Famed Catholic musician John Michael Talbot says he never knows when he'll be inspired to write a song.
Take, for example, the time he was inspired to write his 1981 tune “Holy Is His Name,” which is among the singer-guitarist’s most beloved numbers. The song’s lyrics are based on The Magnificat, sometimes called The Song of Mary or The Canticle of Mary. The Magnificat itself is taken from the Visitation story in the Gospel of St. Luke, in which a pregnant Mary is talking to her cousin, Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist.
In the story, Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith and Mary responds with what the Catholic Church now calls The Magnificat. “From this day all generations will call me blessed, the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name,” Mary says.
Listening to the gentle, folkish track based on Mary’s prayer, you figure Talbot must have been praying The Magnificat alone in a chapel as sunlight poured through stained glass windows when he was inspired to write it. However, Talbot says, the setting was more down to earth. He was thinking about The Magnificat while eating breakfast with a friend’s lively young family in California when he got the idea for “Holy Is His Name.”
“There were pancakes and syrup and butter everywhere, and his wife was flipping pancakes for the kids,” he says with a chuckle, adding: “What I’ve discovered is songs can come in most unexpected ways.”
“Unexpected Ways” could be the title of Talbot’s biography, given this once aspiring rock musician, who’s played with numerous pop stars, now spends his life leading The Brothers and Sisters of Charity, a monastic religious order he founded, as well as performing religious concerts worldwide.
Prior to becoming a Christian artist in the late 1970s, Talbot and his brother, Terry, were in Mason Proffit from 1969-74. Along with The Byrds, Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers and others, Mason Proffit were credited for helping kick-start the country rock music scene that exploded in the 1970s, and which still influences the Americana scene today. In his previous life as a secular musician, Talbot shared the stage with Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, The Doobie Brothers, Mac Davis, Steely Dan and many others.
These days, however, Talbot’s only companions on stage are his guitar and his deep Catholic faith. His musical role model is Jesus, Talbot says, because Jesus’ words, like music, can be heard repeatedly yet evoke different responses with deeper and deeper meanings the more one hears them.
“Jesus didn’t write books, Jesus didn’t do theology, Jesus told parables,” he says. “No matter how many times you listen to those parables, which are word songs, they just go deeper and deeper. They are like a deep spiritual song -- you don’t get bored with them.”
He adds that music can touch souls in a way mere preaching can’t, and that may be because music is life itself. He notes that some religions teach God created the universe through song, and that physics hints at the possible truth of this belief.
“Music is made up of waves that create harmony,” he says. “All the created world is made up of waves that we pick up with our senses. I believe that when music is working right, when creation is working rightly, all of creation is music.”
Music, he continues, allows listeners to experience the mystery of faith.
“Music is sacramental,” he says. “Out of all the art forms, it is music that is most conducive to good liturgy.”
Talbot in town
Talbot, a Grammy and Dove winning multi-instrumentalist, will perform a “Lifetime of Music & Ministry” concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, in St. Bede the Venerable Catholic Church, 215 Foothill Blvd., La Canada, Flintridge.
Tickets are $30 for general admission and $50 for a special VIP ticket which includes early admission during Talbot’s sound check, preferred seating and an autographed CD.
To purchase tickets, you can buy them in St. Bede’s Parish Center and courtyard after weekend Masses, 5:30 p.m. Saturday, or 7:30, 9 and 11 a.m. as well as 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are also available at JohnMichaelTalbot.com. For more information, call the parish office at 818-949-4300.
Talbot will perform music from his 55 records, at St. Bede, and adds his show is “more of a prayer experience than a concert. Along with covering music from the beginning up to the most current recording 'The Inner Room,' there will be stories and meditations throughout the evening.
"I recently looked back with joy through all the years I have shared with my faithful fans -- especially the music that first brought us together,” he says. “Many say my music has been the 'soundtrack of their journey of faith'.”
Talbot has also written 29 books, including “Monk Dynasty,” published last year. He’s also the creator and host of the popular TV series “All Things Are Possible,” which ended a three-year run in 2016.
In addition to his musical awards, Talbot has been recognized with an award from Mercy Corps and is a recipient of the Mother Teresa Award.
For more information on Talbot, visit johnmichaeltalbot.com.
For more information on The Brothers and Sisters of Charity, visit littleportion.org.
Rob Cullivan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Catholic News Service and other religious and secular publications.