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More than a one-band man

Rock star Peter Mayer plays songs of faith

To legions of fans, Peter Mayer may be best known as the lead guitarist for Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. Tall, tan and fit, with a mane of shoulder-length hair, Mayer looks every bit the charismatic rock star he is. Yet as he enters his 18th year of touring with Buffett, playing to sold-out crowds of famously party-crazed concertgoers known as Parrot Heads, he is broadening his musical outreach and witness for Christ in ways that seemed unfathomable to him a few years ago.

“The Spirit has always moved and called me, going through the ups and downs in my life,” Mayer said during a recent interview in Nashville, Tenn., where he lives with his wife, Patricia O’Reilly, and their two teenagers. “I’ve always had a praying, meditating life. Sometimes I’m not a churchgoing person, but I’ve always prayed—every day.”

Mayer was born in Tamil Nadu, southern India, where his parents, James and Selma “Sammy” Mayer, served as Lutheran missionaries for 17 years. The family returned to their Missouri home when Mayer was still a boy. His earliest musical influences were British-invasion bands such as The Beatles, mixed with his father’s albums of Bach, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

His most vivid childhood memory of his mother, now 82 and a longtime member of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, St. Louis, is how she instilled faith in her children. “Every moment we are being renewed and remade in the arms of a gracious God,” Mayer explained. “That’s really what I got from my mother. If she passed on anything to me, it was this vision of a loving Father—gracious, kind and gentle—who’s holding us in his arms.”

After high school, Mayer studied classical guitar, theory and arranging at Webster University, St. Louis, where he later served on the jazz faculty. After performing in bands around town, in 1984 he formed the group PM, moved to Los Angeles and eventually landed a record deal with Warner Brothers, whose artist roster at the time included R.E.M., Madonna, Talking Heads and George Harrison. PM’s first single made the top 10, but without a follow-up hit, they were dropped from the label.

“At first it made us really mad,” Mayer recalled. “We resolved to go get another label.”

Backup for Buffett

Enter Jimmy Buffett, who asked Mayer and his musicians to go on his Off to See the Lizard tour as his backup band in summer 1989.

Although familiar with Buffett’s tropical-tinged hits, such as Margaritaville, Mayer reluctantly accepted, viewing the job as a temporary detour. He and the band flew to Key West and soon relished the wild rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

“We were pretty green and not ready for the visual scene awaiting us,” Mayer said. “It looked like a circus. It was a lot of fun—too much fun in those earlier years. There was more of everything—more than we could ever eat, more than we could ever drink … adoring fans. I didn’t always make the right choices, and I kind of got lost in that for a few years.”

Today, 17 years after that initial tour, Mayer has developed a devoted following of fans. He continues to write and record for his independent label, Little Flock Music (see "Peter Mayer primer"). The songs are spiritual, with lyrics that reflect his faith journey as well as universal themes of love, life and death.

Much to Mayer’s surprise, one of his best-known CDs was an outgrowth of his involvement in Lutheran Men in Mission. At the invitation of his friend, LMM director Doug Haugen, Mayer performed at a few regional men’s gatherings before going on to participate in the past two national events. Haugen convinced Mayer he should release the songs of faith he wrote and performed for the men. The result was Stirrin’ Up the Water: Songs of Faith.

Mayer candidly admits he wrestled with the idea of becoming involved in LMM. “I was really scared of being pulled into a position that was unhip or might look weird to the fans,” he said. “I think people have grown suspicious of the church for many reasons. Often the church is defined by its existence rather than the grace of God for which it stands.”

But he found the work spiritually fulfilling and meaningful. “These men were moved to tears at these conferences,” he said. “If they were having family problems, they could talk about them and talk about Scripture.”

Going to Youth Gathering

LMM doesn’t have a monopoly on Mayer’s time and talents, however. He was tapped to lead the praise and worship band at the ELCA Youth Gathering in San Antonio this month. Joining him will be his guitarist son, Brendan, who turns 17 in September, and daughter, India, 14, a vocalist who’s also studying the harp.

Back home the Mayers are members of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Nashville, where they perform in the worship band.

Mayer admits that he sometimes becomes impatient with the Lutheran church as a whole. For instance, he agrees with those who would like to see more congregations embrace a more lively and diverse atmosphere, both within worship and beyond the church walls.

“I’ve had struggles in this church with what I perceive as stodginess, but I do know it’s worth the fight,” he said. “Walking away isn’t the solution. It’s worth continuing to question what faith life is about—or what it’s supposed to be about.

“First of all, I love the Blue Book (With One Voice). I think it’s fantastic. I really love Renewing Worship. The thing is, I can respect and love the stuff in the Green Book (Lutheran Book of Worship) as well. I’m old-fashioned. I love to hear Bach chorales in church. I love the liturgy.

What I object to is the notion that one of these is more correct than the other. We should be challenged by culture. Without doing that, the church as an institution will falter.”


Comments

Nancy Zappolo

Nancy Zappolo

Posted at 5:54 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/4/2007

I coordinate contemporary worship music for a small Lutheran congregation in Massachusetts. I just listened to the Stirrin' Up the Water CD and loved it!! If only there was sheet music available so we could play it in our church!

Paul Read

Paul Read

Posted at 5:39 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/25/2008

re. the article on Peter Mayer

 Is there sheet music available for his music?  We have a small group at my church, St. John-Abingdon, VA, and we would like to play some of Peter's songs in our worship service.

 

Thanks,

Paul Read

readfam@comcast.net

 

John Matthews

John Matthews

Posted at 7:11 pm (U.S. Eastern) 2/25/2010

John Matthews  2-25-2010  Peter, I just went thru one of the One Year to Live confrences and was given a CD with Blueprints as one of 3 songs.  That song has been in my thoughts since Sept. '09'.  Our Church, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in West Columbia, SC has a young group of people that want to start a contempory service.  We have been working on this for 4 months now but really need to have live instruments.  I, our pastor, and 2 others play guitars but haven't done so as a group, yet.  I am 61 years old and would love to use your song,'Blueprints' as an introduction (beginning) somewhere in the service to show it can be done and hopefully a better reaction than the music from a CD as played now. Is there sheetmusic or guitar chords available somewhere?  I'll purchase them myself for the church if available,  Thank you for the music you write and sing for our enjoyment.  John



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