Coastal Media, parent company of SGNScoops and SGMRadio, is the proud host of the Diamond Awards held at Creekside Gospel Music Convention. In October 2012, The Gaither Vocal Band was honored multiple times at the Diamond Awards, winning 2012 Quartet Of The Year, DVD Of The Year and Favorite Artist Website. SGMRadio is proud to highlight the ministry of The Gaither Vocal Band with a republication of this 2012 SGNScoops feature on GVB member Michael English, written by Laura Kennedy, feature writer for SGNScoops.
In one respect, time does not seem to define the career of multi-Dove Award and Grammy winner, Michael English. No single event of his four decades of singing then depicts him fully. Rather -as a whole collection- the continuum of time so yields. It is akin to the progression of innings in a baseball game; the fluid movement of the ball from pitcher to batter, to baseman and back again to home plate that reveal the great plays or the occasional and often inevitable strike outs.
Since rejoining the Gaither Vocal Band as lead vocalist in 2009, Michael has continued to touch hearts with a voice that is rich, soulful, and distinct. The eloquent list of adjectives often attached to his name could hold a special entry of their own in Webster’s Dictionary. It would absolutely be a worthwhile attempt to task it. As fellow GVB member, Wes Hampton offers; “Michael, while an icon, is a tenderhearted man who has the ability to touch people through music like no other.”He “…is a phenomenal talent, and most distinguished of voices” says Rick Strickland, and as Clayton Inman adds, “Michael has left an indelible mark in our industry with his unmistakable voice; one of the greatest our music has ever known.” He is indeed, in a league of his own.
As simple forces create the swaying rhythm of a pendulum so are the castings of life. The constant is in the movement and the energy it evokes. Later this month, and with that same spirit, Michael English is set to release his next solo project, SOME PEOPLE CHANGE. Co-produced with long time friend Jay Demarcus, Michael enthusiastically reveals that the project is; “upbeat, meaningful, and fun.” Additionally Jay, who is a member of country’s mega-group Rascal Flatts, also produced Michael’s 1998 solo effort, GOSPEL. With genuine admiration, Michael says of him, “Jay knows me and lets me do what I do.” And with a chuckle, he adds, “If I was off pitch, he would let me know that too. We work well together.”
Within the collection of SOME PEOPLE CHANGE are all selections of Michael’s choosing; a gesture he acknowledges that is close to his heart. “It has been four years since my last solo project and at my solo dates, I sing about 85% from GOSPEL. While I consider it my favorite recording, the need for something new was there.” Equally important to Michael’s choosing the songs for the project was the absence of theme. “Southern Gospel was the music of my childhood, and its sweet, soulful harmonies became the soundtrack of my life,” shares Michael. “They are the kinds of songs I love and know then that I can reach people with.”
As I write, I take pause to listen [again] to one of the cuts from the new album. It will quickly be recognized as a favorite among the sincerest southern gospel music fans. With that delicious sound of slightest ‘pop’ that the good ole vinyl records have, I hear a Rusty Goodman song, the beginning strains of Howard and Vestal Goodman singing, “Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ for My Journey Now.” Ten seconds in enters a four beat count off into Michael’s retake on the beloved classic. It’s a blazing, throw your head back sound and, to add yet another adjective to him… He rocks it!
Can’t we all relate to the journey described in that song? What heartache and grief have you borne? And within those seemingly endless depths of sorrow, how much grace and mercy then too have you also been bestowed? Truly the writers of this song understood, “There is nothing in this world that will ever take the place of God’s love.”
Michael shared some really hard and painful times of his journey with me. He spoke with such conviction that I stopped taking notes. All at once, I ceased interviewing and sat weeping, thankful for the moment of solitude on my end of the phone line. He was ministering with the harshest realities of his life. In part, he shared; “I. Am. Nothing. Without. God. I cannot speak like Mark Lowry. I cannot write like Gloria Gaither. I am just a singer. I am street smart. But even with all the crap I’ve done, and the people that I’ve hurt, I fought. And I fought. I have been at the bottom of it all –the literal most especially. I know the pain, the embarrassment, the exhaustion and the almost utter and overwhelming sense of defeat.” Drawing from one of his earliest loves of baseball, Michael continues, “Even when it looks like you are on your last chance with two outs, two strikes, and no balls remaining, you just cannot give up. Never, never give up.”
In Michael’s autobiography, The Prodigal Comes Home, there is much more of this candor. While the book is easily read, it was clearly anything but easily lived. Life is most assuredly fragile. And what is reality in one moment, in the quickness of one breath, can radically change. Radically. Yet, with the release of the book in 2007, Michael gave a visual aid to the power of God’s strength. It is known as truth. It is never wrong, never late, and is never in vain.
In an interview after its release, Michael testifies of The Prodigal Comes Home;
“After I heard God’s [small, quiet] voice I said, “God, it would be a great testimony if I could be healed from this. God said, ‘It would be a greater testimony if you let me and you do it together.’ (literally lying in a pool of my own self) Lord, I know I heard your voice and I know you aren’t going to leave me here. And a minute became five minutes. Five minutes became an hour. An hour became a day; But when I heard His voice ask (again) of me, “Is this where you want it to end?” I knew that there was a work–still–for me to do. He (God) started it and He’s going to finish it.”
And now recalling it, Michael emphatically adds; “Yes, Lord. I’m holding on. If I can’t stand, I’ll reach for His hand. When I’m too tired to reach up, I’ll reach out. I will continue to be holding even to the hem of His garment. I am not giving up on Jesus.”
