For almost 20 years, I have been making music with a band called Cool Hand Luke. For about 9 of those years, CHL was a more or less full-time pursuit — it was my main priority and source of income. We toured as much as possible, and when we were off the road we tried to be writing or recording. But even when things were at their best, we all had a part time job of some sort to make ends meet when CHL wasn’t touring.
Over time, band members changed, the music industry dramatically changed, and I got married and had more financial responsibility. I’m not a professional musician anymore. The fact is, I don’t know how to make a living doing music, and I never honestly did. I was always the dreamer with artistic vision, but very little understanding of what needed to happen logistically to get people to actually hear our music. The biggest thing that changed from when it worked to when it didn’t is that CHL used to be a team: a band, a label, pr, management, etc. Now it’s just me.
When I think back to when it worked the best, it was in the early 2000’s—back before the digital revolution. People still went to stores to buy CD’s. For us, here is why we could make it work:
1) We were equally invested. We all ate, slept, and breathed CHL. We practiced a ton, wrote together, and talked about our dreams and hopes for the band constantly.
2) None of us needed to make a lot of money from the band. We all still lived with our parents, which made sense because we were gone so often. Because we were so invested in the band, the success of the band was more important to us than our individual incomes.
3) We each had different gifts. Our guitar player, Jason, was very pragmatic and business-minded — he set up our LLC and had a lawyer negotiate our record deal. He was good at figuring things out, like when the van broke down in the middle of nowhere. Brandon, the bass player, is an amazing artist, so he handled all of our merch, branding, web stuff, and album covers. He also handled all of our mail orders back then. In addition, Brandon and Jason were very, very good at their instruments and we all contributed equally to songwriting. They are two of the best musicians I have ever played with. I was the visionary. I obsessed with music in general, as well as books, art, and film. I drove the artistic and idealistic vision of CHL as time went on. I wrote the lyrics, and I was also the singer, which ended up making me the communicator. I really got to hone that craft as I became the spokesman for the band both on and off stage.
4) We had hope. We really believed that our band could be important. We believed that what we were doing mattered. We really believed that if we worked hard and had integrity, that it would pay off. We believed that we could make Cool Hand Luke into a sustainable career.
5) We all saw the band as ministry. Before we first played a note together, we prayed. We prayed about almost every decision we made. We saw what we did as far more than entertainment. We wrote songs about our faith and our experience as humans relating to God. We believed that the gospel was better than what we had to offer, so we offered the gospel. Every single time we played, we talked about Jesus, whether we were in a bar or a youth room at a church. We believed that God was our provider and His glory was a greater goal than fame or fortune.
Over time, those dynamics changed, band members came and went, our label went under, we parted ways with management, and after a while it was just me. I can look back and tell you hundreds of things that I should have done or could have done or should have remembered. But I just didn’t know how to do everything.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think that Cool Hand Luke’s music went downhill. I think I just had no idea how to get people to hear the music we were making. I couldn’t wear all the hats and spin all the plates necessary to fill the spaces of the old teammates. So, after a couple years of playing the victim and waiting for someone to rescue Cool Hand Luke, I gave up.
In 2011, Cool Hand Luke released what I had planned on being our final album, and my wife and I left Nashville to move to Orlando for seminary. I was in seminary for four years, and I received a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Counseling. People ask me what the best thing I learned in seminary was. I guess they’re expecting me to talk about Hebrew or systematic theology. But the greatest thing I learned was to like myself.
It took a long time to get there. As I put music aside and became a student, God started revealing my heart to me. What I saw was that I was eaten up with envy for other people who had “made it” in music. Peers, friends, bands we used to tour with, etc. It killed me to see them doing the things I had always dreamed of doing. I didn’t want to be memorizing Greek — I wanted to be doing that. I think I felt that God owed me one for all of my years of hard work and devotion.
What this all stirred up in me was shame. Not like the voice of the Holy Spirit calling me away from envy. No, it was a different voice. The voice of shame was telling me I was a failure, that I was a fake, that nothing I had done with CHL really mattered, that I wasn’t a real musician, and pretty soon everyone would figure out I didn’t belong in seminary either.
Those were all lies, of course, because the voice of shame—the voice of the enemy—always lies. I didn’t start to realize what was happening until I started the counseling program and someone asked me a simple, profound question. “Do you like yourself?” I didn’t have an answer. Actually, I did have an answer, but I didn’t want to tell the director of the counseling clinic that I didn’t like myself. The thought had never occurred to me.
After all those nights of talking about the gospel of grace on stage, in a host family’s kitchen, in interviews, in papers, in sermons, I was facing the fact that I didn’t know how to receive grace myself. When I started seminary, I thought that humility was saying that I suck at everything, deflecting comments, and talking about how broken I am.
What I began to learn is that God created all of us with purpose, passion, and gifts. And, yes, absolutely I am broken. But that is not who I will be when Jesus returns and makes all things new. The things that God knit in me from before the foundations of the earth will remain true. So, I don’t have to say that I suck at something that God knit in me. I began to focus on God’s image in me more than I focused my own sin.
I do not mean in anyway to minimize sin. Our sin is such an immense problem that our Savior died to free us from it. I still do battle with my sin and the lies of the old man daily. The thing is, sin will not always be there, but God’s design will be. I am no longer a slave to sin, so I don’t have to focus on that old master anymore. Little by little, as I learned more about myself and learned more about God, I began to like who I am. It’s still a work in progress, and I imagine it always will be until the Day of the Lord.
I am still well aware of what I am not and the gifts that God did not give me. I’m not good at business, marketing, math, and taxes. But you know what I’m good at? Relationships. I love people. I love hearing their stories. I love learning about them. I love teaching them, preaching to them, and shining the light of the gospel into their lives. That is a gift and desire God knit in me.
So, now I am a full time mental health counselor, and I also do some producing at a studio here in Orlando called Parafonic Recording Studio. (That’s where I recorded the new Cool Hand Luke album, Cora.) If I get to play music at all anymore, it is a privilege. I wish it could be something that I pour more of my time into, but I’m thankful for what I get to do. I hope to keep creating CHL music in one way or another, and I hope to do it more frequently.
I am incredibly grateful that God has still given me the opportunity to create and that I still have people who care. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted. I have realized that not everyone gets to do what they love for a living, and that’s okay. You just still have to do the things that give you life, even if it’s in small increments. Writing and recording has been very fun and life-giving for me, and I’m excited to share it with the world.
Even though creating this new record has been fun, it has felt like a risk from start to finish. Will anyone still care? Will the music I write be relevant anymore? Will this seem like the sad attempt of a has-been? See, that’s the voice of shame rising up again. The difference is that now, I’m learning to risk. Back when I was young and single, when the music industry started to change, I wanted to keep my head down and keep doing what I had always done. That required no risk at all, and it yielded frustration rather than fruit. Risk always requires doing something different, and there is never a guarantee that it will succeed. But I am convinced that when we look over our lives, we won’t regret things that we failed at. We will regret the things that we were too afraid to try.
-by Mark Nicks of Cool Hand Luke