You and Jeff seem to get along so well, but you also seem like such different people. After being married for 30 years, can you tell us what makes your relationship work?
Hands down, communication! Because you can’t fix a problem that you are totally unaware of. You have to communicate what you’re feeling. Now, that doesn’t mean that every time your partner does something you don’t like, complain about it. (laughs) But Jeff will come in and say, “Baby, don’t do that by yourself; ask me to help you.” I’ll be sitting there furious that he’s not seeing me work and offering to help me, and he doesn’t even have a clue what I’m doing!
You know, men and women speak different languages — it’s a common fact. So you can’t be afraid to say what you feel and what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. In our 30 years, Jeff and I have found out that most of the time, when I’m upset or he’s upset, there really was no basis for being upset to begin with. It was just a misunderstanding of “what I thought you meant.” So communicate often and communicate well. And, more than anything else, extend a little more grace; that would encompass a lot.
You've just released a new album called Small Town, and of course, you have chosen to live in the small town of Lincolnton, Georgia. What are some of the reasons you have felt called to stay there?
In the album liner notes, I wrote that the best thing about a small town is that it grows deep roots. So I am deeply rooted where I am. I live across the road from my mom; I live beside of the home that Pop Lewis was brought up in when he moved there in 1910 at age 5. I live across the road from my uncle, two miles from my aunt, two and a half miles from my grandparents. In other words, we are attached to the earth there in Lincolnton — very grounded there. I did look a little bit of searching for my family tree, and at just a quick look at it, there are six generations of us in that little town. I think that’s pretty cool. It really is something wonderful to come home to.
That is pretty cool. Can you tell us what makes you most excited about this new album?
Any time there’s a new album, there’s always this grand excitement, but especially in one of these milestone years. The idea of a marriage working for 30 years is pretty incredible, but the idea of a marriage between two people who work together 24 hours a day is probably unbelievable by today’s standards. So to be able to cross one of these milestones makes it even more exciting for us. And also, the fact that when you hit milestones, you are forced to look back. There’s something about a milestone that makes you remember — “Can you believe where we came from? Can you believe what this song said?” and so forth. The thing that I caught onto very quickly is that the messages are all still the same—the messages of faith, hope and love.
Even though we’ve changed the way we record—from LPs and cassettes to CDs, from reel-to-reel to digital, and all the other technical changes—the messages of the songs are exactly like they were on our very first album. It’s just amazing—the message is still the same, and that’s pretty exciting.
How has your songwriting process changed over time? Are you more confident now? Are you focusing on different things?
I’d say probably, after about the third or fourth song, there was a confidence that, in my opinion, allowed me to be creative. I don’t feel any pressure. I tell people all the time, I don’t write for a living; I write for the joy of it.
I wrote my first song when Madison was a baby, and he’s 26 years old now. And somewhere about 25 years ago, I realized what an enjoyable process writing is. I’ve always been a reader; I’ve always been a writer. It’s something that I kind of go to when the rest of the world feels a little too hard and I’m wanting to get away. Jeff will tell you one of the first things I pack before I go on a trip is a book, and I never pack only one, because I don’t know what mood I’m going to be in. I always take three or four books plus my Bible. I do it for the enjoyment of it.
On the last album, I wrote six of the tunes all by myself. This album, I wrote five of the tunes, all with co-writers, because I just wanted to do something different. And I didn’t write with the same writers … but Kenna (Turner West) showed up a lot. She and I — we’re kind of sisters at the hip. I’ve known Kenna as long as I’ve known Jeff. We all knew each other about the same time 30 years ago. When she started writing, I just fell in love with what she had to say, and we recorded one of her very first cuts.
It’s been a beautiful collaboration with some very talented folks, and it gave me the opportunity to say exactly what I wanted to say, with some of that “steel on steel” to make me say it better. The first single, “Jesus Loves You,” is a perfect example of that. I went in wanting to write a song that said “Jesus loves you” because I’d seen some news articles that just seemed so horrible. I walked away from it feeling like, how can people be so mean to each other?
I believe the reason that sometimes we’re mean to one another is that somewhere along the way, we have lost the recognition of our values. We don’t know that we are loved; we don’t know that we are valued. Whether it’s a smart remark or a truly mean attack toward someone, it’s because we are having issues and not feeling loved. So I just wanted to remind everybody, you are loved, you are not forgotten. Around that same time, I read the scripture saying that He’s engraved your name on the palm of His hands and even though a mother may forget her nursing child, God will not forget you.