How much worth does a gift from God have? Sadly the answer lies in the possibility of its loss. And that’s when fear rears its ugly head. In March, 2010, Michael English underwent surgery to repair two discs in his upper back. Using a less invasive route of surgery, doctors chose to go through the front of Michael’s neck. The more invasive would have been in his back, dangerously involving the possibility of paralysis. So, the lesser of the two methods was decided and through the front of his neck, the repair was made to the discs. With that over, Michael woke and blessedly, was able to speak. He could not, however, sing. Michael vividly recalls; “I was never more afraid than when I lost my voice after my surgery.” Adding “I did not know if I would ever sing again.”
How do you face the realization that what you have done for 40 or so of your 50 years in life might no longer be physically possible? How does yet another person make sense of decades of cancer inside their body that finally leaves them alive, but ravaged… different?
I do not know and thank you dear God that I am not responsible for such a response. I can attest, however, to healing. And healing takes time. For the first four to five months after that surgery, Michael still could not sing. He waited. After six months, he admits he was, “scared.” Bill (wisely) encouraged Michael to rejoin the Vocal Band. During a Thanksgiving taping of the Homecoming Friends, Michael did sing. He sang what he had and it was enough. “I look back at that video and I’m overcome with emotion and humbleness” he says.
Later that same year, Michael joined former Singing Americans members at the 2010 National Quartet Convention. Friends Clayton Inman and Rick Strickland joined him there with Rick singing tenor and Clayton to assist Michael on his signature, “I Bowed On My Knees (and Cried Holy)”. It was beautiful and poignant. Rick offers; “I have been blessed to be able to sing with many great quartets. Singing with JD Sumner and The Stamps quartet was certainly a prestigious and classy act. However, my standing in the tenor spot beside Michael English, when we were part of the Singing Americans, was a high adrenaline experience – always. It was simply electrifying what happened with this group of guys; Mike, Ed, Dewayne, and me. I believe that the fans felt what we did, and that all were blessed by the experience. Most of the credit belongs to Michael who has such a soulful spirit.”
Doctors told Michael that whatever voice he had after a year would likely be all the voice he would have. Today, two years later, he has increased from 80 to about 90% of the range and stamina he had before the surgery. I say, just give Him time. God and you Michael, it is God and you. Healing is an all-encompassing rite and best served when we yield to it and welcome its presence.
Wes Hampton recalls first meeting Michael at the studio of Michael Sykes when working on his first GVB record in 2005. Michael produced Wes’s vocal on “Bread Upon the Water” and Wes shares; “Michael has been a constant source of encouragement and wisdom to me. To sing alongside one who has had such a tremendous impact on me, as well as so many other singers, is priceless. He is an incredible producer. I treasure him as a lifelong friend and am honored to share the stage with him.”
While researching for this article, I have become ‘seriously impressed’ at the span and breadth of Michael’s production abilities and to learn just how long he’s been doing so. At both the 1996 and 1997 Dove Awards, his co-production for The Martins album projects won Southern Gospel Album of the Year. Michael says of them, “To me, they are the perfect trio. The blend of their voices is stunning.” Recently in North Carolina, The Martins joined Michael on stage for a one night only performance. In that setting, they were candid; sharing memories of childhood, trials, joys, and songs. It was such a pure moment for them all, one that transcended the stage and was felt by everyone there. On that note, there will likely be more events featuring the friends together as they share, ‘The Experience.’
While working on his 11th solo project, SOME PEOPLE CHANGE, the Gaither Vocal Band also has a new project that has just been completed. Michael was heavily involved with the production of it alongside Ben Isaacs and Bill Gaither. Michael shares; “I would alternately take some time off from working on my album to work on the Vocal Band’s and then come back and work on mine. And so it went.” Both projects now completed; PURE AND SIMPLE from the GVB is currently in Pre-sale and SOME PEOPLE CHANGE from Michael English is available at Michael’s website and at his solo dates starting the middle of this month. The release date for retail has not yet been determined.
With amusement I’m not sure I can tell you of which project Michael is more proud. In fact, the very first thing he wanted to share with me was how great PURE AND SIMPLE is, this incredibly anticipated album from the ever impressive Gaither Vocal Band. He said, “I know this article is about me but, it’s a really good project.” Believe me, that was more than okay. Recall with me that Michael joined the Gaither Vocal Band in 1985 and was with them until 1994. Those years, those relationships and those memories are still a part of him today. And their ministry continues. Michael is truly ecstatic with the quality and message of each album, “I am eager to sing each and every one of my songs on SOME PEOPLE CHANGE at my solo dates. I believe in each one of them that strongly.”
As the days ahead for any of us remain unclear and unknown, Michael most assuredly has his eye on the ball. He peacefully and confidently looks ahead, to the warm home life he has shared with Marcie, his wife of 10 years. At the close of one conversation with me, Michael was anticipating meeting daughter, Isabella, as her bus dropped her off from the first day of 3rd grade –most exciting times for sure! They are the days that hold goodness, purity and yes, the simplicity that we all crave in our hearts.
I offer this article as a sincere thanks to God for those who have made it through trials and tempests. With ‘through it’ being the key. Not unscathed. Michael is not. But to each with a story to tell of God’s redeeming love, YOU are a beacon in the dense fog of despair and sadness. You are appreciated for this one amazing truth; you have the love of God written all over you. That is the sustaining light and countenance that a hurting world needs to know about, to experience, and to draw encouragement from.
“It is nearly impossible to have been where I’ve been … To have lost it the way I did … Then to be given a chance at living in peace and joy once again. No, I did not get a homerun in life. But, I did get a base hit. And I’m running the path before me with the hand of Jesus leading me all the way. My journey continues and my faith remains. Love has found me.” ~ Michael English
First published by SGNScoops September 2012 http://www.sgnscoops.com/
For more information on The Diamond Awards and Creekside Gospel Music Convention visit http://www.creeksidegospelmusicconvention.com/