WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with singer, songwriter, lawyer, judge, author, and farmer Allen Levi.
Allen Levi lives on a 1600 acre family farm near Columbus, Georgia. You might think that this place is not one of the cultural hotspots of the country, and yet from there, Allen has quietly and faithfully been exercising his gifts over many decades and he’s had an outsized impact on tens of thousands of people’s lives.
Allen says that as a musician, he has a microscopic following, but among those followers include Dove award winning musician Bebo Norman, Grammy winning producer Ed Cash, and our perennial favorite of this program, Andrew Peterson. He’s helped raise tens of millions of dollars for the Christian ministry Young Life by performing at fundraising events for them all over the country. And he’s now the author of a new book called The Last Sweet Mile, a memoir about his brother Gary, who was a missionary who died of a brain tumor in 2012. The book is published by the Rabbit Room press, which is the publishing arm of the arts community that has grown up around musician Andrew Peterson and his brother dramatist Pete Peterson.
I had this conversation with Allen Levi at the family farm. We sat on the front porch with a cup of coffee in hand and sometimes you can hear the wind chimes playing in the background.
Allen Levi, welcome to the program. It’s great to be with you on your front porch, on your farm. I should say maybe at an undisclosed location. You don’t want people to coming here, right?
ALLEN LEVI, GUEST: No, I love people to to come visit and I can think of no better place to have a conversation then this porch. I’ve had many delightful hours here with friends and you are one who I have not seen in awhile. So I’m happy to add this to the gallery.
EICHER: Yeah, we’re not super close friends now at this age in my life, even though I feel after talking with you now for 15 or 20 minutes that that’s a closeness that we could get to pretty quickly. But we’ve been old friends. In fact, I want to go back and start our conversation with your biography. And I know a bit of your biography because I was there for some of it. You and I were at the University of Georgia together in the late 1970s—40 years ago now. It doesn’t seem like it’s 40 years ago but you were not on a trajectory necessarily to do all of the things that you’ve done. Talk about that.
LEVI: Yeah, so I grew up down in Columbus, Georgia, just south of where I live now. One of five kids. Very typical all-American sort of family. My mother and father who are both still alive. Wonderful people. They’re probably my closest friends on the planet now because they’re also my neighbors. But went to high school in Columbus and my dad always encouraged me to pursue law. I’m not sure why. We didn’t have any lawyers in the family. He’s a forester himself, but he I think saw a gift of gab that he thought could be converted into a legal career. So, started off at Mercer University in Macon. Went there about a year, sophomore year I transferred to Georgia. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I just wanted to stay away from math. That was the thing I wanted to accomplish as an undergrad. Stay away from math and make good grades so I can go to law school. So I majored in English. I didn’t read much of what I was supposed to read, I’m sure, for my classes, but I was able to keep my grades up. Got into law school, went nine straight quarters of law school. And in 1980 graduated and moved to Columbus to start work with a farm there.
SMITH: Well, I want to pause there for a minute, Allen, because that’s where I got to know you. You were in law school when I was an undergraduate. You’re a couple years older than me, but only a couple of years older than me. And you did something that I’d like to pause on and talk about a little bit. And that was Pine Tops. It became a phenomenon at the University of Georgia. Would you talk about that?
LEVI: Yeah. So after the home football games in Athens, of course, most people know what a popular thing football is in the southeast. After the game we would go to this YMCA camp. And when I say we—maybe 10, 12 people…
SMITH: It started out just you, a couple of your friends, and your girlfriends.
LEVI: Microscopic. I mean, just a handful. And it was kind of to stay away from the fraternity scene and those kinds of things. I had just become a Christian in 1978 as a senior at the University of Georgia. And so Pine Tops started with law school for me. In some ways it was not very auspicious timing, but after the games we would get together, we would sing, we would cook out, we would tell stories, just hang out. And slowly but surely this thing started growing. There was no organization, there was no committee, but we would have 5-600 people that would show up. And I had already fallen in love with songwriting. I just really enjoyed it. And so I would write new songs every week. And then every home game people would pile into Pine Tops. And it’s interesting, Warren. Now 22 years I’ve been traveling as a musician and it is uncanny. I can go almost anywhere in the country and somebody will bring up Pine Tops. They were there.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, I mean, like you say, it got to be 500 people and it was kind of a floating 500 people in some ways. I mean, there were folks that were there maybe every week, but there were also folks that would come a couple of times. The thing that was remarkable to me about it was that Pine Tops and partly because of, I think your singing and songwriting there, they were not “Christian songs.” They weren’t like the number of Jesus’s perverse kind of song. They were funny songs. They were story songs. It was a safe place for a Christian to bring their non-Christian friends. I wonder if you even know how many people made professions of faith as a result of that.
