Most musicians – or their marketing people – plan their careers and releases with military precision to maximise sales. Slide guitarist and worship leader Bryn Haworth, by contrast, waited years and then released his two current albums – One-Way Ticket and the offshoot Inside Out – at the same time.
It was partly pragmatic, partly highlights Haworth’s easy-going approach to life, but it has more to do with his prison work, as one of the albums was a collection of songs specially compiled for inmates.
“I’d always wanted an album specifically to give away free to prison inmates and this was a great opportunity to do it, alongside recording a new album,” he told me. “We compiled songs from other albums and I wrote liner notes for each song.”
One of those liner notes – to the song “I Can Do All Things” – says a lot about the way he works with prisoners.
“At the beginning of 2009 I challenged the guys who came to the chapel at HMP Coldingley to make plans and take on something new. My own plan was to write and record some songs and make an album. Now this might sound strange to you, but I don’t like recording. The whole process has always been hard for me. I’m OK once I get going, but it’s a fight against myself.
“So I asked for their prayers and encouragement and for them to keep holding me to account, and some did. Every time I visited, they asked, ‘How are you getting on, Bryn? How’s the recording going?’ One man even gave me his T-shirt, which says, ‘Just Do It’. So I did!”
Looking at the list of songs, it is striking how many relate naturally to the inmates’ situation. The giveaway album’s title track “Inside Out” is about confessing past wrongs and being changed from the inside; “Egypt” is about release from captivity and how we respond; while the titles of “Hard Times”, the traditional “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and “Wash Me Clean” all speak for themselves.
Haworth’s call to prison ministry began in the late 1980s. “As much as I loved leading worship, I wished I could do more,” he said. “So I started looking at the subject of ministry to Jesus. My heart leapt every time I read Matthew 25 v. 36 ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me’. I was excited, stirred and scared all at the same time, but would usually talk myself out of doing something about it, using some really good excuses. The encouraging thing is that if the Lord is calling you to do something he will keep speaking to you about it.”
When Haworth and his wife Sally went on staff for a Vineyard church in 1990, the pastor, John Mumford, gave them the job of leading worship and starting a prison ministry. Of all the chaplains they asked to let them visit, the only one who would let them come in was a Church Army chaplain at Wandsworth.
After going in for an evening meeting, he told them that they would be doing it the next week.
Haworth recalled, “I gathered together a team of trembling individuals and led the meeting. I did some praise and worship and then a few testimony songs which took about 30 minutes, and wondered, ‘What are we going to do now?’ Someone in the team asked, ‘Does anyone here need prayer?’ and all the hands shot up. We were away! And we just carried on like that.”
To get a good mix of ongoing contact and wide coverage, he visits three prisons regularly, taking morning services, and goes to others occasionally, supplementing it with letter-writing. He has met up with several prisoners after their release.
“The prisoners that find family and a loving community to belong to on the ‘out’ tend to do well in their new found faith,” he noted, adding, “People do change, but we all need help.”
There were signs from early on that God had Haworth in his sights. He had an experience in the Congressehalle, Hamburg at a time when his début album was about to be released by the Island label. He was supporting Traffic on tour, and was actively looking for God.
“I got about half way through my set and was feeling quite insecure about how things were going. As I turned round to put one instrument down and pick up another ready for the next song, I saw this beautiful figure sitting behind the Hammond organ. I thought at first it was a roadie, but his face was serene and reverent and he emanated humility and power and was full of peace. But the thing I noticed most of all were his feet! They were this beautiful bronze colour. This all happened in the space of a few seconds but it made me think to myself, ‘Oh good, there is someone else on stage with me; I’m not alone’ and I carried on with a renewed confidence.
“When I came off stage I said to Sally, ‘Who was that on stage behind me? She hadn’t seen anybody. Then I asked the sound man the same question, and then the A&R man, but nobody had seen anything. That’s when it hit me. I wrote in my note book, ‘I believe. Now I believe’.”
Not long afterwards, the couple found themselves in a tent crusade, having thought that it was a circus, and made their commitment to Christ.
Listening to his second Island album Sunny Side of the Street is an enthralling experience. The playing is excellent, the songs are bubbly and Haworth’s new-found faith shines through it all. Most notably, on “Good Job”, he sings, “It’s a good job I know just what I’m looking for / I never would have thought I’d find it here!”
He left that label, moving to A&M for a couple of releases before joining Chapel Lane in 1980, where he, “had the freedom to say all the things I wanted to say, which I needed to do at that time. I was and still am excited about God, but I realise that wasn’t necessarily something that secular record labels could market.”
The Chapel Lane label went bust in the ’eighties and for most of the next twenty years Word and Kingsway released his albums to Christians.
He is now independent with his own Bella Music label, something he enjoys very much.
“It gives you the freedom to choose how, what and when you record, but as with all freedom, there is a price to pay. If you want to make an album, it’s very expensive; it’s like buying a new car every two years”
When he was with secular labels, he did a lot of session work and drew comparisons with Southern Rock band Little Feat’s slide guitar master, becoming known as the British Lowell George. His style is so distinctive that it leaps out from the radio: the easy slide brings a shining ring to his strings and he has an intuitive knack for getting the best from his phrases. Haworth has played for artists like Gerry Rafferty, Chris de Burgh, Joan Armatrading, Cliff Richard and Andy Fairweatherlow.
That stream has now largely dried up, although he noted, “I still do sessions. I recently did Stuart Townend’s The Journey and Jonathan Viera’s Travelling Songs.”
As well as his unique playing style, Haworth knows how to write and it is not just Christian artists like Cliff Richard that have covered his songs. Lulu recorded his ‘Come See What Love has Done for Me’ and Mary Black covered “Moments”.
“So did Sandy Denny,” Haworth noted, “In fact, ‘Moments’ was the last recording she ever did, which is very poignant, really.”
It seems a shame that there is so little fresh material coming from such a major talent, especially when there are people with less craft and certainly no more heart than Haworth raking in cash from banal worship releases.
But Haworth holds no grudges, preferring to travel light: “I’m genuinely happy for anyone who can make a living from any kind of music. I just get up in the morning and enjoy doing what I do.
“I like every album I make; they don’t sell well, but I carry on! It’s an expensive hobby. Aside from concerts and occasional song writing royalties, we have a Trust which helps us do this unpaid prison work. God is faithful.”