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Late gospel music hall-of-famer to get exposure

Christian singer-songwriter Keith Green never shirked an opportunity to share his vision. Twenty-five years after his death, Green's work is about to be rediscovered.
The tombstone of spiritual singer Keith Green and his two children, Josiah and Bethany, stands in a cemetery in Garden Valley, Texas, on May 17.
The tombstone of spiritual singer Keith Green and his two children, Josiah and Bethany, stands in a cemetery in Garden Valley, Texas, on May 17.Tony Gutierrez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Christian singer-songwriter Keith Green never shirked an opportunity to share his vision.

Offered a chance to provide an aerial tour of the wooded East Texas pasture that was home to his Last Days Ministries, he didn’t hesitate.

The overloaded, twin-engine Cessna crashed less than 30 seconds after takeoff, killing all 12 aboard. The dead included Green, 28, two of his young children, pilot Don Burmeister and missionaries John and DeDe Smalley and their six children.

That was 25 years ago. Now Green’s work is about to be rediscovered.

EMI/Sparrow Records is painstakingly going through recordings saved by his wife, Melody. An iTunes release with music never before heard by the public is planned for August. More material will be released next year, said Bryan Ward, director of artist development with EMI Christian Music Group.

The July 28, 1982, accident doused one of the brightest lights in the Jesus Movement, a youthful Christian counterculture. The bushy-haired evangelist with a distinctive tenor voice was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Green sold between 560,000 and 1 million records, Ward said, although exact numbers are difficult to determine. Green gave away many records, and sales were tallied differently then.

‘I have kept every little thing’
Melody Green, who co-wrote “There Is a Redeemer” and other songs, said advances in sound quality-enhancing technology make the timing right to release more of her late husband’s work.

“I have kept every little thing that Keith’s done,” she said.

Green’s emotional lyrics exude spiritual discovery, while his boisterous attack on piano keys brings to mind Elton John.

Admirers included Bob Dylan, who played harmonica on Green’s “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt” album.

“I think he was one of the best songwriters of the modern era of Christian music,” said John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association in Nashville, Tenn. “It was vulnerable and transparent and absolutely not contrived.”

Others agree that Keith Green was an original.

“He was intense about everything — everything from his music to his spiritual journey to where you could get the best cheeseburger with grilled onions and a chocolate malt,” said Randy Stonehill, who wrote “Your Love Broke Through” with Green and Todd Fishkind.

Green’s compassion was so deep that he invited street people to stay in his home, which grew to become a Christian commune with seven homes and 70 people. “My life was radically changed by that experience,” said Jerry Bryant, the commune’s first pastor.

‘Christians don’t like to talk about hypocrisy ...’
Yet Green could also offend the flock with his blunt “no compromise” approach to faith. “Christians don’t like to talk about hypocrisy any more than turkeys like to talk about Thanksgiving,” Green often said.

He groused about being celebrated for his music, considering himself simply an instrument of God. Giving him credit, Green said, was like praising a pencil for producing a poem.

He was critical of the “industry” of Christian music, which grew explosively after his death.

At the peak of his career, he became convinced that ministry should not cost money. He talked his way out of a record contract so he could give his music away for “whatever you can afford.”

Green earned a recording contract at age 11 with Decca Records. Time magazine called the Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., native a “pre-pubescent dreamboat” who “croons in a voice trembling with conviction.”

But when child stardom didn’t happen, Green, who had a Jewish background but grew up reading the New Testament, turned to drugs and to an intense spiritual quest.

He embraced Christianity in the 1970s.

“The thing is, he could be abrasive because quite often his spiritual zeal got ahead of his biblical understanding or his personal maturity,” said Stonehill. But he also described Green as deeply relieved “to see where hope lived.”

Eventually, the Greens’ work grew to include a newsletter, and their organization was called Last Days Ministries.

The couple moved from California to tiny Garden Valley, east of Dallas, in 1979, where they were near evangelists such as Leonard Ravenhill and David Wilkerson (“The Cross and the Switchblade”).

The day of the accident, the Smalleys stopped on their way to Connecticut, where they planned to start a church. Green was to give a brief tour in the ministry’s leased aircraft.

Melody Green declined to go, despite Keith Green’s pleas. She retains a vivid memory of her daughter Bethany calling out “I want to go, too!” and being lifted into the car for a short drive to the ministry’s airstrip.

Besides Keith Green, the crash killed 2-year-old Bethany and the Greens’ only son, 3-year-old Josiah. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed pilot error for the accident.

“I feel that through this many others will catch the vision and burden of Keith’s work,” Melody Green, then pregnant, told reporters days after the crash. “People can’t look to Keith now because he’s gone. So if they ask who’s going to do the work, they’ll see that they will.”

In the 25 years since her husband’s death, Melody Green, now 60, has suffered a stroke, been through a painful divorce and spoken around the world. She lives in Kansas City and is overhauling the ministry’s Web site — technology not available when her husband was alive.

Their two surviving daughters — one was 18 months old and at home at the time of the crash — are now in their 20s.

‘They’re good kids’
In 1996, she sold the Texas property to Teen Mania, founded by Ron Luce. The modern campus, which includes a television studio, has a dormitory named in memory of Green.

She was warmly received when she visited the ministry in 2006 and again in May.

“Last year, I just went into total joy, seeing that things have continued,” she said. “There’s young people here, just like we wanted. They’re finding out about following Jesus, they’re good kids and they’re a great ministry.”

During an interview after a chapel service, she gazed out a large window and spotted the site of the old airstrip.

“I had to really forgive Keith because he was the easiest one to get mad at by taking the kids,” she said. “In hindsight, I think it was really some misplaced anger.”

Keith Green and the two children are buried together less than half a mile away in a small cemetery. The headstone says, “Gone to be with Jesus.”

The singer was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001. Tribute albums have rolled out, and many Christian artists sing his songs.

But the void created by his death still seems unfilled.

“I keep having people tell me how no one has really taken that place. Everyone thought, ’Well, God will raise someone else up to be similar and do something like that.’ I thought that,” Melody Green said. “He was just a unique person with amazing talent and with an amazing heart for God.”