LEVI: No idea.
SMITH: It must have been dozens or maybe even hundreds.
LEVI: No, no idea. Again, it was such a nebulous sort of thing. There was no—like I say—there was no sponsoring group, there was nothing like that. So people came, people had a good time, people went home.
SMITH: But every once in a while y’all did do a very specific altar call and you did invite people to accept Christ. And I know many people did because I was there, I saw it, I witnessed it.
LEVI: Yeah. And we would have guest speakers from time to time. We would have humor, you know, skits, things of that sort. But believe me, it was never scheduled. I mean, we would show up on Saturday night and it just kind of grew organically as the hour or two or three went on.
SMITH: Yeah. So it was a remarkable time. So, but it was like you say an inauspicious time because you were in law school. That was pretty demanding. You were also trying to accelerate that process and so it didn’t last long and you got out of law school and you started practicing law.
LEVI: I did. Reluctantly and with no thought that I would stay at it for long because I did not like law school at all. But I found the practice really very enjoyable in some ways. The stress was enormous. The time demands were ridiculous. I was with a civil practice down in Columbus and it’s billable hours and it’s seven days a week. I didn’t enjoy those aspects of it, but I loved the word and storytelling part of litigation. And so where I was not a very good law student, I kind of did okay as a lawyer because it was about telling stories. It was about being with people in real settings. And I did that for 10 years, very, very full time. And then in the late 1980s decided I’m going to come up for air, take a break, and I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. Lived there for two years, got a master’s in English literature at University of Edinburgh and thought that I might want to go into their doctoral program. I was admitted into it, but it was going to be four or five years. It was going to be expensive. And I didn’t think that I had the appetite for five years of research on one very pedantic topic.
I love the writings of George MacDonald who influenced C.S. Lewis and T.S. Elliot and others. And so I thought, I’ll do a doctoral project on McDonald and I think I can probably tolerate that. But then I got to thinking I could go home and practice law part time, enjoy some of the things that have kind of resurrected themselves while I’ve been here in Scotland, songwriting being foremost among them and I opted to go that way. So I came back to Columbus in the early nineties. Practiced law part time for three years. And with the rest of my time I was writing songs and built a studio here at the farm.
SMITH: Yeah. And I think that that was where maybe I reconnected with you again, perhaps. I’m not sure because my family’s been very active in Young Life over the years. My wife was on staff with Young Life and you were starting to show up again in the or maybe you never stopped showing up, but you were where I remember you started showing up, playing and performing at Young Life events for fundraisers or adult weekend up at Windy Gap, which is a camp, a big camp up in North Carolina. And you sort of fell in with this, what I sometimes call the Young Life mafia, which would be Bebo Norman and Ed Cash and some of those guys. Can you talk about that?
LEVI: Sure. Yeah. So, 1996 I leave law practice to go into music full time and I’m totally unknown as a musician. I’m 40. And I know the market does not—it doesn’t do well for people like me, you know. I’m not good looking. I’m not cute. I’m old. I like words. I like long sentences. I like long songs. I like metaphor. And so I’m thinking, I don’t know how I’m going to survive at this and I didn’t expect to. I really thought that I would do it a couple of years and then have to go back to my old job. 1996 the Olympics came to Georgia. I was commissioned to write a piece of music, which was well received. I did some stuff in the opening ceremony down in Columbus, which was one of the the the venues for the Olympics. The day after the opening ceremony, I flew out to Colorado to go to a Young Life camp.
I’d never been to a Young Life camp. I didn’t know what Young Life was, really. I knew a little bit about it. I didn’t know anyone on the team except for the fellow that had invited me. And night one, song one I knew this is my tribe. And it became an alliance, a friendship, a marriage that has probably been the bulk of my work for the last 22 years. Not necessarily just Young Life, but someone who is connected to Young Life, who owns a corporation, wants to have a Christmas party for their employees or something of that sort. I don’t do a lot with kids with Young Life over the years. I did some camps during the summers, but much if not most of my work has been Young Life-related. Bebo Norman grew up in Columbus where I grew up. I knew his parents and love them. And knew Bebo as a little boy. And then Ed Cash and I met through his father who was on the national board for Young Life.
SMITH: That’s right. Steady Cash from Charlotte, where I’m from. In fact, Steady. When I worked at Price Waterhouse Coopers for many years, Steady was a client of ours. His company was a client. So Steady for decades has been a stalwart in the evangelical world in Charlotte and nationwide, as you say, he was on the national board.
