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John Michael Talbot took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience when he joined a secular Franciscan order two decades ago, but he never pledged to shun the spotlight.
"If you have something good, you're not afraid to share it," says the Dove Award winning monk, in the soothing tenor tones that have helped sell almost 4 million albums.
It seems a strange turn of events for a former "free-living folk rocker" who once shared the stage with some of the hottest rock groups in the 1960's. Born into a musical Methodist household in Oklahoma City in 1954, he was strumming the guitar by the age of 10. Five years later, he had dropped out of school and was performing on stage in fringed buckskin as a guitarist for Mason Proffit, a popular country folk/rock band formed with his older brother Terry. The band produced five albums and, along with groups like The Byrds and Poco, was the forerunner of even more successful country rock bands such as The Eagles.
John Michael Talbot, who never did drugs, recalls the aftermath of one concert where the band had shared the stage with Janis Joplin. "I remember looking out over a big arena floor and seeing the whole floor littered with empty wine and whiskey bottles and drug paraphernalia. Suddenly," he says of the rock star life, "it all seemed empty, sad."
Then, on the brink of stardom, Mason Proffit disbanded, and John Michael Talbot embarked on a profound spiritual journey that explored everything from native American religion to Buddhism to the Bible given to him by his grandmother. For the next three years he lived on a farm in Indiana, where he sold vegetables, painted houses, studied and read.
Joining the Jesus Movement, Talbot and brother Terry were drawn back together at the vanguard of the just-emerging contemporary Christian music scene, writing and recording "Reborn" for Warner Brothers. In 1976, they entered into separate contracts with Sparrow Records.
Following two albums recorded for Sparrow – "John Michael Talbot" (1976) and "The New Earth" (1977), both produced under the guidance of Sparrow founder Billy Ray Hearn, who would produce many of Talbot's subsequent albums – Talbot withdrew from the public eye. Intrigued by the life of St. Francis of Assisi, which prompted an interest in the Catholic Church, he began studying at a Franciscan retreat center in Indianapolis, joining the Secular Franciscans in 1978. He built his own little hermitage in the back woods and created himself a monk's habit from second-hand army blankets. A year later he started a house of prayer, The Little Portion, and planned to live as a hermit. But, he says, "People asked for more recordings, and I began doing a music ministry."
In 1982 he, along with six others, moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and founded The Little Portion Hermitage. "I had sold everything," he recalls, "my home, car, even most of my clothes, but I couldn't get anyone to buy 25 acres of land I had bought in the Ozarks while on tour with Mason Proffit. It turned out that God had a purpose for it."
Today, his community, The Brothers and Sisters of Charity, has about 37 members in Arkansas and another 500 worldwide. The Brothers and Sisters of Charity is the only community of it's kind in North America with canonical status from the Catholic Church. It has been formally recognized as a Public Association of the Faithful and is one of 10 communities around the globe to encompass celibate brothers and sisters, as well as single people, married couples and families. Though the latter are permitted greater latitude, the essentials are the same. All take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience appropriate for their state of life.
While Talbot's music career is a benevolent benefactor of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, the community is largely self-supporting. It grows much of it's own food, catches fish from a lake on the 250-acre property, and raises pigs, rabbits, chickens and cows. It also sells it's naturally-grown produce locally.
The work of The Brothers and Sisters of Charity includes providing assistance to nearly anyone in need. In the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi, they regularly knock on doors in nearby towns seeking to help. John Michael Talbot has also been combining itinerant Prayer walks – where he and others travel from town to town ministering to anyone who needs help, taking with them no money or food, and with no arrangements for a place to stay. On a grander scale, the community is a major supporter of Mercy Corps International, which conducts emergency relief missions in countries such as Africa, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia.
Talbot's music has evolved from his early rock styling toward a more reflective, meditative ballad style which combines his rich tenor vocals with sophisticated classical guitar playing. He is known for creating albums designed for worship as well as quiet, meditative recordings. His newest project, The Pathway series, is a group of six instrumental albums designed to bring the listener before the throne of God through quiet contemplation.
These days, John Michael Talbot spends about a week each month on the road, carrying with him a radical concern for what's happening in North America today. "I think people are frightened," he says. "Society is degenerating at a frightening pace. People are scared. They're confused. I sense people are hungry for roots, a sense of tradition that's not stuck, but is tested."
When not on the road, John Michael Talbot can be found praying, meditating and remembering that he's a monk first, a troubadour second. "You can't get too big a head living in a place like this," he says. "A Christian community is like sandpaper. There are too many brothers and sisters who call you on the carpet if you get a little haughty."
Notable songs include -- .
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