Christian music’s most celebrated voice gives final CCM Magazine interview as artist—with Andrew Greer
For those of us who grew up listening to gospel music, the scene is all-too familiar: a sold out arena, crowds abuzz with anticipation, the prelude of the piano and a chorus of background singers, and then … that voice. From the first electrifying verse to the last tender note, Sandi Patty would sound those celestial soprano pipes, transporting our hearts and souls to another time (and yes, another place) in a concert chock-full of rafter-raising anthems expressing faith, hope, and most of all, love.
When Sandi sings our spirits experience nothing short of revival. Yes, her musicianship is unmatched. And her downhome demeanor and witty storytelling have a way of making us feel like we belong. But it is her heart, so transparently beating throughout the soundtrack of her shows and recordings that hooked us for life.
Perhaps, as a kid, like me, your parents shuffled you to one of Sandi’s concerts. Inevitably, towards the middle of her pristine performance, Sandi would break it down and invite all of us youngsters to join her onstage for a little choreography, and a whole lot of fun. Whether she wanted to be sociable with the children’s portion of her audience, or was simply crazy for scattering the platform with a gang of gawky kids, I didn’t care. I felt like a million bucks.
For the woman who had giggled it up with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, accepted a gaggle of GRAMMY’s and kept company with presidents, was asking me to sing along with her. And though I was sharing the stage with the most celebrated female artist in gospel music history, it felt like I was spending time with a friend. I think everyone in the audience felt a bit like that.
But after fifteen years of standing ovations and platinum recordings, Sandi’s personal life began to crumble. As her private pains became public affair, her professional influence diminished, and, for a time, her stage became silent.
And our hearts were heavy.
You see Sandi’s story was now our story. Sure, I may have never been on television, or palled around with politicians, but I had messed up a time or two. I knew what it was like to feel human. And it seemed Sandi did, too.
Through the arduous road of recovery and a humble re-entry to public singing, Sandi’s career again gained momentum. The scandal that threatened to void the message and cripple the messenger only firmed her testimony and strengthened her connection with listeners. A Sandi show was no longer just a performance, it was a safe space where the generous God she had so flawlessly sung about night after night for years could commune with imperfect saints and sinners under the gracious guidance of music.
Now, after decades headlining the national stage, Sandi is retiring. But before she takes her final bow, I sat down with the Gospel Music Hall of Famer to candidly discuss her final tour, currently selling out venues across the country, her final recording, aptly titled Forever Grateful (Stylos Records), and her future.
But this isn’t merely a tribute to a legend. Nor is it simply a survey of Sandi’s incomparable contributions to Christian music (and beyond). This conversation is a way for us to make peace with the obvious void gospel music will experience, the void we all will feel, when Sandi steps down.
As I pored over concert footage from her extensive career, I discovered one of Sandi’s signature sign-offs. At the close of the evening, Sandi would look out over the audience and in her big-hearted way say, “You are so very loved, today.”
I think it is only appropriate we sign off from this interview with the same generous fashion. So Sandi, from all of us, to you, “You are so very loved, today.”
CCM Magazine: Sandi, we are so excited to have you here. Looking back at some of your older CCM covers, I’m sure you would be interested in the…hair?
Sandi Patty: It’s never been a haircut. It’s a statement. So whatever is going on in my life, you can look at the hair and go, “Oh, okay. I see.” [Laughs]
CCM: The question that is resonating in everyone’s mind, “What is gospel music going to be like without Sandi Patty?” Because more than a voice, we’ve fallen in love with who you are. Why retire? And, why now?
SP: I’m a very introverted person, believe it or not, so I’ve really thought it through. Don [Sandi’s husband] and I have raised eight kids, and they’re all grown. So that basically makes us empty nesters. We have one grandson, and two grandkids on the way. So that’s a new season for us.
CCM: A good season?
