In an increasingly genre-blurred world, most contemporary music charts have at least some degree of crossover. High-ranking albums on the R&B, hip-hop, country and indie charts virtually always show up in the Billboard 200 as well.
But when it comes to the Christian/Gospel charts, an artist who can bridge that gap is still more likely to fall between the cracks.
Phil Keaggy has done his share of both. Since his days as an up-and-coming guitar hero in Glass Harp — a '70s rock band whose progressive and psychedelic inclinations landed them on bills with Yes, Traffic and Humble Pie — the Gospel Music Hall of Famer has gone on to win seven Dove Awards, two Grammy nominations, and regular top-three rankings in Guitar Player magazine's readers polls.
"In a lot of ways, I was too secular and progressive for the Christian labels, and I was too religious for the world," says the Ohio native, who now calls Nashville home. "And, you know, I understand that. When I got involved in the business of music, I knew that I probably could only go so far, because a lot of it has to do with marketing, imaging and merchandising. But just because you're not a sellable commodity, it doesn't mean you can't be productive, and that's something I'm grateful for."
How productive? As a studio musician, Keaggy has guested on hundreds of albums by a wide range of artists, from Spock's Beard frontman Neal Morse's One to the forthcoming Unbroken by Johnny Cash's sister Joanne. He's also released some 50 albums of his own that range from timeless power pop to classic rock, Celtic-influenced instrumentals to unclassifiable collaborations with his former Glass Harp bandmate John Sferra. Along the way, he's built a devoted fan base that all but erases the boundaries of genre and religion.
In both his music and his manner, Keaggy conveys the combination of confidence and humility that comes with being an artist who understands both his strengths and his limitations. One can also sense the depth of feeling that can result from profound tragedy.
Keaggy was raised in a Catholic household with nine brothers and sisters. They lived in a small Ohio town called Hubbard, whose population still hasn't reached 10,000. At the age of 4, one of Phil's brothers was killed in a car crash, while he himself lost the middle finger of his right hand in an accident with a water pump. But that didn't stop him from picking up the guitar, somewhat self-consciously, five years later.
At the age of 18, he was touring with his band Glass Harp when he got word, on Valentine's Day, that his mother had been gravely injured in an automobile accident. As was typical of young musicians in 1970, Keaggy had been experimenting heavily with hallucinogens. When his mother died a week later, he gave up drugs and became a Christian. Within three years, he'd left the band and married his wife Bernadette. The couple moved to upstate New York to join the Love Inn Community, a Christian group with vaguely cultish tendencies.
"When you're on a faith journey," says Keaggy of the couple's five years there, "you're going to make good choices, and perhaps also make some choices that you later realize would have been best avoided. It's not like we were imprisoned or anything like that. [Laughs.] It was basically an outreach to disenfranchised people and hippies. We were all just people trying to work out our lives, but it did get a little heavy-handed with the authoritarian thing."
Meanwhile, family tragedies continued. "While we were up there in Freeville, New York, my wife and I lost babies three times because of premature birth and a miscarriage. That was the toughest part of it, you know? And I didn't want to be on the road so much, so we moved to Kansas City and I got more into acoustic music."
After relocating, the couple would lose two more children, and Bernadette wrote a book called Losing You Too Soon. "It's one of those books that really ministered, I believe, to hundreds of people who've gone through that," says Keaggy. Meanwhile, he credits friends, prayer and trust with seeing them through. "Some of those challenges," he says, "just made me grow deeper in love with God and with music."
The couple has since had three children. "In 1987, I decided to do no more than three dates at a time and come back home, because I wanted to be around for my kids," says Keaggy, "and I've never regretted that decision."
Keaggy's newest album, All at Once, was released earlier this month and is easily among his best.
"We just wanted to get in the studio with some musicians and make a band album," says Keaggy of sessions that showcase performances by Dylan keyboard legend Al Kooper, gospel Grammy winner Ashley Cleveland, and Weather Report drummer Chester Thompson.
Although it has heavy blues and gospel underpinnings, much of All at Once feels like a return to the more rock and pop style of Keaggy's 1980s and '90s releases. Listen to the title track and you'll understand why he's earned frequent and favorable comparisons to Beatles-era Paul McCartney.
Keaggy, in fact, played at the wedding of McCartney's sister-in-law; afterward, he and Sir Paul sat on a couch playing Beatles songs together. "It was kind of a thrill for me," he says. "And also kind of surreal."
Although he still plays band shows, Keaggy's currently out on a solo acoustic tour, albeit with some looping and effects to round out the sound. "I was messing around with looping before they invented looping machines," he says. "I was using a Roland digital delay machine, so I could get a four-second loop. And then I got my first JamMan. Chet Atkins showed me his, and I went to his house and played it. I try really hard to be tasteful with the layers I create, although there may still be times when I put too much emphasis on it."
Despite his modesty, Keaggy is, like Richard Thompson, one of the few solo performers with the singing, songwriting and guitar-playing skills to make you forget there's no band onstage with him. And even if his calling as a Christian artist diminished his commercial success, he has no doubt that he made the right choices along the way.
"I think if I had just stayed on in the secular realm, it could have eaten me up. Who knows? All I know is that no one deprived me of the right to be a guitarist, and a singer, and a musician. You know, I've experienced this wonderful freedom, for the most part. I've been married 43 years, I have three beautiful grown children. And I wouldn't trade that for any success or accolade in the world."