I went through all these passages and I told Kenna and Don (Poythress) that, and I started crying just trying to tell them how much this meant to me to say this. So we started writing different things that people feel … we all go through different ins and outs. We got to the end of that first verse, and Don strummed the downbeat on the guitar and sang the title that I’d told him 30 minutes before, saying “Jesus loves you. Jesus loves you.” I started squalling, and then we started writing verse two and I drew from my experience of my daddy dying when I was only 20. I started the second verse with “When the funeral was over,” and Kenna looked at us and said, “and the casseroles are gone,” and Don and I were like, oh my goodness. That basically is the time that you start to feel alone, when the people aren’t there every day for you, and you just want to stop the world and say, “Don’t move. Help me. Let me get through this, then we can go back to living.” But you can’t do that. You have to learn how to breathe in and out, as hard as it is, and a lot of times, you do that all by yourself.
It has to be really hard going through your mom's illness now, too...
I think because of my daddy’s death, my mom and I grew exceptionally close. By the age of 20, you are your parents’ child, but then you become their friend and their confidante. Then I crossed over into her partner, because I had to help make decisions for the funeral and decide should we replace the air conditioner this year, or can we just get through? Is it time to replace the roof?
So all of a sudden, because my mama is more of a dependent person, she started literally asking me her every move. Do I need to buy this vacuum cleaner, or do I need to wait? I am a business major, so she asked me a lot of financial questions. So we kind of had this exceptionally weird mom and daughter/business partner/confidante relationship. Then, all of a sudden, the person I spoke to four or five times a day — all of a sudden, she can’t talk. And we had to learn how to communicate with a touch of our hand or a hug. It was about six months ago. She’s to the point now where she just says one or two-word phrases about once a month.
About six months ago, I was telling her … I always do … when we are together, I always say “I love you” many times, when I come in, during our time together, and as I leave. Well, this time, I was getting ready to leave and I said, “Mama, I love you.” And she said, “I love you, too!” And it was like, oh my gosh. I said, “Mama, you said ‘I love you’! That’s beautiful!” She tried to do it again and couldn’t, and she broke down and started crying. I said, “Oh Mama, you don’t have to say it. You said it so well for so long. You don’t have to say it; I know it. We understand.” It’s just so hard, you know? But you do — you find new ways to communicate.
Can you pick a couple of songs from the album that mean the most to you?
You know what? It’s like picking my favorite children; I don’t think there is such a thing. I like a lot of the songs for different reasons. But that song, “Like You’re Still Here” … I think that was the first song that Jeff chose for the album. Jeff is country to the core, and a new country artist, Mo Pitney, was a co-writer on that song. We realized after hearing a few songs from Mo that we had known the Pitney family from Illinois, because we used to go sing for them at the rescue mission up there. So it was really nice to connect with this family that we’d had a bond with from 25 years ago.
So this song was written by Mo’s grandfather, who had passed away. But Jeff felt such a closeness to it, just from the perspective that his daddy’s in Virginia while he’s in Georgia, and he wants to do everything he can do to make James proud, just like he was still here. Mo changed the second verse to be more about Jeff and his dad both playing guitar, and I love the line that says, “As I let your memory echo off the strings…” That is such poetry and so poignant for Jeff and James.
Tell us a little about the musicians and guest vocalists on the album.
On our very first album, Jeff and I hired Nashville’s best. We did that because we didn’t know if we were going to record another album, and we wanted the one album to be the very best that it could be—we didn’t cut any corners. We have always chosen the best of the best, and those musicians … they don’t do anything but come in and make you look even better. The same with the songwriters—we pick the best of the best, and they make us look better. We get background vocalists like Michael English and Paul Lancaster, and it just doesn’t get any better than that, you know what I’m saying? You keep surrounding yourself with great people, and they just pour really good stuff into your project.
We know that your son Madison transitioned out of the group several months ago to pursue his own musical career with his wife, Shannon. What has that been like for you?
Yes, he’s enjoying this love affair with words as he’s learning to write more. We travel 100,000 miles a year, and it wasn’t possible for him to devote as much time as he wants to his writing. Plus, they have a different idea of how to write, so they are exploring things with their own music. It’s that point in their marriage where they knew it was time to just do something that they could call their own.
I couldn’t be happier. I’ve told people for the last 10 years that I am going to enjoy my babies as long as God lets them stay here, but I’m a smart enough woman to know that at some point, He may pull them in other directions because He can get two, three or four times the work done. Right now, they’re loving life.
And what’s happening with Morgan and Maura?
Morgan is 21 years old and at that point in her life where she really wants to make her music count. She’s choosing songs for her new album. She recorded one album when she was 5, one when she was 9 and one when she was 17. She feels like, obviously, that music is too young for her now, because she’s grown a lot in the last four years. So she’s anxious to get her new music out; she’ll be working on her project in the fall and probably releasing it in 2016.
