WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you will be listening in on my conversation with singer and songwriter Keith Getty.
Irish singer and Songwriter Keith Getty is best known for the hymn “In Christ Alone,” which he co-wrote with Stuart Townend. But he began his career as a flute and saxophone player and an arranger for Sir James Galloway, Michael W, Smith, and many others. Today with his wife, Kristyn, he tours the world from a base in Nashville, though he still keeps a home in Ireland where he lives a portion of the year. This is not the first time Keith Getty has been on Listening In. He was one of my first guests back in 2014, not long after the show began. But a lot’s happened to him since then, including sold out performances at Carnegie Hall for his Christmas tour and a PBS special seen by nearly 50 million people worldwide. In fact, that’s a part of the reason I want to have Keith back on the program. No one talks more eloquently about the importance of music in the life of the church, especially around Christmas time. So today you’ll not only be listening in on my conversation with Keith Getty, but you’ll also hear some of his music performed by Keith and his wife, Kristyn, and also with Lady Smith, Black Mambazo, Alison Krauss and many others. And if you listen closely, you can hear Keith and Kristyn’s four girls in the background, since he had this conversation with me from his home in Nashville.
Keith Getty, welcome back to the program. I’ve had you on several times just because you’re such a cool guy and a great guest. So welcome. Welcome back to the program.
KEITH GETTY, GUEST: Warren. It is great to be with you. The only thing that’d be better is to be with you face to face. On the many occasions we have, we have sorted the world out. I think the world would be a better place if it took notes in the face to face meetings that you and I have at the back of my house, out of the many, many random cities we’ve got together and over the years.
SMITH: Well yeah, it’s been great to sort of hang out with you at the various cities where you’ve done shows and this year of course you’re doing your Christmas concerts again. I’m going to be at the one in New York City, uh, at Carnegie Hall. But you’re kicking off this week Atlanta, is that correct?
GETTY: That’s right. We start, we start on Wednesday night in Atlanta, Thursday in Augusta and then um, and then uh, we fly, we fly for the first time to do a run on the West Coast. So this is, we, this is, this has been going, this is the seventh year of Irish Christmas and uh, and this will be the first time, first time we’ve actually done a series of concerts in the West Coast. We’re pretty pumped about that too. And then, and then we make our way back make our way back: Colorado, Dallas, and then we fly across for Carnegie Hall and the final run up and down the East Coast.
SMITH: Well, there are a lot of musical groups and bands that do Christmas shows. Uh, but yours is a little different. Uh, yours has readings in it. You will have Tim Keller, at your event in New York. It’s a, there’s a rich liturgical, almost I would say, almost liturgical, certainly theological component to your shows. Can you talk about that a little bit?
GETY: Well, it really extends from our work. Our work is writing and championing hymns for the 21st century church. Hymns that are theologically deep, that are more classically artistic and that are and that help families and churches sing together. So, so this, this began almost by accident. It was an event Billy Graham asked us to do back in 2010, a small, 40 minute set for an event they were doing. And out of that, it expanded into a concert, into an album then into a concert hall tour. Then, then Carnegie Hall brought it in five years ago. And then we signed the deal with National Public Television, and I think that made it much more popular. It did 45 million households in public television over three years. And uh, and uh, and so now it’s really just, it’s a concert hall tour, which is the, which is championing the great hymns of Christmas.
Interestingly, we did it, when it was beginning to, when its popularity on public television was probably at its peak, we had quite an aggressive radio interview. Because we were being interviewed by everybody at that point. And quite an aggressive radio interviewer said to us, why are you doing a show championing the hymns of Christmas? He goes, when he goes, when only one of America’s top 30 Christmas carols was even religious, now according to some poll they’d taken. Oh, apparently all the great Christmas songs now are about Frosty and Santa and snowman. And uh, and we, so it made me realize that this, this is an important part of our heritage. It’s important. It’s an important for Christians to know them, but it’s also, it’s also a wonderful testimony to our wider culture. And so, so then it became really just a, a cause that as an extension to being a hymn writer that I want, I want our generation and the next generation and families all around the country to know the great hymns of Christmas because their master works. And so I think that’s probably an awful lot of it. ,And uh, and as you said, the three values that the whole Sing! movement has, which are deep theology, classic artistry and getting families and churches singing together, each generation. Those three things really just plowed through the whole thing. So I guess that gives it a distinctive among both Christian and mainstream events in this season.
