Every prodigal has their own story of redemption. This story just happens to take place in a cold and dark movie theater that was probably showing Ben Stiller’s Along Came Polly just the week before. With tears streaming down her lightly freckled cheeks, legs and feet curled up to her chest – a safe distance from the stickiness of a dried cola stained floor – in a hideously colored synthetic-cloth covered seat, Joy Whitlock’s life changed forever.
Joy grew up in Mississippi, in a number of towns that only differed by the names they were given a few hundred years before. Her father was a minister, which was the reason for the Whitlock family’s pilgrimage through the Magnolia state one small town at a time moving from one flock to the next. If every flock needed a black sheep, Joy readily filled that role maybe too eagerly seeking to numb a pain that could only be healed by the One who created her. “I tried to fill the emptiness I felt with anything that numbed or felt like love – drugs… promiscuity… the usual stuff.” She looks back with regret now at the pain she caused her mother and father as well as the embarrassment she subjected them to with her actions, a theme she touches on in the standout track “Faith Don’t Fail.”
The good news is that for Joy, God was not content to watch his child aimlessly self-medicate her pain any longer and saw fit to write himself into her story. You see, God finally caught up to the then 21 year-old in Memphis, Tennessee where she had spent the past four years living with her sister after leaving her home in Mississippi at age 17. “I think He had been trying to show me something… my own emptiness, for the whole year leading up to that point,” Joy remembers the night. “And from the first scene of the movie, it was like the goggles were taken off and I could see clearly – all that I had ever done – lay on His back to bear.”
The scene Joy so vividly recounts is from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The film, most well known for it’s controversial filmmaker and boycotts from various groups, was widely championed by evangelicals or ‘believers’, including Joy’s own mother. “She drove up to Memphis for a visit and convinced me and my sister and her husband to go see it. I was nervous. It’s not exactly a movie you look forward to seeing. But I went and accepted Jesus that night. I didn’t wait to leave and get to the parking lot or nothing.” In a way, God and a Girl had its beginning on that night in Memphis.
Joy’s musical journey started a little over ten years ago when as a teenager she moved from the home of the blues to the birthplace of rock and roll. Equally symbolic the seminal moment in her young career came at a large outdoor music festival. In the late nineties, it was hard to not notice the brand of rock that Sarah Mclachlan was spreading across the country with Lilith Fair and the traveling band of female singer/songwriters and rockers that made up the festival’s bill.
Joy and her sister drove the 212 miles to Nashville that summer and when Mclachlan took the stage, alone in the milky spotlight, Joy felt something she had never known before. “I was mesmerized, paralyzed,” Joy remembers. “Every word, every note, every stroke of her guitar awakened something inside of me.”
You know the rest of the story. Girl asks parents to buy her a guitar that she doesn’t know how to play. Girl gets a job at local music store. Girl meets other musicians and starts band. But in all seriousness, that evening in the summer of 1997 truly did awaken in Joy the artist that she would become and is today. “I am so in love with words, melody and the creation of songs. Music evokes so many feelings. It inspires. It dreams its own dream. It can set you on top of the world. And it can break your heart. But it makes you feel, and that is what I love.”
That simple and pure acknowledgment of the impact that music can have on ones life is also evident when watching Joy perform. Diminutive and spunky, she stands alone on stage, an artist incapable of insincerity, with a voice that cannot tell a lie while holding a guitar. She confidently yet humbly shares her songs, songs that chronicle her four year relationship with God. And the songs did not come easily Joy confesses, “I had to go through stuff to get these songs. I’m not the kind of writer that sits down and says this is what I’m going to write about today and does it. These songs came out of my struggles and questions that I’ve dealt with and some that I still deal with.”
Honesty and struggle are found all throughout God and a Girl and so are love and redemption. But Joy often points out, that even in the Christian walk one does not avoid the pitfalls, snares and even tragedies of life. “Because I still have many struggles in my life, even as a child of God, the subject matter of most of my songs tends to gravitate towards struggle. I want people to know that pain is not working against us. It brings us closer to the one who knows pain better than anyone else…Jesus Christ.” Whitlock’s first single “Holding Onto Me” portrays this process by saying “Life pushes out/ It pulls me in/ The ride is wilder than the wind/ Why would I worry when/ You’re holding on to me.” This is what Joy refers to as the “sanctity of suffering” – a phrase as provocative as the lyrics that embody its essence. God and a Girl encapsulates all that you would expect from Joy Whitlock after knowing her background. The honest rawness of the lyric that harkens the spirit of a Flannery O’Conner short story on “Faith Don’t Fail” where Joy says “I wish I didn’t know what I know / These memories are like hands around my throat / It’s what keeps me in / It’s what keeps me out / Oh faith don’t fail me now.”
The plaintiff’s prayer that is “Testify,” has Joy speaking on behalf of all who have fallen short of the glory with a chorus that begs of Jesus to “Testify for me / ‘cause I’ve nothing to say for myself / I’ve wasted your time and held on with all my might / to this losing hand I’ve been dealt.” And later in the same song she pleads, “whether I struggle or go in peace / all that I ask / is let it be You that I see.”
It is this brand of gut wrenching honesty in her life and in her music that has endeared her to so many, because after all as she states, “people want to know that they are not alone, they want to know that they are not the only one with hurts.” That is in one sentence the theme and narrative of the past four years and the heart of the 14 songs on God and a Girl. Joy Whitlock writes with the voice of a prophet, the humility of a prodigal and with a heart wrapped in redemption.