An Interview with Tom Woodle, Rector, The Well, Myrtle Beach
Tom, in addition to being a priest, (Rector of The Well, Myrtle Beach), you’re a musician, singer, author and now teach a group in your parish how to play the ukulele. How do you see creative expression as a part of your walk with Christ? And how important is it in your life?
From the very beginning God has allowed us to “co-create” with Him. We do this in birthing babies, in preaching the gospel, in developing medicine and certainly in what we call “the creative arts.” Someone once said “God gave us music so we could pray and worship without speaking.” I believe this is true and when we add words to the creative mix, we only enhance the gift God has given us. I believe God created us to partner with Him in creating good and beautiful things, so for me, writing music and books are two of the highest expressions of my personal worship. Even when we are singing funny songs, like we often do in the Ukulele group, we are creating joy, laughter and fellowship.
When did you first pick up a guitar or start writing music? Tell us a bit about your creative journey.
I remember very well the first day I picked up a ukulele 66 years ago. My dad was sitting on our front porch playing a banjo-ukulele (which I still have) and I told him I wanted to play. I was four years old at the time. He put the uke in my hands, showed me how to hold it and taught me three basic chords…..C, F and G. Then he taught me the old Hank Williams song, “Your Cheatin Heart.” The chord formation and strumming came very easily for me, so after about 30 minutes, he taught me my second song, “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue,” which required me to expand into a couple more chords. I loved it and spent the next two years constantly playing and learning songs. At age six, I was invited to play on a local radio show. I was so little they had to get a box for me to stand on in the studio so I could reach the microphone. After that I was invited to play in beauty contests, talent shows, etc. around Marlboro County.
When I was about nine I switched over to a tenor guitar, which is a four-string guitar with steel strings. I played that for a couple of years and at 11, started playing the six-string guitar. I had an uncle who would frequent bars and there was this one particular place where guitar players would gather on Saturday nights, in the back room. Some of them had worked in Nashville and were really good musicians who had let “fire-water” get the best of them. Unbeknownst to my parents, my uncle would take me there on Saturday nights to sit and play with them. I learned quite a bit from these guys…..some of it actually about guitar playing. At about 12 I was in my first band and did a little TV work in Florence.
Then at 16 I was in my first professional band, “The Mystics,” which was a soul/Motown band. I started writing music in high-school and eventually that paid off when my band later started playing in Nashville. Over the years I played constantly and was a worship leader in my college Christian fellowship group. I majored in voice performance for one year in college, but gave it up for theological studies.
After college I went on the road playing country and bluegrass. The Reedy Creek Band ended up in Nashville, recording and working with artists such as Reba McEntire, Steve Wariner and other country musicians. In 1983 we had our first (and only) national chart hit and we rode that for several years afterward. When I finally decided I really didn’t like the mainstream music business that much, I gave up the road and returned to create a bluegrass band with three of my friends that lasted for 30 years. During that time I also realized that a large part of my personal apostolic calling centered around leading worship. Today, in addition to being the Rector of The Well, I am also the worship leader. The Uke band was something I thought of after watching Janis Breazeale at St. Matthews, Fort Motte, form the Ukuloonies. I thought it was a wonderful way of celebrating God’s gift of creativity, so I set about doing the same thing at The Well.
How do you experience the divide in creative expression between “secular” and “faith-centered” music?
Worship music is definitely the pinnacle of musical expression. I believe God created music for worship. But I also believe He allows us to utilize that gift for other, therapeutic purposes. Remember that David was the first music therapist when he would drive the demons away from King Saul with his music. I was a psycho-therapist and psychology professor for 20 years before I became a priest, and it is a proven fact that the activity in your brain while listening to music is healthy and life-giving. But when you actually create or play music, your brain goes to the cognitive super-bowl. It is incredibly therapeutic and helps develop neural pathways that fight depression, anxiety and a myriad of other disorders! I think this is just another one of God’s gifts to His children, to help us along the way. I do not condone music that is vulgar, violent or negative, but there is a lot of good music out there that can be very helpful to us on our human journey, and I believe God uses that for our benefit
When, why and how did you begin teaching ukulele? (Got a step-by-step guide we could share?)
