On the small stage at Foothills United Methodist in La Mesa, Calif., Michael English croons through a bluesy take on the hymnal standard "Blessed Assurance," the audience swaying and clapping like honky-tonk patrons on Route 66.
"Not everybody appreciates me fiddling with the hymns," English says, pausing to tell a story in his Carolina drawl. Once, after he sang the same guitar-twanged rendition of Fanny Crosby's 19th-century classic at a North Carolina concert, an elderly lady marched up to English and got right in his face.
"I thought she was going to tell me how much she enjoyed it," he says. "Instead, she poked her finger right in my chest and said, 'Don't you ever do that again!'"
The audience of about 250 howls with laughter. English once routinely drew thousands. But these days, a couple hundred represents a pretty good turnout.
"How many of y'all have never heard of me?" English asks the crowd. About half the people raise their hands. "Well, I want to thank you for coming. There was a time in my life when I thought no one would ever come to hear me sing again."
In 1991 after a successful run with the Gaither Vocal Band, English rocketed to the top of Christian contemporary music (CCM) as a solo artist with songs like "In Christ Alone." In December 1992, he joined the cast of Young Messiah, the most successful Christian music production of all time, touring with artists like Twila Paris, Steven Curtis Chapman, and a young singer named Marabeth Jordan.
In 1993 English released his second solo album, Hope. By then, his lean good looks and powerful delivery had ignited a fan frenzy new to Christian music. At one venue, an over-eager young girl actually ripped out a chunk of his hair. It was the kind of mania reserved for boy bands, not a married man of nearly 30 with a daughter of his own.
The following spring, English nearly swept the Gospel Music Association (GMA) Dove awards, including the prestigious Artist of the Year honor. By then it was an award he was ashamed to receive. During the Hope tour, he and Marabeth Jordan had had a brief affair. Like English, Jordan was married. One week before the Doves, English learned she was pregnant with his child.
"I desperately, desperately did not want to win" Artist of the Year, English writes in his memoir, The Prodigal Comes Home, released last year. Steven Curtis Chapman had taken the honor several times and "is one of the finest Christians I have ever known. I did not want to be in the same category as Steven Curtis-didn't deserve to be."
A few days after trudging across the stage to accept the award, he wrapped his six Doves in newspaper and returned them to the GMA. He confessed his sin to his manager, Norman Miller, who recommended a year off and marriage counseling. But English, looking for a way out of his troubled marriage, refused. Miller quit. English's record label, Warner Alliance, froze his contract. Then, after issuing a public statement, English walked away from Christian music.
That, for most fans, was the end of the story. But for English and those close to him, the affair was only the beginning of family breakup and a nightmare of prescription drug addiction that nearly cost English his life.
It is a story he sings about on his first studio album in nearly eight years, also titled The Prodigal Comes Home, which hit stores last week. Today English hopes his story will bring encouragement to a wider audience-Christians for whom healing is a long, painful struggle.
Christian radio, which immediately and completely blacked out English's music in the wake of his 1994 fall, seems receptive to his comeback. In early February, the new album's first single, "The Only Good Thing in Me," debuted at No. 29 on the CCM charts.
"I've had some people be honest enough to ask questions like, 'Is this guy going to fall again? Can we really be sure he's all together?'" said promoter John Butler of Curb Records, the singer's label. "Because of the platform he's on, people managing radio stations have a responsibility to their audiences as to what they put on their radio station. I understand and respect where they're coming from."
But one radio executive who saw English on television told Butler, "I wish more artists would be open and honest. . . . I can't think of any other Christian artist that would go on TV and be that real."
Michael English grew up in a house trailer in North Carolina tobacco country, the son of an electronics salesman. His father often traveled, which was just fine with his mother since the two fought when he was at home. For a season, his mother numbed her loneliness with alcohol. But she gave it up cold when Michael was 14 after he lugged her liquor bottles into a fallow field and smashed them with an ax. Michael had not known she was watching from the trailer window.
Raised in the Pentecostal Free Will Baptist church, English learned about a hall-monitor God who wouldn't think twice about sending Christians to hell if they stepped off the straight and narrow. After his life went south, that theology would haunt him: "No matter what I did after I fell, I figured hell wasn't going to get any hotter," he said.
When English was only 10, his father formed a Southern Gospel group, the Singing Samaritans. The group quickly recorded its first album, He Pilots My Ship, which they sold after concerts in little country churches across both Carolinas and Virginia. Shy by nature, English hated it when his father made him "testify" before congregations about what God had done in his life.
"I was only 12 or 13 years old," he writes in Prodigal. "As far as I knew, He hadn't done much yet."
As a boy, English idolized Southern Gospel's "full-timers," successful groups like the Stamps and the Happy Goodman Family. At 18, English auditioned for a full-time group called the Singing Americans, and got the job. The following year, he met and married Lisa Bailey, just after she graduated from high school. A couple of years later, they had a daughter, Megan.
