Angel Trades A Shotgun For A Shovel

Patheos December 2014

Angel Trades A Shotgun For A Shovel

An Interview with Terry Scott Taylor

Patheos December 2014

By Chad Thomas Johnston


Most bands with lifespans of forty years or more have-at some point, and with a certain sort of gracelessness-rolled downhill from the summits of their celebrated careers like stones in search of more peaceful musical pastures where they can gather moss. Not so with Daniel Amos.

In 2013, thirty-nine years after forming, the band also known as D. A. released an album as good as-maybe even better than-anything it had ever unleashed upon the world before. With frontman Terry Scott Taylor baring his soul and sometimes his teeth, and wisecracks and wisdom never far from one another, the record found Daniel Amos at the peak of its powers once again.

The title? Dig Here Said the Angel. The second album in the band's catalog to reference a celestial being after 1977's seminal Shotgun Angel. Sometime after reviewing the album for "Good Letters" last November, I resolved to interview Taylor in 2014 in hopes of understanding more of the Daniel Amos story. Here is the result of that opportunity.

Chad Thomas Johnston: One of the things that makes Dig Here Said the Angel so strong-and something that is also present throughout Daniel Amos's discography-is the way you write about spiritual things. So many Christian writers veer into propaganda, but you have a gift for writing poetically, profoundly, and even humorously about your spiritual preoccupations. Would you be willing to talk a bit about your approach to writing about theological things?

Terry Scott Taylor: There is a line in the song "The Uses of Adversity" (on Dig Here Said the Angel) that makes reference to our inability to fully grasp the profound nature and ways of God. It says "You're much too small if you're not a mystery." My lyrics often contain a certain lack of directness and certitude because I'm often trying to express those things that are essentially inexpressible.

While God isn't confined solely to the words used to describe him or his actions, as a Christian I do believe that God's true and essential nature is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who said, "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father." So I'm obviously not saying that there's absolutely nothing about God that can be known, or that nothing that can be said about him using simple, plain, linear sentences, and therefore there's no use in even trying to say anything about Him.

But I will say I enjoy engaging the imaginations of my listeners by sometimes taking a kind of out-of-left-field approach. By poetically restating old, familiar truths in a new and unique way, I hopefully will enable the listener to hear with fresh ears something he or she may have heard or read a thousand times before but which, through repetition, has lost its power to inspire passionate commitment to whatever principals or directives it's concerned with. Of course, while God's Spirit is ultimately responsible for these things, lyrics can be used by the Spirit as a springboard into action.

All that being said, my first duty as a songwriter is to write a good song. I'm an artist, not a theologian. Hans Rookmaaker said, "Art needs no justification," and I would agree. However well-intentioned, I despise musical bait-and-switch intended as religious indoctrination.

The idea that it's the Christian artist's duty to only write utilitarian "Gospel" songs as a means of "converting" the listener, or "uplifting" the believer, or the idea that a song's worth is directly proportionate to its power to propagandize, is repulsive to me.

CTJ: Let's talk about some of the lyrics on Dig Here Said the Angel. One of my favorites is "We'll All Know Soon Enough." Would you be willing to unpack that song for the readers of "Good Letters"?

TST: "We'll All Know Soon Enough" has a pretty simple message: Life is short. I'm now a passionate believer in that tired, old cliché. Believe me, at my age you learn almost nothing is truer.

The song is my attempt to level the playing field with believers and non-believers as well by saying, "Whatever your views on religious matters, since life is short you'll have your answers in the not-so-distant future." In writing, "There may be no Heaven, there may be no Hell," I'm acknowledging what may be the listener's point of view and saying essentially, "Well, if there is a Heaven and a Hell, you won't have to wait long to find out, because death comes relatively soon to all of us."

CTJ: So there won't be anything for believers and unbelievers to argue about anymore-I love it, Terry. Ha!

Now I want to ask you about something I saw on the band's website-it says you began writing your memoirs at some point. Do you plan to publish them? I, for one, would love to read them. Would you be willing to describe what readers might expect to encounter in your memoirs?

TST: Actually, many years ago I began writing a series of essays based primarily on childhood memoirs. For me, prose writing is a terrible taskmaster because I'm slow and never satisfied. God willing, I'll get it done before journeying "beyond the wall of sleep." The clock's atickin.'

CTJ: Do you guys plan to tour in support of Dig Here?

TST: A full-band tour (at least at this point) is very unlikely because of our various schedules and life circumstances. I may eventually do something stripped down with a few of the guys because I'd love to do live versions of the songs from the new record-along with the "oldies," of course. But I can't say there is anything in the works at this point. Of course, I thought it highly unlikely we'd tour again after we officially stopped touring several decades ago, but it happened nonetheless, which I still consider a small miracle. So who's to say it won't happen again? Miracles still happen.

