Beale Street Christians. My Memphis Music influences.

In 1983, I was a twelve-year-old adolescent, getting ready to enter junior high in Gosnell, Arkansas. Gosnell is a rural community sixty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee on the other side of the Mississippi River just below the Missouri boot heel. Missouri was within walking distance of our farm house, where everything was flat, including our finances. We were flat broke. 

I was the youngest of four children and ten years removed in age from my closest sibling, my sister. So, by the time I could notice anything like pop culture, it was just me and my imagination, and the three Memphis broadcast channels we could watch on television, four if you counted PBS, which no one watched, other than Sesame Street and perhaps the occasional episode of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. And of course, these stations were only available via antenna if the atmospheric conditions were exactly right. Many of my childhood opportunities to watch television were missed due to the fact that my Dad would make me go outside and adjust the antenna for his optimal viewing pleasure. This also required me to remain outside as my body became part of the apparatus required to maintain the quality picture. And by quality, I mean slightly less static, lines, and optical “snow” than what we were generally accustomed to when watching television. It was Delta technology at its finest. Often, we didn’t watch television as much as we listened to television and mentally conjured the images in our heads. 

But what I lacked in T.V. was made up for by the radio. As I remember it, when my sister left home she left me a wonderful record player with a built in am/fm radio receiver and two magnificent speakers. It was on this radio that I discovered something that dramatically redefined my youth. It was a fledgling radio station emanating out of Memphis that played a type of music I had never heard. Granted I grew up in a religious household where we attended a small conservative Pentecostal church, so my exposure to secular music was limited to a Saturday evening viewing of Hee-Haw and the occasional references I picked up on at school. I knew who Elvis was, but beyond that really not all that much. 

But on this radio station I heard an emerging genre known as Contemporary Christian Music, but to me it was Rock-n-roll music that talked about Jesus. I was immediately energized by the music and simultaneously slightly guilt stricken as I somehow imagined that maybe I shouldn’t be listening to this. When my larger religiously influenced world began to discover this music they sought to reinforce my guilt. They called it “Jesus Rock” and it was not meant as a complement. But I kept listening and was inspired by what I heard. I was an original “Rebel for God.” I quickly identified my favorite band. Hands down, it was the Memphis duo “DeGarmo and Key.” The first song I remember hearing by them was “Blessed Messiah”, a mellow ballad about the deity of Christ. I was blown away and I was hooked. Upon reflection, I’m convinced that if D&K had researched a target demographic they would have been handed a picture of me. I found a way to purchase every album they produced from the 1983 LP “Communication” to the 1994 CD “To Extremes” and I even attended several live concerts when they played in Memphis.

It is hard to overestimate the influence of this band on my faith and identity during my teen years. The night I met my future wife at a youth service, I was attempting to sing “Casual Christian”, when she got into my car I pumped the volume of the latest D&K tune and she promptly told me I was going to hell for listening to them. But she wasn’t the only one. I remember hearing entire sermons dedicated to the evil of Jesus Rock music which seemed to be conveniently preached right after I would return from a D&K concert. I found this odd, as I exclusively listened to Contemporary Christian Music without compromise, and I knew that most of our youth group and perhaps their parents were secretly listening to the secular songs of our generation. I would contemplate, “How is it that I was wrong for listening to people boldly sing about Jesus?” I was not deterred, I pressed forward, after all tunes like “Don’t stop the music” and “Destined to win” inspired me onward. 

Dana Key and me

I would spend a lot of energy enthusiastically telling my youth group and peers at school about my experiences at D&K concerts as I was an early evangelist for their music. But most of all my heart was gripped by the message of the songs. I started carrying a Bible to junior high and wearing Jesus T-shirts and sharing my faith with anyone who would listen. It is a wonder that I survived to see High School. But I did. I was so inspired by this music that I found every way that I could to share it. I wasn’t a musician or a singer, although I tried without any success. But I did approach my local skating rink and convinced them to hire me as their exclusive Christian Music DJ. I would spin and mix my DeGarmo and Key records with skill and excellence and I learned to skate pretty well too! Of course, it wasn’t without controversy, as on one occasion my Pastor censored which records I could play, that was a mellow night of skating mediocrity. But I pressed on. 

And then because of DeGarmo and Key, my musical world changed again in 1989, when at their concert we were all introduced to dcTalk. My.mind.was.blown. What followed were several years of continued misunderstanding at the church where I attended and served as a youth leader for a time. My records continued to be censored, and there was at least one church board meeting convened to discuss my turning out lights, putting drums on a table, and playing “Let’s get upset” as loud as I could get it. The youth of our church were mesmerized but the adults were not amused. Now some three decades later, it is difficult to find a Christian radio station that doesn’t play Contemporary Christian Music, it’s harder still to find a Christian station that doesn’t have a TobyMac song playing, all of which would not have been possible without men of vision and courage like DeGarmo and Key. Perhaps that is a bit hyperbolic. But for this adolescent Bible nerd coming of age in the 1980s, these guys made me feel “cool” and that is huge considering my faith was strengthened and not weakened during my youth. This was in no small way due to the influence of this Memphis based Christian Rock band.

I was thrilled to read Eddie’s book “Rebel for God: Faith, Business, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It arrived yesterday afternoon and I finished it tonight. All 352 pages. (That includes the acknowledgements.) I could not put it down! I found this an easy and insightful read which filled in the details of the soundtracks of my youth. It was also so inspiring to read about how faith in Christ and commitment to a cause motivates people to do extraordinary acts in pursuit of their callings. When I was at one of those D&K concerts in my youth, I remember passing Eddie DeGarmo in a hallway after the show, I wasn’t brave enough to speak, although I do remember thinking “this guy is a little shorter than I thought.” I once even called their booking agency attempting to convince them to come play at my High School. The nice woman on the other end of the line informed me that they did expect to get payed for the appearance, I was disappointed, but to echo Eddie’s voice in the book, “How many kids can say they talked with DeGarmo and Key’s booking agent? I can!” 

As I got older, I once stood in line to meet Dana Key at a solo appearance and he signed a CD, and was kind enough to accept a CD my wife had produced, I don’t know that he ever listened to it, but it was a thrill to give it to him. In 2007 during a difficult time in my marriage I drove to Memphis, and attended the church Dana was pastoring as D&K had stopped touring by that time. Pastor Dana Key was gracious enough to speak and pray with me afterwards. It was an encouraging moment in a discouraging time. Thankfully our marriage survived, but sadly Dana died unexpectedly in 2010.

But the legacy of DeGarmo and Key continues. In “Rebel for God” Eddie shares the details of how living intentionally can have long lasting impact. In every song Eddie wrote and played with his lifelong friend Dana they ministered to me and pointed me to Jesus. I felt “Accepted” and found the courage to “Dare to be different.” The music they produced still provides inspiration to me and so many others like me. After D&K, Eddie continued to influence the world for Christ. The artists Eddie signed, the music Eddie got published, the path he forged made a difference for this Arkansas kid. 

Now I teach and coach young people in collegiate debate at a private university in the Midwest. The highlight of one of our first trips together was introducing these kids to the music of DeGarmo and Key. Later at a gas stop, I returned to the van to the familiar tune “Boycott Hell” being played loud and proud in my honor. It is now a debate team road trip tradition. “We’ve got a job to do/running out of time to do it/You’ve got a gift to use/Get out in the world and use it/Bury your foolish pride/We’ve got to unionize/Hey don’t you think it’s time to Boycott Hell.” Indeed.