Like any well intentioned father (notice I didn’t say good father) I try to encourage my kids in their dreams whenever I can. Since both of my teenage sons are musically inclined, I took them over to the Nassau Presbyterian Church the other evening to hear a group called “Life’s Other Side” perform.
I didn’t expect the kids to like the music — old-time country, hillbilly, and a few gospels songs — but I did hope they would appreciate the fact that a bunch of guys well into their middle age were still performing live music in public. (And as far as I could tell alcohol was not involved, except in some of the lyrics.) If my kids were in sports, I doubt I could find an analogous group playing football in their 50s or 60s or beyond. It’s one of the nice things about music.
It’s also nice to see anybody at any age pursuing some “other side” of life. In this case the aptly named group was brought together by Mark Hill, by day a commercial real estate executive with Hilton Realty and at night and on weekends a standout guitar player with several different rock ’n’ roll and blues bands.
Four other performers on stage that night at the Presbyterian church must have felt right at home — they are all involved in the ministry. John McClure was a graduate student at the Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 1980s (he is now chair of the graduate department of religion at Vanderbilt School of Divinity in Nashville) and he and Hill performed together in a rock band.
McClure put Hill in touch with some other musically inclined pastors. John Wiley Nelson lived in the Mercer County area from 1979 to 1998, and was a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Trenton for 19 years. He was a co-founder of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and came up with the acronym T.A.S.K. He now lives in Provincetown, MA, and has written a book, “Your God Is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture.”
Don Mackenzie was attending Princeton Theological Seminary when the group first came together. He retired in 2008 as minister and head of staff at the University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle, where he still lives.
And there was Wallace Alston, the head pastor at the esteemed Nassau Presbyterian Church, and subsequently president of the Center of Theological Inquiry. Alston’s lineage was imposing: His father was a Presbyterian minister with an even more prestigious affiliation: Wallace Alston Sr. was a Union Theological Seminary alumnus who led a church in Atlanta, and for 22 years was the president of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.
Even more intriguing for me was that, while in Princeton, Alston lived right across the street from me on Park Place. In all that time I never had a clue that the minister had ever picked up a guitar or had ever sung anything other than a solemn hymn. But, as I learned later, Alston has been singing and playing guitar since he was a teenager.
And I discovered, as I googled the minister (now retired and splitting his time between Maine and New York City), that his ministerial pedigree was more complicated than it might seem. In fact Alston’s son, Macky, had produced an independent film, “Family Name,” about Alston’s tracing of his family roots back to African Americans and slavery.
Given the wisdom that comes with age and the exposure to life’s other side, you had the feeling that these guys know what they’re singing about when they break out some of the classic country weepers, such as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” or “Someone Told My Story in a Song.”
And I suspect a minister in need of a sermon could spin one from any of several songs performed that evening in the Presbyterian sanctuary. Alston, a tenor playing an acoustic guitar, stood out on several numbers, including “Farther Along.”
Tempted and tried we’re oft made to wonder
Why it should be thus all the day long
While there are others living about us
Never molested though in the wrong.
Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brother live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it all by and by.
The penultimate selection by Life’s Other Side, “Angel Band,” was my favorite:
The latest sun is sinking fast,
My race is nearly run.
My strongest trials now are past.
My triumph is begun.
Oh come angel band,
Come and around me stand.
Bear me away on your snowy wings
To my immortal home.
It’s a good show, and I envy the retired ministers for being able to still be on stage — in the race — even in their retirement. And while I regret I have no musical abilities to present to the angel band (if it even considers me), I will tell them that I am not exactly a musician, but that I do try on keyboard.