Bryn Haworth is an outstanding slide guitarist and songwriter from the UK who has been making records and performing for the past 50 years. He’s appeared on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test and the John Peel show, was a major figure in the explosion of Jesus Rock in the 1970s and ’80s, and been the guest guitarist on many albums by rock and folk artists.
During the 1970s I nearly wore out my turntable needle playing his Sunny Side of the Street and Grand Arrival albums, and to my delight, I recently discovered a 2006 album called Keep the Faith, which I’ve been playing almost non-stop.
So, it was a particular pleasure to chat to Bryn about the blues, his remarkable journey into faith when he was a successful musician in California in the ‘70s, the important work he’s been doing in prisons over many years and how we need to care for the environment.
I asked him first of all how he would describe the sort of music he makes.
Bryn Well the word I’d use is eclectic really. Because it’s because I was brought up in a house back in the ’50s where all kind of music was played and loved. My mum was the one who bought the records, these old 78 records, and she would buy Elvis, Elgar, Little Richard. She’d buy the Kingston Trio. And it was a big thing when we got a gramophone in the front room. It would be a big deal when you bought a new record, you’d sit down and play it and you’d have your fish and chips and stuff in the room, listening to these records and appreciating them and just enjoying them. So, for me all styles of music are good and to be enjoyed, and I just carried on like that in my writing and playing. So…eclectic, I like all kinds of music. It may not be commercial but I enjoy the freedom!
Gary But a lot of your music has always sounded a bit bluesy to me and you’ve got that lovely slide guitar work. So tell me how you feel about blues music.
Bryn Blues music to me is honest music. It’s people expressing their sorrow, their pain, their loneliness, their disconnectedness, their questions or anger about things we all feel. So you know for me it’s natural to express these things. It’s honest…honest to God music, really. I mean life is hard isn’t it? You know we’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been damaged, or we all hurt others knowingly or unknowingly. And there’s just this whole thing of, you know, unanswered questions – in our hearts this feeling – Where do I belong? Where’s home? And that’s all in the DNA of every one of us. And so, it’s great when music is expressed like that in a simple fashion. So that’s how I feel about blues.
And then look at how many musicians there are in the Bible, like Jeremiah and Habakkuk and David and Job, and you start to see the blues in what they’re saying. There’s so much blues in there. You know in Job 30. 31, it says “my harp is tuned to mourning, my flute to the sound of wailing.” The Message translation says “my fiddle plays nothing but the blues and my mouth harp is wailing.” Job was a musician. And then you got David – “Why is this happening? How long? Where are you God? You know, just real people interacting with a real God, real full on honest to God stuff. Psalm 69 – I love that one: “I’m up to my neck in trouble.” And then Psalm 88 – the last verse “darkness is my closest friend.” And that’s the end of the song.
Gary Although it’s quite interesting, Bryn, when you look at a lot of the Psalms, they’re quite like some of the blue songs, in that they start off really, really dark. You know “Why have you forsaken me” and then by the end of the song, the Psalmist has sort of worked himself through the blues and he’s in a better place. And actually a lot of the blues songs are a bit like that – I think of that old standard Trouble in Mind – I’m gonna lay down my head on some railroad iron and then by the end of the song, it’s you know, the sun’s gonna shine on my back yard some day. Things are gonna get better and there’s a kind of a parallel to the way some of the Psalms work.
Bryn Yeah, yeah, There’s one song of mine from the Rebel Man album called Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do, and it’s really just reading the Prophets where God says, why don’t you love me like you used to, and now you’ve gone off and stuff like that. So that’s a classic blues theme, isn’t it? The reality is that God feels the pain of rejection. God grieves and feels pain – Genesis 6 says the Lord was grieved that he’d made man and his heart was filled with pain, and then you see Jesus, he was rejected and despised. I mean, blues? Is that not blues?
Gary Absolutely right. It’s right there.
And looking back, who are the artists that have influenced you, that have meant something to you along the way, blues or otherwise?
Bryn Well in the blues I like the Johnsons – Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson. I like Elmore James because of the slide. I’m always fascinated by how these guys play. It’s just stunning. And I like the finger-pickers, I like Mississippi John Hurt – I hear a lot of Mississippi John Hurt in Eric Bibb. I just love listening to John Hurt you know, because his spirit is really gentle. He’s not aggressive.
