WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on a conversation that I had with writer and musician, Michael Card.
Michael Card is one of the elder statesmen of contemporary Christian music. He released his first album in 1981. And since then he’s caught on to sell more than 4 million records. His 1983 song El Shaddai won the Dove Award for song of the year. And in 2001, that song was named to a list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America as one of the 365 greatest songs of the 20th century, a list that includes such classics as Over the Rainbow, White Christmas, and God Bless America. But Mike Card is much more than a songwriter whose career now spans 40 years. He’s also written more than 20 books and leads seminars on the biblical imagination. He’s been a friend and mentor as well to a new generation of artists—artists that have included Andrew Peterson.
And I should add here a quick program note about the conversation that you’re about to hear. We did this interview in early 2019—more than a year ago—just after the release of his latest book, Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness. But for all kinds of reasons that I won’t bore you with here, I was not able to air the interview at that time. I now think that the delay was providential as much of what we have to say about art, mortality, and the goodness of God is—if anything—much more timely today than it was when we spoke in 2019.
We had this conversation at Honest Coffee Roasters in Franklin, Tennessee. And we began by talking about what was then the recent death of Randy Scruggs. Randy Scruggs was the son of legendary banjo player, Earl Scruggs/ Randy Scruggs, and Mike Card were childhood friends.
Mike, it’s great to be with you. And before we get started on the real reason I came to chat with you—there were really a couple of reasons—before you and I turned the recorder on, you were telling me about your interaction when you were a kid with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man. We were talking about the famous Will the Circle Be Unbroken album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man, along with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs and just all these legends—
MICHAEL CARD, GUEST: Myrle Travis and Mama Maybelle Carter and anybody you can think of.
SMITH: Oh yeah. And it really revolution—I mean, it was a turning point in country music and Americana music and bluegrass music. And you were there. I didn’t know you were there.
CARD: Yeah. I was about 12 years old and Steve Skruggs—Earl Scruggs’ youngest son—was one of my best friends. And, yeah, Stevie would say, “Hey, we’re going to go do this.” And we all sort of had this mystical reverence for John McEuen, the banjo player for the Dirt band. And I had met John McEuen at Steve’s house. In fact, I told you, he taught us how to play the banjo part to Caroline in the Pines, these two little 11, 12-year-old kids. He was, to me, a remarkably kind person.
SMITH: Well, and that banjo part to Caroline in the Pines, I mean, it’s not wildly complicated…
MUSIC: [Caroline in the Pines]
It’s not something that you’re just going to pick up a guitar and play for the first time. So, you were already interested in music and doing stuff.
CARD: Oh yeah, yeah. I was already playing. I was already playing the banjo, but he had just played that part on that record. And we had heard it somewhere and, again, John McEuen was this guy that we had this sort of mystical reverence for. You go to see the Dirt Band and he has this buckskin outfit and he’s playing, he could play anything, play the fiddle, play the incredible banjo player, jump off the stage and land on his knees. And when you’re a kid, you think that’s pretty cool. So I just looked him up on YouTube just a couple of days ago and he’s still playing, but just a very kind, not impressed with himself at all. Just a real likable person.
SMITH: Well, I heard the Dirt Band play in Charlotte just a few years ago and they were fantastic. I mean, they sounded great even today or at least a few years ago. But back to that session. You were—what—you said 12 years old at that time?
CARD: I remember myself as being 12. I could do the math if you could tell me what year it was.
SMITH: And that famous—sort of the song everybody knows, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the song that the three album set was named after. There’s a sort of a big chorus in the background. And you’re in that chorus.
CARD: Right. They were finishing up and it’s nothing really to brag about because basically anybody that was breathing, including the janitor, the studio, everyone came in and sang. So I got to sing on that and they misspelled my name on the record, but I didn’t care. I still thought that was pretty cool.
SMITH: So, it was Michael Carr on the record?
CARD: Michael Carr, C-a-r-r.
SMITH: So anybody that’s still got the old vinyl—
CARD: Look on that list and that’s me.
SMITH: That’s amazing. Well, I’ve got that album. I bought it when it came out and then I subsequently bought the CDs later. And of course they did Circle two and Circle three. And I don’t know—
CARD: I didn’t keep up with all that.
