In Praise and Lamentation: A Dave Carter Devotion

July 20, 2002 was a Saturday. My mom and I were scheduled to fly out of Akron-Canton airport for our annual Disney vacation in an hour, and I still wasn’t completely packed. I threw an extra bathing suit, three additional pairs of underwear, and a raincoat on top of what was already in my suitcase and made one last check of my 120 count CD binder to make sure I had all the music I could possibly want to listen to. As an afterthought, I decided to hop on the AOL message board dedicated to folk singer Nanci Griffith that I was a member of and see what posts I’d missed, seeing as I wouldn’t be able to sign on for a week.

There was one new post. The subject line simply read “Dave Carter.” In it, one of my message board comrades delivered the news that the day before, folk music luminary Dave Carter had passed away from an apparent heart attack. My whole body froze. It was absolutely impossible. He must have meant some other guy named Dave Carter—lot of obscure musicians got mentioned in our group. It couldn’t be the guy whose music I’d devoured for the past nine months, that had rescued me from a deep depression and many dark nights. I felt sick. On my flight to Florida, I listened to his song “When I Go” on repeat and stared out the airplane window, letting its somber, minor chords wash over me. I couldn’t accept it. I was not okay.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what I’m even talking about because this is likely the first time you’ve even heard of Dave Carter. Arguably the most talented rising folk musician of the late 1990s and early 2000s, he recorded three albums with his musical partner Tracy Grammer before his tragic and unexpected death. His music is both mythic and methodical, full of archaic, almost medieval storytelling and unpredictable, astonishing use of instrumentation and rhythm. As a mathematician by trade before deciding to pursue a musical career, this background reveals itself in the time signatures of his music and the ways the lyrics and arrangements weave together.

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer’s songs have comprised some of the most important music of my life as a creative person. As I’ve already mentioned, its technical elements and execution are sheer perfection. The musical and creative skills they both brought to the table as artists meld together perfectly, almost in a Lennon-McCartney-esque manner, where two very different kinds of talent create something even more astonishing than they would have done separately. Almost seventeen years after discovering their music, I’m able to still find new things to appreciate about it every time I hear it.

One of those things I’ve discovered is just how much their music means to me as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. A common theme in Dave’s music is spirituality, whether his songs portray characters whose spiritual beliefs deeply influence who they are or describe a heartbreaking struggle for spiritual meaning in an empty world. Having gone through my own struggle of spirituality identity, their songs ring true for me on multiple levels.

I could literally write about ten blog posts about all my favorite Dave Carter songs that feature spiritual themes and describe what each one means to me, both on the joyful level of better understanding my faith and the more serious level of being able to relate to the crises of faith the characters in many of the songs experience. But I’ve got other fish to fry with my artistic mission on this website, and what’s really better is if you hop on Spotify or Apple Music and just play the albums for yourself. I guarantee you’ll walk away with something. However, I do want to tell you about my favorite Dave and Tracy song, “Any Way I Do,” which is also one of my favorite worship songs.

I’d like to make this an interactive post. Before you read any further, go to the link below and listen to it. Then come back and read the rest. Okay? Okay. Enjoy.

Okay, welcome back. Thanks for doing that for me. There are a lot of things about this song that affect me. Clearly, religious imagery is a huge part of the lyrics—“up the shadow canyon in the pure blood of the Lamb” has always hit me in a profoundly meaningful way. But the real message here for me is the approachability of God in all circumstances, that His love for us is so perfect that we can enter His presence with anything in any state, “in praise or lamentation, peace or desperation.” Every time I hear this song, I think of Hebrews 4:16—“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may find help in time of need.”

Too many people think Christians live in a constant state of contentedness, that we’re all just supernaturally happy. That isn’t what joy is. Joy is knowing that we have an Advocate at God’s right hand, the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that He paid the penalty we owe for our sin, and that we are His and He is ours for eternity. The Son of God and all who believe in Him belong to each other. It’s so profound that I can hardly wrap my mind around it. But in view of this, joy is the security of our salvation and relationship with Him. It is for that reason that we can approach Him under any condition, and the Bible provides hundreds of examples:

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise.” – Psalm 100:4

"Why are you in despair, my soul? Why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, because I will praise him once again, since his presence saves me and he is my God.” – Psalm 43:5

“Then David danced before the Lord with all might; and David wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet.” – 2 Samuel 6:14-15

“Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares for you.” – 1 Peter 5:7

“Any Way I Do” as a song means so much to me because it captures all of these ideas in just a five minute song. It isn’t played on Christian radio. It wasn’t written by Chris Tomlin. You will likely never hear it sung at a worship service. Yet, in many ways, it is the song with which I find it most natural to worship God. It’s a great thing when a musician whose work many Christian communities might dismiss as “secular” provides such a beautiful opportunity for me to praise my Savior and Creator. It’s a powerful example of my mission for this blog: to demonstrate that all art is sacred and reveals our innate creativity as humans created in God’s image.

I’m thankful to Dave Carter for many things—for influencing me as a writer, for being used by God to give me comfort during a difficult time in my life, for simply being so talented and unique that it still blows my mind all these years later. But if this song alone was the gift, that would be enough.

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