And I also like harmonica players. Little Walter. Because harmonica players like Little Walter are great to copy for slide players. You know, if you’re a slide player and you want to play blues, then you get a lot of your basic blues shapes and patterns from listening to, and trying to emulate and copy, good blues harmonica players. They work within a tight range of notes. So, I’ve always been attracted to them and my ear pricks up to play like that.
And it’s the same with sax players. There are some really good players like King Curtis, black R&B sax player, who played on a lot of the old Arista Records. Like Respect and a lot of the old Motown stuff. And then there’s Junior Walker and the Allstars. If you’re a slide player, they’re great players to just try and copy because they come at it from a different point of view than your Ry Cooders and your Duane Allmans and people like that. You’re really into a different thing and it’s really interesting to learn from them. And there’s a guy called Darrell Mansfield that I really like, a Californian harmonica player. We toured together in Europe quite a bit. I liked him and of course Paul Jones is a great harmonica player.
The main influence I think when I first started playing electric guitar was when I got Soul Dressing by Booker T and the MGs. And I just thought Steve Cropper was the bee’s knees! I thought he was incredible and I learned every solo of his on that album. I just wanted that sound you know. I didn’t really know what he was playing, but in the 60s I thought I’d like to be a psychedelic version of Steve Cropper! But then you see you had Eric Clapton and then you got Hendrix, and I love George Harrison. Willie Nelson, I love. I love his guitar playing, I love Lonnie Mack’s playing. I do like guitar players and I like the ones that are brave.
Gary So looking back over your career, Bryn, you have been described as a pioneer of Jesus music and you were part of the explosion of Christian music in the 70s and 80s. And your Christian faith has continued to be a major emphasis in your work over the years. How do you do you see your music: as Christian music, or do you see it as having a wider appeal?
Bryn Well, you know, I’ve never really gone for a label because first of all I’m a musician. I see myself as a musician who has discovered that there is a God and that he loves me. And I found that great news. And it’s that because I’ve found this for myself, I found a new way of living and a new way of loving and being loved. And Jesus has made all this possible. So yes, I want to communicate this – by the way that I live, and also my work and in writing and communicating. I mean, the thing is, that everybody wants to communicate. And everybody is communicating something. And when you find life like this you just get energized by it and you get captivated by it, and you want to let other people know that He’s real and that His love for them is tangible.
And some of the music and the songs I play like this resonate with a wider audience and that’s just fantastic. But not all my songs are about Jesus, about my faith – I write generally about the whole of life. So, I wouldn’t consider myself just as a Christian musician doing one thing, because I do like to try to write about, and play about, many other things. And hopefully in the future I’ll be get better at it in expressing where people are at, and identifying with them on that basis.
Gary So would you tell us about how you came to faith and why has it continued to be important to you.
Bryn For me it was quite dramatic. There’s a great verse in Isaiah 65 verse one where God says, “I reveal myself to those who did not ask for me and I was found by those who did not seek me” – and this was really me, because I was not interested in, not looking for God. I didn’t know anybody who knew anything about God. It just wasn’t on my radar. I was in a really good band in California and I was making good money and we had a good life. Smoking dope, you know, no crisis, no interest in anything!
And then one night I go to bed and have this really long dream, a very powerful dream where a lot of my old painful memories surfaced. And a lot of hurt and fear and anger came, and all I knew is when I woke up was that I had to come back to England and get right with my dad. I didn’t like him, he didn’t like me and we didn’t talk. I hadn’t thought about him for years. Anyway, that week I got a ticket and went home and ended up living in North Wales. It was the early seventies and if you were kind of a hippie, that’s where you went – North Wales. You got a cottage and chilled. So I came out of that life in California and I had a time out. I had time to look at my life and asking questions like, why do I drink so much, why do I do so many drugs, why am I so angry and fearful, and why am I so driven and insecure? I would never have thought about myself or looked at my own life when I was in California, but when you’re on your own, you’ve got time to think – about your direction and what’s happening to you.
And that’s when I started asking questions about who am I, what am I doing here, and is there a God? I’d never thought about that before and I just started going out for long walks and asking, “God are you there? If you are, then you got to let me know.” That’s how the whole thing started. It wasn’t something that I had been seeking or searching.