SMITH: Yeah. I don’t think I did either, but I do know that Michael Murphy was on, I think Circle two and John Denver was on Circle two or Circle three.
CARD: Well, after it took off, you know, but the moment for me on that first record—and you and I were just talking about this—was Randy Scruggs playing Both Sides Now, his own arrangement of it.
SMITH: Yeah. The Joni Mitchell song, instrumental version.
CARD: And he couldn’t have been more than 16, 17 years old. And I just remember, again, just kind of being a kid and just being in awe of the talent that this guy had.
MUSIC: [Both Sides Now]
SMITH: Well, that’s an amazing— I mean, first of all, that song is the very last song, if I remember right, the very last song on the third album and it kind of closes the whole thing after all sort of the grand finale of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, then you’ve got Both Sides Now. And a couple things strike me about that. I didn’t know he was so young, number one, and for him to stand toe-to-toe, to have sort of the last word on that album with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs and the Dirt Band and all those other guys, that kind of took some cojones to do that.
CARD: Well, when he was 16, he was the best guitar player in Nashville, and everybody knew it. But again, like his dad, he’s so soft-spoken, he barely spoke above a whisper and just a pure player. He’s just a player.
SMITH: Well, and what got us started on this conversation was he just died recently.
CARD: Yeah. Very suddenly. I didn’t even know he was sick and they didn’t even have a funeral. And so, yeah, that was hard. That was hard. But he got me in the music business. He did the first couple of records I did, I did with Randy and we wrote a few songs together. And, again, it was like a dream come true. Cause he was my hero.
MUSIC: [Will the Circle Be Unbroken]
SMITH: That’s the classic recording of Will the Circle Be Unbroken from the 1972 album of the same name by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. However, in the chorus, you also heard my guest today, Michael Card. He was then about 12 years old.
Now, Mike, you have a new album and a new book out. Tell us about it.
CARD: Well, the book is on the Hebrew word Hesed and the album is trying to reflect some of the same themes. They stand alone, but they are somewhat related to each other. It’s a theme that I’ve been interested in for probably 10 years. And I think it’s the most important word. I mean, I’ve come to the point, Warren, I used to want to understand the whole sweep of scripture, right? I’m 61 now. If I can understand one word, I’m good. And if there’s one word to understand is scripture, I think this is the one. It’s a word that God uses to define himself to Moses. So I think it’s a big word.
SMITH: So, how would we translate that word?
CARD: Well, that’s an interesting question. In six different English translations, this one word is translated 169 different ways.
CARD: In 1535, Miles Coverdale made up the word lovingkindness. That word was made up to translate the word Hesed. So it’s lovingkindness. It’s love, it’s loyalty, it’s mercy, it’s grace. It does a kind of an antonym thing where it’s translated disgrace in a couple places I think in Leviticus. But words, language does that, right? The word cleave. What does cleave mean? It means to stick two things together and to cut something apart. But it is an absolutely I think fascinating word. It’s the word that modern Judaism is really based on. As they’re leaving the ruins of Jerusalem, the rabbi who was responsible really for taking the lead in reforming Judaism after 70 AD, one of his students said, well, the Temple’s gone. So we don’t have a source of holiness in Israel anymore. And he quotes Hosea 6:6, “I desire hesed and not sacrifice.” And so Judaism became this sort of search for what does it mean? And in Judaism, they don’t care so much how to define it. In Judaism, which is based on it—Hebrew is a verbal language. It’s how do you do it? That’s what they want to know. But it’s been really interesting. And the frustrating thing about writing a book is that I keep learning stuff about it.
SMITH: Even after the book is finished?
CARD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah.
SMITH: So you can’t go back and redo the book.
CARD: No, just keep learning.
SMITH: Well, what are some of the things that you have learned? I mean, why is this so important to you and why should it be important to us?
