“Music brings people together.” (Dr. Gary Furr in a recent interview with Vestavia Hills Living Magazine)
Many of you in the Birmingham area are familiar with the local bluegrass band called Shades Mountain Air. And if you know about Shades Mountain Air, I’m sure you’re also aware that vocalist/guitarist Gary Furr is in fact a Baptist pastor.
Music has always been an important part of Dr. Furr’s life. On his website he talks about growing up around bluegrass music. He is most definitely not the only musician in his family. Besides growing up in a family that loves bluegrass, Dr. Furr sites such influences as the Carter Family, Allison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, and Johnny Cash, to name a few. He formed Shades Mountain Air in 1997 with some friends and the band is still going strong. I first had the privilege of hearing them years ago at a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama. I was still in college; admittedly I hadn’t at that point learned to appreciate bluegrass and roots music. But I remember that the band had incredibly tight musicianship and tight harmonies – not a ragtag bunch of hobbyists. This band was (and is) the real deal.
Besides being an outstanding musician, Dr. Furr is also an exceptional pastor. When I say “pastor” I don’t mean that he’s just a good preacher (which he totally is). I remember taking part in a spiritual formation workshop that Dr. Furr was helping to lead when I was in college. I remember being struck by his genuineness and warmth. He was not there to merely inform us; he was there to gently lead and guide. He was serious about listening to us confused college students, and helped us to find the inner resources we needed and didn’t know we had. I remember feeling like I had been in the presence of a true shepherd – a true pastor.
Dr. Furr has also been committed to standing up for traditional Baptist values such as the individual’s freedom before God. I asked him if he saw a connection between what he does with music and creativity and his vocation as a Baptist. This is what he said:
Creativity leads us into the realm of listening to the Holy Spirit—being open to the “new” that God brings into each moment and to the possibilities of life. It is also an area of connecting with the unconscious realm. This requires a receptivity that is only possible within a religious system that accommodates and tolerates freedom. The Baptist movement is not, of course, always renowned for its tolerance of freedom these days, which is curious. Rigidity and conformity seem to rail against all that birthed us as a movement, and yet we constantly fight against this in our actual history. It says that we live with great uneasiness alongside this gospel freedom.
We are not alone in that struggle. All Christian expressions have their various ways of accommodating both freedom and order. For Baptists, at the least it would seem that soul freedom would help us to incorporate the tension of the artist within our community.