SP: A very good season. I know some people want to hear me say, “Oh, it’s so hard being an empty nester.” It’s awesome. [Laughs]
Another reason [to retire], according to the Metropolitan Opera, a woman’s vocal prime is between the ages of 45 and 60 years old. I’m definitely closer to one end than the other. I love music so much that I want to be mindful of the art form. I don’t want to be like one of those athletes and you think, They should have retired. Had Peyton Manning not retired this year, he and I were going to have to have a conversation. [Laughs]
The interesting thing, Andrew, thirty years ago there were a lot of people listening to what I had to say, but I didn’t feel like I had a lot to say. Fast-forward to now, there are less people listening, but I feel like I finally found my voice and have more to say. So just because the singing is going to be set aside, I will always have something to say.
CCM: You currently have quite a bit to say in the form of your final concerts on the Forever Grateful Tour. What inspired the tour?
SP: Honestly, it’s for the fans. I don’t like the word “fans” or “friends,” so we kind of say “frans.” They are who I have worked for. They are the ones who have come alongside and held us up, and walked us through tough times, and spoken a word of encouragement here or there.
At the end of the Last Supper, Jesus washed the disciples feet, taught them what he had just done and then taught them to go and do it. I love the scripture when it says, “And then he loved them well to the end.” That is the lens through which, for me, I see this tour. To love the people well who have loved us all these years.
CCM: You talk about working for your “frans.” Sometimes in the context of Christian music, there is confusion about who bought that ticket. I don’t remember God paying for those tickets. Because you are a Christian musician, do you ever sense confusion from audiences about who you work for?
SP: Someone came up [after a concert] and said, “Thank you so much for singing, but I wish you would sing it more for God.”
Before I found my voice, I would have let that comment go. But I gently tugged her back to me and said, “You need to know that everything I do is for God. I live for Him. I also want to be mindful of the people who are in the same space as we are. And if I can invite you to come alongside and turn your worship to God, then that is what I want to do. So don’t misunderstand my eye contact with you as not turning it to God. It’s trying to be a leader in a worship setting so in that experience, all of us can turn our hearts and minds to God.”
CCM: I hear one new venture you are looking forward to expanding in retirement is teaching, which was really your first love and your first career goal. Right?
SP: It really was. I was one of those kids who didn’t play with dolls or play dress up. I played school. My parents got me a chalkboard and we put it on the inside of my door. I got empty Kleenex boxes and turned them upside down, and those were my rows of desks. So I got to choose anyone to be in my “class.”
CCM: How real. [Laughs]
SP: John, Paul, George and Ringo were in the front row. And they all did well. [Laughs]
I have always loved teaching. I studied voice and piano [in college at Anderson University], but was going to teach. Bill and Gloria Gaither, who are alum of Anderson, heard me sing, called and said, “Hey, we’re looking for a back-up singer to travel with us.” I said, “Let me pray about it. Yes.” So my life really took a different direction.
So one of the things I am very much looking forward to is teaching. I’m starting to teach now. I’m the artist-in-residence at Mid-America Christian University, and we’re doing a Christian Worship Arts & Leadership certificate.
CCM: Tell me some about that program and how it’s helping shape a culture of music leaders.
SP: The word “worship,” which is a fabulous word, has become very limited. When we say, “Stand and worship,” we mean stand and sing. Or [if we say] “worship leader,” we mean music [leader]. Worship is so much bigger than music. It’s how we are every single moment of every single day. Every breath we take is an offering to our Father. When we gather together in a worship setting, that’s to experience our faith in community.
Three or four years ago, I started doing a Biblical study. I’m a “why” person. Why do we gather together? Why is corporate worship important? I started to take a look at where that began in the Old Testament, in the tabernacle, and then in the temple. When the scriptures talk about who was responsible to build the tabernacle, if you were a woodworker, you were skilled and trained. If you worked with iron or gold, you were skilled and trained. No less with the musicians. [You were] skilled and trained.
So one of the things we talk about in class is, what is my job as a person who leads music in a worship setting? So often we want to go right to the leading music part. We often overlook that it is important to be skilled and trained. Skilled in your instrument. Understanding music. What does it look like to be a leader to a group of people? To facilitate the opportunity for others to encounter Christ?
