Two of Nashville music’s most inspiring musicians, Dove Award-winning singer-songwriter Buddy Greene (who co-wrote “Mary, Did You Know?” with our own Mark Lowry – and Grammy-winning songwriter-banjo extraordinaire Ron Block (of Alison Krauss + Union Station – join hosts Mark Lowry and Andrew Greer for an expressive table talk on how music helps form, and inform, our faith. Plus, lots of live music and guest appearances by singer/songwriter Cindy Morgan and hymn expert/author Robert J. Morgan!


Mark: Today’s conversation is gonna be how music has impacted our theology. I know the hymns of the church that I grew up singing are the ones that come back to me when I’m in times of trial or testing or having an MRI. “Blessed Assurance” is a song that comes to me all the time. And I wanna talk about that today. How the music has impacted the theology. And tell them about our guests.

Andrew: Our guests are some great friends of ours. Buddy Greene who co-wrote “Mary Did You Know” with Mark Lowry. But he’s a great singer-songwriter and harmonica player. Ron Block, who’s potentially — I think he is actually, officially — the world’s most famous, best banjo player.

Mark: Wow.

Andrew: And also a songwriter. Plays with the Alison Krauss & Union Station. Tons of Grammys. But what’s important and what’s really cool about these guys in this conversation especially is that in their lives, music especially has informed their spiritual journey.

Mark: Especially, it has. And I am especially glad to have them here today. Let’s join the conversation.

The Theology of Music

Mark: I mean you travel with—

Andrew: Alison Krauss.

Mark: Alison Krauss. … All I’ve ever known is the gospel world. And there have been some stories in the gospel world, too, of craziness going on. But my question I guess is is it harder? Did you always want to play country music or bluegrass?

Ron: Bluegrass, yeah.

Mark: So, have you ever played in a Christian band at all?

Ron: No, but I’ve done gospel my whole life. Not in the gospel world.

Buddy: I drag him out on the road with me sometimes.

Ron: Yeah, I go with Buddy.

Andrew: But do you feel a freedom in that? Like we’ve been talking about this legalism. We talked about all the things that bind us up spiritually. But what about musically? Do you feel a freedom? You know, sometimes I think we — and Buddy, I think I can include you some in this — but work a lot in the field of gospel music. And we feel sometimes, I would say.

Mark: What is expected of us.

Andrew: Yes, and parameters that I’m not even sure I agree with because I’m like, well, this is still within the context of my faith and my spiritual world. Do you feel free from that? Or does that feel too free? Like, I’d like to go to church today when I play. You know, that kind of thing.

Ron: Generally, I’ve always had a strong compulsion that I’m to play music. And gospel is included with that. But it’s basically, I play in a secular band. And we do gospel within the show. But like, for gospel artists, doing gospel, they’re bringing that to Christians mostly.

Mark: You’re hauling the water to the desert.

Ron: You go out there into the world and you… We’ll do these long sets of sad songs, fun songs, all kinds of stuff, and then at the end, there’s kind of this gospel segment that’s a spirit…

Buddy: That’s what I was gonna bring up. I remember seeing Alison and Union Station play at the Ryman one night, and there was just this great concert, an incredible virtuoso musicianship going on up on stage. Amazing singing, all of them. And then these songs, just great songs, so well crafted. And you’re right. Most of them are sad. Most of them are about some sort of brokenness, in a relationship, whatever. And then at the end of the night, they leave the stage and everybody’s going nuts, bringing them back out for an encore. And they come back out, and they get around one microphone. And they sing this gospel song, “He Is the Reason.”

Mark: “He Is the Reason”?

Ron: “There Is a Reason.”

Buddy: “There Is a Reason.” It’s a song that Ron wrote. And it was just like all of a sudden… And then the great thing about it is here’s an encore moment, everybody’s on the edge of their seat listening.

Andrew: Talking about Jesus is the reason.

Buddy: That’s right. There’s one mic on stage and about five people leaning into it singing, and everybody’s hanging on every word. And so the gospel just got shouted into the Ryman that night at that moment. And I would say it’s probably a more effective three minutes than the hour and a half gospel concert that you went to.

