Fran McKendree stood on a collapsible stage in a Midwestern hotel ballroom, strumming his guitar and singing for about 100 Episcopalians at General Convention. Deputies, weary from planning meetings, wandered in and out during the show, and three pajama-clad children danced on an empty expanse of ballroom floor.
McKendree has come a long way from his days as the frontman of McKendree Spring, the folk band he toured with in the 1970s. While his guitar rests in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, today McKendree is more minister than rock star.
He is still on the road most weekends, but his stops are almost entirely at Episcopal events. McKendree sings mostly Christian music now, about half of which he writes. He has independently recorded six CDs, often featuring people he met through the church. At his General Convention concert, McKendree called Ron Clingenpeel, dean of the cathedral in St. Louis (and no stranger to a harmonica), to the stage to add a soulful riff to Jesus, Won’t You Come By Here?
“It’s all about turning these hotel ballrooms into sacred space,” McKendree told the people swaying and clapping to the song.
McKendree’s career in the Episcopal Church began when he was facing a “desert time” in his music career. McKendree Spring broke up in the late ’70s, and he was having trouble reentering the music scene in New York. One Sunday, McKendree’s wife, Diana, decided to attend church, and McKendree suggested an Episcopal church in his Upper West Side neighborhood.
While he enjoyed the choir and liturgical dancers performing that day, “the thing that really blew me away was the gospel,” he said. “They came into the center aisle and I thought: ‘This is cool. This is working for me.’”
Music, however, wasn’t working as well. McKendree stopped playing the guitar and moved with his wife to Cape Cod, Mass. He didn’t pick it up again until friends at a Cursillo retreat convinced him to play a song.
At that Sunday Cursillo service, he said, “I really just tried to listen for the first time in my life to what I had been called to do.” McKendree played the Beatles’ Blackbird and “felt something wash over me,” he said. “I thought, okay, maybe I’ll start playing again.”
Since then, McKendree has performed at Episcopal conventions, conferences and retreats across the country. He helped spearhead the first performance group at the Episcopal Youth Event in 1984.
“Spirituality in music is really deep in the Episcopal Church,” he said. “[Performing] is a chance to challenge people with music.”
Information about Fran McKendree is available at http://www.franmckendree.com/.