I get really excited about helping empower those who are leading music in worship settings.
CCM: You talk about facilitating the opportunity for us to worship together. Because of your precision and practice, a lot of people would think of your show strictly as a performance. But when my parents and I were at your show in Texas the other night, I kept overhearing people comment, “We have experienced worship tonight.” When you’re preparing a set list, is facilitating worship a part of your thought process?
SP: Later on in my career, I began to understand what it meant to facilitate worship. Before then, I would have called it communication and relatability.
For years, I watched my dad as a minister of music get congregations to sing better than they ever thought they could. He has this way of communicating and encouraging and being relatable. So I watched him connect and really get the best out of that audience.
Then when I began to travel with Bill and Gloria Gaither, it was a master class.
One night someone came up and put a note on Bill’s piano at intermission. This was when they were in-the-round. It was a big production. The note said, “Why don’t you sing ‘The King is Coming’ like you used to sing it when I first heard it?”—because they used to go to churches with just Bill on the piano. I asked Bill, “What you do with that?” He said, “I know enough to know that if they heard it like they first heard it, they would not like it. What they want is to feel like they felt when they first heard it.”
Technology looks different than it did thirty years ago. Concerts look different. Audiences are very wise. But we want to create an evening where they can feel what they felt when they first heard a song.
CCM: And expectations from audiences evolve over time.
SP: They’re very savvy. Very smart. They can sniff out authenticity or inauthenticity very quickly. They can be with you, or they can-not be with you.
CCM: As someone who has worked his own personal recovery, my draw to your communication has always been your transparency.
CCM: Over the past 20 or 25 years, the vulnerable parts of your story have really begun to take root in the message you share. What has it been like to be so transparent with your story on such a public platform? I’m interested in that journey of truth telling while growing in grace.
SP: For the first ten years of my career this was what was going on in my mind, I just want to be an encouragement to people, so I don’t want to bother them with my stuff. Well, maybe I didn’t even have stuff. Maybe my life was perfect. And my husband was perfect. And my kids were perfect. That’s the Queen Of Denial, right there.
When life came crashing down, that was hard. And yet I began to really understand what freedom looked like. Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” If it is a truth about ourselves, and it is ugly, but we speak it out loud … Yup, I had an affair. Yup, I went through a divorce. Yes, my children were really hurt in the process. There’s pain in that, but there’s also a lot of freedom, because shame is what keeps you silent. Freedom can come when you speak it out loud.
Now, there are consequences that still have to play themselves out. I’ve had to learn forgiveness is not the same as consequences. God’s forgiveness is there, and He is all in forgiveness with me, but there are still consequences.
I began to understand the freedom that comes with telling my story because I heard other people be brave and tell their story. And I thought, Thank goodness, I’m not the only one. It made me feel a lot more brave. When I was invited to be a part of the Women Of Faith team, that was when not only the freedom, but the empowerment came for me to share my story.
SP: Permission. No judgment in the sense of, Well, you got a story. Sorry. But, We invite you to tell your story, and walk us past the hard times into how God has been faithful. What has restitution looked like for you? Then I realized it was an encouragement to other people.
The letters I used to get were, “I love your song. I love your music. Thank you.” The stories I hear now are mind-blowing. And what I say to them is, “Now it’s your opportunity to be brave so somebody else can come along and hear your story, and you can encourage and empower them.”
CCM: Sandi, think about how you telling your story has given so many people an opportunity to then tell their story. People root for restoration. And they root for healing. And what your story allows us to do is to identify our brokenness, and not cover it up…
SP: I think one of the most effective mechanisms of the enemy is to make us feel like we are the only one. And when you feel like you’re the only one, you’re going to be quiet. When we begin to share our stories with one another, there is such beauty in that brokenness because we’re not alone.
CCM: Is there a song that has become more powerful to sing now because of your story?
SP: It’s this right here. [Singing] I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free / His eye is on the sparrow / That’s why I know he watches over me. That’s my story.