Alison Krauss & Union Station singing “There Is a Reason”

Hurtin’ brings my heart to You
Crying with my need
Depending on Your love to carry me
The love that shed His blood
For all the world to see
This must be the reason for it all

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The Christian Artist in Ministry

Ron: I think sometimes it happens where people will have a message and they go, I wanna get this message. And it happens sometimes in Christian movies, sometimes in Christian music, and where the message is too much the primary thing that they cannot give sufficient attention to the rest of it. So, in going, well, the message is good and it’s God’s message, so God’s gonna bless it anyway. And Dorothy Sayers has this fantastic essay called “Why Work?” She said some of the worst religious films — she wrote this back in the 40s.

Mark: Wow.

Ron: She said some of the worst religious films I ever saw were by a company that chose its staff exclusively for their piety. And then she said, bad acting, bad photography, bad writing, made a result so grotesquely irreverent that the films could not be shown in churches without bringing Christianity into contempt. So that’s the level of contempt she had for that. Like where it’s all message and then no technique. You have to study guitar technique. You have to study songwriting technique. We have to study the craft of what we do, the craft of singing. And be excellent and do the job. Then you can be a vehicle for the message.

“We have to study the craft of what we do, the craft of singing. And be excellent and do the job. Then you can be a vehicle for the message.” – Ron Block

Mark: Grateful. That is the truth.

Buddy Greene, Ron Block, and Mark Lowry singing “Twelve Gates to the City”

Well I saw the new Jerusalem city
As long and deep as it was wide
Coming down out of heaven
Beautiful and holy
Prepared to be God’s bride
Well there’s no more crying in the city
And no more death or pain
Well everything’s made new
It’s the gospel truth
And all the old things are passed away

Can you help me now?
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
God knows it’s a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah amen

Oh well I didn’t see no temple in the city
I saw God and the Lamb instead
I saw the glory of God give the light of the Lamb
It was a lamp like the revelator said
Well every tribe, nation, and tongue
Well they were walking together as one
And all the kings of the earth
Were bring their worth
To the city that needs no sun 

Can you help me now?
Oh what a beautiful city
Oh what a beautiful city
God knows it’s a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah amen

Buddy: Play it, Ron Block.

Yeah well now the Alpha and the Omega
The beginning and the end
You know the Lion and the Lamb
The Great I Am
He got a message for every kinda man
And He says if you’re thirsty come to the city
Come drink from the water of life
You know there is no cost
Don’t stay lost
Come inherit your eternal life 

Well can you help me now?
Oh what a beautiful city
Oh what a beautiful city
God knows it’s a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah, amen

Buddy: Oh, do it again, Ron.

Well there were three gates in the east
Three gates in the north
Three gates in the south
Three gates in the west
Woah and that makes twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah, amen 

Oh what a beautiful city
Oh what a beautiful city
God knows it’s a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah, amen
Mark, I said there was
Twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah, amen
Ron you say twelve gates to the city
Hallelujah, amen

Mark: That was good.

Music and Spirituality

Andrew: In my mind, music, the act of participating in music, is a direct link to God. How has music in your lives played out in a spiritual sense? Has it been a spiritual connector for you? Has it been a revealer to you of maybe God in His character? And how?

Don: So many levels that music has revealed to me who I’m not and who I am.

Mark: Really?

Don: One of the ways when I was young, I got my identity from playing music. That was a way as a teenager I felt good about myself. Well, I’m playing good, I feel good. I played with a bunch of people and they liked my playing. I feel good. Right, so I got my identity from what other people thought of my playing and also from the playing itself. If I played good, I just went, yeah! Which there’s nothing wrong with those things in and of themselves. But when your identity comes from that and begins to come more and more, it’s an idol. And so through that I got in Union Station, and that idol just ramped up and just threw me to the ground. A couple years later—

“…when your identity comes from that and begins to come more and more, it’s an idol.” – Ron Block

Mark: What happened?

