August 30, 2012

This is what recovery sounds like

By Hayley Grgurich they started recording their music from Friday night recovery worship services at St. John’s United Methodist in Memphis, Tenn., the Rev. Dr. John Kilzer and Harry Peel hadn’t openly discussed their desire to make an album that would feel cool.

“I don’t know that we ever really talked about it,” says Peel, “but the two of us just kind of agreed that we wanted to make this an album that anyone could listen to and enjoy.”

They didn’t want pseudo-Christian pop or austere hymns written for a God they didn’t recognize — they wanted mid-town Memphis. At night. On a Friday. As it sounded when two guys with a lot of hard living between them sang it to a crowd with their own hard living among them.

Luckily, they’d been making that kind of music for years — all they needed to do was hit ‘record.’

The Way services — named by Kilzer for the Biblical reference as well as for the Twelve Steps — began when Kilzer was approached by the Bishop of the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church to create a service for people overcoming addiction.

A former alcoholic himself who says he found God while stuck in the drunk tank, Kilzer knew the challenges of his audience. “I thought, if it’s going to be a recovery service, the only thing that’s going to make it fly is music.”

Rounding up a band was easy. In the 80s, before his days as ‘the Rev. Dr.’, Kilzer had been a basketball player-turned poet-turned musician with a Top 10 hit and a drinking problem. Music introduced him to Harry Peel, a drummer with a resume that included tours alongside major artists like Little Feat and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and the friendship stuck.

Living in Memphis helped too, as Kilzer and Peel attracted big-name musicians to back them. Steve Selvidge, guitarist for The Hold Steady and Big Ass Truck; Jim Spake of Cat Power and Lucero; Sam Shoup, arranger and conductor for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra; Richard Ford, Jim Duckworth and more are regular fixtures of the service.

It’s the sheer talent in the room any given Friday that Kilzer and Peel say makes the service meaningful for the recovery crowd, but accessible to anyone.

“When we first started I was a little apprehensive about people who weren’t in recovery coming to the services because sometimes they get a little skittish around it,” says Peel. “But we’ve had so much support from people who aren’t in recovery — musicians and the people who come have told me how much they’ve gotten from this.”

It was this same inclusive spirit that informed their song choices for their first live album. “The only criteria we had was, ‘is it life-affirming?’” says Kilzer. “Also, for us, it’s kind of like our woundedness is our giftedness,” he says, and they chose songs to match.

After eight months of recording their Friday night services, Peel took the tape into the studio and set about polishing it down into the new album, The Way Live. What resulted is a collection of re-imagined covers of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Stephen Stills, George Harrison and others along with original tracks by Kilzer. It’s an authentic, honest, rough-hewn album that could have only been made in Memphis, by guys who know what they’re talking about.

The Way Live is available to sample and purchase at

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