LEVI: Yeah. I think the music piece of the puzzle is nice. I’m really gratified that I was able to find a community that saw some usefulness for the sort of music that I write, but I think much more significant to me is the effect that Young Life had on me as a follower of Christ. I was a new Christian when I was in law school. I found a really good church in Columbus when I came back home. But Young Life just opened the gospel to me in ways that no other community has been able to do. And that’s not to suggest for a minute that they’re a perfect organization or perfect people, but there was an authenticity to so many of the people that are in that organization. And I found and continue to find that very winsome and challenging for me. So I am forever grateful for the friendship I’ve had with Young Life.
SMITH: Allen, once you got back from Scotland and you started making the connection with Young Life and you decided to quit your law practice and do music full time, you started producing albums. You started songwriting, I guess in a much more aggressive way. But you live down here in, you know, not in Nashville, not in New York, not in LA. What did that look like?
LEVI: Challenging, to be honest. I didn’t have resources here to help me learn, for instance, the production process and I have had to learn that on my own and it shows up. I mean, the quality of my work has all the marks of an amateur and somebody who’s trying to figure it out. So not having resources of that kind was a challenge to me. Not having people just to even bounce song ideas off of. Most of the songs that I wrote had their first iteration in front of an audience. And that was where I figured out does a song work or not.
SMITH: Well, actually I want to pause there because one of the things that I loved about your songwriting way back in the day whenever it was at Pine Tops at Georgia and then later when I rediscovered you at adult weekend events, for example, for Young Life where my wife and I would often attend is that you often made up story songs on the spot. I mean, I would be at an adult weekend with you and by Saturday evening, by the Saturday evening event, you had a song written about that weekend that referenced, specifically, things that happened that weekend. How did you do that?
LEVI: That’s just what I love to do. I get really bored with the things that I write very quickly. There’s a song that I wrote years ago called Everything Is a Fingerprint and I think that probably expresses more about the way that I approach songwriting implicitly as anything I’ve ever written. It basically makes the point that everywhere we look the fingerprints of God are around us. It can be in a conversation. It can be in a little girl on a bike. It can be on a kite string. It can be on one-eyed bird. And so to wake up every day focusing on finding the fingerprint for that day, that makes life so rich to me.
MUSIC: [Everything Is a Fingerprint]
If I’m at a gathering and I meet 300 new people—meet in air quotes—but if I’m with a group of people that I hear a story or have a conversation, I’m thinking, where’s the fingerprint here? And then it’s really not terribly hard to find the words, you know? And that’s just the fun part of songwriting and it’s wonderful to sing a song first tie knowing that it is the only time you’ll ever sing it. This song is in an ephemera. It has a one performance lifespan, but it’s a—
SMITH: With that group, because—it’s a culture-making, culture-making experience right there because another group might not care, but this group cares deeply.
LEVI: Yeah, and so to just to see the lights come on in people’s eyes in moments like that. It’s really so much fun.
SMITH: Well, as you say, that does make some of those kinds of songs he ephemeral, but there’s—sort of taking that idea a little bit further. And maybe making some of those songs a little bit more permanent was my understanding of what you tried to do with one of your projects, where you were going to write a song about people that lived in your community. You actually did an album.
LEVI: Yeah. People in my town. Yeah. It’s probably the favorite one I’ve ever done. On the porch where you and I are sitting right now, I measured a circle. I said, okay, five miles out I’m gonna find seven people. The reason that I chose seven is because a CD, which was the format for distributing music then only holds 74 minutes of material. And I wanted to have a monologue of that person speaking and then a song that I would write out of their monologue.
So I chose seven people, somewhat randomly, interviewed them, got an hour or two hours worth of material, listened back to their conversation or my conversation with them and then kind of distilled that down into three or four minutes. So everyone hears their voice and then out of what they say, I wrote a song. And it just made me realize that if I never leave this community—my little hometown has about 500 people in it—it’s three miles west of me. The county has about 40,000. But if I never left this community, I can never get to the bottom of the rich stories that are all around me. And so those fingerprints are daily. And I still look for opportunities to hear people me about their lives.
SMITH: Well, there’s one particular story I’d like, if you are willing Allen, to just talk about in particular, because not only did you find a song, but you also found a church in one of those songs. Can you tell that story?