Don: Well, just internally.

Mark: Okay.

Don: It just didn’t work.

Mark: It wasn’t fulfilling.

Don: It wasn’t, and I felt bad about myself. And I couldn’t figure it out. But I knew I was a good Baptist boy, that the answers were in the Word. And I started finding truths in the Word that pointed me to Christ. Where it said things like, for you are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Now I’m free, I no longer live but Christ lives in me. And things like that where, he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit. If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Not will be a new creation, but is. And then the old has gone, the new has come. So those tenses like really banged against my theology in those verses. Those kinds of verses that talk about it as now instead of as future. And in my theology that I grew up with, it was all talked about as future. It’s all horrible now and Jesus forgives us for all our horribleness but someday.

“If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Not will be a new creation, but is.” –Ron Block

Mark: Someday.

Don: So I began to take that, what I had always thought was someday, and look at it in the Word as a present tense thing, and it began to change how I thought about myself and how I felt. So that’s one of the ways in which music, for me, was a revealer.

Cindy Morgan, Singer-Songwriter

Andrew: As someone who appreciates the hymns and the history of church music but who has been very current and respected and in demand as a writer of current music for the church, how do you balance that from a heart level?

Cindy: I think in some ways it’s easier to go one extreme or the other. OK, this is like a hymn and this is a radio song. And especially now that I think modern Christian music has turned into church music in a way, like the modern church music, worship music, I’m not a huge fan of most of it because I think it’s poor songwriting.

Mark: I agree.

Cindy: A lot of it is poor songwriting and poor crafting and reusing a lot of old phrases and not… And sometimes, like when you mentioned earlier about balancing the paycheck of being a writer in today’s society against the kind of time honored tradition of hymn writing, I can’t help but believe that the kind of financial aspect of getting paid from a CCLI check does not factor into like your kind of purest attitude of writing a song versus like the old hymn writers who are writing out of an enormous amount of angst and suffering and need for God, and that was an outpouring of that. And so now I do believe that there are songs in the modern worship culture that break through and that are sincere and you can feel it. And for me, immediately, it’s like a gut reaction.

Mark: Absolutely. I call it hearing from home.

Cindy: Yeah. Well, that’s cool.

Mark: You never know when you’re hearing from home. This your ET light goes off.

Cindy: Yeah.

Mark: Remember ET?

Cindy: Phone home.

Mark: When we think about home. Oh, that movie made me cry.

Cindy: I know. It’s so sweet.

Mark: But seriously, just about the time I think, OK, I’m sick of music. I don’t even wanna be involved in it anymore. Another great song will be heard.

Buddy Greene, Ron Block, Mark Lowry, and Andrew Greer singing “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”

Buddy: One, two, three.

What a fellowship, what a joy divine
Leaning on the everlasting arms
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine
Leaning on the everlasting arms
Leaning, leaning
Safe and secure from all alarms
Leaning, leaning
Leaning on the everlasting arms

Buddy: Gonna lead it up there, Ron.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear
Leaning on the everlasting arms
I have blessed peace with my Lord so dear
Leaning on the everlasting arms
Leaning, leaning
Safe and secure from all alarms
Leaning, leaning
Leaning on the everlasting arms
Leaning, leaning
Leaning on Jesus
Safe and secure from all alarms
Leaning, leaning
Leaning on Jesus
Leaning on the everlasting arms
Leaning on the everlasting arms

Mark: Yeehaw!

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Robert J. Morgan, Author and Hymn Expert

Mark: When I had my MRI, when they thought I had a mass, and the guy slung me into that MRI, and then right before he did it, he said, “Oh, they just wanna rule out MS.” Well, that’s the first I’d heard of MS on me. And so I was sitting there thinking, what is MS? And I was racking my braining and going through all this. It was the hymns that carried me through that.

Robert: Yeah?

Mark: It was “Blessed Assurance,” “Jesus is Mine,” and quoting every scripture I knew to calm my heart.

Robert: Yeah.

