Long ago, before I started writing about religion news, my dream was to be a journalist who covered all forms of music -- rock, jazz, classical, folk, you name it. If you have hung around GetReligion for a while, you may know that already. If you love music long enough, that also means there are artists you try to keep up with and some of them matter more to you than others. Thus, you watch them move from band to band and album to album through the decades of their careers.
This brings me to Richie Furay, a man who was the lead singer in a band that is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, yet he remains somewhat unknown.
So here is the history in brief. After fronting the legendary Buffalo Springfield (better known for guitarists Neil Young and Steve Stills), Furay led the strongest lineups in the trailblazing and tragically overlooked country-rock band Poco. Then he was in the Souther-Hillman-Furay supergroup and, after that, things got even more complex.
The bottom line: Furay became a Christian and, after trying to stay in mainstream music, he vanished. He became a pastor and, to hear one of the greatest rock voices of all time, you needed to head on over to Calvary Chapel of Broomfield [Colo.].
The reason I am writing about this at GetReligion is that music lovers who care about the whole complicated Buffalo Springfield/Byrds/Crosby Stills Nash and/or Young universe need to check out the lengthy story about Furay that ran the other day in The Washington Times. Furay tells his own story at his website (which has a great music loop running) and he is out on tour right now. When he hit the Washington, D.C., area, he was part of a double bill with another Hall of Fame legend who is a Christian, Chris Hillman of the Byrds.
The Times piece -- by Dan Campbell -- covers all kinds of territory and you can read it for yourself. But here is the turning point in the feature, when Furay's story overlapped with several strategic names in the music business (try to spot the link to the conversion of Bob Dylan). The Souther-Hillman-Furay band was about to call it quits:
But not before a life-changing event for Mr. Furay, who had noticed a fish symbol and "Jesus is Lord" emblazoned on one of the guitars of supporting musician Al Perkins. That made Mr. Furay uneasy, and he lobbied to have Mr. Perkins sacked. But the guitarist was retained, and after repeatedly turning aside Mr. Perkins' invitations to join him in prayer, Mr. Furay finally gave it a try, and a new door opened for him. He became a devout Christian, and recorded his first solo album, "I've Got a Reason" with the goal of putting together a No. 1 rock ’n' roll band for God.
David Geffen, who was still at Asylum records then, said "You're not going to give me any of this Jesus rock are you?" Mr. Furay assured him that his album would "cross some boundaries, and not just be limited to the Christian music field." But the record never gained traction. Nor did two more solo albums in a similar, but more secular mode.
"Just as I had been too rock for country, and too country for rock, I was too religious for rock, and too rock for the religious market," says Mr. Furay. "At that point, I just held up my hands and said 'Lord, show me what you want me to do.'"
Suffice it to say, it would be impossible to pick a more symbolic media czar with whom to have a pivotal conversation of this kind.
When you get labeled by a David Geffen, that label is going to stick with you forever in the entertainment industry. Furay was in the position where he could sing along with the words of the great, late songwriter Mark Heard: "I'm too sacred for the sinners and the saints wish I would leave. I'm stuck in the middle again."
There is a story in there, folks, a story that is often overlooked as the mainstream media focus on the niche world of "Left Behind" movies, born-again reality shows and "Christian" musicians who sound like whoever was near the top of the pop charts a year or two earlier.
Furay is a pastor, but he is also a world-class singer and innovator in the worlds of country and rock music. Sometimes, you just need to let people grab a guitar and sing.
Cue up a track or two from Furay's new album -- The Heartbeat of Love -- and make up your own mind. It is nice that the disc features visits from Stills, Young, Perkins, Timothy B. Schmidt and others.
We can also hope that the Times is not the only newspaper to cover this Furay and Hillman tour. These guys deserve to be heard. You can tell that Furay doesn't want to give up on either side of his life, either the concert stage or the pulpit. Consider this poignant statement at the top of his website:
Let me share with you some of my thoughts. This is not a Christian web site; it's not a secular web site -- it's a Richie Furay website. Many of you are here because my music has touched you and become a part of your life. Others are here because you have heard of my faith in Jesus Christ. Whichever it is, my hope and desire is to be more involved with all of you ...
Photos: Furay on stage, 2004. Vintage Buffalo Springfield publicity shot.