MUSIC: God rest ye merry gentlemen…
SMITH: You know, you mentioned both Christians and the mainstream culture and I want to ask you to say a little bit more about that because Christmas does, it seems to me provide a unique opportunity to bring the Christian message to the mainstream culture because even if you’re not a Christian, even if you don’t pay much attention to Christian ideas or Christian art, if you will, and Christian music, a lot of radio stations give themselves fully over to Christmas songs during the Christmas season. It seems like, as I said, there’s a unique opportunity during this time of year to take the message of Christmas even into the secular culture.
GETTY: Oh, and it’s, it’s a challenge at multiple levels Warren. And you know, great art is the greatest apologetic for anything. Do you know what I mean? So I’m saying to Christians in their homes, fill your home up with the great carols of the faith. If you take the great carol’s of the faith, and fill your home up with them, your home, your children are going to understand the gospel. You know what I mean? If you, if you fill your churches with the great carol’s of the faith, the great, the great Christmas hymns of the faith, than the old generation are going to be united with the young generation. The pastors, the pastoral teaching ministry is going to be united with the music ministry. And those who have faith will be, will have a unique connection to those who are yet to believe. You know? And so I’m encouraging people, you know, really dig deep into these carols this season. Plow from the riches. They are a gift to our generation. This is composers like Handel, like handle like Mendelssohn, like Gustav Holst. These guys wrote the melodies to these things. These are, these are the masterworks of the Christian gift. So I encourage people at that level as well to just to plunge in, whether it’s on your iPhone in your home as you’re cooking a Turkey or planning for visitors to come. Or whether it’s, or whether it’s, or first thing in the morning with you if you happen to get woken up early before little daughters under the age of eight or or, or in your churches as well. There are a gift to us.
MUSIC: [Hark the Herald Angels Sing]
SMITH: You know, Keith, I’m going to pivot just a little bit in our conversation from Christmas to talk about the larger Sing! movement that you’ve already alluded to. I was at your Sing! conference in Nashville a couple of months ago and was just astonished that there were, I mean you tell me, it seemed to me at least 6,000 people. Is that the right number?
GETTY: It was seven and a half this year plus plus all the people involved, so probably 8,000 bodies. And with the response, the next year we’re moving it to almost 15,000, so…
SMITH: Yeah. Well you’ve had to. Yeah, exactly. You’ve got to change arenas. I guess you went from the civic center or the Music City Convention Center, whatever it’s called, to Bridgestone Arena this year. Is that coming up?
GETTY: It’s a combination of Opryland with a big, with a big finale at the Bridgestone arena.
SMITH: Yeah. Well that’s just remarkable. And, and as you said a few moments ago, you know, a lot of the Christmas songs that we hear on the radio, while there are some Christian oriented songs, a lot of them are Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus and that sort of thing. But while the culture seems to be trending more secular, I’m astonished by the response that you’ve had from the church to your Sing! conference, which is not, you know, that’s not Christianity lite. I mean you had amazing speakers like John Piper and Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan and others there. I mean Alistair Begg, I mean, you’re giving them some deep theology and some great music and they’re still showing up for it in droves. I mean, it’s not scaring them away.
GETTY: It’s been a huge surprise and encouragement to us and it’s forced us to rethink. We weren’t expecting this level of response. I mean, if you and I had been told five years ago that the largest reform conference in the world right now I was to do with singing and the largest worship music conference in the world was largely reformed theology meets classical art, I mean, you and I, we’d just have laughed at, you know what I mean? Because it’s just, it’s just, it’s just been a bit of a phenomenon. We were, I think we were lucky that… Kristyn and I joke that we’re just the Irish party organizers. Do you know what I mean? And so we, we just, we just threw a party with a bunch of people that were cleverer than us and the whole thing’s kinda just flown.
