Tokens: Small Word, Big Show

Tokens: don’t be deceived by the smallness of the word.

Reminiscent of a tiny, plastic disc–stand-in currency–used to make some small purchase, or a gesture made for the sake of appearances, the word takes on a richer and deeper meaning in the context of that delightful mixture of music, mirth and musings that is the Tokens show, Lipscomb University professor Lee Camp’s “Prairie Home Companion”-like, live radio-style brainchild. The show, now a widely-recognized thread running through the fabric of the Nashville entertainment scene, is no counterfeit coin.

Tokens transcends mere entertainment, ascending instead to the level of education, even enlightenment. The latest installment, with the theme “Tales of Reconciliation,” occurred June 7th at Collins Alumni Auditorium on the Lipscomb campus in conjunction with the Christian Scholars’ Conference. It started along similar lines as previous shows, opening with a Lee Camp monologue and an audience participation a cappella hymn, “In the Sweet By and By,” to help set the table. The hymn, dripping in dualistic residue, was an ironic starter for a show traditionally focused on concepts of incarnation and the breaking-in and working-out of the Kingdom of God amid the chaotic warp and woof of everyday life.

But this was not about deconstructing lyrics, although there were many theologians in the audience that would have been glad to do so. The song evoked old timey imagery–clapboard country churches, dusty hymnals, and hoary saints–and tilled the fertile soil of the right brain in preparation for the seeds of contemplation yet to come. Soon, the house band, the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, eased into the reverent reverie with their instruments, and the show was off and running.

Musically, the Tokens show offers a delectable buffet of gospel, folk, classical, blues, contemporary and indie styles, a format that fans of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” will recognize and appreciate. The Boulevard Quartet, composed of Lipscomb music students, performed their classical pieces to perfection. Amy Stroup, a Lipscomb alumna, was the first soloist of the evening and reminded us, with her velvety-smooth pipes and acoustical guitar, that “forgiveness calls,” and invited us to “fix our eyes” on “Redeeming Love.” Likely unfamiliar to many of the over-40 set in the crowd, before the night was over, she would woo and wow the audience with her lyrical voice and weighty lyrics, which have resulted in her making Prairie Home Companion’s “Top 20 Songwriters Under 30” list.

As for Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue, what else is there to say other than–“Say what?”

That was likely the reaction of first-timers as they shook their heads, their minds struggling to catch up with what their ears heard emanating from beneath Mike’s enigmatic sunglasses and fedora. Fortunately, I had heard Mike and the more-than-capable McCrary sisters at last November’s Tokens show at the historic Ryman Auditorum, so I knew something of the tsunami of sound that was about to engulf us. I grasped the armrests of my seat and held on tight.

Mike is hard to classify, but speaking of his own music, he says, “It’s music with dirt on its feet and sweat on its back.” A gritty composite of traditional black gospel, blues, funk, and roots, his sound comes from a deep place within his soul and a joyful heart that has been burnished and cleansed by trial, struggle and overcoming. Ranging from the soulful and slow-moving “Were You There?” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to the rousing “Sit Down Servant,” Mike and the McCrary Sisters, by night’s end, had the crowd of mostly Caucasian, khaki-clad academics shuffling their feet vigorously, if not quite standing and shouting.

Odessa Settles, always a Tokens favorite, took the stage as well. Her version of “Eyes on the Prize” was a particular favorite of mine, both for her beautiful rendering, and its role in kindling my interest in the history of the civil rights movement when I heard it for the first time in the 1980s in the PBS series of the same name. Odessa always delivers the goods, and with her compatriots jack-of-all trades bandmaster Jeff Taylor and guitarist and harmonica player Buddy Greene absent that night, her familiar presence was a welcomed sight to us Tokens veterans, providing a comforting stability and unbroken continuity with previous shows.

A heaping helping of mirth always accompanies the music, and Camp and the other talented Tokens Radio Players once again delivered up several skits bearing their trademark edge and envelope-pushing humor. Despite significant numbers of vegans and vegetarians in the audience, no sacred cow was spared, and if you’re the type who thinks that dry, ironic humor and religion shouldn’t mix and mingle, then Tokens may not be for you. From “Mass Hysteria,” a hilarious send-up of a blended Pentecostal and Roman Catholic congregation struggling to understand each other and just get along, to a talk radio show featuring a “radical moderate” who strongly believes that it would be perfectly fine for both a Muslim and a polygamist to share the Oval Office this fall, the audience roared, if not instantly, then several seconds later when they finally got the joke. Warning: If you have asthma, carry your inhaler.

