The last time John Kilzer had a record out, he was a very different person.
The former Memphis State Tigers basketball player and one-time college English instructor made a brilliant debut in 1988 with Memory in the Making, a record that was supposed to catapult him to the ranks of roots rockers like John Mellencamp and Tom Petty.
Instead, as Kilzer relates it, it drove him into the depths of despair, fueling a hereditary propensity toward alcoholism that landed him in jail several times.
The experiences ultimately drove Kilzer to study theology in the mid-'90s and, in 2000, to stop drinking.
Today, Kilzer is an associate pastor at St. John's United Methodist Church. Two years ago at St. John's, he started The Way, a Friday night music service for people in recovery that has paved the way for Kilzer's unlikely return to recording music after more than 20 years.
Kilzer and his all-star band will mark the release of The Way: Live at their service Friday at 6 p.m. at St. John's as well as a special appearance Sunday at 5:30 p.m. as part of Hope Presbyterian Church's The Stirring service.
"The Way started as trying to fill the need for a way for people to experience the 12 steps in a way that was indigenous to Memphis at large but really sort of Midtown," says Kilzer.
The Way now routinely draws 200 spectators a week.
"We do 6 o'clock on Friday, which is a crazy, ridiculous hour, but that's usually the hour when people who are addicts are trying to figure out how to fix," adds Kilzer. "So we knew we wanted to be intentional about that hour. And all we do is we show this radical hospitality. We want folks to come and be comfortable and listen to good music."
Over its two years, The Way has attracted a revolving cast of some of most talented musicians in Memphis, including guitarists Steve Selvidge and Jim Duckworth, bassist Sam Shoup, pedal steel player Richard Ford and saxophonist Jim Spake, all of whom appear on the new record. Some of the musicians are in recovery while others were just attracted to the prospect of sitting in with their friends and fellow ace players.
One of the first to sign on was drummer Harry Peel (Susan Marshall, Patrick Dodd) who ended up producing The Way: Live.
"Producing this record is like coaching the Bulls with Michael Jordan," Peel says of the record, which was cut over four nights and features the band playing acoustic-style covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, George Harrison, and others, as well as two Kilzer originals. "We had to do slight little touch-ups in the studio, but that's all."
For Kilzer, who was the star of the show back in his '80s and '90s record deal days, The Way has been a welcome return to a more collaborative form of music making.
"We look at this as sort of a musicians' co-op," says Kilzer. "The beautiful thing about it is they've all got their hand on the rope. To me, that's the way music should be. Kind of like the old Stax."
Though he subsequently made unreleased recordings with T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, Kilzer, whose songs over the years have been recorded by Rosanne Cash, Trace Adkins, and Dobie Gray, hasn't released a record under his own name since his 1991 sophomore album Busman's Holiday.
Ironically, now that he has built a life outside of music, Kilzer looks to have two records in the span of just months with news that local label Madjack Records will soon put out an album he cut two years ago with producer Jeff Powell.
He and Peel are in negotiations with the anonymous backer of The Way: Live to fund a new, nonprofit label, possibly in partnership with the Church Health Center.
And there is talk about taking The Way on the road to help others in recovery.
"We want to get the message out that you can be in recovery and still have fun and still have a sense of quality and excellence about what you're doing," Kilzer says. "It's really honestly about experiencing the profound joy that comes from living life on life's terms."
Kilzer received his Ph.D. last year from Middlesex University in London, England, writing his dissertation on Russian Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his notion of man's "asymmetrical obligation to the other."
"It means you have to love your brother and sister more than you do yourself, which is hard to do," says Kilzer. "Even harder to write about."
The Way CD release
6 p.m. Friday, St. John’s United Methodist Church, 1207 Peabody. Admission: Free. For more information, call 901-726-4104 or visit stjohnsmidtown.org.