Shoulders to Stand On

I doubt very many modern worship leaders in their twenties or thirties know who Buryl Red was. But, because of him, the journey they are on as contemporary musicians had a beginning with an early champion. He was truly one of them long before even their parents were born.

Buryl Red was one of the first churchmen to introduce the rhythm section and the orchestra to Southern Baptist Churches in the late sixties and early seventies. He was a pioneer church musician who thought that guitars and drums and almost anything else that could be played had a place in the sanctuary next to the pipe organ. He loved virtually every style of music as long as the presentations of it reached a level of excellence befitting the glorious Savior we love. Yeah, Buryl was that guy.

The Jesus Movement had brought a new sound to the song of faith for many but that song lived outside of SBC churches for the most part. And it lived mostly in unconventional gatherings of believers — not in the First Baptist Churches of county seat towns in the southeast.

Then came Buryl Red.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a set of drums in a church. It was there to be part of the groundbreaking youth musical, “Celebrate Life” written by Buryl and Ragan Courtney. And, I’ll never forget the first time I “saw” an accompaniment track — it was in my church — Tate Street Baptist Church in Corinth, Mississippi. It was on a “reel to reel” deck and with it we sang Buryl’s classic collection “The Old Songs” — another groundbreaking idea. Imagine modern, rhythmic versions of old hymns for a new generation — just who did that first? Not Chris Tomlin — no, it was Buryl Red.

Yesterday this giant passed on to glory. And every worship pastor leading music in the modern church today should stop and thank God for this incredible man whose passion for the Lord and excellence as a musician impacted the modern worship movement in ways that will not be known until eternity.

Buryl told me one time what he considered to be one of the highlights of his musical career. It was 2008 and we were gathered in Nashville to commemorate the release of the 2008 hymnal. I had invited Buryl to be there and to conduct the orchestra and audience in singing hymn number 405 – the classic Communion hymn written with Ragan Courtney, “In Remembrance.” I’ve never seen anyone pull so much out of a moment as Buryl did that night.

As the song was coming to a close with that great tag line it is known for, he conducted it slower and slower and it seemed every person in the room was hanging on every beat of his conducting pattern. I was close enough to see the tears streaming down his face as we all sang, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

He walked off the stage and came straight to me — “I thought my songs would die when I did. Hearing a new generation sing this tonight from a new hymnal is about as special as it could get for me. This has been a real highlight of my career. Thank you for inviting me. I will never forget it.”

Well, Buryl. I’ll never forget it either.

And excuse me while I stand a little taller on your shoulders today.

Mike Harland
Director, LifeWay Worship


  1. says

    Thank you, Mike Harland, for this moving tribute to someone who led the way for those of us who made the great “transition” in church music. I’ll never forget singing “Celebrate Life” as a 12 yr. old and hearing God speak to me through the music of my generation. Buryl Red never compromised the truth of the gospel or settled for anything less than musical excellence to glorify the Savior he loved. Another one of God’s great musicians is praising Him in eternity and I am grateful for the joyful praise he wrote, played and directed while here on earth!

  2. Gara Stark says

    Wow, Mike. What marvelous article. As a member of the CenturyMen for the past 25 years, I was able to glean so much from his music and instruction. No, his music will never die. We just sang his arrangement of “At The Cross” this past Palm Sunday. My choir loved it. You talked about Buryl saying the 2008 Hymnal was one of his highlights. On our Southeast US tour last September, Buryl was only able to be with us about half the time. But as we were finishing rehearsing his arrangement of “All Hail The Power,” he stopped after measure 72 and said, “Y’know, I’ve written a lot of music and I’m proud of most of it. But that Ebm7th chord I wrote right there (1st beat of ms. 72) may be the best thing I’ve ever done.” I still laugh out loud when I think of that. What a genius. Thanks again for the article.

  3. Dan Arterburn says

    That night was very special. At his table in the hymnal signing area, he was also humbled with the many that wanted to share how much his music meant to their lives. I was blessed to have experienced his music and to be touched by his leadership.
    Thanks so much for sharing your heart.

  4. Dennis Worley says

    Thanks for helping us remember how powerfully God used this gifted man for His glory and may generations of worship pastors to come be grateful, humble, and determined to continue to do likewise!

  5. David Red says

    As a young minister of music, I led one of the first youth choirs to perform Celebrate Life in Louisiana. It changed my life forever. Thank you Buryl Red (no relation) for helping set me on a the path of a wonderful career.

  6. says

    As a high school senior, the memory of CELEBRATE LIFE premiere at FBC/Nashville is still a vivid spiritual/musical watershed moment for me. Then, he came to Samford the next year and conducted a mass choir performance of CL. Your post is spot on….we do stand on some incredible shoulders today as a result of the excellence he brought. Thanks Mike for reminding us of this importance from one generation to the next.

  7. Mickey Megginson says

    Buryl Red. Bob Oldenburg, (Good News!),Billy Ray Hearn, Kurt Kaiser, John W. Peterson…all so very important to our musical heritage. I hope their names are always mentioned in our seminaries in church music history classes. You young guys missed all the fun. (challenging churches to allow ‘DRUM!!!S’. GUITARS, DRAMA, VIDEO, ) and I even remember my first “synth”…KORG 800…could only play one note at a time, but this was ‘cutting edge’ then. The problem now is that all us ‘old guys’ can’t seem to learn all the new technology fast enough…but I am retired, so I just ‘smile and nod’, smile and nod…Keep the Faith.

    • says

      Burl was the director of the Christmas Eve CBS Special that we, (a trio from Hardin Simmons), shared in from The Chapel of the United Nations in NYC. I was very young and not very wise at the time. However, I did recognize that Burl’s passion for Christ superseded his amazing musical genius. That combination was so rare then, even as it is today. As for all of us, whatever lasting fruit we will leave behind will only be what God produces. No one understands that better this day than Burl Red.

    • Mike Harland says

      Ragan – I’m so glad you added your comment. I’m sure your vantage point of Burl’s work over the years is one very few enjoyed. And your impact on Buryl and with Buryl continues to bless us all. Grieving with you today.

      Highest Regards –

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