A packed house of more than 1,300 people filled Greenwell Springs Baptist Church on March 1 to hear Steven Curtis Chapman.
Many of them also were there to hear the tall slender man behind him.
For bass player Brent Milligan the concert was a homecoming.
Milligan, who grew up in Central, moved to Nashville, Tenn., in the early 1990s after graduating from LSU and has worked with many top names in Christian music including David Crowder, Jonny Diaz, Ten Shekel Shirt, Nichole Nordeman, The Elms, Tait, Paul Colman Trio and Seventh Day Slumber.
On TodaysChristianMusic.com, Andy Argyrakis referred to him as “Christian rock production king Brent Milligan.”
But the journey to that recognition started in Baton Rouge, and music wasn’t the goal at first.
At LSU, Milligan majored in marketing.
“I thought if I took the thing that I loved, which is music, and married it to the thing I didn’t love, which is school, that might get weird,” he said.
While not the career goal, music was there throughout school (Milligan attended Bellingrath Hills Elementary, Central Middle, Istrouma Middle Magnet, Scotlandville Middle and Baton Rouge High) and at Christian Life Fellowship, where he attended church.
“When I got to college, I started playing in the jazz band there, and I also started playing in church. ... I just had a bass in my hands so many hours.”
From that experience came feedback. “A couple of times we had guest singers come in, and they would play with our church band. ... They sort of pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re really good.’”
Those compliments didn’t sink in.
Milligan said, “I’m a kid in Baton Rouge. I don’t know any professional bass players, so how good do you have to be? ‘Way better than me’ is what you’re thinking.”
Then in 1992 or 1993, he entered Zeagler Music’s Bass Wars and won.
“That was a little light that went on, ‘Really?’”
While at LSU, he was asked to audition for musician Margaret Becker, but was told he finished a close second.
“So that was the first time I thought, ‘Maybe there is a place for me,’” Milligan said, explaining he figured the next time he wouldn’t have to contend with the guy who won. “So the next audition, maybe I come in first.’”
And there was a place for Milligan.
Unknown to Milligan, Becker told her record producer, Charlie Peacock, a longtime industry icon, “This kid that came in second (in our auditions) would be perfect for you. You’ve got to call him. He’s your bass player.”
Heading to Nashville
About a year after his audition with Becker and a couple of months before a planned move to Nashville, Milligan said, he had a phone message from Peacock inviting him to play a show.
Milligan said that after the show, Peacock invited him to hang out with his family. That evening Peacock said, “I feel like every now and then I am supposed to help someone get planted and started. And I think I’m supposed to help you.”
That help was extensive.
“He gave me a key to his studio and said whenever I’m not in there, it’s yours. Just learn how to use it and put everything back,” Milligan said. “I’m just going. ‘You’re joking. Charlie just gave me a key to his studio.’ ”
Peacock’s invitation included the chance to “Just come sit on the couch and watch me make records,’ ” Milligan said. “So I sat on the couch and watched him make Margaret Becker records and Out of the Grey records and all that stuff that he was doing back then.
“I played on some of those too,” Milligan said. “Cause part of his plan to help me get established was ‘I’ll use you to play bass when it’s appropriate and your name will start getting out there.’ ... It just sort of steamrolls from there.”
Peacock’s help gained a publishing deal for Milligan and taught him how to produce records. “He was a very important person to me and still a good friend.”
The big names didn’t end there for Milligan.
He spent most of the next year playing with the band DeGarmo & Key and a developed a relationship with Eddie DeGarmo.
DeGarmo owned ForeFront Records, which was purchased by EMI in the 1990s. He sent Milligan records to produce.
Working with Chapman
Milligan’s latest work has included producing Steven Curtis Chapman’s past two albums, “Beauty Will Rise” and “re:creation.”
Again, it was a journey through relationships that matched Milligan with Chapman.
One connection came from Peacock’s studio. While working there, Milligan met Brent Bourgeois, of the 1980s band Bourgeois Tagg. Soon after, Bourgeois was hired as Michael W. Smith’s band leader and invited Milligan to play bass.
“And I’m, like ‘No audition? Yeah!’ I hate auditioning,” Milligan said.
“So I would see him (Chapman) at festivals. He and Michael would play a lot of the same festivals.”
Another link: “I knew Steven’s drummer. I had played with him at church in Nashville. We were buddies.”
Yet another, “My wife taught Steven’s daughter, Emily, at school.”
Then “One time (Chapman) called. ‘I’ve got this show, and my bass player can’t make it. Can you come fill in?’ So I was like ‘Oh, yeah.’
“That was the first show (with Chapman), and we kind of hit it off.”
Milligan said, “Just through many years we got to be friends,” and about six years ago, Milligan became a part of Chapman’s substitute musician list.
Then came a change.
Chapman’s daughter Maria was killed. Musicians were told all events were canceled.
Milligan said that a month later, another email asked if anyone could play three dates with Chapman.
“I immediately replied. I would be so honored to stand with him. It’s going to be so difficult for everybody.
“I guess his regular bass player couldn’t make it, so I went and played those shows. And I just started playing more and more. Finally they were like. ‘Can you just play them all?’
“It felt like an honor just to walk with him (through that time).”
Milligan said that time with Chapman and Chapman learning that Milligan produced some albums he liked led to the record jobs.
“One day he called and said, ‘I want to talk about you producing some stuff.’ And it worked out,” Milligan said.
Milligan plans to keep producing, “cause I love it.”
And the influence of those mentors shines through. “I think I want to do more development of new artists. I like finding young artist and helping them hone their thing: This is what I want to do, this is what I’m best at, this is the kind of sound that my voice sounds good with. Kind of help them learn to sing in the studio and all that stuff. Learn to write.”
Baton Rouge ties
Milligan’s ties to Baton Rouge are still strong.
The band had breakfast at Louie’s the morning of the show and Milligan was quick to point out his Jordan Jefferson sighting there.
“I love BR. It’s always fun to come back. My parents still live here. My brother lives here. My father-in-law still lives here. We come back three times a year,” Milligan said.
His wife Sarah also attended Baton Rouge High, and attended Wheaton College. They have three children, Ben 14, Anna Kate 11, Meghan 6.
Contact Leila Pitchford-English at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 588, Baton Rouge, LA 70821.
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