We really value relationships here at Redwire AV, and because of this, we want to introduce you to one of our first clients and a very good friend of ours, Blair Neiswender. He’s the Director of Music at Great Commission Church in Olive Branch, MS. We’ve worked on a variety of projects together over the years: tweaking speakers to better fit the room, installing lighting and a projector screen, updating their sound board, and training volunteers. We are so thankful that he trusted us then, and now, to assist with his church’s audiovisual needs. Blair leads worship with an electric guitar and completely geeks out over music gear – which is one of the reasons why we wanted to interview him.
Blair is from Baltimore, Maryland. He met his wife, Terise, during his first year of college, but they decided to put school on hold to get married. Blair worked and continued to make music. They were married seven years when they had their first daughter, Teresa (nicknamed Esa). At that time, Blair’s wife began encouraging him to get his degree. She told him to check out Visible Music College in Memphis. At this same time, David Lewis, a worship pastor in Memphis, asked him to come play guitar with him. In 2007, Blair, Terise, and their 3-month old daughter, Esa, moved to Memphis. Two months after they moved here, Esa was diagnosed with a rare type of eye cancer that is only treated at St. Jude. She was treated for the next 18 months. Blair continued going to school at Visible, all while practically living at St Jude. Fast forward to today: Esa is completely cancer-free, and they now have three more daughters and one son: Taya, Adalee, Blair Judah, and Ruthee.
When did you know you wanted to be a worship leader?
“I never really wanted to be a worship leader. I just wanted to play guitar. And I’d say within the last five years, since I actually was THE guy at the church [leading], I started realizing the importance of it. Not for entertainment or for people to feel good, but because of the guy who comes in who had a terrible week at work, just got into a fight with his wife, and just hates life right now. That guy is who I’m thinking about on Sunday morning. I’m like, ‘How do I help this guy?’ Music is always going to be that vessel to usher in hope and joy in brokenness. Once I realized that music has that much power over people, I realized I can really use this to help minister to people.”
Can you tell me about Great Commission Church and how you joined them?
“It began in 1999. First Baptist Church (in Olive Branch) saw how the city was starting to grow. The pastor realized they were outgrowing their [building] and Olive Branch was growing out east, so they needed to offer something that’s different from their traditional service. They sent Trevor and Angie out with a mission of more relaxed atmosphere, modern music, casual dress. That’s how it started.
I’ve been here almost seven years, since 2012. I came from Living Hope Church, where David Lewis mentored me for six years. I realized I liked leading a whole lot more than playing guitar, and it could actually be a career. David sent me out, and I ended up here. Great Commission found me through Visible Music College.”
You lead with the electric guitar every Sunday. Can you tell me why you chose that instead of acoustic?
“The electric guitar is my voice, but I love playing the acoustic. When I do play the acoustic, I play in alternate tunings, because it’s a bigger, fuller sound. Instead of using a capo and playing in [the key of] G all over the place, I like to play alternate tunings. Then I can actually play the lead lines with the percussive side of strumming rhythm. I love doing that, but when I go back and put the electric on, I feel like, ‘This is me. This is my voice. This is where I’m super comfortable.’ If I didn’t have a good band, I wouldn’t be able to do that. You need a solid rhythm section to be able to lead with an electric. I love the sound. The way it feels, the overdriven amp, is just something I’ve always loved. I grew up playing in three-piece bands. It was always drums, bass, and me on the electric. And I love to geek out on pedals and stuff like that. There are always new sounds to be found.”
How did people react to you leading with an electric?
“It took the pastor a little bit to get used to it because everyone leads on acoustic. His main concern was that if I’m leading on the electric, then we would be an electric driven group. Before I came, the only experience he had with an electric guitar was the last guy who came in with a mesa boogie half stack with a heavy sound. I told him, “That’s not how I play.” It took them a couple of months to see that I’m more of a blues and modern worship (which is pretty much U2) guitar player than a heavy rock sound (The last guy didn’t have delay pedals). It was all heavy all the time.
