each person is listening to what everybody else is saying and adding something worthwhile to the mix at the appropriate time. It is the same with music. A good music musician is always listening to the other players and fitting in as appropriate. The appropriateness determines the quality of the player. If the band is backing a singer, the singer is the leader and each player needs to be acutely aware of everything the singer says and does and play accordingly, following dynamics, groove, expression, mood, etc.

Listening also involves listening to other musicians as a way of learning. I believe musicians should greet each other with the question “What have you been listening to lately?” The music we listen to has a big affect on our direction and growth as individual musicians.
As both a photographer and a musician I see a lot of parallels in the two. Music is all about listening and photographer is all about seeing. Both are learned skills that require daily practice.

Glenn and Vanessa Winkler are the new managers at Homer’s Coffee House. Glenn is booking the music for Homer’s. glennwinkler@gmail.com

I am now doing photography full time. Well actually it is about a 85/15 split between photography and music. E-mail me or call about setting up an appointment for your photo session.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

New Guitars

Last weekend several of us from the Homer’s Coffee House community went to Nashville for the Indieheaven CIA Summit Christian music conference. A running joke among our group became the number of guitars different people had and what the latest purchase was. The question is: does a new guitar help you play better?

I am reminded of my early years as a professional photographer. One time I bought a new camera and the quality of my work immediately improved. Surprisingly, when I picked up my old camera, the quality didn’t go back down. In fact each time I would buy a new piece of equipment, my work would improve, even when I used the old equipment.

It seems that the new challenge, or a new feel, would bring out a new spurt of creativity. I expect that the same is true with musical equipment. Obviously, it is not necessary to buy more stuff to play better, but there is an element to the “new guitar” idea that brings out a new sound or a new idea.

I am playing instruments that I have owned practically my whole life, but bringing out different guitars for a season or months at time seems like a good idea.

On another thought, a little bit of humility on stage is very appealing, but constantly tooting your own horn grows old very quickly. I believe this is from Proverbs. (Whoever humbles himself will be exalted and whoever exalts himself will be humbled.) I think it is nice when a lead singer says something like, “give the band a hand” or “give it up for the guitar player,” but only occasionally. Repeatedly doing this is quite annoying. For members of the band to constantly comment how great they are turns people off in a big way. Just don’t do it!

We saw Vince Gill on the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night. People at that level never brag about CD sales or the rewards they have won. They might occasionally thank the audience for supporting them and buying records, but they would never imply that it was all about them. Always thank the audience for coming and supporting you.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


A lot of people seem to have trouble with “gremlins” in their sound system. Gremlins are those little pops, cracks, hums, and hisses that you never know for sure where they come from. I have very little trouble with gremlins. Even using the same equipment as somebody else, I have less trouble. It has become sort of a running joke that I have some sort of an electron gene that causes electronics equipment to behave when I’m around.

The truth is a lot less exotic. The truth is over the years (50, but who’s counting) as an audio service technician, audiophile, and performing musician, I have developed some habits that greatly reduce gremlins.

For example when plugging in a RCA type plug, the type used on consumer electronics, I always give the plug a twist. I then turn it a few times after it is plugged in. Phone plugs, the ¼ type used in electric guitars and amps are left over from telephone switchboard days. They were designed for heavy duty use by telephone operators. Bell labs designed them to endure hundreds of thousands of plugging in and unplugging. They actually work better the more you use them. Still, giving them a little turn as you plug in the cord insures a better connection.

XLR plugs cannot be turned, but you can push them in and out a few times and then, make sure they click. The 1/8 plugs used on iPods and other small devices benefit from the same twisting technique, but they are so delicate, they aren’t going to last a long time anyway. Don’t use them on stage if you can avoid it.

If you develop some of these habits, I guarantee gremlins will seldom haunt you. They may still raise their little heads now and then because Murphy’s Law is real, but your show won’t be ruined by annoying noises, at least not ones you weren’t intending to make.