LEVI: Yeah, so two miles to the east of me—it can only be described appropriately as a shack. And there was an elderly African American gentleman who lived there and I knew him a bit and had a great fondness for him and I thank him for being my family. But I wanted to interview Deacon Benjamin Floyd, who was affectionately known as Shorty. So I went and sat on his porch for a couple of hours and it was just wonderful. He talked, I asked questions. In the course of the conversation, he quoted the Bible a lot, sometimes slightly misquoted the Bible, but it was obvious that he was steeped in the language of scripture. And at the end of the interview he told me that he couldn’t read. And so I asked him, he was probably early eighties at the time, “Deacon Floyd, given that you can’t read, how do you know the Bible so well?” And he said, “Well, since 1943, I’ve been going to the Long Street church.” And I said, “Well, where is it? I’ve never heard of it.” And he told me where it was. It’s a little brick building that I’ve driven by 10,000 times. And I didn’t know it was a functioning gathering place. But I said, “Could I come visit sometime?” And to quote him, he said, “The doors of our church is built on welcome hinges who so ever shall may come.” And so about a month later I showed up and I think it shocked him, terrified him. But that was eight plus years ago. And I realized this is a chance for me to hear the gospel from a perspective different than the one that I am used to hearing it from. It’s a chance for me to see the community through a different lens. It’s a chance for me to make some wonderful new friends, which I have have done over the last eight years. And it is just a small gesture toward racial reconciliation where I get to step over the line and say, “I want to know you and I want to hear about your life.” And it has been fantastic, to say the least.
SMITH: Well, and you got an expression, a door that is built on welcome hinges. Did I get that right?
LEVI: The rhetoric in the black church, it is majestic.
SMITH: That is just remarkable. That is just a beautiful thing. So, well and it also, Allen, transitions or allows me to ask a little bit more about something that is obvious to me sitting here. I mean, as far as I can see is property owned by you and your family. Is that correct? And you’ve already talked about your dad being a forester and bought this, you know, he bought this property and you’ve got your parents are not only your friends but your neighbors. The fact that you identified seven people that live five miles from here, place matters to you. Place is important to you.
LEVI: It does. It does. The theological word that I think kind of condenses all of that into a couple of syllables is incarnation. Jesus lived in a place. God chose to come to a place. He knew the people in that place. Granted the cause was universal. It was cosmic, but he did it all from a particular geography. And I think especially in the day of virtual reality where we can show up in all kinds of ways where we are intangible and invisible and untouchable. I think place matters more than ever now. I was sharing with someone recently that I was having a conversation about our bucket list. My brother and Laura and I were talking. And I said, you know, I think I can say that there’s hardly an item—not that I have a bucket list—but there’s hardly an item of the things I want to do in life that require me to get in my car. Now to go to meet my neighbors. I’d have to do something like that.
But I’m content to be in this place and as Wendell Berry would say, inventory, the wonder of it and find it and inexhaustible source of beauty and goodness in wonder and story. And I think that if I’m moving a hundred miles an hour trying to see a little bit of every place on the planet earth, I kind of missed the whole thing. So now I’ve just kind of settled into this place where I want to know right where I am and I want to serve Christ right where I am, very purposefully, believing that this is enough. That’s the hard part about the equation to me. When I see or read about people who are doing big and grand things, I’m tempted to say to myself, that is a life that matters and man doesn’t matter because it’s such a small, obscure thing, but I’m convinced that small, obscure lives matter. that’s how the kingdom works and place is pivotal to that.
SMITH: Allen, if you’ll forgive me a bit of a digression. I can’t resist asking about a song that you wrote called Meant To Be Found because it’s a song about an event that happened here on the farm and now that we’re here on the farm, can you tell me about where that came from?
LEVI: So, let’s look about 300 yards north. That’s my parent’s house. On the other side of the house, I was mowing the grass one day, summertime, very hot. And for some reason looked up—I was using a push mower that day—and I was in that nice zone where nobody can bother you and you’re deep in your thoughts, maybe. Or you are thinking nothing at all. But I looked up and there in the fork of a tree was an Easter egg, which had obviously escaped the notice of my nieces and nephews at Easter that year.
And this is just the way my whimsical mind works. I tend to put voices into inanimate things. I think the big words is anthropomorphize or something like that. But you take a tree and you say, what would a tree say about getting ready to get cut down for Christmas? Or you take a bird with one eye, you say, what would a one-eyed bird say about being a one-eyed bird? Well, there was the Easter egg and I thought, what would an Easter egg say about being an Easter egg that didn’t get found? And so I started writing it while I was cutting the grass and then got my guitar probably over the course of the next few days and wrote the song. It was one of Gary’s favorites. It’s one of my favorites and it basically makes the point that—obviously—that the egg was supposed to get found and it didn’t get found and it was suffering miserably because of it. We’re meant to be found. And so again, that’s one of those fingerprint sort of things. And if we keep our eyes open they’re everywhere, Jesus told stories. Jesus told parables about things that were right under the feet and the hands of the people there. And so the Easter egg that day just happened to be in the line of fire and it turned into that song and I love to sing that song.