So I was kind of woken up by that dream, and I started to examine my life. And then about three years later, we went out for a drive one day. And in the corner of this field was a circus tent. Now for the first time I had started painting, and during that week I had painted a circus tent with red and white stripes. So, in the corner of this field that week was this circus tent, so I said “Hey let’s go to see the circus.” We drove in and it was a gospel meeting. I’d never been to anything like that in my life, and so we stood at the back so we had a quick escape if we didn’t like it. But I was kind of riveted by the whole thing. I didn’t understand what the preacher was talking about – the language he was using was alien to me, but there was this banner over the front of the stage with some of Jesus’s words on it: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” And I thought, “Well, I’ve lived my way for 26 years and it ain’t working.” All my questions hadn’t been answered, but I was thinking, if God is ever going to be real to me I’m going to have to take a step of faith tonight and so, that’s what I did.
I just said, “Jesus if you’re are the way to life I choose to believe you.” And I went forward and I was prayed for. I came out of that tent and I felt like I was home, that I belonged and that God was real. And that was really the beginning of the whole journey of finding out who God really is, rather than how I imagined him. And so that’s how it all happened.
Gary That’s a remarkable story.
Bryn It really it is. There have been lots of other kinds of interventions along the way, things you can’t really explain but you just get the sense that God is drawing us to him through the circumstances of our lives, that through the pain and the difficulties, the damage and the suffering that we struggle with every day, that he’s drawing us to himself and he wants us to call out to him. And that’s all I did. I just called out to him. And that’s how it all started.
And I just found that he wants this friendship. He wants a relationship; he wants to restore and heal and make us new. And I didn’t know anything about that until I made that step of faith in that tent.
Gary Well that’s fantastic. And Bryn, when you’re talking there about people being broken and hard times and so on, that’s something that you have come face to face with in the work that you’ve done over the years in prisons. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?
Bryn Along with my wife I’ve been involved in prison work for 30 years now. And again, it wasn’t something that I sought to do. I would say that I was called to do it – I was just reading through the gospels and God really spoke to me, and I was eventually given an opportunity to go into prison and I took it. I was kind of cornered, because for about three years I’d be going, Oh I’d love to do that, to go into prison, but I thought, well what would I do? I’m just a musician and I don’t know anybody in prison, and how do you get into prison and so I talked myself out of it. And then suddenly someone said to me, can you do this? So we went in to Wandsworth Prison and the chaplain there – out of all the prisons, he was the only chaplain who said, “Yeah you can come in” – David Cairns was his name – and he let us see what happened in prisons. They have Chaplain’s Hour meetings and then as we were coming out again, he turned round to me and said, “Right, you do it next week!” So that’s how it started.
I was in a church called the Vineyard at that time, a Californian church – the first church plant they did was in Putney where we were in South London. I was on staff at that time. And so I took in a few members of that team and we did an hour long meeting and we’ve been going on like that, and it’s been wonderful. My wife and I love going into prisons. We’ve seen some wonderful things happen. God’s done some wonderful things – we’ve seen people’s lives turned around, changed from the inside out. We’ve seen dramatic physical healings, we’ve seen people emotionally healed. It’s a prisoner’s right to have an hour a week of a religious service. And so, we go in on that basis in the morning, say, and do an hour’s service. I’ll do some worship songs, some of my own songs, I do a short talk from part of the Bible and some prayers, and pray for them at the end. Or in some prisons we do a concert. I’ll go in and do an afternoon concert for the whole prison. And that’s really good.
But generally, when I go in. I always feel out of my depth – even now. I always think this could have been me, because I’ve done things in my life, but the only difference is I just didn’t get caught. It could have been me!
But it is a very creative environment for songwriting as well, because you’ll be standing there in front of these guys and you go, “I need a song that says this,” and I haven’t got one. And so, you go away and write something. And it’s also very creative because different styles of music are really helpful – if you can play reggae, rock, pop, blues, country. Because you’re reaching all different tastes in music. And so it stretches you to see if you can write something that will appeal to them and draw them. But I know from my own experience that people can be transformed and learn to live differently and be a blessing to the earth.
Gary Well that’s fantastic. And is that something that you’re still doing Bryn?
Bryn Yes. I would say the majority of the year I do it. I still do concert work as well. But we do it because we love doing it. Funny enough, we just feel quite at home in prison! It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But for us, we love it.
Gary Now, you released a song earlier this year called Enough is Enough. Can you tell us about that?
