Monday, April 24, 2017
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Life on Riverstone Farm

Holly Halverson

The long reddish gravel driveway to Riverstone Farm, the home of Amy Grant, Gary Chapman, their three children and an array of animals, and stomping grounds for a variety of visitors, family members and staff, is lined with bare trees reaching through the soft drizzle for spring. From the driveway you can see the Chapmans’ sprawling two-story white house, a big pond complete with slide, a windmill and a log cabin that houses Gary’s parents. Once ushered inside by Amy’s assistant Deanna you see the sights and sounds or morning at home: two full coffee pots, a ringing phone. Former "Baby Baby" Millie, now age 4, wears a somber expression and big royal blue bow while she quietly combs her nanny’s hair. Little Sarah, 17 months, in a frayed purple and white nightgown and bare feet, is read to by a friend waiting to see Gary 96-year-old Matt is at school).

Amy pops out, her hair up, her mouth full of toothpaste and promises to reappear in five minutes. When she does, clothed in Tennessee homewear—gray sweater and jeans, black cowboy boats—she asks Deanna how she’s feeling. "Still running a low fever," Deanna replies. "Ooh, don’t kiss me," Amy says. Deanna shoots back, "I promise!" As the nanny herds the children out, Amy grabs some coffee and a bottle of seltzer water and heads for a red wingback chair, pulling over a huge divan for feet-propping.

Gary will join us later, so we settle in to find out who Amy is in the late winter of 1994, having embraced and endured shiny success in both Christian and mainstream media married and fought to stay there, birthed and sung to three kids and just generally grown up in front on adoring yet sometimes fickle public.

Amy seems confident but not cocky, alert but relaxed. Her pithy answers are punctuated by thoughtful pauses and easy laughter.

In light of all I’ve read about her—marital problems, critical career choices, being misunderstood—I ask if a lyric I’ve read rings true for her: "Now the night is fading and the storm has passed/And everything that could be shaken was shaken/And all that remains is all I ever really had" [from "Home" by Rich Mullins]. Amy says "Wow," then adds, "I feel like there’s always potential shaking on the horizon!" There is truth to it at different times. I do think right after you’ve had a real shake-up, whatever that is, just when something you’ve depended on has either not come through or been destroyed, you do get back to basics and go, ‘Oh! This is what’s really important.’

"I think that’s part of how we are as people. Sometimes I feel the deepest when Gary and I are going through a real vulnerable time. When three sentences of a conversation reduce us both to tears—we’re crying about who’s going to die first. But the fact is, we don’t live every day that way. There is always that cycle that brings us back around to just throwing ourselves on Jesus’ breast, really."

Asked if she and Gary are in a calm now, she says, "The routine of our life is very nice right now—emotionally and physically. We get up early and take Matt to school, and there are a lot of things in place that are providing a lot of consistency for us."

That’s a welcome change, though, it’s meant some reining in on Amy’s part. "When I was a child and even when I first started singing," she says, "the passion that drove me to write songs and the passion that is just a very familiar companion to me, made a lot of decisions for me. I really [have] had to curb it because I don’t have time." Amy describes her former freedom to take off, carefree and follow a whim.

"Right now, my external life is defined by my circumstances," she says. "The fact that I’m married and have three children, a singing career, I live on a farm—[those things] really do dictate how you spend your time. A 17-month-old child needs loving and providing for and diapering and dressing. I sit down and I’m playing dolls with Millie and going, "I used to enjoy playing with dolls. This is boring the daylights out of me!" she laughs. "Right now, I’m thinking that a lot of the things of life are just things that have to be done. And I don’t say that in a depressing way," she says. "I think it’s a great discipline."

A long-needed one, perhaps? "I think most people whose work and livelihood come from creative activities have enjoyed the freedom [from], and at many times abused a lack of, discipline. Growing up, I was allowed to be irresponsible," Amy confesses. "I was the baby of my family. And then I was not the airhead, but the dreamer. And then I was the artist. And all those things were kind of this umbrella that allowed a long leash…I have really enjoyed being exposed to an environment and to coworkers that say, ‘Pull the load. The cleaning crew’s coming Monday, we’ve got eight loads of laundry—your turn.’ There’s something about just going, ‘right.’ Yes I can, in a melancholy mood, get a baby sitter and say ‘I’m gone’ and spend the whole day in the woods. I think sometimes that’s OK, but sometimes that’s so self-indulgent."

Amy follows her praise for routine quickly with, "I’m not on a soapbox for discipline. I’m not on a soapbox for anything [except to ask myself,] ‘What am I supposed to do today?’ I’m gonna try and do it. I feel like right now, I don’t have plans for the future. I have a few hopes and dreams, but today takes so much energy. And I feel like I’m the most laid-back right now that I can remember being in a long time."

Wow—really? She says, "Even with Gary I just go, ‘You know, we are in this for the long hail. I love you dearly. By the time we die, we’re gonna know each other better than anyone else.’ And you know what? Today is just today. We might laugh, we might cry. We might hug, we might love. And then tomorrow’s tomorrow. I don’t have these grand expectations right now. I’m just kind of letting it unfold. And that feels really, really good.

