Becoming a Christian might have been the stepping stone to all of Phil Keaggy’s greatest accomplishments.
But it did come at a price.
On Valentine’s Day 1970, the 19-year-old’s mother was killed in a car accident as miles away an LSD trip he took went terribly wrong and left him reeling. In the aftermath, his older sister, a Hollywood actress, shared the Gospel with him, and he leaned in.
“I opened my heart to Jesus and felt super loved and forgiven for whatever,” said Keaggy, from his home in Nashville, “and inspired to create music to help others hear about the good news. Lyrically, most of my albums are about sharing the Gospel and real-life stuff.”
A year after becoming a Christian, he met his wife, who also had embraced the Lord, and created a marriage that’s still going strong 45 years later and produced three children, including a son who’s also a successful musician. His resume boasts 60 solo albums, eight releases with his band Glass Harp, numerous duet and trio albums and a mantel plush with Dove Awards.
Keaggy will perform Friday and Saturday at Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts in Palmer Lake.
Music came early and easily to guitarist Keaggy, who started playing with tape recorders in sixth grade. He’d go to a hi-fi stereo shop, where they’d let him plug into a tape recorder and practice looping music, layering sounds until it eventually sounds as if a full band is playing. He first looped music with his acoustic guitar on stage in 1989 and still does it today.
Keaggy — influenced by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Ventures, Eric Clapton and Cream — had his first professional gig at age 13. By 17, he and his first band, the prog-rock group Glass Harp, were performing and recording. They went on to release three studio albums and a live album at Carnegie Hall, and they opened for the Kinks.
That was pre-Christianity, though. Afterward, Keaggy felt the urge to play softer and more melodic music, indulging his love for classical and English folk-style music. He left Glass Harp in 1972 and moved to a Christian fellowship with his wife in upstate New York. Two years later, he was back with his first solo album, “What a Day.”
“I had real purpose to live,” he said. “And the realization that I would never be a rock star. I wasn’t put on Earth to do that, but I could still play guitar and show joy and be creative and all the things that were right for me. I never felt rejected because I didn’t make it, so to speak, in the music world. I’ve gained a fan base. It’s moderate, nothing huge, but it’s great. I’ve got enough friends to fill a concert hall or a church, and I’m grateful.”
One urban legend has it that guitarist Jimi Hendrix once dubbed Keaggy the greatest guitarist of all time. That has been proven untrue, but it still sheds light on Keaggy’s immense talent, despite having only nine fingers. He’s missing part of his second finger on his right hand because of a family farm accident when he was 4. He paid homage to that missing finger in the 1987 song “Way Back Home.”
Through the years, he’s found pleasure in all of the musical genres and styles he’s performed and recorded, though he considers himself, first and foremost, a guitarist who happens to sing. When he does write lyrics and sings, he prefers to stay in the light.
“I don’t like to write about dark things,” he said. “A lot of people go through dark struggles, and it’s important for them to share through music. I think there’s enough sadness in the world. I like the idea of taking the mind off sadness and being encouraged. When I do sing, I like to sing about the Lord.”
His instrumentals tell a different story, though. That’s how he channels his sorrow and struggles, including the loss of triplets and another baby in the 1970s. His first entirely instrumental album, 1978’s “The Master and the Musician,” addresses those hard times.
“(It) goes to a lot of places emotionally,” he said. “What inspired it was, I didn’t have the abilities to write about the struggles, the lost babies. The music that came out of me has heart and melody, and I wanted it to resonate with the strings of people’s hearts emotionally. Music is hard to explain because it comes from another place. It comes from experience, but our life experience.”
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