CTJ: Can you talk about the circumstances under which you wrote the new Daniel Amos album, Dig Here Said the Angel? What factors influenced its creation?

TST: I suppose the simplest answer to your question is that life itself is the circumstance that most influenced the record. I'm in my sixties now, and when I first sat down to write the tunes for Dig Here it occurred to me that, in a genre like rock 'n' roll, you're not going to find a lot of songs that honestly explore the inner life of those of us who have fewer days ahead of us than behind us. That being the case, I decided to write as honestly from my perspective as I could.

In writing about issues such as aging and lost youth, life's disappointments and regrets, and even death itself, the challenge was to avoid morbidity, which I think we did quite successfully. Many fans and critics seem to agree that Dig Here is addictive, enjoyable, and anything but dark and depressing, which I think it easily could have been.

CTJ: Can you talk a little about your experience with crowdfunding the album?

TST: Thank God (and I mean that literally) for Kickstarter. Without it, it's unlikely there would have been another Daniel Amos record because-well, frankly, at our age no record label is going to touch us.

Kickstarter, however, is a fan-based support system, and the difference in the amount of money we hoped to get in order to do a new project, compared to the overwhelming support we actually got in the end, was truly humbling for all of us and quite touching. When I learned we'd far exceeded our goal, I was in tears. I'd completely underestimated the enthusiasm out there to make such a project possible. Maybe "enthusiasm" is the wrong word-"love" may be a better one.

I figured we'd have to do a piecemeal kind of project where we'd do our musical bits by sharing files and doing stuff at home or in small, local studios. I knew this wouldn't be an ideal way of doing it, but I figured the fans would be happy that, if nothing else, there would at least be new music from Daniel Amos. Even if we couldn't all be together in one place to record the album, we weren't going to do anything we wouldn't be proud of.

What we asked for on Kickstarter, in terms of budget, was not only reflective of this way of recording the project-it spoke of our conservative estimation of our fan base's willingness and ability to contribute money to a nonessential "cause."

Mind you, we never doubted the passionate devotion of the band's friends and supporters. That, for us, was a given. What was somewhat of an intangible was the degree to which that passion and enthusiasm would translate into a willingness to shell out hard-earned cash in a less-than-healthy economy.

Needless to say, I completely underestimated these folks. The end result confirmed for all time just how amazing, kind, loving, and supportive they all truly are. As long as we can count on God's willingness, our next breath, and fan support, we can continue to do projects.

CTJ: What kind of impact has Dig Here Said the Angel had on your fan base?

TST: Beyond the amazing fan and critical reaction to the new record, what excites and touches me is that it seems to have had quite a profound impact in the lives of many listeners who have written to say how deeply they've been moved by it.

I've received lots of "I was moved to tears" comments. Others have written to say that it is a greatly comforting record, and still others are thrilled that D. A. hasn't lost its creative edge-that, in fact, this may be our best record yet. Many critics called it "the record of the year," which again is humbling.

CTJ: It was my favorite of 2013-most definitely.

TST: I'm not quite sure where I rate this one, but I do think it's most certainly one of our very best. The young crowd (and yes, we still have some young fans!) finds it musically modern and relevant, while those of my generation primarily relate to and are moved by its point of view-particularly its honesty in confronting the doubts, fears, and challenges of growing older.

It makes me extremely happy when people "get" our stuff. People really get this record, and it's a beautiful thing when it's not only the hardcore fans who are getting into it, but a number of newbies as well. Many of our tried-and-true supporters have been sharing the record with people who don't know anything about Daniel Amos, and as a result we're all getting incredibly positive feedback. I hope the fans keep plugging away because it's nice to be growing a fan base at this stage of the game.

CTJ: A closing question for you. What's your favorite song on the album?

TST: Well, they're all my babies, so it's somewhat like asking, "Which one of your children do you love the most?" The answer is that I love them all, but in different ways.

I will admit that I always enjoy the title track because of its musical and lyrical eccentricities. I'm fond of "Love, Grace, and Mercy" because the arrangement, production, and execution of the song simply could not be improved upon. I always hear little things on my records that I wish I could have changed slightly by adding to or subtracting from the recording-not so on "Love, Grace, and Mercy." I wouldn't change a thing.

Same with "We'll All Know Soon Enough." And don't get me started on "Forward in Reverse"-Wait! See what I mean? Once I get started down that road I can't stop, and that makes for a long-winded, less-than-riveting interview.

Which means this one is over.

Chad Thomas Johnston is a slayer of word dragons who resides in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines. He has written for IMAGE Journal's "Good Letters" blog at Patheos.com, In Touch magazine, The Baylor Lariat, and CollapseBoard.com. Johnston's writing debut, a whimsical memoir titled Nightmarriage, was a finalist for a 2013 Shirley You Jest! Book Award in nonfiction writing.