CARD: Well, I mean, starting with that passage in Exodus 34, where the second time up the mountain, Moses asked to see God’s glory, and God puts him in the cleft of the rock and covers him. And then, in Israel, they’re called the 13 attributes of God. God defines himself. I mean, God basically tells Moses who he is and the first word from his mouth, isn’t awesome or all powerful, all knowing the first word out of his mouth is compassionate. He’s compassionate. He’s slow to anger, but then he uses hesed twice. He says he’s full of hesed ve emet—grace and truth. But then he says, I show hesed to a thousand generations. So hesed, this kindness, this mercy—my definition is hesed is when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything. It’s not a second chance. It’s more chances than you could possibly imagine. And that’s the word that God uses to define himself. And what I like to say, that’s the surprise of the Hebrew Bible. The surprise of the New Testament is that when Jesus comes, he’s a slave. He dies like a slave. The surprise of the Old Testament is that God is kind. I don’t think anybody saw that coming. I mean, Holy, I get that. I can’t touch the bottom of a mountain that he’s on the top of. All powerful—speaks to the universe into existence. Yeah, that’s what God does. But that he’s kind? I don’t think anybody saw that coming. And then, for me as a Christian, the fascinating thing is to see it come into Jesus’ life and how it affects the parables. Now he really incarnates this defining, I mean, he’s the son of God. So he incarnates hesed.
SMITH: Well, I don’t want to put words in your mouth or get you to go where maybe you don’t want to go or where the text doesn’t take you. But when I hear you say that, I think to myself, you know, that’s a word we really need for today.
SMITH: We live in a world where Christians sometimes don’t really understand that lovingkindness, compassionate nature. And certainly the world that’s not Christian is quick to blame God for everything. How can I believe in a God that allows X and just pick whatever you want to fill in the blank there, and they don’t realize, really, I guess what a slander that is against God.
CARD: Yeah. Well, and then there are some things that you can’t explain away. I mean, I think the book of Job teaches us, you know, Job is a righteous man. God says he’s righteous and he suffers. And I think the answer to the question of that theodicy question, at least the answer in the book of Job is don’t ask that question, you know, because he is God and you’re a man and—
SMITH: It’s a mystery.
CARD: It’s a mystery that he allows it. But I think it’s important that he defines himself and it’s seen on every page of scripture is his lovingkindness, his patience with Israel. Shortly after that, when they refuse to go into the promised land, he takes Moses aside and he says, you know, why did the people despise me? They want to go back to Egypt? Here’s the promised land. They here there may be a few giants in the land and there they weep all night. But I just know that for me, it’s, it’s something I think about all the time and not just what does it mean in regards to who God is, but also what would it mean for me to develop an instinct to do hesed, which I think is what we’re all called to do.
SMITH: Well, I’m assuming that after years of study, that question doesn’t have a simple answer. But can you point us in the right direction? What are some of the ways that we could live?
CARD: I think you always, as a Christian, you always flee to the life of Jesus with those kinds of questions. So I look at Jesus’ life and I see when he acts in so many ways, he’ll act out being a paradigm. And people will tell him, you shouldn’t do that. He washes feet. Peter says, you shouldn’t do that. Well, that’s hesed. That’s way over the top. When he identifies with us, when he gets baptized, John the Baptist says, you shouldn’t do this. Interesting thing, people telling Jesus, you know, you really shouldn’t do this. And from one point of view, he really shouldn’t. Submit to a baptism of repentance when he’s perfect and has never done? But that was an act of hesed to identify with us when he’s sinless was an incredible active hesed. He defines it for us in Luke 6. He says that God is kind, and there’s the word kind. God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. To the ungrateful and the wicked he’s kind. That’s true hesed. It’s always over the top. It makes no sense whatsoever. But that is who God defines himself to be. And like I said before, my definition is when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything, I stand before the cross of Jesus and I say, I nailed you there. I have no right to expect anything from you. What does he give me? Does it give me a second chance? No, he gives me more chances than you can possibly imagine. He gives me everything. And so it’s not just that God is, you know, good in that narrow definition of good. God’s goodness and grace, there just aren’t words for. I mean, I’ve got one word that is translated 169 different ways.
SMITH: Mike, I think there’s going to be a whole lot of people listening to this conversation who know you, remember you as a musician, primarily. Because you’ve been at the music thing for a very long time.