Bryn Well where we live, developers want to cut this 200, 300 year old wood behind the houses where we live. They want to come into the wood and knock all these trees down and build eleven new city style houses. It’s pretty brutal what it will do to the street and to the neighbourhood. So my wife and I found ourselves default leaders of a campaign to stop it, because people can be quite apathetic and they don’t know how to fight. But you got to fight these things, you can’t let people roll over you. And you know this kind of thing is happening all over the country, the indiscriminate felling of trees to build roads and houses and railway lines and stuff like that. But we’re losing so much, so many of the mature trees in this country and we’re the least forested place in Europe. And the trees are our lungs. We need them. And so, I got up one morning and I was just so upset about this whole thing I sat down and wrote this song. Enough is Enough came in about 20 or 30 minutes. I just got the whole thing. And I thought, Fantastic, we can use this as part of our campaign. So I recorded it really quickly. And then I had a friend who works for the BBC and does National Geographic magazine, he said “Oh I love this song, can I will make a make a video of it?” He did it for free and we got a really good video out of it. So, it all came together very quickly and so we’re trying to get that used and played on the radio and on TV. But that’s the story behind it. It’s a protest song!
Gary So is getting involved in that sort of thing, Bryn, integral to your Christian faith?
Bryn Well, you obviously don’t have to be a Christian to feel upset about your planet going down. But, as a Christian, as a believer, I look in Genesis 2 and our original job description when we were put here was to look after this place. To let it grow, let it develop – we were put here as caretakers, or gardeners. So I think that we still have that remit, just to be looking after what God has made and make sure that the next generation when we’re dead and gone has got something to look at, you know.
I like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum and charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.”
Gary Yeah, that just about sums it up, doesn’t it?
Bryn Yeah it does. But you know, we have been given responsibility for the care of this planet and particularly your own locality. And you can do it. You can actually do something about this. We were put here to look after it the planet look after and help it to flourish.
Gary Very good. Well let me ask you this, Bryn. Recently I’ve spoken to a few musicians who are in and around the 70 years of age mark. Chris Smither and Rory Block were a couple of them. They’re both going strong, performing, recording. Chris Smither seemed to be definitely thinking about the aging process. But when I talked to Rory Block, she said she felt like she was just getting started! She was fantastic, really refreshing actually. What about you? Do you still feel inspired to keep going? What’s the motivation at this stage of your life?
Bryn The big one – you’ve only got so much time left. You better get on with it. [laughs]. I guess that’s the one you think about. But I can still stand up to play! The one good thing about playing blues is you can sit down to play and still look cool! When your legs don’t work anymore you can do a B.B. King! So, you’ve got a long career if you can play blues! But yeah, I think it’s the wear and tear. I think if you travel like we’ve done – that’s the hard thing now, the actual travel to gigs and being tired because the roads are so much worse. It seems to take a longer time to get here. There’s also the physical side – your finger joints – I’m 70 – and they suffer from wear and tear. Repetitive strain, basically on your fingers and the joints. There’s one finger that doesn’t work properly anymore, it doesn’t close so you’ve got to figure out different ways of playing chords. But then you see Django Reinhardt with two fingers, so you think, well it must be possible! There are physical things that happen to a lot of guitar players’ hands from just playing so much, especially if you’re an acoustic guitar player.
But I think for me it’s that everybody wants to communicate. You still want to communicate when you have something that’s this good, and you want to communicate life to people and blessing. You want them to know that they’re loved and they’re not alone, that they belong and that they’re connected. You have incredible amounts of energy to keep going out and doing that and seeing these things. And it’s interesting, as you get older, you’re more relaxed, there’s nothing to prove. You just have to keep working hard at what you do and trying to make it sound good, and just keep your standards up.
Gary So from what you were saying earlier, you’re still you’re still performing and you’ve got a performance schedule for the rest of the year.
Bryn I haven’t really gone after gigs really for a long time. I’ve more tended to let them come in and so I don’t do that many. Because the prison work is quite absorbing and interesting. But I still like doing concerts because of the variety of music as compared to a prison. And it’s great if you can get a whole evening – having a first half and a second half to play to people. It’s quite a luxury now to be able to do that. And it’s a good test of whether your chops are still up to it and you can still play and communicate.
Gary So have you plans for a new album at some stage do you think?
Bryn Well I got a title which is good! So, I’m trying to gather ideas around that. I think that’s about as much as I got really. I’m a writer, and you have put your hat on as a writer – roadwork takes a lot of time, so I need to take time off to do it.
Gary Well, we’ll look out for that. Bryn. We’d look forward to doing a review at Down at the Crossroads when that project is completed. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. It’s been great.