MUSIC: [Meant To Be Found]
SMITH: Allen, another part of your story that intersects with my life at least a little bit is regarding your brother Gary. As I’ve already identified, you were in law school while I was an undergraduate at Georgia. I was a forestry major. Before I changed your journalism my senior year. Gary, your brother was in forestry school with me and I remember him even then just being fun, a great guy. We had to take a dendrology class together, for example. We’d be walking out in the woods every day. And I got to admit, I was kind of an unhappy forestry major. I kinda had this romantic vision that I wanted to be Wendell Berry, John Krakauer. I wanted to be out in the outdoors and write about it. And then I realized that, well, maybe being a forestry major wasn’t the—once I got into forestry school—wasn’t the best place for me to do that. So I switched over to journalism. But Gary was a joyful forestry major, at least that’s the way he came across to me at that time. He lays seem to just love it. An, of course, knowing that your dad was a forester maybe now makes a difference, but tell me about Gary. And tell me especially about that last year of y’all’s life together. But quickly his biography in that last year.
LEVI: Yeah. So, Gary is 13 months younger than me. We were very different growing up in some ways. I’ve always been kind of arty creative. I like words. Gary was dyslexic. He was not a good student. Being a year behind me in school, he had to endure the pressure of living up to teachers’ expectations that he would be like his older brother, which he was never, he was never able to do. And thankfully God didn’t want him to be that anyway. But growing up we fought like boys did. We didn’t like each other. We had some fierce conflict. But when we graduated high school, it was like a switch came on that said brothers are special. And Gary and I really bonded and became good friends. When I was a senior at Georgia, that’s when I began my walk with Christ. Gary moved to Athens a year or two later live with me. That’s when he was in forestry school and that’s when he came to Christ.
And so in addition to having a family name that we shared, all of a sudden we had a spiritual name that we shared and we began to grow in our faith. We were the first believers in our family. My three sisters came in later. And then my mother and father, and then my grandfather, Abraham Levi, late in his life. But Gary and I—I mean, Christ really became this forge between us. And so he went off to be a foreign missionary. He was a forester for a while, but then went to the mission field. And for probably the last, I dunno, 15, 20 years of his life, I can’t say that I saw him a lot because he would be gone for six months, a year at a time. This was pre internet. So we didn’t even get to talk very often, but he would come home on furlough. We always picked up where we left off. He loved to laugh and loved to make people laugh.
SMITH: Well, can you pause there just a minute? Where was he a missionary? Was he an agricultural missionary or forestry missionary? And where was he?
LEVI: So, a little backstory. He and I took a vacation one year together and he read in The Shadow of the Old Mighty of about the life of Jim Elliot. And when he finished that book, he told me then he said, I think I’m going to leave business. He was working with my dad at the time and doing very well. And I’m going to be a missionary, he said. So he went to a Bible college for a year, up in Columbia, South Carolina.
SMITH: Columbia International University.
LEVI: That’s right. Yeah. And then he may have done a couple of short term things. I know we went to Jamaica for maybe six months. He wanted to learn Spanish. So we moved to Costa Rica for a year, learned Spanish. He said that was the hardest year of his life. And maybe the dyslexia, I don’t know. But he learned Spanish. Lived in Spain for six years. Macedonia for a couple of years. He lived in Bosnia right after the war. Moved like a week or two after the cease fire. He lived in Peru in the jungle for about a year. The last five years he was in Afghanistan often.
SMITH: Yeah, so he was kind of like a guerilla missionary. I mean, he was like the Christian version of Indiana Jones in a way. He was in the hotspots.
LEVI: He enjoyed that. I don’t know why he gravitated to it, but I think that he just saw opportunity there to be effective. And because he was single, like myself, he didn’t have to worry about a family and he could turn on a dime.
I remember the Peru experience that he had, he was reading a magazine about a family that was in the jungle by themselves. Another family that lived with him had come off the field to have a child. And he read about it one day and I think within a week or two he was gone and he was gone. We didn’t hear from him or see him for about a year.
SMITH: So, but he ended up in Afghanistan. And what happened there?
LEVI: He was in Afghanistan, like say off and on for five years. They required him to come home for a few months every year just because it’s so tense over there. But he was teaching English as a second language. Gary was extremely brave. He was a fearless man and extremely compassionate. He loved people, loved to spend time with them. And he really kind of did what I think Young Life does with teenagers when he was in Afghanistan.
He made friendships, genuine friendships. If the people didn’t respond to the Gospel, he loved him just the same. He spent a lot of times in people’s homes. He had people wherever he lived to visit regularly. So it was kind of friendship evangelism sort of thing. But he came home on his last furlough and that’s when we discovered that he was sick. He became very forgetful. He was in really good shape, worked outside a lot, rode his bike a lot. He was a woodworker, but he became forgetful. And that was the first hint that something was wrong. And he was diagnosed with a stage four glioblastoma, which is a brain tumor. And then I had the best year of my life.
