Following the Thirst

A Conversation with David Wilcox

By Kirk Webb

Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 4 1996 · Winter/Spring: pgs 88-93.

In the past few years singer-songwriter David Wilcox has emerged from being a street busker and bar entertainer to become an accomplished concert hall performer. His folk style resembles that of James Taylor, but his lyrics transcend the earthy images for which Taylor is known. Whereas Wilcox once attracted a handful of friends for an evening of guitar and song, he now draws huge crowds. Just a few years ago I had to ask friends in Asheville, North Carolina, the performer's hometown, to find his recordings for me. Now, I only need to go to the nearest music store to find his latest release.

As of this writing, there is a rumor that Wilcox's newest CD will soon be available. Included in the rumor is that Wilcox has written a new song that speaks of prayer in beautiful metaphors only he could compose. His previously released works include The Nightshift Watchman, Big Horizon, How Did You Find Me Here, and Home Again. For newcomers, I suggest starting with Big Horizon as a means of becoming familiar with Wilcox's music and caught in the spell of his well-crafted metaphors.

So, what is the appeal of David Wilcox? Perhaps people are drawn to his use of the ordinary to speak of things far beyond the banal. For example: The smell of pine on the clothing of one who has wandered through the woods becomes a sensual experience that speaks of human passion. A lonely walk on the beach speaks of God's mercy. The song "Show the Way," a personal favorite, transforms a drama onstage into a beautiful statement on the work of Christ.

Many who know Wilcox's music may disagree that his songs speak of matters of faith. Indeed, the message is rarely clear. Bar crowds sing along with him, caught up in his stories without realizing they are singing of something or Someone beyond the moment. Perhaps that is Wilcox's greatest talent. He tells parables and stories that speak of God and love in a way that invites the audience to consider the point of his words without demanding any more of them than simply to enjoy an evening of music.

As Wilcox himself suggests, we become lost in a good story without much effort, because we are all part of God's story. Metaphor is simply an invitation to join in that story. The dilemma for the artist, he says, is that metaphors easily become stale and lose their power to speak to the heart. They decompose into rigid dogma and thus become distorted. Wilcox sees his task as retelling the old, old story in fresh ways so that it can be seen as true in the present. His metaphors draw God's story into our lives so that we can touch it and know it is real.

As Wilcox wandered through various thoughts and stories during my conversation with him, I found myself pondering things far beyond the common. The following are some highlights from our 1995 conversation:

Mars Hill Review: You've always spoken deep truths about life through your music. Recently you've started singing about faith and God. Is that new, or has your faith always informed your music?

David Wilcox: Several years ago I started to feel that something was missing. I had to find my way, and it took a long time. That's why I've written about it a few years later. At first I'd thought, "Since this is true, it's going to be easy to write songs about it. I'll just say it's true." Yet I realized that whenever I'd heard a lot of the kind of music that does that, it never did me any good. It never respected the fact that I hadn't felt that yet.

If you're trying to explain something logically, you have to start with things people can trust. I've always loved the songs that talk about the search process, the God-shaped hole within us. And I wanted to write that kind of song. But it took me a long time to understand how to put those kinds of thoughts down on paper.

MHR: Would you say you feel comfortable with that process now?

DW: I've gotten better at it. And I'm still trying.

MHR: What do you want to accomplish through your music, both personally and for your audience?

DW: In the process of working on this thing that I love to do, it opens my heart. Because I love the craft so much, I'm willing to work hard at it to try to find the best truth I can come up with. The real goal is to keep learning and walking the faith, and to try to find better ways to explain this thing. When I do write a song that captures a bit of perspective or vision, I get to sing it and be reminded of it. And I need to hear these songs to keep me on track.

MHR: Would you say music does that better than other forms of artistic expression?

DW: I would say music has a way of opening people's hearts. Music is an exception to the rule that people feel isolated or treat each other like strangers. It assumes that people are listening. And it looks for a break in the fence to people's hearts.

MHR: More so than poetry?

DW: Poetry can sometimes be just as powerful. Music has the element of allowing the emotions to take flight beyond just what's logical.

MHR: Where does metaphor come into play for you-as a musical tool and in your own life?

DW: I want to tell stories that lead people in the direction I want them to travel. When I was in my early searching stage, I held onto a lot of resistance, a lot of caution. I wanted to fight against certain directions my heart wanted to go. What worked best for me was when someone told a story like the parables. Whenever the religious leaders tried to corner Jesus and say, "That's a contradiction," he would just tell a story. It frustrates people who mistrust what you're saying for you to tell a story. So, what I want to do is to tell the story, in order to make a connection.

MHR: Many Christians work hard to kill their artistic passions. What would you say to the believing world about using artistic expression?

DW: That has not been my experience with Christians-but I'm not the average Christian.

Let me say that a part of me feels frustrated when people try to capture wind in a box and say, "This is wind." Then they open the box and say, "Look, wind." Yet when no wind emerges, they say, "But it was very windy when I closed this box."

I need to be out there and feel the wind go by. I need to be a part of the story that's leading up to the conclusion, and not just telling the conclusion.

Faith cannot be contained in a simple word or phrase. All of the metaphors we've had over the years become stale and no longer work. After a while people forget that they are even metaphors. Like the word "Lord." You have to understand the agrarian culture of hundreds of years ago to understand what a lord is and why that word should matter to you. It's not just a word, it's a metaphor. And any metaphor is going to die out if it becomes stagnant. The artistic process is that of retelling the story afresh.

