In this episode, Jimmy visits with Sandra McCracken, a well-known independent artist with ten solo albums under her belt. The discussion ranges from Sandra’s thoughts on Nashville to the shadow-places in her own life that gave way to her two most recent albums, Psalms and Songs from the Valley. Sandra is a woman of compassion and wisdom, and her music pulses with a tender vibrancy that sets it apart – we’re honored she took the time to share some of her story with us.
To start, Jimmy asks Sandra what she loves about Nashville, and how things have changed since she first arrived in the mid-nineties. “I have seen a tremendous amount of change,” Sandra replies. “[Back when I arrived] the courtesy, the accents, mom and pop restaurants – these were new experiences. It was startling to experience the slowness and hospitality.” Folks in St. Louis, where Sandra originally hails from, are “warm but efficient,” she says.
“Nashville’s speed has increased since I’ve been here. The cultural climate and faith climate differ quite a bit as well. [Here] it was the norm that everybody went to Church. Discussion groups – people working out their faith, life, in a living room setting [was different from what I was used to]. The welcome of community and conversation – and the ability to ask questions – is still a feature of my life in Nashville.” Sandra describes how, when she first began in the early 90s in St. Louis, the scene there felt full of potential and nuance. “When I got [to Nashville] I realized they wanted to put me in a box to do christian music. I was resistant, so the trajectory changed. From a marketing standpoint I stayed out of it, and chose to just live out of the smaller questions – like where I’d play a gig on a given night.” Jimmy comments on how this resistance to being boxed-in seems to be a hallmark of folks who are in the artistic game for the right reasons: artists don’t want to perform for a machine, they want to encounter what it means to be human, to be alive, to experience meaning. Sandra agrees. “Some compromises have to be made along the way,” she says – “It’s a trade off.”
“There’s a real peace in your music,” Jimmy says. “[A sense of] freedom and silence. In your creative process, what is the initial preparation?” Sandra describes her household growing up: as the youngest of five, in a joyfully busy home, stillness and silence were not her natural default. She says that her contemplative side didn’t start aching for expression until she was in her thirties. “Once you taste it, it’s a regenerative that you keep coming back to: you can start to tell what noise feels like in your spirit. Being able to identify that allows me to start making different habits. It’s an anchor for me, and it’s important to keep fighting for it.”
Following this, Jimmy directs the conversation to Sandra’s latest release, Songs from the Valley, and asks Sandra to describe its genesis and process. The album was borne out of the same season as the previously released Psalms album, written during the same months and even days, but it arose out of a more directly personal place. The decision to release it after the Psalms album was deliberate, Sandra says, because she wanted the experience of illumination – some of it extremely painful – that’s expressed in Songs from the Valley to be couched in a fundamental trust in God and his providence.
Sandra remains mum on the events that composed the contours of this particular valley in her life, but she does offer some analogies that most people can identify with, regarding the purgative nature of suffering and loss. “Some illumination happens TO us, but some of it requires a more active willingness on our part to go into the darkness…The light, the truth, the renewal, the confession that comes out of our shadow places is what actually has eternal value. We won’t remember the tears – the specific sensation of a bee sting or a loss – the same way we did in the moment. And yet we receive something from these moments that will never be threatened or removed,” she says. She describes how emotion plays into the process for her. “Growth for me is moving toward healthy, even detachment. It’s not the same for everybody. Some people are a little more naturally stoic, and we need community to help us feel through the peaks and valleys. For me growth is toward a steady walk…The primary thing isn’t to make the emotions bigger: it’s to figure out what are the real substantive emotions under the other ones. What’s beneath the big waves on the surface? The psalms help us access the undercurrent of real substantive emotion, that can then be transferred into honest prayer.”
Jimmy asks- “How do you live in this paradox? We need to feel things deeply and experience life to the full: but also allow for disinterested, detached love. How do you live there in that tension?”
Sandra replies – “It’s messy. Some days I’m more aware than others of what’s going on within me. The people you live closest to are the people who expose those shadows and that light. The people you interact with reveal it. Being the youngest, my default is to be the princess who did everything right. The real truth is – there’s ugliness inside. Living it out looks like taking time, reflecting on a small conflict over breakfast, and by midday addressing it as soon as possible. I’m not the princess that didn’t intend anything wrong – I actually am self-serving. Trying to live out of a confessional, mutual self-awareness.”
As the conversation wraps up, Jimmy and Sandra talk about the importance of having leaders in communities who safeguard the sacredness of others’ vulnerability and confession, so as to prevent exploitation: a pitfall the human spirit struggles with whenever the apparent weaknesses of others are brought into the light. “The worst pitfall of all is when we think we’re incapable of hurting others,” Jimmy says.
In closing, Sandra shares where folks can find her music and follow along with her career.