Feature by FPC member Susan DeVaney
When James Keith arrived at FPC ten years ago, it was as the part-time music director for the non-traditional Rejoice service. With the beloved Dolly Jacobs as the primary face of Rejoice! and Sid Batts as the live streamed preacher, it was up to James to assemble a group of singers and musicians — mostly members of the congregation — then draw from his broad musical knowledge to select exactly the right pieces to complement the service.
“The job entails finding meaningful music that complements the message,” James explained. “I chose to approach it not from the position of my own faith but of augmenting someone else’s experience of faith. The service is executed with sincerity so there can be a lot to work with: liturgies, sermons, even prayers of the people.’’
The nature of Rejoice allowed James tremendous freedom to pull music from almost anywhere as well as take some unusual pastoral requests. Neil has made several interesting choices such as The Weight by The Band. Sid once requested a James Taylor tune. And although James is not a fan of “overproduced” music often found on popular religious radio, “When we change it up, take out the drum machine, and do it our way” the beauty and sincerity of a tune such Brokenness Aside or Sigh No More come through loud and clear.
Occasionally there are ruffled feathers. Once James included Chocolate Jesus by Tom Wait, a singer-songwriter known for his anti-church stance. For that decision he was called on the carpet. “It was a teaching moment,” James said with a grin. “I explained to Sid, Neil, and John that Chocolate Jesus was actually well-known in the religious community and even had a published sermon series preached about it. But after our discussion I realized I should have offered some explanation of the song before playing it. I missed that one. Nevertheless, the greater point is that I never felt that I couldn’t talk to Sid or Neil.”
When James first came to FPC, he was recovering from the effects of a horrendous car fire that badly burned both his lungs. In his early recovery he could neither walk nor talk, but even after recovering his voice, he was prone to ill health. His professional degree had prepared him for a career in academia, conducting choral music and teaching voice, but that path was no longer possible. At that point Robert Wells, James’ former professor and then Music Director at FPC, nudged him toward FPC.
The Rejoice position turned out to be a gift. Not only was James able to continue in music, it also allowed him to develop a new vein, to pull from sources besides the hymnal, to arrange, to be creative.
In addition, there were his colleagues. He worked with Scott Brown who headed a vibrant youth group. Tom Shelton oversaw a multilevel children’s music curriculum. Voices and musicians from the congregation, including Bob Evans, Lee Atkinson, and Stephanie Sanders, made the job exciting. In addition, the part-time nature of the work allowed James to sing on the occasional Sunday.
And then there was Dolly. “Dolly and I always focused on the members, creating what we could to bring them the experience they sought. On a weekly basis, we would catch up with each other about the choice of liturgy and the music I was considering. Our conversations often meandered to other topics, sometimes entertaining and trivial, sometimes digging deep into our joys and struggles. She was a little crazy; I’m a little crazy; and together we had so much fun. She was my work partner, my advocate, my friend, and I will always be able to smile when I think of her.
His position, part-time though it was, gave James immense freedom not only to build the program but to build a business, the exceptionally successful Double Oaks B&B, restaurant, and gathering place on Mendenhall Street. When James purchased and renovated Double Oaks, he did much of the work himself, actually becoming a licensed electrician in order to cut construction costs — and to do things his way.
Today James and a staff of 14 hold private dinners by reservation on the weekends and a wine tasting every Wednesday. “We have a theme each week—say, Spanish wines. The tastes are free. The jazz band is free. Homemade pizzas are $10, and we sell 12 different beers on tap, as well as wine by the bottle or the glass.” Wednesday tastings currently attract crowds of as many as 150 who gather in the back yard to share a glass and conversation over live jazz.
“People have started bringing their own blankets and chairs; we’ve literally run out of seating,” a delighted James exclaimed.
As though these occupations were not enough, James will now be working alongside his wife Amanda to gut and refurbish the old NuWray Hotel in Burnsville, NC. Just as James is leaving FPC at the end of August, Amanda has also resigned her position as Managing Editor of Wake Forest University Press. “Many couples don’t work well together, but Amanda and I complement each other. We’re looking forward to working in tandem on a full-time basis. “
The Keiths hope to establish a setting that enlivens Burnsville’s picturesque mountain community and brings area clientele together for music and conversation using the Double Oaks model. “We love the work, and we also like creating jobs. We pay more than the going rate, focus on building relationships, exhibit trust, and as a result, we’ve found that staff happily stick around. It’s like a family.”
“We plan to create some jobs in Burnsville too. NuWray has been setting at the corner of the town square since it was built. The square is quiet at night, but we want it to develop. The town is only 25 minutes from Asheville so there’s overflow demand there. We’re going to build an even larger stage so we can have a full jazz orchestra. The mayor, who is a great person, wants to see this development. She owns the wooden phonebooth that once stood in the foyer of NuWray and plans to let us have it. Essentially, we’re recreating the same historical project we have at Double Oaks, right down to room books that tell each room’s story. “
And now that James is leaving what are his departing hopes for FPC? “I’d like to see Rejoice stay current with a new relevant music director. I’d also like to see the church develop a clear brand to attract new younger members.” And what will he miss most? “I’m taking with me relationships that will last a lifetime. I’ve made wonderful friends; friends who have helped me. These relationships will surely travel with me.”