Fans of country music in the 90s will remember Lionel Cartwright for his #1 hit "Leap of Faith." He also charted in the Top Ten on the same chart with "Give Me His Last Chance", "I Watched It All (On My Radio)" and "My Heart Is Set on You". Cartwright is currently serving as the worship pastor at HopePark Church in Nashville. Cartwright has also recently released his new worship EP "Measureless."
So, what are the songs Cartwright has been teaching the church since he became the worship pastor? We had the honor to be able to catch up with Lionel Cartwright for this exclusive interview.
Q: It has been more than 30 years since you signed with MCA Records. What were some of the highlights for you during those years when you were a major label country music artist?
They were of course a dream come true and then some. Hearing your song on the radio for the first time (and every time) was such a thrill. Music had been such a huge part of my growing up, and in those days radio was pretty much your only portal to new music. So to join the ranks of artists who actually got on the radio with hit songs remains an amazing experience for me, for which i'm grateful.
Q: Even during the days when you were a country music artist, you had songs (such as "Like Father Like Son," "Leap of Faith" and "True Believer") that had a faith or/and moralistic bent. Were you already a Christian already then? And how did you come to know Christ?
My faith has always been such a part of my life. Not a compartment of my life, but a lens that I see the whole of life through. I remember buying The Best of Van Morrison and it struck me that there were songs on the same album about life, about partying, about romantic love, and God all mixed up together. I loved that. I never saw myself as the kind of artist that says "here's my gospel album." Again, I didn't want to compartmentalize my life that way. I never intended any of my songs to be "Christian" genre songs - I just wanted them to be honest expressions of life from my standpoint, where I was coming from: not as a Christian artist, but as an artist who was a Christian.My spiritual life began reading a little devotional that my Mom put in our bedroom. It was "The Upper Room" put out by the Methodist Church. I remember reading that around 10 years old, specifically Proverbs 3. It's written as a parent talking to a child. I remember thinking, "hey, this person is talking to me." Someone's saying something to me. From that time on, I felt like there was a God out there, and I was beginning to know this Person, was able to communicate with this Being.
Q: After your album "Chasin' the Sun," you released a couple of singles after that. What happened there? Why was the follow-up album never released?
My albums never achieved the sales level that Garth Brooks achieved. Garth, Clint and I were up for new male vocalist on the ACM Awards out in Los Angeles. Again, it was pretty surreal. I was blown away to just be at the party. Even though we had achieved a decent amount of chart success from airplay, the sales figures weren't what the labels were wanting compared with Garth's stats. And I get it - from a business standpoint, I get it. I bear no ill will. In fact, the day after I found out through a third party that I was off the label, I went down to the label the next day and shook everybody's hand. I am still grateful that my entry into the national music scene was with at a very open, diverse time in Nashville. Stylistically it narrowed quite a bit as the 90's progressed. I was honored to be running with some truly gifted folk at a special time.
Q: What happened after you left MCA Records?
We had our first child, our son Mason, just a few months before my deal with MCA ended. The direction of country music was changing, our family life was changing. My manager wanted to get me another deal immediately, but I said I needed to press pause and get my bearings, decompress a bit. A few months later, the labels were all looking for Garth Brooks type artists. I knew that wasn't me, so I decided to write and record an album that was more in keeping with who I was (which was actually still evolving). I wrote and recorded an indie album and released a single on my own. It actually got added to some big radio playlists, until they realized I wasn't on a major label. That was the end of that.When my MCA deal ended, I had a deep sense that it was supposed to end. I figured I'd get another deal and just resume what I'd been doing in country music. It was not to be.
I think I went through a low grade depression in the late 90's. I had achieved a life long dream of being a country music artist on a major label having hits on the radio. But it was looking more like just a chapter, not a final destination. It's one thing to lose a deal, but losing your identity is a whole other thing.I like to say God performed an "ident-ectomy" on me. My identity as a country singer was fading. I always say God's plan for my life and my plan for my life paralleled until age 32, then the two diverged. It was very disconcerting.
The whole time I was on the road, however, I kept a sequencer keyboard in the back of the bus, where I would work on TV scores and send tracks via floppy disc back to the studio, where they would lay it in the shows. That experience and those contacts worked out well a few years after my record deal went away. By 2000, I ended up doing a lot of TV composing and, having set up a studio in my house, was able to be at home while my kids were growing up. Now that my kids are through college, I look back on that time and am deeply grateful I was able to be present in their lives. Don't get me wrong - I loved being on the road, and I'm hoping to get back out there a bit. But I never regret that I didn't miss my kids growing up. Very thankful for that.
Q: Later, you started recording Christian music. Why the change from country music to Christian?
Actually, I've still recorded all kinds of music. At the core, I'm a singer/songwriter/composer. I find staying open to what's moving me keeps the music fresh. I still prefer not to compartmentalize my music. One day I might write a song about depression, the next day a worship song; one day a song about love, the next day a song about struggle. I do need to record some more of my spiritual/worship music. There's a lot of it I haven't recorded yet.
Q: What also prompted you to become a worship pastor? And tell us more about your position now as a worship pastor?
I volunteered at a startup church here in Nashville in the early 90's. In the early 2000's, they asked me to come on full time. I was resistant at first, but it felt right. I've had the privilege of working with a really diverse community of musicians and singers serving the larger community. Being Nashville, the talent level is quite high. But I can honestly say our music community culture is one of humility and community. It's been an honor to be involved in so many people's lives. It's grown me in many ways. It's also helped me mature as a person as well as an artist. It's been a great experience.
Q: You have also recently released a worship EP, tell us more about the songs on it.
I put out an EP a few years ago called "Practice Your Presence." My hope was it could encourage people to enter into stillness, into the presence of God. To "be still and know that I am God." I think those songs are even more resonant now in our non-stop, information overload culture. I hope they will serve people.
Q: How has your faith changed over all of these years?
It has. It's interesting. I actually believe God has taken me through a process to change some of my ideas about God. I often use the metaphor of hoisting a boat up out of the water (me being the boat) and sandblasting the barnacles and debris off the hull that have collected over time. Parts of my own deconstruction/reconstruction made me feel like the sandblasting was cutting into the hull. But no, it was still barnacles. This too experience too has had it's share of disorientation. But I truly believe it has resulted in making me a more patient, compassionate person, and has ultimately strengthened my relationship with God and increased my sense of awe at the mystery of God and the inscrutability of His ways.