Something else Amy’s been watching unfold if her own spirituality. While she’s long been involved in a Wednesday prayer and study group, and she and Gary go to church with the kids, she says, "Apart from that, to me the most worshipful time is being outside because I feel like I’m experiencing God’s glory, and nobody’s having to interpret it for me. I just sense it with my very being."

She describes two distinct experiences she’s had in the last four years during her private outdoor worship times, "physical manifestations" in which "my spiritual and physical came together and did things I didn’t understand. It scared me and made me laugh and really made me hopeful," he says.

"There were two different times I was praying and my physical body started doing things I wasn’t manipulating. I wasn’t dancing or pirouetting…In prayer, my body took on a position that I was not making it do. It just startled me and thrilled me and confused me. It frightened me," she admits. "[but] the end result of that was I felt God was telling me, ‘I’m concerned about this thing, This thing that you’re praying about is also important to Me.’

*"It wasn’t an answer," Amy affirms, but it changed her nonetheless. "Whenever I’m just going, ‘Well, here we are, just humans kind of enjoying the Creator and trying to be the created,’ I flash back on those two very specific times of prayer that were so otherworldly [and think], ‘that was weirder than weird.’ Here is a side to God that is incredibly mysterious. [But] in the midst of just keeping on, one step at a time, I know [now] that God has plans for us that we can’t even imagine."

Beyond savoring her relationship of created to Creator, Amy’s also been practicing an inherited art of celebrating her day-to-day existence. Her mother, she says, taught her early to "appreciate the simplicity of life" by encouraging her to draw back from social activity and busyness at times to spend an hour or two alone and contemplative. A friend has recently invited Amy to build on that habit by compiling in the next year their "top five sensory experiences," an assignment that’s making her even more aware of what she sees, hears and feels moment by moment. "I think I have three of the five," Amy says, describing one: "A bath so hot you can barely stand it, something cold to drink and candlelight."

In beginning to pay attention to details of each moment, she’s finding holy stuff happening. A favorite experience happened last December. "It was late. It was before Christmas one night. I had a fire going. And I was feeling kind of melancholy. The children were asleep. Gary was out of town. I pushed back the furniture and I put on somebody’s Christmas CD. And I danced the whole CD. On "I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ I slow-danced. On ‘What Child is This,’ [I had] to pretend to be Mary…It became like a worship experience! I was exhausted by the end, and I just felt like I had enjoyed that evening and that I was very much aware of my Creator. I was very much aware of the blessing of life. And I was very much aware of the fact that anybody would think I was crazy if they’d seen me.

Sensory spiritual experiences aside, business calls for a new album, no win the works and scheduled for a fall release. While Amy’s Christian foundation will be apparent, Amy says, "I really don’t have a spiritual agenda. It’s just a collection of songs I think are pleasant to listen to. My belief in God, my admiration for promises kept and my personal value of human life are reflected in the music, [but] I don’t feel like somebody’s gonna say, ‘Hey, let’s take this new record and make a Sunday school book and guide from it.’ I just want to make good music and provide a backdrop for people to live their lives [against], a soundtrack that doesn’t tear them down from the inside out."

Husband Gary’s also got a new release, The Light Inside,>/I> which offers a country-tinged pop look at what matters to him in 1994—largely God, family and ministry. Amy calls the album "fabulous" and describes the first time Gary played the breathtaking story-ballad "Sweet Jesus" for her: "He was maybe one verse into it and I had this conscious thought: ‘I can either listen to this and hold it together, or I can just kind of let the song roll over me and do what it will.’ It’s the end of the day, I’m sitting with my back toward the keyboard with my shoulder against his shoulder but facing the other way. By the time he was on the second verse, my chest was wet with tears.

I just thought, ‘Oh, I love this man. I love that his creative bent can do something to move me in such a powerful way.’ We’ve had some wild, rocky times, but if I had to do it all over again, there’s nobody I’ve ever met that I would choose instead of him."

"Him," fresh from a workout and shower enters looking relaxed in sweats and athletic shoes. Known for a long time as the jokester on-and-offstage, Gary seems mire serious these days (though his potent sense of humor percolates throughout our talk). Along Amy’s rapid rise to the top, Gary’s had to cope with being "Mr. Grant" and his own career’s twists and valleys. It’s clear from his demeanor today, though, that he’s comfortable with who and where he is. Like Amy, Gary has a strong bent toward spiritual depth, and this shapes his life, music and conversation.

"The big issues for me are obviously my salvation, which I continue to work on," he says, "and my family. And more recently for me, the personal quality God has in my life. I keep thinking that my kids are gonna come up to me and go, ‘Dad, would you just grow up?’ I’m sure it’s coming. And I really want to know that I’m doing exactly what God wants me to do. It’s not that I’ve been unsure about that necessarily in the past. I feel like I’ve been doing the right stuff—being the support for Amy and what she’s been doing, trying to get better at being a songwriter, at being a dad and friend, and all those things. But I think there’s something specific."

