Allen Levi may be the most influential Christian musician you've never heard of.
And his influence goes back nearly 30 years, when he was in law school at the University of Georgia in the late 1970s. Back then, a group of his friends would meet at the local YMCA camp, Pine Tops, after home football games. In the beginning, a dozen people-some of them football players and cheerleaders-listened to Levi play songs and tell stories that were by turns poignant and funny-often made up on the spot.
Levi's talent soon attracted crowds. Before long, hundreds of people were gathering. Christian kids would bring their non-Christian friends, and Levi would share the microphone with a local speaker, who would deliver a brief evangelistic message. Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley was among those who got their starts speaking at "Pine Tops," as the event came to be called. And scores of those in the audience eventually went on to work as pastors, missionaries, and campus ministers. "It was a special thing," Levi said. "I still run into people who tell me that it was an important part of who they are today."
But Pine Tops lasted only until Levi got his law degree-after which he went back to his hometown of Columbus, Ga., to practice law. But he never gave up on either his music or his ministry. Pine Tops gave him the kind of experience that made him a great fit for Young Life events. He quickly moved from local "club" meetings to performing at national events and fundraising banquets.
One of Young Life's board members, F.A. "Steady" Cash, introduced Levi to his young son Ed, then an aspiring musician who had a recording studio on the family farm. Levi would drive up from Columbus with another young musician-Bebo Norman-and they would hang out at the Cash farm, make music together, and maybe do a bit of recording. Of Norman, Levi says: "I knew him when he was just a tiny boy." Nonetheless, Levi says, "Our bond was based on friendship." Of the new friends: "I never would have said, never even thought, I was mentoring them."
In the early '90s, Levi-after a decade of practicing law-had an existential crisis regarding his life and his music. He quit law and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to get a master's degree in English literature. When he came back to Georgia, he resumed his law practice, but only part-time. "I worked at law in the morning, I practiced and wrote in the afternoons, and I performed when and where I could," he said. "I wanted to say on my deathbed I had at least tried" to make a living as a writer and musician.
A commission from the 1996 Atlanta Olympic organizers to write a celebration of southern life became "Rivertown," which Levi performed during the Olympic opening ceremonies. That experience gave him the confidence to quit his law practice altogether. He's been performing and writing for a decade now, making a living without a record deal or a hit song by working hard and being creative. He writes original songs for corporate videos and events, and he often performs with better-known artists such as David Wilcox, Caedmon's Call, and his old friend Bebo Norman-now one of contemporary Christian music's biggest stars. Levi continues to be close to Norman and to Ed Cash, recently named Producer of the Year by the Gospel Music Association. His old friends and his new admirers respect Levi's songwriting skills and his perseverance, and they've helped him to build what Levi calls "a microscopic but very kind following."
Levi's latest project, People In My Town, is more than music. It is a CD of interviews with and songs about eight people, all of whom live within five miles of Levi's farm. They range from a third-grade girl to Benjamin Floyd, an 83-year-old black man who surprised Levi by inviting him to his church to worship some Sunday. When Levi gently suggested that a visit by a white man to his all-black church might be awkward or distracting, Floyd said, "The doors of our church is built on welcome hinges." With those words, Levi found a song and a new friend, and today he and Floyd worship together every Sunday Levi is not out performing.
Thirty years after those first Pine Tops concerts, Levi has written hundreds, if not thousands, of songs. He acknowledges that having a hit, or seeing someone else have a hit with one of his songs, would be gratifying. "About my songs, I sometimes feel like a parent whose kids don't have many friends," he said. But he also knows that his songs, often long story-songs that don't explicitly mention Jesus but are about spiritual longing, are not a good fit for either secular or Christian radio. So he accepts this reality, and with a growing awareness of the impact his work is having on his small but appreciative audience: "I often say that my mission is to provoke Godward thought. I look for the fingerprints of Jesus in everyday life, and I point them out to others."