So. But it did challenge us because it made us realize this is bigger than we are doing and everything else. So we at a number of levels, you know, we, we, we reorganized our, our, our, our, our music publishing company to really represent the young team of hymn writers that are writing. So instead of just being Kristyn and I, there’s a team of us, six to 10 of us, you know, really, really six of us full time and another four in a part time way, writing, writing together. And in terms of our three events, we brought them all under the Sing! umbrella. So there’s the Sing! Global Conference, there is the Sing! National City tour, which is the, used to be the hymn tour. The National City Tour, now it’s just each fall. And then there’s the Sing! Irish Christmas. And it’s really taking those three values. It’s saying, it’s saying that, you know, if Christianity… We really asked the philosophical question, if Christianity is to be growing in the next generation when our children are our age, what do we need to be singing? And number one, it’s deep rich Scripture. Number two, the value of art. You know, we need to have a much higher view of art. And then thirdly, using those things primarily, although not exclusively, to serve families and churches singing together, you know. And uh, so that really is the thing. And all of it was inspired by honestly, a lot of it was inspired but just the vision of Martin Luther 500 years ago, where he was trying to plant churches in the capital cities, round the West. When he was trying to reengage congregations and being the center of worship services. When he was trying to bring the Bible into every home, just how he used singing to do that. And so this is really the same thing again. And of course he lived, as you know, on the, on the last, he was on the last, the last historic change in communication, which was called the printing press. So we are living in the next one, which is the Internet. So it is, I wouldn’t want it to born in any other generation, Warren. We live at the precipice of something that’s just extraordinary exciting.
MUSIC: [Christ Our Captain]
SMITH: You know, I’m fond of a story that I know you know, Keith, and many of our listeners probably will, which is the story of Paul at Mars Hill. The story of him preaching on the areopagus. And he clearly says that, you know, we were born for this time that God has prescribed the um, the boundaries of our dwelling and, and um, you know, sometimes I think we long as many of us Christians long for some mythical good old days, but I think you said it very well. I wouldn’t want to live in any other age than the one that we’re in right now.
GETTY: Well, that’s exactly right. I used to come to Nashville and people used to go, with this kind of, these kind of classic melodies you wrote, if you’d just been born a generation ago, you’d have been, you would’ve been rich or something stupid like this. And I went, you know, I would not want to have been born in any generation other than this generation. You know, the opportunities today to effect mission, uh, to actually, to actually have influence. I’ve never, never touched on this and yet, and yet, and yet our Christianity grows each day by the ancient paths. Do you know what I mean? There’s a reason 20 percent of the Bible was actually songs. Because the Bible understood as, as Luther said, you know, you know, you will only be as, you will only be as deep as the depth of the songs you sing, you know, you know. And so and so, we need to build a, I don’t believe, I don’t believe, you know, when our, when our kids, when our kids, our grandkids or our age, Warren, and they’re talking to each other, I don’t, I don’t think there will be a nominal Christian culture like the one that we have grown up in. I think it’s going to be a whole new thing. And so we want to make sure that we are passing the faith on in its purest, most wholesome and robust, and life-giving, and inspiring way.
SMITH: One of the ways, Keith, that you, um, pass on what the gifts that have been given to you and the ideas, the wisdom that has been given to you is, is a, is something that I found fascinating the very first time I saw you do it. And that is that you will have a choir that is made up, typically of local people from that community, whenever you go to a particular city. You’ll um, the, I don’t know if you’re still doing the workshops in the cities they used to, but I’m assuming that the choir rehearsals that you do the day of the show, um, have some of that educational and teaching component as well. Where did that idea come from and isn’t that hard to pull off? Why do you make that huge investment?
GETTY: Well, it’s a, I think that’s a reason d’etre. Kristyn and I never came to America to be artists. You know, we came to try and help teach hymns. So first of all, it was, first of all, it was, it was, it was, we know what we’re about. You know, our job is to try and write hymns, but to champion the values of theological deep, rich songs and help and help bring those to the next generation. That’s our job. And uh, so we had to say, how do we do that? And my first idea was I should go around and talk. The second thing that is trying to work out, I work out how you do that best. And so I started to give these talks and 20 people would turn up. And uh, then Kristyn would do a concert and 2,000 people would turn up.