Any ideas? "It’s taking shape," Gary answers. "I think God wants me to say something to young people. I just see more and more opportunities to make [that] happen. But now, instead of trying to say ‘I’m this, or I’m that,’ when something comes up, [I] just ask God if He wants me to do it. Whatever it is. And try to learn to hear Him. And however people try to classify that [is] really out of my hands and, to some degree, none of my business."

One business he is heavily involved in is "keeping the fire." What does this mean? "Growing up where I did, a small town in Texas," Gary explains, "you had your football heroes who, instead of going out and trying to get on an NFL team as a walk-on, just took a job in the mill. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but to end this life knowing that I have not gone to the trouble to find out how good I could be at something or how far I could pursue something before it turned around and slapped me—that’s just not something I want to do to."

So he’s Evil Knievel in sweats? "I love to try new things," he says, "things that challenge me, physically or mentally. I think I’m perceived as being kind of a dangerous guy as far as things that I like to do, and I’m really not. I’m really quite fearful. I think things through really carefully before I do them."

Gary’s found that continually reaching beyond fear—to keep risking—can be a fruitful habit. Coupling the passion to venture bravely with fitting into God’s plan "turns it into this wonderful, peaceful resolve that just carries you," he says. He admits it can be misdirected: "I have some goals that are just frankly stupid," he says, "but I pursue them anyway. I’m 36, and I’m still gonna have washboard abs [abdominal muscles] at some point in my life. It’s just dumb stiff that occupies some time. But if you couple that kind of drive with God’s will, it’s a great thing."

Gary also heralds the blessing of the d-word: "Just to have a few disciplines that you maintain, so you know you’re as ready as you can be for something that comes up…I try to do that spiritually. I’m honestly not as consistent spiritually as I am physically. I work out every day like there’s no tomorrow, and I try to let that be something that urges me on to do exactly the same thing spiritually. I try to let those disciplines affect each other."

The commitment and drive to be in the middle of God’s will has kept Amy and Gary together though conflicting careers, periods of miscommunication, a season when Gary battled substance abuse in the mid-‘80s, a growing family—the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of a show-biz marriage. I remind Gary of something he said about his marriage a few years ago: "It’s a war I’m called to fight, and I’m willing."

"I think ‘war’ might be a little strong for where we are right now," he says. ("Thanks!" Amy responds.) "A series of skirmishes might be more…" Gary smiles. "No it’s not a war anymore for me. It’s just a road. And I’m just gonna keep walking down that road. The longer we live together, the more I know where the ditches are."

What’s changed? Amy answers first. "I think the difference between now and 10 years ago [is] that I cam to marriage thinking that men and women were the same, just different parts. We were very different. And to say I understand [that] means a great deal, has been a revelation to me. And also, [she says to Gary] you might think I’m wrong because I know my pendulum swings pretty wide, but personally I think I’m a lot less judgmental in the last few years."

"It would be judgmental for me to say otherwise," Gary quips.

Amy continues, "I think because I had a real agenda, I was more manipulative. I just had places to go, and I knew who I wanted us to be. I don’t feel like I’m like that anymore."

Gary agrees, and says, "I think I’m just boring yet, and I hope I don’t ever get there. But I tend to be easily distracted and swinging really hard toward whatever that distraction is. I’m probably not as much that way now, or at least I’ve cut down the number of distractions to a workable number. I just think I’m more at home that I was."

Being at home for the Chapmans means farm work, which also builds on the marriage muscle that’s kept this couple close. Amy mentions that Gary’s been outside pruning fruit trees. "I love the fact that you’re out there," she says to him, "because it kind of pulls on some romantic ‘living off the land’ thing that I have [Gary laughs]. I don’t know if any other man that’s got 80 fruit trees to prune in the next two weeks. That’s gonna affect his life. It affects the way I feel about him. I like that he’s interested in that." She mentions again the self-indulgence that artists like to wallow in and says, "I feel like some of that reposibility—the farm, the children—has pulled us back."

She smiles at Gary. "You pruner, you." Gary says he wishes it was sunny so he could get back at it. "It’s really very therapeutic," he says.

Both say marriage "gets easier as you go." Amy says, "there are hitches constantly [because] our lives are public and also just because our circumstances are constantly changing, our relationship doesn’t [always] find its form in routine. We’re constantly having to find out, ‘How do you feel? How’s it going? Who are you right now?’ I don’t know how we appear from the outside, but we’re discovering who we are form the inside. Gary’s much more private, I’m much more open. Gary, because he’s so quick-witted, can seem more ‘surface’ but he’s not."

Would they agree, then, with a friend’s comment that Amy and Gary are "in a groove"? Both say yes, and Gary explains the musical and marital term as the time when the band or couple "is agreed on what needs to happen, and when. It’s just the smoothest part of music. And when it feels right, there’s nothing better."

As Amy prepares for another recording sessions, Gary goes after Millie, and I drive back down the long driveway, it’s clear to me that spring has come actively to the inside of Riverstone Farm, even while the outside just rests in the rain.

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