CARD: 35 years.
SMITH: But you’ve been writing books for a while as well. And, of course, you said you had a companion album coming out to this book. You’ve had companion albums come out to previous books. What’s your first love? What’s your passion?
CARD: I’d much rather write books. It’s a lot more fun writing. I don’t like, in fact, I think I may be done writing music. I may write individual songs from here out, but no more 10 song albums on one theme. I think I’m done with that. But the process of writing a book—I’m working on two books right now—and you get to study and you get to read, you know, boring academic articles and make notes. That lifestyle, I love. The lifestyle of writing a song, which is kind of painful. And it empties you in a way that—I feel like I’m filled up when I write a book. I get new ideas and things I’m excited about. Music has never been that way. Writing a song. It’s kinda like having a baby when it’s done, boy, I hope I never have to do that again. But I know people who love, you know Bob Bennett, you know Wes King. They relish, you know, writing the songs, but I’ve never liked writing songs.
SMITH: I’ve got to tell you, honestly, I mean, I understand loving writing books because I’ve written books. I love doing it. I mean, I hear you. I feel all of that, but, I mean, some of your music has just been so powerful and joyful and interesting and fun and, you know, pick your word depending upon the song. You didn’t like that? You didn’t enjoy that?
SMITH: I mean, when I hear a song like Jubilee, which is one of my all time favorites. Or El Shaddai, which I think everybody listening here is going to know, it wasn’t fun for you to write that song?
SMITH: When it came out and you saw, you know, I don’t want to say ‘what you had done,’ maybe what God had done through you or what happened, there’s not a satisfaction there?
CARD: Sometimes there are kind of fleeting moments of satisfaction, but like Jubilee, I listen to that song now and I think, I hope, and I believe, and I trust that that song is true. I really don’t know it’s true, you know, kind of in faith, I believe that Jesus did come to fulfill that image. And that means joy and rest and Sabbath and all those kinds of things that the scripture promises. But, no, I don’t like writing songs. That’s been an act of obedience to me. Writing books is fun.
SMITH: Writing books is fun. So, let’s just take this book for example, and this album. So, what happened? You wrote the book and you said, I want to be obedient and I want to exercise. be a good steward of the gift. So, I’m going to go out and write 10 songs on the theme?
CARD: That’s exactly what happened. Yeah. That’s exactly what happened. And I couldn’t even get 10 songs. I did This is My Father’s World, which of course I didn’t write. And then I recorded a song of Pierce Pettis’. So two of them I didn’t write. And two or three I wrote with Jenny Owen. She helped me. I have a tremendous respect for her. I rely on other people’s youthful enthusiasm to finish songs now.
SMITH: To finish songs?
CARD: Yeah, yeah. I start them.
SMITH: So the process is that you’ll get an idea and you’ll get it started. And then you’ll pull in a collaborator?
CARD: Yup. I’ll send Jenny lyrics and she’ll start a melody and send it back and then I’ll put some more on it. And then, you know, yeah. I usually end up being the one that finishes them.
SMITH: Is that the way you did it early when you were—
CARD: Scott Rolling and I, we always did songs that way. I could never sit next to someone at a piano and write a song. I’d end up killing somebody. But I’ll start it and I’ll hand it off to you. And then you work on that. You hand it off to me.
SMITH: And are you usually happy? Do you undo what gets done sometimes by the other person?
CARD: Yeah, sure.
SMITH: And that’s just part of the process.
CARD: Sure, yeah. More often than not though, like sometimes, Jenny, we wrote a worship song called Come As You Are. And sometimes when you—I don’t do this, but when other people are writing melodies, they sing throwaway lines to it. And Come As You Are was a throwaway line. But I thought I really liked it. So I even used some of her throw away lines. They were so good.
MUSIC: [Come As You Are]
Come As You Are was a throwaway line. But I thought I really liked it. So I even used some of her throw away lines. They were so good.
SMITH: Well, I’m one of, again, stick to the album. I got so much I could ask you just about that creative process. And we may get to some of that. But you’ve got the book, you’ve got the album, you released them together and you hope that the listeners of the album will go back and find the book?