So I’d realize, okay, I think my wife’s more attractive than I am. So, you know, that’s a hard thing for an egotistical megalomaniac, Presbyterian boy to realize. Do you know what I mean? That’s a hard realization to, you know, to swallow. But it’s the truth. And so we said, okay, so how do we, when we come to a town, introduce people to the song? So we built a concert series, a spring and fall concert series. We brought choirs, sometimes from the local church, to help sing, um, who were the supporters. And sometimes from multiple churches in the area to, to, to, to connect with the multiple churches. Then I would give my talk on the aff… I give a free talk every lunchtime for, for 10 years. I think to be honest, the Sing! conference is really just an extension of 10 years. I’ve given 70 free talks a year for 10 years, you know. Because most of the people that come are just the guys who sat in those leadership events. So…
SMITH: Well, but it has the effect of really enhancing the concert because you’ve got this big choir behind you. And it also has the ancillary effect of because of the day of rehearsals and the teaching that you do with those guys, they go back to their local churches, they go back to their local communities and they take a little bit of the message of the concert back to their churches with them that stays with that church you around.
GETTY: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s right, that’s right. You know, it’s been a slow build, Warren. You know, we’ve never had the advantage of mass media. So for example, our song catalog in the UK. Stuart Townend and I are the, are the top writers now in the UK when it comes according to CCLI. But in the U.S. has been a much more slow build because we don’t have the, the, the, uh, the, the advantage of, of fitting contemporary Christian radio. But at the same time, I think what this does is it builds up people who are serious partners and want to have a serious conversation, you know, and so, so, you know, I’ve always believed that, that um, everything is found in relationship. I mean, we’ve seen that at so many different levels. You know, being an Irish, Presbyterian classical musician for example, you know, our show wasn’t particularly multiethnic or multiracial but as we began to build friendships, then suddenly the tour this year has got, has got, you know, a lot of people from different backgrounds.
But it’s become because we all became friends, you know what I mean? And so I’m a great believer that most effective Christian ministry happens in friendship, whether it’s partners, whether it’s building an organization, whether it’s, whether it’s, whether it’s solving relational breakdown, whatever it is. Do you know what I mean? It’s, I think these things are, you know, the, the, the, the, these things work best this way. This year, that show, you know, in Dallas and the Kennedy Center we’re doing, we’ve got a brand new version of “Oh children come.” “Oh, children come” is an example of a song. It started off a song we wrote for Ricky Skaggs to sign with us at Carnegie Hall. Then it morphed into a song that Lady Smith Black Mambazo recorded with a whole African feel. And now there’s a whole new version that Triple A is rapping to in Dallas and then the Kennedy Center this year. So, you know, these kinds of things just happened, you know, as time moves on. And then they make your show more rich and more interesting.
MUSIC: [Oh Children Come]
And we’ve got, you know, Alison Krauss singing with us this year at a skirmish in Nashville and uh, so she’s doing the Wexford Carol, but she’s also doing, she and Kristyn have brought back to do the duet they did years ago from “Christ Alone.” And so it’s given us a whole new arrangement of “In Christ Alone,” which if you have to play that song 200 times a year, it’s kind of useful to have a new arrangement.
SMITH: It is a great song, but I can understand from your point of view why you’d want to mix it up a bit.
MUSIC: [In Christ Alone]
GETTY: So to all of these people, you know, it’s the joy of relationship. You know, if our band makes it to next Christmas, the average band member would have been with us 10 years. Do you know what I mean? And for me, that is just such a privilege. Do you know what I mean? Because they’re all, they’re all looking out for us. Our bass player, he’s been with us 10 years, you know, coming up. Um, you know, managed to find this wonderful percussionist. He was just sitting in church one day and he goes, you know this guy’s DNA fits what we do perfectly. And he said, I’ve never in 10 years, found someone anywhere in Nashville who fits our thing. And it was a, it was a guy from Trinidad, called Wendell, who’s just clicked. And he completely changed the color of our show in terms of musical color, in terms of, in terms of, uh, you know, his, his percussion and his creativity, his humor and his has. And also just, uh, you know, just the blending of cultures. So I think, you know, I’m happy. I’m happy to be a tortoise in a field of hares. You know what I mean? When, when, when the tortoises you’re hanging with are having a good time and you’re sharing those values.
MUSIC: [Hark How the Bells]