Mark: It wasn’t one of the new praise songs. And I know I’m at the generation now that’s supposed to be old and bitter and hate everything, but I’m starting to understand why they did.

Robert: You know, I do love the new praise songs. I just don’t want to lose the old hymns in the process.

“I do love the new praise songs. I just don’t want to lose the old hymns in the process.” – Robert J. Morgan

Mark: I do too.

Robert: And one of the things you were just saying is that when you were rolled in for that MRI, you knew the hymns because you had been singing them for so many years. And these songs contain great truths, and as we sing them over and over and as we sing them over a lifetime and as we sing them over generations, then they get deep into our hearts and they become pools of meditation. And so when you no longer are memorizing and learning hymns that you were singing over a lifetime, then that pool from which you can meditate is drained dry. And that just cannot happen without an impoverishment of the soul.

“…[Hymns] get deep into our hearts and they become pools of meditation.” – Robert J. Morgan

Living The Power of Jesus Christ in Our Lives

Andrew: Ron and I have talked a lot about living, truly living, from the power of Christ that is alive in us now through He in the Spirit. Right?

Ron: Right, right.

Andrew: What would look differently if we actually lived out of the place of power rather than what we’re talking about, instead of focusing in on our weaknesses, instead of constantly focusing on our sin selves.

Ron: Yeah, or just accept the right estimation of yourself.

Mark: Which is?

Ron: Well, apart from God, I’m completely weak and helpless and unable to be good. I do not know what eternal good is. I have no idea how to help somebody in a way that is eternal on my own, apart from… If God was not in me, I would not be able to help people in that way.

Mark: I have atheist friends who believe that they don’t need God to be good. They look at us like, you’re afraid God is gonna spank you if you’re not good? I’m good because I wanna be good. I wanna be nice. I wanna help people. And so what would you say to that? I mean, they really are good people.

Ron: Yeah, absolutely. What I mean is eternal good. They’re not concerned with eternal good because an atheist, by definition, you don’t believe in an eternity.

Andrew: In fact, that’s maybe why they would say do as good as you can now.

Mark: Which we should.

Ron: Which, yeah, you should as well.

Andrew: But for different reasons.

Ron: But for different reasons. The Christian believes people…

Mark: I see that look. I’ve seen this look. Have you seen this look? It’s like, where are we going? Alright, tell me what you’re thinking.

Buddy: Well, that I can be good without God. It’s like, well, Kimball, what do you even base your idea of goodness on? I mean, there have been people who felt that child sacrifice was good. So, I mean, where’s your idea of goodness come from?

Andrew: That’s a great point.

Mark: Yeah, it is.

Buddy: I think God’s behind it all. And the fact that you wanna do good, He’s behind that too.

Mark: I believe it.

Buddy: You may not know it, but He’s not in the business of getting all the credit. If He was, He’d never get anything done.

Mark: Now there’s a quote.

Cindy Morgan, Mark Lowry, and Andrew Greer singing “If That Isn’t Love”

Andrew: Old school writers though, you are talking about that. This segues into what we’re gonna sing.

Mark: Fanny Crosby.

Andrew: Dottie Rambo.

Cindy: Dottie Rambo.

Andrew: Somebody who probably wrote from the heart.

Mark: Oh, listen. She never thought she’d have anything more than the trailer in Kentucky that she lived in. And she wrote all those. She’s a big fan.

Cindy: Oh, huge, huge. First song I ever sung in church was a Dottie Rambo song.

Mark: Was it?

Andrew: Well, let’s sing one.

Cindy: OK.

“If That Isn’t Love” with Cindy Morgan, Mark Lowry, and Andrew Greer

If that isn’t love
The ocean is dry
There’s no stars in the sky
And the little sparrow can’t fly
If that isn’t love
Then heaven’s a myth
There’s no feeling like this
If that isn’t love

Mark: Every head bowed. Every eye closed.

How Music is Indeed a Universal Language

Andrew: I think that music is communal universally. So you don’t just have to be a musician to connect to music, where you might need to be a golfer to connect to golf in a more meaningful way. But music seems to me to be a broad stroke medium. It seems to really unite people.