She’s just trying to enjoy this interim period, knowing that all she’s ever wanted in life is to eventually be a wife and mother. While that hasn’t happened yet, she’s going to enjoy this time for Morgan. I tell her all the time, “Be selfish; enjoy your days, because when a husband and children come along, you are of the nature to put them first, and you will do it well. So enjoy this time by yourself.”
A couple of her friends went off to college and moved away from home, and she said, “Mom, I feel like I almost need to move away.” I said, “Let me encourage you … don’t leave too soon.” (laughs) “Stay home with Mama and put money in the bank — that’s a really good way to do it.” She’s a good girl, she has a great heart, very deeply passionate and very affirmed that God is at work in her life. She’s trusting Him with every step, and that’s a good place to be.
Maura is 9 years old, life of the party … she just brings us all joy. I tell people all the time she’s my sunshine, and she really is. All of my kids are funny, and that’s a very good trait to have within a family. Maura is really good in school, and she loves her friends from school. She loves her art and music classes, and she loves science.
She is a very loving and caring person, and last year, her teacher awarded her the “Bucket Filler” award. She said that we all carry around a little bucket and we put stuff in it — kindness, joy, smarts, diligence, hard work. We fill up our bucket with whatever we choose. If we fill up our bucket with all good stuff, it will overflow into the lives of others. And I think that’s a beautiful way of looking at the way we should live our lives, because if you fill it up with anger, bitterness, resentment and negativity, that’s what you’re going to overflow into people’s lives.
Maura's really a cool kid; she has a great personality and never meets a stranger. She’s just a lot of fun, but also very kind. I had one teacher tell me that there was a little girl in school who was pretty much the antagonist of the crowd. She said that with other kids, things would escalate into this horrible situation, but Maura always comes in and keeps things very even keeled, very happy and pleasant. So she’s a wonderful kid; I’m very blessed. The one thing I can say about her is that she’s a little impatient. There are some days that she’ll ask me to do something and I’ll purposely make her wait, because I know that life is going to require that of her. (laughs)
Remind us of how you and Jeff initially became involved with the Gaither Homecoming family…
It was a beautiful story of God’s intervention in our lives. In the spring of 1991, we were getting ready to head out for a weekend on our travels and found out that Michael English, who had been a friend of Jeff’s and mine since we were first married, was going to be in Gainesville, Georgia. So we decided to leave a few hours early and stop by there to go eat with him or something. So we get to Gainesville and Michael asked if we could stay for the concert, so we said sure. He said, “I just really want Bill to hear y’all.” It was the kindest of compliments, and we thought, “Wow, that’s really sweet.” So Michael asked us to come in and play something, but at that time, we didn’t play with any tracks at all. We’ve always, for 30 years, had a live band. So Jeff said, “Well, we’ll have to put together the music and everything, but yeah, we’ll do it.”
So Michael told Bill, and Bill said, “I tell you what. We’ll take intermission, and while we’re doing that, have Jeff and Sheri set up, and I’ll come back in, and they can start off the second half of the program.” So we’re like, “Wonderful! This is great.” So we get up and sing ‘Roses Will Bloom Again,’ and the whole time Bill is behind us going, “What a song … what a lyric … what a voice!” He was such an encourager, and this went one through the whole song, and I thought wow… that is just precious.
When we finished, he asked if we’d be interested in doing his Praise Gathering in the fall, so we did. Then he asked us to do Gatlinburg in May, then Praise Gathering the second year. Right after that, they did the very first Homecoming video, and on the second video shoot, which was Landmark (1994) — I was pregnant with Morgan, and we’d been working with Bill for about two years. We were the new kids there and some of the youngest on the set. It just happened to be that Bill felt like asking Gloria to pray after we sang our song “Roses Will Bloom Again” — that was the one he wanted to hear again—and she prayed the most beautiful prayer. [To see Jeff & Sheri's performance in that video, click here.]
They called about three weeks later and asked, “Has your baby been born yet?” She had just been born and they asked us to send them a picture of her. I sent them one of our first pictures of her, not having a clue what was going on. If you watch the Landmark video, it literally is the zenith, the moment, the wow of that video, because this precious prayer is prayed over this beautiful little girl who had just been born … over this very pregnant, teary, emotional mother. It was just a God-ordained time in our lives. I get emotional just trying to say thank you to Bill and Gloria, because this is our 23rd year of working with them and I can say hands down, other than our families, I’ve never had a couple influence my life more positively than Bill and Gloria.
Click here for our conversation with Jeff Easter in Part One!