Halfway through a concert, singer-songwriter David Wilcox stopped his set and invited a stranger on stage to play a song for the packed house. Earlier that day, he had met the young woman in a campus stairwell where she had been practicing guitar. Now onstage, looking a bit overwhelmed, she took his guitar and he helped her adjust the shoulder strap. Wilcox said, "I'll sit right here," and proceeded to plop down on the stage, legs straight out, gazing up at her. Her hands shook as she tuned the guitar.
From her opening chord, Wilcox sat at her feet, grinning. The smile on his face made him look like an enthralled fan, not the headlining singer with fans of his own. When she finished (to uproarious applause), he thanked her for her courage and her willingness to share her music with the crowd. (Check out Michelle Bloom's debut release michelle [bloom] by visiting www.michellebloom.com.) Wilcox then continued the concert.
David Wilcox's concert style has always been collaborative. Fans are used to being introduced to little-known artists that Wilcox invites as his opening acts, and the artists are always vigorously praised by the headlining singer. Wilcox thrives on new rhythms, riffs, and chord progressions he hears coming from songwriters, the CD stacks at the local music store, or even stairwells on college campuses.
Born and raised near Cleveland, Wilcox refined his sharp guitar sound while attending Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. He made his recording debut in 1987 with the acclaimed The Nightshift Watchman. He's been compared to James Taylor in his comfortable folk guitar style and warm voice. Wilcox's sound is punctuated with jazz, blues, and rock and roll, all built on a strong classical foundation.
At Sojourners' 30th anniversary festival this summer at Wheaton College in Illinois, Wilcox mentioned that he knew his guitar, which arrived late on another flight, had been played by someone else en route. "It was tuned to standard tuning," he said with a grin. "I never use standard tuning."
NOT MUCH ABOUT Wilcox's concerts are standard. The surprise appearance of an aspiring artist is emblematic; Wilcox gives each audience a different show. Over lunch he revealed his secret: Each concert is distinctive, and designed to be. As he performs, he reads the audience and responds to the energy, the atmosphere, and the space.
"I've come to trust that there's a thing that happens with the audience where I realize that what I'm doing is reflecting the energy back to them," he says. "And what makes the night worthwhile, what makes it happen, is that there's this sort of emotional momentum that happens when a roomful of people give themselves permission to feel. And it may be that I'm sort of conducting that movement, saying, Okay, now we're going to feel this from this song, and now we move on and feel this emotion from this song,' and although I may be conducting, it's not much of a symphony without the orchestra. And the orchestra of emotion is what I'm playing. That's the real instrument."
In a workshop at SojoFest, he played several of his songs-in-progress for a small group, some longtime fans and some new enthusiasts. After each song, participants offered their opinions on lyrics and music, what worked, and what they didn't understand. Wilcox was clearly energized by the experience. With each comment, he would listen intently. As ideas started spinning, he would grin, look down at his hands on the guitar, smile even wider and say, "Oh, yes! Oh, of course! Right! I see, I get it, yeah, this is great!" Like a child with a new toy, his spirit rose with each idea the group generated until he could hardly sit in his chair. He would lean forward, expectantly, saying, "This is so wonderful! How about this one?" and launch into another tune.
Wilcox is inspired particularly by the everyday stuff that makes us human. During his concerts, he often tells stories of people he has met and songs he's sung to them. While waiting for his room key at Wheaton College, Wilcox was approached by a fan who welcomed him to the conference and expressed her appreciation for his music. Wilcox thanked her and said, "That is such a nice welcome. Can I play you a song?" He invited her to sit while he finished restringing his guitar, and they chatted. He asked if there was anything going on in her life that he could sing a song for, and selected one to match her mood and lift her spirits. That kind of connection-to human emotion and passion-drives Wilcox's composing.
"What can sometimes stir me to write is if someone I know is going through something that confounds them or they're in the middle of some pain that they can't find their way out of. I can imagine singing a song to them that would give them a handhold to climb out of it, or help them see a vision of change. I imagine that the song could turn a key and suddenly, ah, some door opens. That is the motivating vision for me."
This leads Wilcox to another commitment with his music: finding truth in song. That, he says, is how he expresses his faith in Christ through his music, as opposed to producing "Christian" music.
"The [Christian songwriter's] first responsibility is to tell the truth," Wilcox says. "I would much rather have somebody say, I'm really angry and I'm scared and I don't believe anything.' I'd much rather hear that than hear somebody try to do some sweetness-and-light sort of song if, really, they're angry and scared. It's most important to tell the truth."
From the raw truth of wrenching anger and helplessness at watching a friend battle addiction in "Guilty Either Way" (Underneath) to the disappointment of a broken relationship in "Common as the Rain" (How Did You Find Me Here?), Wilcox lays aside shallow pop lyrics to meet listeners at the heart. But in the midst of dealing with human suffering, one of Wilcox's indelible messages is of hope-as in "Show the Way" (Big Horizon), a song about love in the midst of darkness. "In this scene set in shadows/Like the night is here to stay/There is evil cast around us/But it's love that wrote the play/And in this darkness love will show the way." His diverse music is certainly not devoid of humor, either: At concerts, fans eagerly await his tongue-in-cheek version of Chuck Brodsky's "Blow 'Em Away" about road rage and a loaded pistol.
But his connection with people, no matter where he performs, is what motivates his music. It's also music that pushes his faith.
"It feels like music is the place where my heart is cracked open," he says. "Music is the language that I get. When God whispers, he whispers in music, and I hear it. He might be whispering a million other ways, but I'm just not open to those. But music is the way that my heart gets it. For me it's always been much more important to keep music fresh, to keep it surprising, to make sure that music is my teacher and not just my occupation."
In turn, Wilcox shares his faith with his audiences through music, though subtly. Few of his lyrics speak the overt language of popular Christian music (and his diverse following bears witness to his ability to connect with people from many backgrounds), but the message is there underneath.
"The Spirit moves through everything," says Wilcox. "In my life I've often dared myself to look for communication from God in all the places where no one would ever look. When I was a street musician, I was just hammering out a lot of theology. The street is a great place to build a strong foundation for why you play your music. Anything built on a flimsy foundation will be torn down. Try playing music while a city bus goes by, spewing noise and black soot, and you think that a song can't stand a chance against this. But if you build a song on a foundation strong enough, then yes, you can stand there, in the midst of everything, and think to yourself, Somebody might be walking down the street and walk right by me and hear something that they keep with them.' Maybe it helps. Maybe it changes their day. They don't stop. They don't throw a dime, but who cares? The fun part is trusting in the possibilities."
Kimberly Burge is senior writer/editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C., and a Sojourners contributing writer. Aimee Moiso is religious media associate at Bread for the World.
David Wilcox Discography
What You Whispered (2000)
Turning Point (1997)
East Asheville Hardware (1996)
Big Horizon (1994)
Home Again (1991)
How Did You Find Me Here (1989)
The Nightshift Watchman (1987)