But the biggest laughs, as always, were reserved for “Brother Preacher,” played by Greg Lee. The irreverent reverend was especially windy that night, relishing the opportunity to pound his little air pulpit and stick it to the audience of Christian scholars, wide-eyed fish trapped in the good brother’s heretic-hunting barrel, for deconstructing and ruining the story of Noah’s Ark and endangering his church’s upcoming Vacation Bible School. He lashed out against a variety of other apostasies threatening to pave over the well-worn ruts of evangelicalism, all the while wielding his favorite fundamentalist buzzwords and shibboleths like God’s almighty hammer.

“You don’t need to read the Bible in Greek anymore,” Brother Preacher hollered at the audience full of nerdy academics. “Why? Because today it is written in English! Welcome to the future!” A satirical take on the tension between reason and faith, Brother Preacher’s jocular jeremiad gave us permission to laugh at our oh-so-serious selves, perhaps the first and most vital step toward reconciling to a world that has often suffered from our many pique-filled fits of self-righteousness and unloving deeds done in the name of God.

Music and mirth, interwoven throughout Tokens, provided pace and variety, but it was Lee Camp’s insightful interviews and musings with special guests that brought home the theme of the evening in the deepest and most permanent way. Each of Lee’s interviewees for the show, Miroslov Volf, Saeed Khan, and Fred Gray had their own “Tales of Reconciliation” to tell.

Volf, a Yale theologian and native of Croatia, spoke of his intimate first-hand knowledge of the need for forgiveness in his worn-torn country which bears the painful scars of religious and ethnic cleansing. True reconciliation, according to Volf, involves remembering the insult first in the hopes of working through it and eventually seeing the perpetrator as a real human being; true repentance, he said, involves both the perpetrator and the victim.

Khan, a Muslim scholar at Wayne State University in Detroit, recalled vividly what it’s like to “move about the country” as a Muslim-American in the wake of 9-11. He spoke honestly and poignantly of the misunderstandings and prejudices that many Muslim face: “Are we talking about at the airport?” Khan joked. “Because we could be here all night just talking about the airport!” In Camp, whose book Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam–and Themselves lit a firestorm of controversy among Christian critics in Middle Tennessee and beyond, Khan was in the presence of a fellow traveler and sufferer.

Fred Gray, famed attorney to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the subjects of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment, reflected on his days in the Civil Rights movement, recalling many significant victories and much progress in race relations over the past 60 years. But he also warned that whiles laws have changed, many hearts have not. He spoke frankly of his lawsuit against Lipscomb University in the 1960s  in which he represented the Nashville Christian Institute, his high school alma mater, whose funds had been “gifted” to Lipscomb when the school’s board of directors shut it down. This set the stage for the next evening when Gray would accept Lipscomb’s formal apology (and their offer to pay back the money to African American students–with interest) and receive an honorary doctorate.

The show ended with an all-cast, all-out rendition of “O Happy Day” with Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue leading the way and sending the audience into yet another toe-tapping frenzy. And indeed, it had been. Faced with a difficult task of truth-telling the next day in my own presentation at the Christian Scholars’ Conference, I had come in search of strength and encouragement. I left well-nourished, ready for the work that I had been called to do.

If there is an invisible god that leaves small signs of its presence, tokens of grace scattered about creation to mark the way home, then surely the trail of breadcrumbs led straight through the middle of Lipscomb University that pleasant June evening. It was a sacramental path that I, and many other hungry souls, will surely travel again.

The June 7th show was the first Tokens to be taped for national public television distribution. A previous episode, “Singing Down the Pain: The Civil War” will be broadcast on Nashville Public Television 2 on June 30th at 7:30 pm. The next live Tokens will be the annual Thanksgiving show, “The Welcome Table,”  on Sunday, November 18th at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Ticket information will be available later this summer on the Tokens website.  Also, you can follow Tokens on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news and updates.

  1. eirenetheou

    Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Review are something to hear; to hear and to see them at the same time strains credulity. i thought of Sam Phillips’s remark about the young Elvis Presley: ” . . . a black sound in the body of a white boy.” In Mike Farris we hear the voice of a black woman with some prodigious lungs in what appears to be the body of a white male — although in that get-up  one can’t be absolutely sure. It is a remarkable exercise. God’s Peace to you. d

  2. Michael Brown

    d– :- )

    Recently, I heard a tall, black man (think Paul Robeson) sing a solo. I expected “Old Man River” bass, but what I got was one of the most beautiful mezzo-soprano voices I’ve ever heard come out of anybody! Life is full of delightful disconnects.

  3. David Underwood

    Thanks for writing in such a way that I felt like I was there with you!  Wish I had been.    DU 

  4. Michael Brown

    DU–You would love Tokens. You really should try to come to Nashville for one of the shows, cuz sumthin’ tells me you ain’t never gonna see it in Searcy. 😉

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