A song by Michael Cannon (titled, not surprisingly, “Dove”) begins with a bright, upbeat guitar solo — then a dove starts cooing. “In excitement, you yell out your name,” Cannon sings, “You’re so glad to see that you came / Why do you love your name?”
Each verse of the song asks the dove a question, until the conclusion: “You took within you / One higher than the clouds / You took within you Christ, no doubt / I know why you love him...”
“Years ago I had these doves,” Cannon explains, “and I got to thinking, the dove is the only creature to ever actually embody the Holy Spirit. And what a wonderful feeling that must be for them, the knowledge of that.”
Cannon, who lives on a wooded hilltop that’s hidden from Highway 69, has spent thousands of hours over the past 10 years in a nondescript outbuilding near his house — a combination studio and office where he practices guitar and writes and records his original material. He has a full-time day job as a cable TV installer, but his song output is so prolific that many full-time musicians would envy it. His newest CD, titled “Thrive,” is his tenth, and he’s halfway through writing the songs for his eleventh; current working title for that one is “Puppy Breath.” This is not counting his body of work on YouTube: more than a hundred videos, some of which are his own compositions and others that are tributes to his favorite guitarist, Michael Hedges. (Cannon’s two YouTube channels are fusionartist101 and fusionartist202.)
Why the frantic work pace? Partly, it’s a question of making up for lost time. As Cannon describes it, he had a hell of an adolescence — literally. He was born in Tuscaloosa. His parents divorced when he was nine months old, and his mother moved with him to Ohio. He reunited with his father at the age of 10, and at 13 he spent a summer in Alabama. When he turned 14, things went downhill fast.
“I was a hellion,” Cannon says. “I was a regular hood. I even TOLD people I was a hood, and it was something I was proud of. I had super-long hair, and I worshiped Metallica and Slayer and Megadeth. At one point, I even got into Satanism. When I was 15, I told people around me that I was going to grow up to be a warlock. And by the time I was 19, I was getting really good at being evil.
“One night I was in my bedroom doing a candle-watching ritual and I felt a presence come over me that was telling me to kill, to kill my brother. I heard that sentence come out of my mouth, but it had not gone through my brain. I hadn’t even had the thought, first. Scared the hell out of me. I jumped up and rushed out of my bedroom, and I ran into my cousin. He said ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ And I said, ‘I think I did.’”
In desperation, Cannon went to a small community church that he hadn’t attended since he was 3 years old.
“I just talked with the people there about what had happened,” he recalls. “Then basically the Holy Spirit started stirring up, inside me, and I walked out of that church 100 percent saved. I cried for three days. When I regained my composure, it occurred to me that Ohio was just too danged cold a place to live in. I was already familiar with Walker County, so I moved and started my new-believer’s life down here.”
Technically, Cannon’s music is considered what the recording industry calls Contemporary Christian. But listen to an hour of Contemporary Christian radio and then listen to an hour of Cannon’s songs, and the two sources seem like completely different animals. Some of his songs, like “Dove,” are surrealistic in their soft imagery. Others, by contrast, are biting social and cultural critiques. Many have a dose of dry humor. And some are “all of the above.” Some of the lyrics don’t mention God or Jesus at all — such as a song from “Thrive” called “Rise Up.”
It has the line “Don’t stick my eye with a toothpick / When you have a tree stuck in yours...” — a contemporary re-imagining of Matthew 7:3 (“Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?”).
Another verse of “Rise Up” says, “Don’t say one thing and do another / Don’t hate me for saying this, brother / It’s time to take this day by the horns / And throw it all away on your first love...”
“I purposely left it so that ‘first love’ could refer to different things,” Cannon says about writing the song. “We’re told God should be our first love, but for some people maybe it’s their family, their children. Or their music, their art. Whatever it is, don’t throw your day away on trivial things.
”When I listen to the radio, it seems like nine out of 10 songs are about heartbreak, in some shape or form. And that’s not my calling. My calling is to lift people up. And sometimes that involves telling them to get off their lazy butt and do something. But those same songs are directed at me, because I have to yell at myself about that, occasionally.
“I’m driven, but I’m also lazy. And if I’m not careful, sometimes I slow down to a crawl. And I start turning into a puddle of stagnant water, and green stuff starts growing all over me. So I can’t allow that to happen.”
The non-traditional nature of his music is one reason he doesn’t, as a rule, do concerts in churches, but rather at music festivals, listening rooms, and nightclubs. Another reason, he says, is that, “People in churches already know God. My calling is to possibly plant a seed, to possibly water a seed, but very seldom to harvest it. I’m not the harvester type. I’m a planter and waterer, and I’m totally satisfied with that. That’s totally OK. Plus, it takes a lot of responsibility off of me. So, if my watering technique is not acceptable because it’s different than your watering technique, that doesn’t matter a bit, to me. I just say, ‘Well, God’s got me on my own path. And I’m not on a religious path, like you are. I’m on a spiritual path, and it has nothing to do with four walls and a roof. It has to do with a soul, two eyes, and some ears.’”
Nearly every musician, after performing a concert that was a hit with the audience, gets asked the question, “Have you thought about quitting your day job and going on tour?”
“The old joke is ‘Don’t quit your day job,’” Cannon says, “and the reason I haven’t quit mine is that the music business is so very unkind. You can say one little thing wrong, to the wrong person, and be totally ostracized.
“My calling in life is to play, in every city that will have me,” he says. “Our daughter starts to college this fall, and my main priority right now is our 15-year-old son. After he graduates, my wife and I won’t have ties to the old homestead, here, and can travel.
“Once my family’s been provided for, that’s when my calling can fully kick in — without the risk of destroying something beautiful, which is my family. But over these years, with day jobs, I’ve had a good life. Mainly I’ve had a calm life, which means I’ve been able to write songs that are more ... universal, I guess, rather than focusing on negative subjects like a broken heart.”
One song from “Thrive” has a sort of subtle ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Cannon wrote “In Control” for his daughter, about leaving home for college: “Now it’s time to be on your own / I hope I’ve done my job at home / All I know is now / You’re in control / So don’t ever give up / No, don’t ever give up / On your dreams / You’re in control...”
“I played it for her, and she liked it,” Cannon says, and his face lights up. Today, his day job has been more consuming than usual. With a full work schedule, temperatures in the low 90s, and punishing humidity, he has to go across the yard to his house and get a dry shirt before he’s comfortable sitting down in his studio to talk. “This is the fifth time I’ve changed shirts today,” he says.
But the main thing on his mind is what just happened on the way home.
“Coolest thing!” he says. “I was in my truck and I passed this young kid on a bicycle, and he waved at me. I waved back, but then I slowed down and looked around to see if I knew him or not. And when I did that, he smiled at me and started playing air guitar like crazy.
“He recognized me, and he knew I played guitar. When you’re in this business, the small things like that mean more than anybody will ever know.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org