English got his first big break when he was asked to join the Goodmans, one of the groups he had idolized in his youth. Then in 1985 his career took off when Bill Gaither auditioned him to sing lead for the Gaither Vocal Band. In 1992, the Gaither Vocal Band won the Grammy for Best Southern Gospel Album. That year, English's debut solo album, Michael English, was also nominated for Best Pop Gospel Album.
It seemed the sky was the limit, until the revelation of English's affair brought his success crashing down around him. English moved out of his home and divorced his wife. He appeared briefly on the pop charts but missed Christian music and tried to return. Many fans felt betrayed, though, and refused to embrace him.
"I was hurt. I was a big fan of Michael English," said Mark Hall, now lead singer of the group Casting Crowns. "When I found out what happened, I felt fooled and . . . I jumped right in and grabbed a stone with the rest of the crowd."
After leaving Christian music, English found immediate acceptance on the Nashville party circuit. Young, handsome, and wealthy, he had no shortage of new admirers who didn't care what he'd done. "It was easier to count the ways I felt Christian music had mistreated me than the ways I could have behaved differently," he says. "It was more satisfying to feel angry than ashamed."
English also found satisfying a friend's suggestion to pop a pain pill before hitting the clubs. English had an old prescription for Loritab, a narcotic he'd taken once after a medical procedure. He now found that the pills helped him relax, overcome his natural shyness with people. The Loritab also had an interesting side effect: Its buzz blunted the shame that gnawed at him when he wasn't quick enough to blot it out with anger.
It took only a couple of years for English to become a complete slave to hydrocodone (the narcotic ingredient in Loritab), the most abused prescription drug in the United States, according to the FDA. Because it is not a regulated substance, "white-collar" abuse through forged prescriptions, over-prescription, theft, and "doctor shopping"-going from one physician to another, complaining of pain-is rampant.
By 1999, English had developed a $400-a-day habit and become a grossly overweight recluse. Nabbed in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation sting in 2000, English submitted to a grueling detox procedure that his book chronicles in graphic detail.
Still, he would relapse twice more.
"I can't tell you how many times I stood over the toilet holding all my pills, thinking, 'OK, God, I'm going to do this. I'm going to flush these, and You're going to rescue me,'" he remembers. But each time, he would chicken out, afraid God would turn His back.
One night, alone in his apartment, an experience he says was supernatural set him on the road to recovery. Floating in a narcotic haze, he was suddenly looking down on himself. "Who is this swollen, dirty, pathetic man?" he remembers thinking. In an instant of clarity, two questions burned into his mind: Is this the way you want it to end? Is this the way you want your daughter to remember you?
"And suddenly, I knew that if I didn't make a change, God might remove His hand from me entirely," English says.
With the help of friends and family, he made it through a rapid detox program and got himself into a methadone clinic that helped him kick hydrocodone for good. He has been clean and sober since early 2002, the same year he met and married his second wife Marcie.
Today, the couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Isabella, and English has been singing and telling his story in small churches like Foothills United Methodist. After almost every show, he receives email like this one from an Oklahoma woman in January: "Michael, there was a young man on the front row, 18 years old, who lost his dad to addiction when he was very young. Now the young man is addicted to OxyContin. Something you said at your concert struck a nerve with him and now he's in rehab."
Now Christian music seems ready to give him another chance. "As with any public ministry, Michael stepped down, which was the right thing to do," said Casting Crowns' Mark Hall. "He spent time with wise counsel. He repented of his sin and made peace with those he hurt." That includes his first wife Lisa and his daughter Megan. Lisa has since remarried and continues to live in Nashville. Megan, now 23, and her husband Keith spend time regularly with English's second family, including her half-sister Isabella.
English also reunited with his former manager, Norman Miller. This spring English will go on tour with the group Avalon, another Miller-managed group. "Once God does something truly miraculous in your life, you don't take things for granted anymore," English says.
Does he ever get tired of being known as "the guy who fell"? Sometimes.
English remembers driving down the road in Nashville one day recently, having just received an email from radio station executives saying they needed to have a talk with him before they would play his music.
"I got down about it and started feeling sorry for myself," he said. "I thought, 'Is there ever going to be a time when I don't have to talk about this stuff?'"
Then a song came on the radio by gospel legend Dottie Rambo:
Roll back the curtains of memory now and then / Show me where you brought me from and where I could have been / Remember I'm human and humans forget / So remind me, remind me, dear Lord
The song's message hit English: "I started realizing, you know what? If God has to remind me of where I came from to keep me on course, then I say, bring it on."
-Lynn Vincent is co-author of The Prodigal Comes Home (Thomas Nelson, 2007)