I didn’t know what my wife and I were getting into as we drove to Linden, Texas, which, as we found out the day of, was in fact much closer to Texarkana than to Plano, where we were staying with my parents. The towns were getting progressively smaller and the roads progressively bumpier. We were on our way to see one of my favorite artists, Andrew Peterson, in a show as a part of his In the Round Tour, with Sara Groves and Bebo Norman. Vicky turned to me and said, “Why are they doing a show out here?”
Well, as we soon found out, it’s because Linden is Music City, TX. Didn’t you know?
The show itself was wonderfully low-key. The three artists spent the whole show onstage together, and from the get-go they described the event as a conversation happening between them, the masters of their craft, and us, their enraptured audience. That subdued atmosphere allowed the three of them space to talk about the songs they sang and played, to share the stories behind them and the stories that connected them as brothers and sisters in Christ. All three started in the business around the same time in the 1990s and toured together off and on, sharing some of the same personnel along the way. Over the years, if their banter onstage is any indication, Peterson, Groves, and Norman have cultivated an artist community that any church should covet for its own creatives.
If the interplay between the three musicians as conversationalists was uplifting and encouraging, the music was just as enriching. All three have folk sensibilities inherent in their songwriting, but there’s enough of a difference between them all that the “in the round” style (they traded off songs for most of the night, though they often assisted on their instruments or with vocals) never got tedious. Bebo Norman was the artist that I was perhaps the least familiar with, which is ironic since he’s by far the most popular. I enjoyed his songs and his “cool, raspy voice”, as Peterson called it, but I was held in thrall by Sara Groves and Peterson. I’ve only recently begun to delve into Groves’s discography, and I’ve quickly fallen for the combination of her ethereal voice and her grounded lyrics. And Peterson is one of my heroes, a man who so fully imbues his craft with the weight and freedom of the Gospel. However, as the night went on, it was becoming more and more apparent to me that I was seeing something special beyond just Peterson.
I found that the three of them were validating art as an expression of the Gospel. Art so often falls on one end of the spectrum or the other, either relentlessly avoidant of or in opposition to religion and Christianity in particular, or blandly ignorant of the realities of the world while aiming for reverent worship. But art, and music in particular for me, is capable of covering so much more ground. These three artists in particular don’t conform to Christian music as a whole; they write about the world we live in from the perspective of a child of God. Sara Groves put it well, quoting a friend of hers: “God is an ocean, and we keep writing songs about the same cup of water.” I was grateful to have experienced two and half hours of live music that spanned the ocean.