I believe that even if all the books, buildings, and cloistered traditions were lost, Jesus would still be very much alive and present and able to communicate with people in their hearts. The connection would not be lost. People are concerned that Jesus needs all kinds of help from us. They think he's barely holding it together, and we have to rush out and help him because he's not going to make it. But he's very much alive in this world right now, and he can reach any heart to make the world different.

Our goal isn't to make it unnecessary for us to have faith. If the world were a perfect place, faith would be unnecessary. Things would be easy and logical and going nicely. But faith is about whatever is not nice. For example, if you lived in Jesus' time, when there were foreign soldiers in your homeland, he would have told you, "Carry those soldiers' packs." You'd have said, "What? They're the enemy. That's totally wrong. I would never do that. That isn't going to help our cause." But Jesus was saying, "What I'm talking about is bigger than a cause. It's bigger than 'us versus them.' It's bigger than dogma and rules. The kingdom of God is here."

Everyone said, "What about our political struggles?" Jesus said, "It's not about political struggles. And to prove it to you, I have been sent here as your leader-and I'm going to die." We think Jesus is going to come back with AK-47s and win the war. But that isn't the war. The war here has been won forever.

A beautiful part of retelling the story is to start with something people haven't heard and to say it fresh so that it's striking. Yet, whenever you do that, it's going to anger all those people who are clinging to their own metaphors.

The power of the transformation of faith is real. The story-this person Jesus who lived so long ago-calls our hearts to choose. And the Spirit makes the story true right now. Faith is what you feel in your heart when you can't even imagine trusting this thing you can't always believe in. Your heart is changed, you feel it, and there's power in it. Something feels spiritual to you, and it's something you can experience and follow.

Because the experience is so real, some people take their very real transformation and use it to build empires, including political empires, for their own gain. They have proof that something real is happening within them, and they can usually be persuaded into doing or believing something political. But the contradiction and radical part of the message is that it is not about political gain. This is often abused, however, by people who try to gather up momentum politically.

The story is always going to be brand new, yet always the same story. People say, "Can't Jesus beat our enemies? Can't he make this happen for us? Can't he have our power, land, sovereignty here on earth?" It's much bigger than that. We may indeed have that at some point, but that is not the truth. The truth is that his kingdom is not of this world. So, the whole artistic process is there to keep telling the story again every time you put it into words.

MHR: You tell the story in a very new way. Yet, does using the metaphors you employ in telling the story ever cause problems?

DW: Sure, there is a very real danger. I sing songs about my faith, and people say to me, "That is such a beautiful song. Did you make up the experience?"

The Japanese have a wonderful phrase about people confusing the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself. They grab the hand and say, "Is it this?" And you say, "No, I'm only pointing in that direction. Let go of my hand!" Singing in metaphor carries with it the same kind of danger.

It is amazing to have a faith that always resists being captured. It needs to be found. It will find you, or you can find it. But as soon as you say, "Here it is," it's gone.

MHR: What writers of literature and music have had an impact on you?

DW: As a songwriter, Bob Franke. There are a lot of other writers, though -I don't know where to start. The important thing for me is that I learn more from experience than from dogma.

The song "How Did You Find Me Here" is the story of how I get distracted and busy and suddenly the hunger in my heart wakes me up. I cry out again, saying, "God, can you find me here, even though I've been drifting away from my devotional center and into all these interesting distractions?"

When the amazing connection happens again, it usually happens through people I bump into. It could be the timing of a letter showing up, or my calling someone and the conversation suddenly getting very real. The things that most inspire me are everyday experiences. Since I travel so much, my community tends to be all over the place. I feel that my faith is rejuvenated wherever I am.

MHR: Please put words to what you're doing in your music as it honors God.

DW: I remember when Garrison Keillor was asked what he was trying to do. I was stunned by his answer. He said, basically, his aim was to glorify God. Isn't that great?

What I'm doing is telling a story about how I feel in my heart and how things have conspired to bring me to it. You see, our hearts want truth, and this is a different way of coming into the journey of faith. It's so nonthreatening because it's so nonorganic. You can't see it. You can't hold it in your hands.

Trust is what you feel in your heart that leads you to desperation, isolation, anxiousness, addiction, and all that stuff. It's a crying out, a hungering cry from your heart, which says there is a part of you that needs something more. It's not a physical thing. Rather, it's a hungering for what we are made of.

By telling the story from that angle, I feel I'm not just saying, "Join the crowd and be like us." I'm inviting people by saying, "If your heart feels this way, that is my experience too. It's not something to fear. It's something to follow that will lead you to water."

Imagine for a second you're walking in the Rocky Mountains and you're really thirsty. You're wandering, not really knowing where to find water. If you turn in one direction you'll feel even more thirsty. Now, what if this thirst you feel is not just random, but it actually knows something? If you turn in one direction and get more thirsty, what happens if you turn in the other direction and suddenly you're less thirsty? What a weird thing. Yet, if it works once, why not try it again?

As you walk along farther, you come to another fork in the road, and you begin to walk one way. Then you feel more thirsty-so you wait, back up, try the other way, and what happens? You feel less thirsty. Maybe that's when you hit the spring, the water.

It's strange, but you found water by following your thirst. And you say, "See I did it by myself." But wait a second-did you? No, you listened to your thirst, which led you. As you got thirstier, you realized you were headed in the wrong direction. And you knew you needed to try trusting this thirst, because it may lead you to water.

If it happens once, it feels like a coincidence. But if you do it again and again, then you realize something cares for you so much that it gave you an inner compass. And if you look at the compass, you can find your way. That's the way it's happened for me.