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BY Tom Booth
Tom Booth has performed his songs for Mother Teresa, World Youth Day, and Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis.
He has composed three No. 1 hits on the Contemporary Christian Music charts: Kathy Troccoli's “I Will Choose Christ” and “Love Has a Name” and Amy Grant's “Nothing Is Beyond You.” He just released his fifth CD, “Change Me,” which includes his Unity Award winning song “Taste of Heaven” which was named Rock Song of the Year in 2000. Booth recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Did you grow up in a musical family?
Yes, my father played the drums and sang. He was also a very avid music listener, so I grew up hearing all kinds of music all the time. Hearing everything from Beethoven to the Beatles had a tremendous effect on me. My brother is also a drummer and I thought that three drummers in one family would be pretty boring so I also learned guitar and piano.
When did you first start playing?
I remember sitting at the piano at a very young age. When I was between 10 and 12 years old, I started making up songs. I would go around the neighborhood gathering up all the kids with musical instruments. We would gather at a neighbor's house and I would tell them when and what to play, so there was something in me that wanted to create.
What inspired your first song?
During the summer of eighth grade I took guitar lessons. After I had learned a couple of guitar chords, I wrote my first song at about age 13. My best friend, Cappy Chase, had died when we were in sixth grade. Someone had been cleaning a loaded gun in his house and the gun went off and the bullet struck him. I had never experienced death. We were on the same football team. Somehow writing that song was therapeutic and a way to express my grief.
The neighborhood and school had started an award named after Cappy and for a couple of years the school asked me to come sing my song at the presentation of that award, so there was encouragement to do song-writing right away. The song seemed to help me and so many other people. Somehow, it allowed me to get a grasp of something that was much bigger than myself.
Have you always been Catholic?
I grew up nominally Catholic. I didn't have the Catholic school experience, but we went to Mass most every Sunday. I kind of knew growing up that I never had a reason to doubt that what was happening up there on the altar wasn't true, but I couldn't understand how it applied to life. It was something you did on Sunday. It seemed like a fairly good idea until high school.
When did you first see the Church's application to life?
If you go back to the 1970s and if you had a nice head of hair and a guitar you can understand why I would think that I didn't need God.
I had what I needed.
I had become very self-sufficient and self-reliant and didn't value relationships, family or prayer. This caught up with me very quickly. By the time I graduated I grew depressed and started asking questions. How could I be so happy last week and suddenly so miserable this week? Something told me that I needed God. Perhaps more of my baptism, and those Sunday Masses and readings had rubbed off on me.
It was during that empty month of June that I wandered into a Newman Center one Thursday evening and experienced a charismatic Mass. The Gospel reading was as if God had written me a letter. It caught my attention and knocked me off my horse. I returned the following week. Through the Newman Center, I met some people that encouraged me to read the Bible. It was a radical beginning to a conversion.
I understand that you were offered your first music job in the midst of confession. Can you tell me about that?
After graduating from the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1984 with a degree in music I wasn't sure what I was going to do. In college I had served at liturgies and led people in prayer and had a real passion for my Catholic faith. When I returned to Phoenix I looked up Father Dale Fushek, a priest I had met in my younger years, for spiritual direction. He had just become the youngest pastor at the largest parish in Phoenix.
It was during confession that Father Dale asked me if I had health insurance. He said, “I am in need of a musician and I've been thinking of offering you a job.” He jokes that my penance was to work hard for so many years—bad sins, I guess. I began in April of 1985 as the music minister for St. Timothy's Catholic Community in Mesa and it was the birth of something special.
I kept serving our community and the teens. We would need a song for this and a song for that and so I kept writing music. Many of those songs have been picked up by Oregon Catholic Press and by other artists.
Tell me how your collaborations with Kathy Troccoli and Rich Mullins came about.
Kathy had attended our Mass and heard us sing “I Will Choose Christ.” She came down to sing the closing song with us and she whispered to me, “I want to record that song.” I said, “Yeah, right!” and she said, “I'm serious.” So we got together. The song, as it was, was liturgical and probably wouldn't be played on the radio so we changed the lyrics and added a bridge. It became No. 1 on Christian radio and was later nominated for a Dove Award.
I first met Rich Mullins backstage after a concert and we got along. He gave me his home number and encouraged me to call him. I thought, “Who am I to call Rich Mullins?” and so I didn't. Later, while on retreat at John Michael Talbot's hermitage I met Rich again and the first thing he said to me was, “You never called me.”
The last two and a half years of his life he served as a kind of mentor to me. He had been writing a song and asked me and a friend [Mitch McVicker] to help him finish it. We wrote “Nothing Is Beyond You,” but he died tragically before it could be recorded.
Small, alongside with my grief in losing a friend, there was also the loss of that song. I was completely surprised when in December following his death Myrrh Records called. They said, “We understand that you wrote this song with Rich Mullins. Amy Grant would like to record it. Do we have your permission?” It was like getting a call from Rich himself.
Tell me a bit about your most recent album.
I worked on “Change Me” for about two years, and I'm very excited about it. It's certainly my strongest recording to date. It includes a variety of styles including worship, liturgical pieces, and radio-ready songs. It includes a love song I wrote to Our Lady that I sing at a lot of weddings.
It also includes a tribute to the late Rich Mullins called “Just Another Day.” Stylistically and lyrically it's a song that I never could have written if I had never met Rich.