HYMN SINGER: Christian artist Cynthia Clawson
___Cynthia Clawson grew up in a Texas Baptist pastor's home that reverberated with
music. She started singing for audiences--the small church where her father was pastor--as a child, and she found her calling. As a senior at Howard Payne University, she won the "Arthur Godfrey Talent Show," an accolade she has reprised with Grammy and Dove awards. She has sung in venues as varied as a Billy Graham crusade, Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, the Death Row cell of Karla Faye Tucker and tiny churches across Texas. Clawson and her husband, Ragan Courtney--a former Broadway musical composer, Christian musical composer and music professor--are co-pastors of Tarrytown Baptist Church in Austin. They are the parents of two young adults, Will and Lilly
Q What is the first sound you remember?
I think I remember the sounds of toys. Daddy gave me a toy called Dum-De-Dum, and it rolled around on the floor and made musical sounds. It got broken, and I remember crying.
Q What was the first song or hymn you learned?
Probably "Jesus Loves Me." The first song I performed was "I Don't Have to Wait." It says, "I don't have to wait to be a grownup to be loving and true." I must have learned that when I was 6 or 7.
Q Talk about the role music played in your life as a child.
Obviously, it was most important. My father and mother were both musicians. Daddy was a preacher. Mother started teaching me piano when I was about 4. There was never a time music wasn't there. Mother sang, and Daddy sang and played the guitar. Mother even wrote a book, "A Family Symphony," and each chapter had a title of a song.
Songs became like Scripture to me, and I could recall that melody even when I couldn't quite remember the exact wording in Scripture.
Q What songs were most meaningful to you as you grew up?
Mother had all kinds of sheet music. You could buy it for 10 cents a sheet. She was a big movie fan, and we had all this music from the '30s, '40s and '50s.
Things like "Always" and "Time Waits for No One." When I got into junior high and would be asked to sing at school functions, I would go to mother's cabinet and get all those '30s and '40s songs. That was the music I loved the most. And then I went to church, of course, and sang all the hymns. That was just taken for granted--that you learned the hymns and memorized their page numbers in the Broadman Hymnal and the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.
My fourth-grade piano teacher, Mrs. Sadlow, was our piano player in our church. I would learn a classical piece of music and a hymn every week.
Q When did you begin to express yourself musically?
When I was 3 or 4.
Q Why did it "click" for you?
When I got to kindergarten, I went to see a Billy Graham film, "Oil Town, USA," about his Houston crusade. Cindy Walker sang in the movie, and I guess she sang in the crusade. I remember coming out of that movie and going home and telling Mother, "I want to do that." I wasn't sure if I wanted to sing in a Billy Graham crusade or be in a movie, but I knew I wanted to take that experience I had and give it to somebody else. I was 5 then.
Q Did you ever get to sing in a Billy Graham crusade?
In Nashville (2000).
Q Have you ever had to "sacrifice" for your music or to have music?
Not really. To do the kind of music I thought was necessary, I sacrificed maybe a jolt in my career or something, because I could have picked more popular music, but instead I wanted to sing a certain kind of song. I've had to do that a lot.
I like a blended concert (with church music and other songs). There are a whole lot of ways we can find gospel lyrics in other songs. Anything Stephen Sondheim writes has lots of gospel, lots of grace. One of my favorite songs to perform is his "No One is Alone" from "Into the Woods."
Q You've recorded many hymns. What draws you to them?
First, the text. There's better poetry in hymns, the verbiage is better. For example, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer." A lot of times, churches won't even sing that, because it's got this archaic word. Think about "I am Thine, O Lord" and all those Fanny Crosby hymns. And the more liturgical hymns--all those juicy words in there. My mother was an English
teacher, and I just love words. We don't have very big vocabularies anymore.
Q Where do hymns get their power of influence?
It's the corporate feeling, because we sing them together. Baptists are really healthy, hearty singers together. For a long time, we had that common song, that hymn that everybody knew because everybody was taught it in every Baptist church. It sort of distresses me that kids today don't know hymns.
Q Is the power of hymns more personal or corporate?
For me, it's both personal and corporate, because of my history of singing hymns together with so many churches and the memory of being with those churches. When I go to a piano, there's always a hymnal there, and I just start playing through it. To me, it's prayer life.
Q What is the role of hymns in worship?
Maybe it's education--doctrine and faith and values, all in one hymn. Hopefully, it's all there. The newer music seems to be so me-oriented toward "my" expression of faith, but in the older hymns it was everybody's expression of faith--the life we had walked through, the trials we had been through--there was a corporate experience of faith. Today, everything seems to focus in on the way "I" feel. With hymns, I feel safe, and when I sing them, I feel like I'm giving safety to the people. Because it's us--it's us in this world and it's not just me alone by myself.
Q Do you have a favorite hymn?
"O Love that Will not Let Me Go." I love the romantic melody, and the text is a wonderfully written piece of poetry. I guess because I have moved around so much, I've had a lot of loneliness. I've always been able to make friends quickly, but just knowing there was a love that was following me--and going ahead of me--always holding on to me, and knowing that was God's love. "Joy that seeth me through pain," that's my favorite verse. There's an incredible, unspeakable joy that comes down in the depth of really hard pain. A friend said we should count ourselves privileged in pain
because we can find the kind of joy that only comes there.
Q How do you decide what to perform or record?
It makes me cry. If I hear a song and it makes me cry, either from grief or joy--because they have to be true. I have to do what makes me feel. That's probably where I've had the most problems in my career, because I didn't record what people wanted but what I thought they needed. It was what I needed.