CARD: Yeah. Or the other way around that the readers of the book will then see that there’s a record. And, frankly, Warren, I’ve done that for a lot of years. It’s never really worked in a big way. I think there are people who do want to go deep and they’ll listen to music and they’ll read the book, but I’m not so sure that’s worked. I’m not sorry I did it because it certainly helped me. And I know there are some people that it has helped.
SMITH: Well, say more about that because when you say it’s helped you, does that mean it helps you to take these ideas that you’ve studied and that you’ve tried to write about it in kind of a logical rational, linear way and imagine those ideas?
CARD: Right, right, right. But what happens is—the older I get the better I do understand this process. Music comes from resonance, right? You hit a guitar string and it resonates or whatever. Well, that happens in your heart. Your heart resonates and you make music out of the resonance that happens in your heart. And so what happens is like with this book, I worked on this book for 10 years and it was a lot of semantics books, which are mind numbingly boring. I mean, unreadable. You would think people who are talking about language would be able to use language and make it interesting. But these books I had to—because, first of all, I realized I didn’t understand how words worked. I didn’t understand how words had meaning. I mean, how in the world could this word mean 169 things. So, I had to go back and read two or three of kind of the major semantics books. But all this is to say after 10 years of that, my heart really began to resonate. For this particular project, it took that long. Doing the life of Jesus is a different thing. You know, looking at his story and trying to understand the background and seeing who he is, your heart resonates, I guess, more easily. This is a different kettle of fish.
SMITH: Yeah. I’m wondering if other things have changed in your life and creative process, as you’ve gotten older. I mean, the book writing is taken preeminence and the music-making and the album-making has diminished somewhat. I know you’re doing these biblical imagination conferences now. I mean, whenever, someone says, Mike—you meet somebody on an airplane. Oh, hey, Mike. Good to meet you. What do you do for a living?
CARD: I always say I write.
SMITH: You’re a writer.
CARD: Yeah, I write. Yeah. Because if you say, especially in Nashville, if you say you’re a songwriter, that’s kind of like saying I’m a loser. Oh, but what’s your real job, right? And, yeah. So I would say I write. And I do. That’s what I do. I write. I’m working on two books at the same time right now and they’re both on the life of Jesus and I’m so excited about that. I love doing that. I love doing that.
SMITH: Mike, you’ve got to understand, I ask obnoxious questions for a living and you can feel free not to answer them.
CARD: I’ll give you an obnoxious answer. How about that?
SMITH: That’s fair. That’s fair. So, I’m going to ask some obnoxious personal questions, if I might. Just about some of the things that have been going on with you personally. I know, for example, you sold your home recently. And I know you’d lived there for a long time and—
CARD: 35 years.
SMITH: You had a studio there and was that a big deal?
CARD: Initially it wasn’t. But I just came back—I was in Israel for a month and I came home. We live in an apartment now. I came home to an apartment and for the first time it was really hard. Now, the place we lived in, it was going to be a silent retreat. And Brennan Manning was involved at one point. And Larry Crab was involved at one point and it just never flew. But what that meant was there was a lot of grass to mow and driveway that would wash out every time it rained. And basically I spent two days a week mowing and fixing things and I just couldn’t do that anymore. And so it was time to kind of take that property and sell it and move on. It took me a long time before I was sad. Because I was relieved at first. But now, yeah, I kinda miss it.
SMITH: But are you ultimately glad? Does it free up those two days a week?
CARD: Absolutely. Someone else fixes things that break and it’s very quiet where we live. There are a lot of people that live in the complex, but it’s very quiet and nice place.
SMITH: I’m wondering how that changes your creative process, if at all, because you had a studio there as well. And you were able to maybe get musical ideas down or—?
CARD: I never used the studio to write in. I always wrote at home so, no, that doesn’t really change anything. What I miss, for the last 10 or so years, we just let people use the studio just for free. And I miss that because I would go in and people would be working on things. So I miss that a little bit, but I don’t miss cleaning the studio up and squirrels getting in the attic of the studio and chewing through the sound insulation, that kind of thing, which was constantly an ongoing thing. So yeah, the maintenance was becoming a real burden. So, no, it’s a good thing. It was the right decision, but you know, hey old age isn’t for sissies.