SMITH: Well talk about that. What happened from there? Cause y’all spent that last year together.
LEVI: We did. So, Warren, you and I are sitting on my front porch. You and I can look about 300 yards to our left, which will be west. That’s where Gary lived. My parents’ house is about 300 yards to the north of us. When Gary was diagnosed, I was able to cancel almost all of my work. My sister Beth, who works for me.
SMITH: And by then you were a full time, we’re young musician. You were not even practicing law part time.
LEVI: No, no, no. This was 2011-12. Yeah. So I was very, very full time into music and staying pretty darn busy with it. But people understood. And so we were able to cancel almost everything. And Gary moved from his house. I moved from my house over to our parents so that we could kind of be a team to care for him. And every day my one job was to love my brother. And if that meant changing his socks and his clothes in washing his hair, that’s what I did. If it meant walking around the farm, that’s what I did. If it meant holding him up so he could walk 50 feet, that’s what I did. But we laughed like two people could laugh. Everyday we laughed until he really started going severely down. We cry out a ton. We talked a lot about heaven. But it was a wonderful year I think, because for the first time in my life there was not a hundred things on my plate all competing for attention. There was only one. And I have thought sometimes if that was a metaphor for something. I think that’s the single-mindedness that God wants us to have toward him. Not to say that we don’t have other things to do, but that is at least one of the fingerprints that came out of that season from a—
SMITH: Well, you wrote a book about it.
LEVI: I did.
SMITH: And you kinda said it just now, but sort of the language that you use there and I’ve heard you use elsewhere, that that really has been meaningful to me was that you woke up every day with one purpose and that is how can I best love my brother?
LEVI: Yeah, yeah. That’s it. And every day that’s what I tried my best to do. I did it with great imperfection, believe me, but he was patient. He was good humored about it. And it made me realize there are a lot of things that I worry about day to day—my retirement fund, whether I’m going to finish that next song or not, whether I did everything just right last night at my gig. And really those things are very, very small and probably don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately I think I have regressed. I’ve kind of gone back to where that mindset is reclaimed it space. But at least for that year I think I saw with great clarity and I think the reward for that was a really wonderful season of joy. And people sometimes say that you’re being facetious and I’m not at all being facetious. It was a joyful year for me and my family never have. We cried so much, but never have we enjoyed one another more. And like I say, Gary, at every step of that process of dying, he was so encouraging of us and our faith and he was such an example of what I think a believing person ought to look like. He was gracious, he was kind and he was hopeful.
Gary was really excited about what was going to happen next. There were times that he questioned the process and there was only one time that I ever caught him in a down moment and he just said, “I just don’t understand why God makes us go through something like this. I don’t know if I would do this to my child if I had a child.” But that was just one very short lived moment on a particularly bad day. He was excited that his faith was going to experience the reality that we all claim we believe, but I think a lot of times avoid at all costs. He was excited and we talked about it a lot. What do you think it’s going to be like? What do you think happens? And we didn’t always answer the question, but we had some jolly good times of imagination.
SMITH: Well, Allen, tell me what you’re doing now.
LEVI: What am I doing now? Oh, let me describe a typical day as of today. About a week or 10 days ago, I moved in with my parents across the pasture again to be a caregiver. My mom broke her hip a few months ago. And that recovery process has not been what we hoped for. So she needs some help. So I’m living over there with them and enjoying that. I get to be with my parents every and I love them and enjoy them. But I’m kind of in a season of transition right now. For 22 years I’ve been a singer songwriter who made my living traveling and doing performances. One of the interesting things about my life is that I cannot stand to be in front of people. I don’t like to be in front of people. I never have. As a lawyer, I had to be in front of people. As a musician, I’ve had to be in front of people and I do not like it.
SMITH: Well, I guess I got to tell you that that seems astonishing to me. As I’ve said, I’ve not known you well, but I’ve known you a long time and everything I know about you is that you’ve always been in front of people as a performer, as a lawyer. And we left out a whole season of your life about being a judge where you were elected to be a judge in this county for a season. And that’s being in front of people every day. But you don’t enjoy that.
LEVI: I don’t and I’ve never enjoyed it. I mean, it’s not like this is a sudden state of mind. I’ve never liked being in front of people, but—
SMITH: Well, wait a minute, I’ve got to push back on that even further, Allen, because there’s some other things I know about you. We’re sitting on a porch—a wide porch on a Thursday in the morning but it’s kind of late morning now because early in the morning you had 25 guys over here.
LEVI: Yeah, at least. I don’t consider that a crowd.