Mark: Tone-deaf people can enjoy it.

Andrew: Yes, and it resonates in a place deep within and without. You don’t have to be able to play music, right, or even know anything about music for it to resonate in a deep place and also I think to really unify us. That’s where I see the spirituality of music because when I see people in an arena, it could be a Justin Timberlake concert or it could be Aretha Franklin — it doesn’t really matter who it is — people come together almost in the style of corporate worship.

“You don’t have to be able to play music, right, or even know anything about music for it to resonate in a deep place and also I think to really unify us.” – Andrew Greer

Buddy: Well, music is a carrier. It delivers something. And I think that’s one of the most powerful things about it. We’d all rather hear probably — this is definitely a musician saying this — we’d all rather hear a three-minute song than a 50-minute sermon.

Mark: I disagree.

Andrew: He’s the only one at the table.

Mark: I really love great sermons.

Buddy: I’ve heard plenty of good sermons, but there’s something about, there’s something magical about what a song can deliver and the economy of that.

Mark: Yes, the economy is great.

Buddy: But also, that’s the beauty of how it’s delivered, that carrier of music. It just makes you listen more. And sometimes I can get lost in a 50-minute sermon. It’s like it’s too complicated. Wait a minute, you lost me on point four. But something in that song, it is that economy. It brings you in. You almost become a part of the song.

Andrew: It stays with you versus a sermon. Like to tie a melody to words I feel like has a way of translating it from here in your mind into your heart. I think that’s why we carry it. I think that’s why we remember it so well.

Buddy: You know, I think I’ve told you this story. I don’t know if it’s ever happened, but it’s a great antidote about Johnny Mercer. You know, the great lyricist who wrote Moon River?

Mark: Yeah.

Buddy: So he was in a public bathroom one time, and he hears the guy down the way going. So they’re both washing their hands a little later, and Johnny Mercer goes, “That was a great tune you were whistling.” He goes, “Oh yeah, man. That Mancini. He’s quite a musician and he’s quite a gifted composer.” He goes, “Well, yeah, but those words, they were written by Johnny Mercer.” And the guy goes, “I wasn’t whistling the words.”

Special Music during Worship Service

Cindy: You know what I’m sad about? I’m sad in today’s culture, there’s no more special music. There’s not somebody who gets up there, one person on a piano, and just puts it on the line, a person who’s kinda putting it out there. You don’t have the safety of five or six people.

Mark: I didn’t even realize that.

Andrew: I think we got away from special music because of fear of performance in church.

Mark: You made all these decisions without notifying me.

Andrew: Or anybody really.

Mark: Really?

Andrew: Oh, Chris Tomlin.

Mark: We’re old school here.

Cindy: I’m holding on to the hymnal. You know what I’m saying?

Mark: Think about it, a hymnal. Here is a hymnal.

Andrew: But you know a writer…

Mark: But it’s in Chinese, so we can’t understand it.

Andrew: Oh, that’s a Chinese hymnal.

Mark: This is a Chinese hymnal.

Cindy: Is this really Chinese?

Mark: This one’s Chinese, look. Look, go ahead and sing.

Andrew: “Glory to the Lamb.” Here we go.

Mark: That’s great. The Chinese have hymnals and we don’t.

Mark: Like my shower has become that for me. And I get in there bawling and squalling, and talk to God and look at myself in my fog proof mirror, and I’ll see those blood shot eyes and that basil in the middle, and I’ll start laughing because it’s so hideous, and I’ll go back to crying. But the thing I love about that is that I know I’m not performing.

Andrew: Yeah.

Buddy: Yeah.

Mark: There’s no one there but me and God, and He’s the only One that can stand to see me naked, so He’s the only One that ever did.

Robert J. Morgan singing “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be
He is Alpha and Omega
He the source, the center He

Robert: I can’t believe that I’m singing to an old timer.

Mark: To learn more about Dinner Conversations, go to

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Mark: And if it’s really, really, really mean criticism, we can delete you.

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