Q Have your tastes changed?
No, I still like everything, from (hard-rocker) Tom Waits to (opera star) Luciano Pavarotti. I like country. That's hard for record companies, because they can't figure out what I am. My tastes probably have broadened--more country, more classical. I love Broadway musicals. Anything that's dramatic. If it's not dramatic, hey, big deal. It's got to make some statement, and it's got to be extreme, most of the time.
Q What do you hope to achieve when you plan a concert or record a CD?
When I'm planning a concert, I want to be where I am for the people. It's like a testimony--this is how I know God; this is how I feel God. But I really like doing concept albums. I'm thinking of doing an album on the mothering aspects of God.
Q So, you take a topic and hold it up to the light and look at the facets of truth?
Uh-huh. And when I talk to people after concerts, that's where I get a lot of ideas. Because that's where I learn what they're hungry for and where they are.
It's kind of like writing a sermon. You test the waters of the congregation for that week.
Q How did you and your husband, Ragan Courtney, come together?
"Celebrate Life." 1972. July the 7th. I went to Ridgecrest to sing my solos, and Ragan was there, and we met around noon, and the next day, he asked me to marry him. He said it kind of jokingly, but I already had called my sister and told her I had met the guy I was going to marry. It was very strange. We only saw each other 10 times before we got married the next January.
And for a long time people thought I married Buryl Red (Courtney's collaborator on "Celebrate Life"). They couldn't remember.
Q Talk about music and your children, Will and Lilly.
They're young adults now, but we started teaching them about the Beatles a long, long time ago, so they have always been into all kinds of music. It's always been a part of us. They were on the road with me for long time, until we decided they needed another life. So, thank goodness, Ragan had the kind of job that he could be at home and write and be Mr. Mom while I was gone. Will feels like an old rock 'n' roller. We have lots of CDs, and they score their lives by the music they listen to, and if I listen carefully, I can know exactly what's happening with them. We get in the car, and they're young adults now, and they tell me, "Put this CD in." What they're trying to say is, "This is where I am right now."
Q You and Ragan are co-pastors at Tarrytown Baptist Church in Austin. How did that happen? How is it working?
We came here with to serve with Clint and Pam Dunagan, and we were going to do team-pastoring. Ragan and I were basically going to be in charge of worship and outreach. Then Clint decided to retire in January of last year, after we came the previous August. Ragan does most of the preaching now. A lot of times, we do sermons together--he'll preach a little bit and I'll sing. I enjoy proclamation, but I think I do it best in my singing. And I still have this other life (concerts) that I do. They call him "senior pastor," and we do a lot together. My favorite thing is planning worship. But we do other things--hospital visits and outreach. It's like a baby in our lives we've taken on.
Q You mentioned worship. How do you plan worship?
We always try to follow the liturgical calendar in the lectionary. We get our Scriptures, and we get gobs and gobs of books. We sit with my sister, Patty, who was minister of music here for awhile. We try to decide where we're going to go the coming Sundays, and then we just have jam sessions. It's fun. We pick words and songs and melodies and ideas from all kinds of texts. Louie Bailey (minister of music at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.) says everybody in a worship service needs to have at least one moment that they can say they connected with God. So, a blended service is a good kind of service, when it's really blended. If the older people need to hear "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," then we need to give them that. But if Ragan needs to hear "Immortal, Invisible" with a pipe organ, we need to get as close to that as we can. If someone is visual and tactile, we need to provide that for them.
Q Have you been surprised by anything in your church?
How much time it takes. One of my favorite things in my life has been being the woman of the house and the mom, and there's no time for that. Daddy said, when he found out we were going to do this, "You better make sure you want to do this, because it's going to be so demanding."
Q You gesture extravagantly when you sing. Tell us about that.
It's never planned. It's kind of like dancing. I wasn't allowed to dance when I was growing up. But the visual--what people see--will stay with them longer than what they hear. I try to paint them a picture. When I've talked to people who interpret for the deaf, I've been surprised that some of the gestures actually are words, but it's interpretive.
Q Do you have any advice for a coming generation of church musicians?
The words always are most important. I always choose the words first. You can fix up a melody. But the poetry and the truth in words have got to be most important, especially if it's church music. There's a sound and an incredible word that goes with that sound, and it goes into their mind. Then they can love God with their mind and their soul and their heart.
Q Who's your favorite musician?
Bruce Greer (a Texas-based composer, and her arranger, accompanist and backup singer). He's open to everything.
Q What's your favorite piece of music or song?
"No One is Alone," by Stephen Sondheim. It's really true. We have to remember none of us is alone. And that's probably what happens to people when they get messed up in life. They think they are alone.
Q Who or what is the greatest influence on your life?
Q What songs would you like to have performed at your funeral?
"O Love that Will not Let Me Go," my favorite hymn. And I think I want them to play Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," because everybody cries when they hear that, and I want them to cry a lot.
Q Complete this sentence: "People would be surprised if they knew I listen to
Tom Waits. He's one of my favorite singers and songwriters, and he's kind of like a performance artist and wrote lots of things Bette Midler sang.
Q Do you have a favorite Scripture verse?
"Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Jesus was here; he knows what we're going through--and he cries with us, before us, after us.
Q Do you have a favorite Bible character?
just because of the garden experience with Jesus and how all he did was say her name, and she knew, whooo! He was risen!
Q What's your next project?
I'm thinking about the whole mothering thing. And Bruce and I are going to do the Christmas mass and record it right here (in the Tarrytown sanctuary).
___Interview by Marv Knox
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