SMITH: And that’s every Thursday, y’all have a men’s Bible study here on your front porch, here on the farm. And then on top of all of that, I know your dirty little secret, which is that you also spend a of time over at the local school and you greet these kids when they come in here. Tell me about that.
LEVI: Yeah, so I’ll kind of lump all of that together. First of all, being in my community where people who I know and love and spend a lot of time with is not like being on a stage in a strange city where I know no one.
SMITH: Okay, so that’s how you—
LEVI: Yeah, I bifurcate my life.
SMITH: So I don’t mind being in front of people except for the people I like being around.
LEVI: You know, I think the thing that scares me or that makes the performance on stage work difficult is that I’m depending on people who I don’t know to make sure that it sounds right, that the room has been set right. And a lot of the work that I do is just, I’m a bit player in an evening program. And so there are the logistics of those evenings make me uncomfortable because if I go to a room where nobody knows me, it’s going to take at least 10 or 15 minutes for them to get to know me and me to know them. And then we’re all comfortable.
SMITH: Well, if I could again pause you there, Allen. I mean you, cause you’re not a big star. But you’ve got this way with a crowd and I can understand that you walk in, nobody knows you. Is this guy going to be any good or not? And yet I know because I’ve seen you perform many, many times that that goes away real fast. That, I mean, your beautiful stories and wonderful music, you know, really neutralizes that anxiety pretty quickly. But it does take a minute. It’s not like they come in necessarily anticipating that.
LEVI: Right. You know, I figure most nights when I go to play, the people who are in the room don’t want to be there. They are invited by a neighbor or someone from their church or whatever and they don’t really want to be there. And my task is to make them glad they came. And fortunately most nights I think that happens a lot. But I don’t know. I don’t know really why I don’t like being in front of people, but I don’t like being in front. I’m not a recluse, but I am very much an introvert as we understand the term, most of us, I think. Going to the high school in the morning, which at least at the start was kind of scary. An old guy standing there usually was Gary and me when he was still here, but I just say good morning to kids. I hold the door open for them. And I’ve been doing it now probably 10 or 15 years. I don’t remember when I started, but the kids expect me to be there. The administration knows I’m going to be there. I’m there with their blessing. And honestly, my job is just say good morning and let him know somebody cares about them.
There’ve been lots of very short conversations. I know lots and lots and lots of the kids now by name. And it’s a great way to start the day and to give a little bit of rhythm to my life. You know, one of the things about living the life of a, first of all, a single guy in a small community on a big piece of land with no schedule is that you can fritter or I can fritter away a lot of time. So it helps me to have some structure and if I get up at 5:00 or 5:30 or whatever and say my prayers and do my reading and get ready for the day and then I’m at the school at 7:15, that kind of begins the schedule for the day for me. And it gives a little bit of order to what I do. So, selfishly that’s helpful. But really the reason I go is because I just love being with these kids and it, you know, it lets me again see the community through a different lens. It keeps me connected a little bit to youth culture and it’s just a way to live a meaningful life in a small community.
SMITH: Yeah, so that’s part of what I guess will continue in your life? Though the performance aspect of your life is coming to an end?
LEVI: Right. The performance is really the only part that’s coming to an end. I fully expect that I will continue to write and, you know, maybe post songs on my website, maybe just ride them, finish them, and put them in a drawer. I’ve done that before a lot, but I’ll continue to write because that’s what makes life interesting for me and it makes me attentive.
But I’ll keep going to the school. I’ll still read to elementary school kids. The men’s group that you referenced earlier, we’ve been meeting 20 to 22 years. We’re not sure when we began, but that’s an every Thursday morning thing. We may miss a week or two a year, but that will continue. I’ll continue to go to Long Street and I want to write a book and I want to learn how to paint and draw. And so those might be my new avocational uses of time. And then there’s 1,600 acres here that needs, you know, at least some attention from me. So I’ll be outside a lot as well. It’s going to be a full life.
SMITH: Yeah. Well it sure sounds like it in the 1,600 acres that we’re sitting here looking at, it’s obvious that somebody cares for this land.
LEVI: Thank you. That is a goal of mine. Wendell Berry, who is probably my favorite author at this point in life and has been for the last decade or so, because you, Warren Smith, introduced me to him.
SMITH: Well, I’m honored to hear that.
LEVI: I can’t tell you what a life changing conversation it was that you and I had years ago when you encourage me to read The Art of the Commonplace. One of the most pivotal experiences in my life was reading that book at that season. So Wendell Berry continues to speak into my life and one of his novels, he talks about a farmer who does a terrible job with the land that he’s supposed to be taking care of. And he makes the statement that the land did not look cared for. And that became, for me something of a litmus. If I love this land the way that I’m supposed to, if I steward this land the way that God wants all of us to steward whatever he places in our custody, then it will look cared for. And I appreciate you saying that. My dad at 91 still does a lot of work here and that’s our goal and our crop is beauty.
