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The Advocate

Matthew West : Back in the Game

by Mark Geil

It was the top of the 12th inning in a 2-2 ballgame, and the Cincinnati Reds had loaded the bases against the Atlanta Braves. Singer Matthew West watched the game with mixed emotions. He was happy to be able to catch a great game with his family on a sunny Atlanta afternoon (though he is a Cubs fan), but he was also eager for this extra-long game to end, since he was set to perform a post-game concert. Even so, the event that broke the tie was nothing he would have hoped for.

Cincinnati’s Micah Owings settled into the batter’s box with one out. The first pitch came and Owings swung but missed badly. Desperate for a double play, the Braves’ pitcher fired a two-seam fastball, but at the last moment, just as the ball was released, he sought to back off on the speed a bit. Instead, the ball sailed at 93 mph, straight at Owings’ head. Owings turned at the last moment and the ball struck him on the left ear flap of his batting helmet, violently knocking him to the ground.

A dazed Owings was helped off the field and stitched up. He did not pitch again for 14 days, as his recovery depended not only on physical issues, but also on a psychological element. He’s a normally reliable hitter, especially for a pitcher, but could he become more tentative or afraid?

Matthew West understands. Like an athlete sidelined by a major injury, his career was brought to a standstill in 2007 after years of damage to his vocal cords necessitated surgery. His recovery involved two months of silence, days sometimes flooded by doubts. Like the athlete hoping to return to action, West wondered if would be able to sing as well, or sing at all.

Today, West is indeed back, perhaps stronger than ever. He had the most-played song on Christian Radio in 2008 (You are Everything), and he might very well attain the same status in 2009 with The Motions. Just like he identifies with the athletes on the field, he knows that people in the audience face circumstances that shake up their world and threaten their livelihood, so his surgery and recovery have become an important part of his witness.

During the game, West recalled the surgery and reflected on how life has changed since then. “My surgery has made sure that I stay very human, as opposed to being a guy on stage who has it all together. It’s been a powerful couple of years of being able to share from a very real and vulnerable place in my life, and to share what God taught me through that.”
Like anyone facing a trial, West struggles a bit with placing its significance in context. “I have to be careful not to overdramatize what I went through. The minute you think your problems are big, take a walk through a pediatric intensive care unit. You’ll quickly gain a better perspective of your own problems. In my own little world, though, this was the headline. We all have pain and tragedy in various degrees. Someone else’s loss of a job is my vocal surgery. It’s not like that tragedy’s worse than this tragedy. When it hits you, it hits you hard.

“My voice represented a lot more than just my voice. It represented my livelihood, my ability to provide for my family, my calling, what I feel like God has called me to do. That’s why I stopped pursuing other endeavors years ago. I went down this road with no backup plan, because that’s what I believe you’re supposed to do if God calls you to something, and all of the sudden I find myself thinking, maybe I should have had a backup plan! That’s a scary thing to go through.”

Something to Say by Matthew WestFortunately for West, no backup plan was needed. With a concert just hours away, I asked him if he has changed his approach to singing, and if he thinks he sounds any different. “I think my voice is a lot more temperamental,” he observed. “I can tell if I’ve had 5 or 8 hours of sleep. When I’m tired, I sound like I’m tired. But when I’m on, I feel like my voice is better than ever, and that’s crazy! After I started singing again, I felt like I had gone through a tune up. A lot of people have told me that from my first record to this record I’m singing a lot better than I ever have. I’m so thankful for that.”

There is no lingering tentativeness in West’s songwriting. In fact, despite his history, he related that he still writes songs that are probably too high for him. He chooses a melody and a key for the song, and hopes to figure out how to sing it later: “That’s probably what got me into surgery!” Indeed, he calls The Motions one of his most difficult songs to sing, but one that just doesn’t sound right in a lower key.

Like the injured ball player returning to the batter’s box, West has changed his game – he now follows a strict 25-minute vocal warmup routine – but he confesses that he still has a little paranoia. “What happened to me could happen again. Those blood vessels could burst again. Last night, I was in the studio singing until about 2 a.m.; we have this deadline. I hopped on the bus, went to bed about 3. We drove here, and I didn’t sleep very well, and then I got up and started talking and singing [for the Braves’ chapel service at noon]. I start to think, ‘My voice feels weak, I hope nothing’s wrong.’ But you can’t live in fear. I can’t think about that too much because I still want to sing with all my heart and really go for it.”

That’s just what he did, once the 12-inning game finally concluded and a pair of players shared their testimonies. The eight-song set was punctuated with an energy that lifted the crowd and a host of money notes and falsetto unhindered by vocal trauma.

West had an easy rapport with the crowd, and even performed an original song entitled, “Thanks to All the Braves Fans who Stuck Around.” I wondered how many in the crowd caught the Lou Gehrig reference when he stepped to the mic and said, “Today, I consider myself…” before trailing off and laughing.

There were moments of choppiness in the set, such as the demanding chorus of “Next Thing You Know”, but I’ve always thought this add a realism that makes live music unique. The highlight was one of those moments that can only happen with a large audience, when Only Grace turned a capella and then turned into Amazing Grace. West stepped away from the mic and joined the chorus of thousands, singing passionately to none but his Creator and Healer.

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Mark Geil is a professor and freelance writer on all things musical. He lives in an Atlanta suburb with his wife and three daughters, where his CDs take up far too much wall space, especially the hundreds from the 1980's. Song lyrics occupy a significant portion of his brain, often crowding out important facts. Mark enjoys just about every type of music and is a particular admirer of Rich Mullins.