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English Lessons
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In what feels like a new springtime of his life, Gaither Vocal Band lead vocalist Michael English is poised to release a solo album whose songs reflect what he calls the “good, fun, positive, upbeat” place where God has brought him — far removed from the long, lonely, but also long ago winter of his discontent.

The new album, produced by Jay Demarcus of country supergroup Rascal Flatts — Jay is a former contemporary Christian artist (East to West) with deep Southern Gospel roots — will closely resemble an earlier record that English unabashedly considers the favorite of his personal recordings: Gospel, from 1998, which also was produced by Demarcus.

At press time, English hoped his new album would be ready to release by April of this year, if not sooner. His 11th solo album will be the first in more than four years, since the February 2008 release of The Prodigal Comes Home (which was accompanied by a same-titled autobiographical book).

In contrast to that 2008 album — as powerful as it was in conveying weighty matters of what he calls “failure and grace,” confession and repentance, forgiveness and restoration — English says the new (as-yet-untitled) album turns back toward “the music I love the most,” good old gospel tunes that exude the hope, joy and peace of walking with Jesus through the ups and downs of everyday life.

“Those songs, from the Gospel record, are 90 percent of what I do in my solo concerts now,” English notes — songs like “Blessed Assurance,” “I Surrender All,” “John the Revelator” and “Gospel Ship.” “Because I love them so much, these are the songs I believe I can sing on stage that really reach people. I want to be able to do every last one of the songs on the new album in my concerts if need be.”

One sure-bet tune on the record is “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” not only because English loves it (it was one of the last songs not to make Gospel), but also because God used it at a pivotal crossroads in English’s life.

During the years after his widely publicized fall from CCM “stardom” — after the adultery on tour, the return of the 1994 Dove Awards, the divorce, and the end of his record deal — English was at a party one night. Flipping through the TV channels, he landed on TBN. Crystal Lewis was singing “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”

“I had never heard it done quite like that,” English recalls. Still walking in the wilderness at that point (while pursuing a pop career), he found himself frozen, “trying to turn the channel, but something kept my finger from pushing the button. I don’t know what it was. I’ve looked for that performance, and I can’t find it. Sometimes I think it was just God’s way of feeding me something I needed. He was reminding me that no matter how ‘famous’ I might get, nothing would ever compare to Jesus and what He could provide in my life.”

English mentions another past album — Heaven to Earth, from 2000 — to draw a further distinction with his forthcoming record.

“Back when Benjy Gaither gave Gloria a copy of Heaven to Earth, she listened to it and told him, ‘It sounds like Michael is going through some really tough times.’ And I was. She was rightly concerned. But I don’t want that kind of reaction with this new record. I want people to hear it and know that I have gotten through those trials. I don’t want people to wonder, What’s going to happen next with Michael? It has to be up, fun, expressing things I believe in and where I am today.”

For example, the record will likely include songs dedicated to English’s daughters, Megan and Isabella Grace, and to his new grandbaby. “I love them so much, they all deserve a song. It will be a meaningful record, with lots of fun mixed in.”

Lest anyone wonder, English is quick to point out that he doesn’t believe he has “arrived” at some trouble- free utopia — and that nothing he has overcome has been by his own strength.

“I want to make sure people hear on this record that I have overcome these things, but not by my own doing. God is the one who has helped me overcome them, my relationship with Him. I can trust Him to help me through whatever comes. It just so happens that He has let me come back and do what I love. It’s not easy, because it takes me away from the people I love the most. But I enjoy doing what I believe is God’s plan for my life.”

As he thinks about walking with God in this new season, English compares it to the GPS navigational system in a vehicle — and the friendly voice that says “rerouting” or “Please take the nearest U-turn” when we go astray.

“I’m trusting this GPS to get me there,” he says. “Sometimes I think I know a better way, and I get lost. But push one button from where you are, and it gets you back on track. That is how God has worked in my life. We get brave and think, I’ve got it, Lord. I’ve got it from here. We’ve never got it! We always have to depend on God, and God has proved that to me time and time again. As long as I stay positive and on this path, there will be roadblocks, but God will take care of me. And you know what? I can flourish now.”

Still, make no mistake: English does not dwell in some candy-coated dream world, above the fray; he retains a penchant for delving deeply and honestly into real-life struggles. When asked about any family news he’d like to share, for instance, English chooses a path of relational vulnerability.

“Marcie and I had gone through a really rough time in our marriage,” he recalls. “After that, we started trying to do things to keep us from getting to that place again. We went through some major, intense therapy. We got down and dirty to find out what was going on. It was a fight — a big fight to get our marriage back to where it is now. It was worth the fight. For your kids, for God’s sake, for your own life, it’s worth fighting for. We are better than we’ve ever been. Looking back, we had veered off; we had said, God, I’ve got it, and then realized we didn’t, and got help. You can get in a rut in marriage. That’s when Satan can come in and mess it up. It’s a learning process, and we’re trying to build on that.”

English also remains aware of — and takes pains to articulate — the truth that restoration and healing don’t always result in exactly the kind of overcoming and flourishing that he has experienced.

“Marcie and I will look around at our life and think, God, you are so good. But I’m really careful when I talk about it, because there are a lot of people who have gone through devastating circumstances and not come out in my situation. I don’t say, ‘If you give your life to God, it will all turn out fine.’ That’s not necessarily true. We don’t understand what goes on around us, what God’s mind is. Honestly, sometimes I’ll say, ‘God, you’ve got some explaining to do.’ But I know He is faithful and understands those times when I question.”

English’s solo album is but one aspect of his musical endeavors, of course. Longtime fans know that he sang with the GVB from 1987 to 1994 and rejoined the group in 2009 as lead vocalist. The band has released four albums in that action-packed, two-year span. English looks forward to another full slate of GVB performances and recordings in the days ahead, in addition to his new personal project and life with Marcie and the family.

For him, by grace, spring has most definitely sprung again.

Would He Ever Sing Another Gospel Song?

On May 6, 1994, as the audience watched Michael English accept the last of his four honors at the 24th GMA Dove Awards in Nashville, you could sense his unease. He looked down at the award, shook his head, and mumbled words along the lines of, “This is going to be hard.” After an awkward half-second, he walked offstage to thunderous applause. A few days later, it became clear why English had looked downcast at what should have been a pinnacle of his life and career: an adulterous relationship on tour, a pregnancy, a miscarriage, a looming divorce and English returning his awards.

“Gospel music is my life; it always has been,” English says today. “That’s why it was so hard when everything went down. I thought I probably would never sing another gospel song. It’s almost unheard of to do what I did and to have any chance to return.”

Later, when English appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” a clip was shown of him accepting one of the awards. “We were talking about shame, and a guy in the audience stood and said he had been [at the GMAs], and that he could tell something was just not right. I thought he was going to come down on me, but he said, ‘Thank you for being honest and not trying to hide it.’ I knew what I had done to friends, fans and family. I wasn’t willing to accept his thanks, but it was great to hear those words at that point in time. I thought, I can live my life, and maybe one day I’ll get through it. And with God’s help, it happened.”

English still pinches himself at how much the Lord has helped him overcome in the intervening 18 years. “Sometimes it’s kind of a blur,” he says, “to wonder, How did I get back to this place? How am I able to sing the music that I love again? And to be back with a group [GVB] that means so much to me? I’m so grateful for all of it.”

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