Actually, I don’t have a step-by-step formula for ANYTHING. My entire life is pretty much flying by the seat of my pants. That’s my personality type. I instigate and react, but don’t plan. So my teaching the uke and starting the uke band at The Well just happened. Literally. I had started hanging out with some other uke players here in Myrtle Beach, just for some mindless entertainment. Then, o2ne day I said, “I’ve been thinking about this, so let’s put the word out for anyone who is interested to meet me at the church next Tuesday.” I had about 20 people show up, so then I had to figure out what to do. I gathered up some music, got some help from a couple of local uke-players that had some sheet music and just did it. And that’s how it started. It’s been so much fun. The ukulele is the happy instrument. You can’t play it and frown for very long.
Do you think everyone is creative? What if someone says, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body?”
I do believe everyone is creative in one respect or another. Some have creative parenting skills. Some have creative solutions to problems. Some are writers, musicians, dancers, artists or photographers. Some have creative farming abilities. Some can envision and build beautiful and useful structures. Others create delicious and appealing foods. The list goes on, but since we are all created in the image of God, and God is a master creator, then it stands to reason that we all have creative ability if we only recognize it and nurture it.
What are the benefits of creative expression?
As I said before, not only is creativity fun and an excellent means of fellowship, but it is good for your brain, your soul and your spirit. I believe that when we create beautiful and helpful things, we can sense God’s pleasure and we leave the world a little better place than how we found it. Creativity, in my opinion, should be encouraged at all ages and should be celebrated as one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind.
I have my own outlets for creativity, but life is so busy, with work and household chores…it’s really hard to find the time to be creative. Is it important to carve out time? And how would we do that? How do you do that?
For me, creativity in music and writing is the very fabric of my being. It has always been there for me and has carried me through some really tough times in my life. As I see it, if it is a gift of God and has so many life-benefits that go along with it, how can we ignore it, especially for things that may have no eternal significance? I think we ignore and push our own creativity aside at our own peril. After all, if you’re going to help others, you need to be healthy yourself, especially if you are helping people spiritually or psychologically. And, like most things, you have to make it a priority. Like I said recently, “When I have a little extra money, I buy guitars and ukuleles. If anything is left after that, I buy food and clothes.”
What do you do when “the well’s run dry” creatively?
I just relax and wait. There have been times in my life when I would write 15 really good songs in three days or churn out five chapters in a book. Then, I wouldn’t have anything for six or eight months. I don’t try to push it or manufacture it. It’s like that with music and with books. If I am inspired and it’s there, I write it or play it. If it’s not, I just relax and play somebody else’s music or read someone else’s books. It’s not a competition. It’s a journey, and when you try to force it, it becomes something other than a blessing.
Which creative outlet gives you the most joy?
Acoustic guitar music. Something about the “woody” sound of acoustic string instruments makes my heart leap. Lately, I have been learning a lot of old-time Appalachian String music. I’m planning on attending some festivals up in the mountains in the next year. That music is so easy and happy, even the “sweetheart murder ballads.” It’s just a joyful and very natural sound. It really speaks to me and brings healing and comfort.
How would you encourage others who might say, “I know I can’t (sing, play, write, draw, etc.) as well as so-and so…. I’m just not going to try?
Find what makes your heart smile and do it. Open yourself up to things you may not have thought were especially creative in your life. It may not be music. It may be flower-gardening. It could be anything. Just do it. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. You may never be professional-quality, but being professional-quality brings its own set of pressures and troubles. Just set yourself free to know the Master Creator fully and enjoy Him every second of the day! Allow Him to share the gift of creating with you!
Interviewed by Joy Hunter