SMITH: Well, in fact, as you and I’ve been talking, I don’t know whether people have been able to hear it or not, but your dad has gone a couple of times on the tractor.
LEVI: Right. At 91.
SMITH: Which is really great.
LEVI: He’ll work all day. And I’m convinced that being 91 and vigorous is the byproduct of being outside everyday.
SMITH: Well, Allen, we’ve talked about Wendell Berry a couple or three times in this conversation and I can’t resist asking you to tell the story about the time you went to visit a Wendell Berry. You went with Andrew Peterson who’s been on this program a number of times. He’s told his version of this story, but I got to hear your side of the story as well.
LEVI: You know, I’m may can tell a little bit that he’s not even aware of. Ben May, who’s a dear friend of mine in Birmingham.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, he was at Georgia with us. I knew Ben way back from that era as well.
LEVI: So, you know, Ben is a big city guy. Grew up in Atlanta. Lives in Birmingham now. And he must’ve heard me talking about Wendell Berry a lot because at some point he wanted to read some Wendell Berry and I said I don’t think you’ll like it. You live in a big city. He’s an agrarian and lives in a small town. I don’t think you’ll like him. But Ben read him and loved him. And so our conversations a lot of times are about Wendell Berry. Well, when Ben turned 50, he came up with a little list of things he wanted to do to celebrate 50 years in this world. And one of them was I want to meet Wendell Berry. So he decided that he would enlist a coconspirator in that pursuit. And so he said, you want to do, I say, man, I’m all in and let’s get Andrew because Andrew loves him.
And so Ben wrote Mr. Berry a letter and got back a reply that said, yeah, you can come see me, but didn’t give any date, didn’t give any parameters. So Ben wrote him again for a little more detail and Mr. Berry started to push back a little bit like, please don’t come that far. And I think Ben might have written him a third time. And Mr. Berry said in the last letter before Ben gave up, everything I have to say is in my books, you don’t have to come see me. So I said, well, let me write a letter. So I wrote the last letter to Mr. Berry and it was a long letter and I said, I know we don’t have to come see you, but you are a great believer in community and our coming to see you would further the community of these three friends who don’t live in the same town. Please let us come see you. So he finally let us come see him.
SMITH: That’s really interesting. Yeah. No, you’re right. Andrew didn’t talk about that aspect of it.
LEVI: And so Andrew and I did a concert on Saturday night somewhere nearby.
SMITH: Well Andrew’s version of that is that he wasn’t gonna let you come cause he didn’t want you to drive all that distance until y’all wrote him back to say we’re going to be in your neighborhood.
LEVI: That’s right. That was in the letter, too. That’s right. And I’m not sure if we scheduled the concert just to be able to further that ruse or if Andrew actually had a concert and then I just piggybacked onto it. But providentially we were there and Mr. Berry and his wife, Tanya, let us come visit and it was a wonderful afternoon.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, so what happened? I mean, you said it was a wonderful afternoon. Was he like sitting back with his arms crossed saying, Oh, I’ve got to endure three hours with these guys or, you know, fan boys or was it something else?
LEVI: You would have to ask him what he was thinking. Obviously it may have been pure endurance for him, but we found our way to Port Royal, the little town where Mr. Berry lives and then found his home and walked up the steps and knocked on the door. Ms. Berry opened the door and they were just as warm and gracious as you might expect them to be. And we did what you and I are doing right now. We talked for the afternoon, two or three hours. I’m about convinced at 62 that a good conversation is a gift of the highest order in this life. When it’s thoughtful, when it’s intelligent, when people really are trying to hear from one another and maybe hear through one another to what God might be speaking into their life.
So the conversation was very erratic. I mean it kind of bounced from one thing to another. But the thing that I remember about Mr. Berry and have continued to really enjoy about him was his laughter. I’ve listened to a lot of his things on the Internet and whatnot, his speeches and conversations and he’s got this wonderful warm, very quick laugh. By his own definition in his poetry, he refers to himself as the mad farmer and he’s a contrarian kind of by nature. And I think there’s a lot of reality to that. Who can grow old in this world and not become a bit contrarian? But there’s such a warmth to him. And I think that comes through in his writing, too. There’s hope in what he writes, even though he sees things with crystal clarity, the brokenness and the ruination of the world. And that kind of was in the room with us that day. He didn’t cross his arms but we were scattered around the room and we got to meet him and got our picture with Mr. Berry. And I wish we could go back and do it again maybe with better questions and fewer butterflies in our stomach. It was great though.