It’s 1997, and no matter how many Grammys you have won, it’s hard not to be nervous when you are playing gospel rock at Laity Lodge and everyone has warned you that Mr. Butt is the fiercest defender of classical music and he owns the place and he’s Howard Edward Butt, Jr., for crying out loud, sitting there in that amazing double chair next to Barbara Dan.
“Whatever,” musician Ashley Cleveland remembered saying to herself. “This is who I am. If Howard doesn’t like it, he needs to know who I am.”
So she played “Riding with the King,” a song covered just two years earlier by B. B. King and Eric Clapton. After the final chord, Howard literally leapt from his chair and said, “It felt like I was on a rocket ship to the moon!”
Steven Purcell, the Lodge’s executive director, describes music as “the unsuspected secret
weapon in every retreat.” Music brings an element of surprise. It disrupts. Words and delicious meals and comfortable rooms are vital, says Steven, but music has this ability to startle a person and engage their imagination—really, their whole selves. At the Lodge, people literally feel the vibrations coming at them from the instruments.
Yet at the very first retreat in 1962, Elton Trueblood, a Quaker and one of Howard’s theological mentors, encouraged Howard Butt not to have music at retreats. No music at all. It’s hard to imagine.
Howard loved music, but he shared with Trueblood a concern that certain music might trigger associations with church. “When you have music, people [might] go into their church brain,” Howard explained years later. “You know, you use hymns and all of a sudden people quit using their brains, their minds.”
Laity Lodge was meant to encourage people to show up differently than they might in a church setting. Howard, who first confessed his struggles with clinical depression at the Lodge, wanted people to sit at the Lodge like they do on living room couches, not like they do on pews.
“They were telling their stories with honesty and transparency and vulnerability,” Steven
says, “and those things were not the culture of church on a Sunday morning at the time.”
Howard and Trueblood meant for the Lodge to exist at the intersection of experience and ideas. For this to work, guests would need constant reminders that they weren’t in church, and that they should be more actively engaged.
A few verses of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” could lull them back into passivity. But Howard loved that hymn. He loved music.