SMITH: Right, right. Well, I mean, that’s a fact because I’m about the same age as you and your priorities change, your energy level changes, and awareness. You know, we were talking about Randy Scruggs, passing away. You begin to realize that you’ve got more years behind you than you have ahead of you and you’ve got more stuff, at least for me, and I assume for you, you’ve got stuff you want to get done and you can’t, you know, forgive me for saying it this way you can’t screw around anymore.
CARD: No, that’s right. And it’s not quite urgency, but it’s kind of like urgency. My grandfather used to say, “I live in an ever narrowing circle of friends.” Bill Lane’s gone and Denny Denson’s gone. And these guys were big for me. They were my, you know, kind of bedrock people. I hadn’t been close to Randy in a long time, but his death really shook me up. But that’s just part, right. That’s just part of the deal. And I don’t know if you’ve got grandkids, but grandkids are kind of a wonderful new thing. And I want to be there for my grandkids. I didn’t get to know either of my grandfathers, but I want to have something to do with their lives.
SMITH: So I would say, at least from the outside looking in, I see you and I see a guy that’s had a 35 year career in music and almost that long now, writing books. I don’t know when you wrote your first book, but it was at least 20 or 25 years ago. And, you know, any unfulfilled items on your bucket list? I mean, if you had a chance to do the things that you thought you wanted to do?
CARD: Let’s see. No. No, I’ve gotten to—And I think if I had a bucket list, it would be musicians that I always dreamed I get to play with. And I got to play banjo with Bale Fleck. I mean, that’s as, of course, you know, I can barely tune the banjo, but I got to do that. I got to play with Vance Taylor. I got to play with Randy, just a whole string of great, great musicians. I’ve had the privilege of getting to play with, and they always—Kirk Whalum saxophone player, right? They always very graciously played down to me. They’ve always done it because I’m not a player, I’m a songwriter, right. I’m not a player, but all those people have been—beginning, really, with Randy—were so gracious to kind of play down to me the way they did. And, yeah, my bucket list was always those players. And I honestly can’t think of a musician that’s left that I would like to play with that I didn’t at least get a chance to meet.
Yeah. Well, you know, one of the things that it feels to me that maybe developing in your life and you could correct me on this, if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking of one relationship in particular is that you’re also starting to become more and more a mentor to younger folks. And I want to hear your version of this story because I know Andrew’s version of the story. Andrew Peterson tells this story about you, where he wrote you a letter and said that he wanted you to be his mentor.
CARD: I don’t remember.
SMITH: And, according to Andrew‚ you wrote back, or maybe you, I dunno, sent him an email back or whatever, and said, I’ve got no interest in being your mentor. I want to be your friend.
CARD: Well, I learned that from Bill Lane. Dr. Lane mentored me for 26 years and we never used the word mentor. We just walked together. So yeah, I think that probably said that.
SMITH: You don’t remember it, but it sounds like something you might say?
CARD: Yeah. And that’s what people need. People don’t need—I guess there are people who need mentorship and more technical help and information, but by and large, what we need is to know that we’re not alone in the world. That’s what I needed when I was in college. And Bill really gave me that. He shared his strong side, but he also shared what he was struggling with. And that’s what made the difference.
SMITH: Well sort of in that spirit, as we were talking about mortality and having more years behind. I mean, I know, Mike, anybody listening to this—fans and friends of yours—would hope you have many, many, many years ahead.
CARD: Pain free years, many pain free years.
SMITH: Yeah. But, you know, we probably are closer to the end than the beginning. How do you want people to remember Mike Card?
CARD: I always wanted to be remembered by the work I did. I think early on maybe there was—I wanted to make a name for myself and that sort of thing, but one of the things, I think that’s a little bit hard to deal with getting older is I don’t think that’s how it works. I think our culture works by making people famous, not their work famous. And so from that point of view, it’s a little disappointing looking back on it. But I think there’ve been enough people that I think their feet have been washed by some of the things I’ve done that I’m good. I’m good with that.