I started winning all the older people. Trevor said, “You are the only person I know who could make older people like the electric guitar.” He saw my heart. He knew I wanted to lead people and not distract in any way.” I don’t do four-minute solos. If I am soloing, it will be a little line in between a verse and chorus. I don’t overdo it.”
You are a worship leader in a diverse city. How does having horns, blues style playing, and some country influences meet a need in your church?
“Immediately I was able to relate and connect to them musically. About two or three months in [the new role], the associate pastor said, “We love that you’re bringing this Memphis sound to the music.” If we do a Hillsong type song, it’s always going to have a different groove to it. You’ll recognize it by the lyric and melody, but the arrangement will be different.
I have a trumpet, French horn, and sometimes we have a trombone – he’s also one of my singers so I don’t always use him for that. And if I’m lucky, I have my sax guy playing. And when he joins in, it gets kind of funky in here. It gets fun.”
Are these all volunteers?
“They are all volunteers who go to our church. It’s so crazy. You would never think that a small church in Olive Branch would have this much musical talent, but I have 30 people that I oversee [not including the tech volunteers]. I’m blessed. I have 4 drummers. 3 bass players. 10 singers who lead worship.”
What is it you look for in your musicians?
“The main thing is attitude. I just want you to have a good attitude. Don’t be late. Don’t cause drama. If someone else is singing a song that you sang two weeks ago, don’t be mad. It’s not your song …. I don’t recruit singers or musicians. I want you to be a member for at least 6 months before you come on stage, because that shows you are here to serve the church- not to have a platform. It just works better because people don’t feel like they are owed anything. If I were to go say ‘Hey, I know you don’t go here, but can you come help me out?’ Then you start thinking ‘Well, I’m helping you out, so you need to at least give me two songs every week.’”
Every other month you lead an acoustic worship set. Can you tell me how that began?
“Five years ago, we noticed people weren’t engaging as much as they used to. So, we started doing some surveys and asking people why they thought people weren’t engaging. A lot of the feedback was… and this is going to sound weird but I’m not saying it in a haughty way: ‘People just like to watch.’ The pastor’s wife said, ‘You guys are TOO good.’ And we have a lot of talented people up here which is great, but it turns into people just want to be entertained. We began stripping back on the production side of it — to where it will be a bright white [light] in the audience; no spotlights on the stage. [There is only] a guy on the acoustic, a guy on the Cajon, and a couple of singers. We’ve noticed that people are going back to wanting to participate. So that was the thought process behind those services.”
Guitars: Fender Telecaster, Martin acoustic
Preferred Amp: Dr Z amps Maz18. “It gives me the sound in my head that I want my guitar to sound like.”
The Other Amp: Fender Deluxe Reverb: “I bought the new ones that have a computer board in it. I thought, ‘It will be cheaper to buy a used [modern] amp and take it to a guy at Martin Music and have him completely strip it and hand wire it like the ones from 1965.’ If you take that off, it will look just like a vintage one. I saved about $1000 doing that. It’s one of my go-to’s but I like my other one better.”
Wampler Mini Ego Compressor
J. Rockett GTO Boost/ Overdrive
JHS Morning Glory V4 Transparent Overdrive
JHS The Milkman Echo/ Slap Delay with boost
Strymon Flint Tremolo/Reverb
Strymon Timeline Multidimensional Delay Pedal
JHS Sweet Tea V3 2-in-1 Dual Overdrive
*Chosen in part because of his daughter’s nickname.
J. Rockett Archer Icon Overdrive
JHS Pulp N Peel V4 Compressor
Ibanez Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro TS808
Universal Audio Aux Box: “A lot of churches are using these now. You can fully attenuate your sound on stage to where it’s no volume coming out. It’s like a DI box that goes to the board, but it emulates 10 different microphones. It’s like an impulse response to where it reacts to what your amp is giving it. I have it dialed-in, so I don’t really know the difference now between micing this with two mics or if I’m hearing it (through the board). It is awesome.”
*If you’d like to listen to Blair’s music, search for Blair James on iTunes, Apple music, or Spotify.
*Great Commission Church has three services on Sunday mornings: 8:30, 10:00, and 11:30
For more information on GCC, visit: https://www.gccob.com