NASHVILLE (BP) – Music duo Kenny and Claire has spent the last several years modernizing and rewriting classic hymns as a way to reintroduce them to the Church.
Yet for the married couple, their own musical journey is deeply connected to how these hymns helped them through times of deep suffering.
Kenny and Claire Hilliard met in college at North Greenville University, where they quickly bonded over their love of music. Soon, they were writing music and traveling to various events to play together.
Kenny Hilliard said music was almost foundational for the couple’s relationship.
“We both grew up with music as essential to who we are and what we do,” he said. “Our personalities already went together so well, so when we started playing music together it was just natural. Music is one of the ties that binds us together.”
The two married in 2008 and have three children. Kenny enrolled in Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., with a plan to get some education before moving to Nashville to pursue music. But he ended up accepting a position as a pastor of a church in Marion, N.C. in 2014 while working on a Ph.D.
All of their plans came to a halt when Hilliard was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor on New Year’s Eve in 2015. At the time, the couple’s third child was a newborn. Hilliard described the doctor’s diagnosis as essentially saying “good luck.”
After a long and thorough search, the couple found a doctor confident that he could successfully remove the tumor, but there were no guarantees.
“For me the hardest moment was when I held our youngest child before they took me back for surgery, and there were no guarantees that I would come out, or that I would come out unchanged,” Hilliard said. “I was trusting that the Lord would either bring me through or bring me home.”
The doctor was able to successfully remove the brain tumor, but the family’s health complications were just beginning.
Hilliard already suffered from an auto-immune disorder called Elhers-Danlos syndrome, which causes a variety of difficult symptoms.
The surgery was successful in removing the tumor, but made the symptoms from Hilliard’s auto-immune disease get much worse. The effects of the disease eventually became so bad that Hilliard had to step down from his pastoral position.
A few years later the couple decided to move to Nashville. Kenny took a job building guitars for a local company while Claire would teach music lessons online. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Kenny lost his job at the company and did not expect to get hired back.
He then joined his wife in teaching music lessons and that started became their main focus, allowing them more time to work on their own music. They soon began taking classic hymns that had been a source of encouragement to them during hard times and rewriting and modernizing them for a modern audience.
“The things that would come to us during the dark times would be the lyrics from different old hymns that we knew,” Hilliard said. “They took on new meaning to me when I was walking through fear of dying, and a very invasive brain surgery. They brought things into perspective.”
The couple would release an EP titled “Are You Weary” in 2021, which contains several modernized and rewritten hymns including “Approach My Soul,” and “For the Beauty.”
Hilliard described the group’s style as “Folk/Americana” and said the modernization of the hymns goes beyond putting a modern tune to the lyrics.
The changes included updating the language into modern vernacular, reorganizing and reordering lyrics and adjusting the musical arrangements so that the melody of the music follow the emotion of the song.
The changes are substantial enough that Hilliard said the music almost constitutes new songs. The couple began touring after the release of their EP in 2021 and are just beginning their first tour of this year, which contains stops all over the Southeast.
The duo hopes they can play a part in bringing back the theology and messages contained within these traditional hymns, particularly themes of how to suffer well through difficult times.
“Christians in the past thought a lot about how to suffer well and they recognized how to be dependent on God for everything,” Hilliard said. “There is this picture of the Church as the gathered body of Christ that has been singing these things for hundreds of years. That picture rings in our minds when we think about bringing some of these old hymns back.”
Hilliard said he is ultimately thankful for the suffering the family went through, as it drew them back into their original passion for music. His encouragement to anyone who may be in a season of suffering is to remind themselves of the Gospel in every way, including through music.
“Music is inherently an emotional thing,” Hilliard said. “One of the reasons that music of any kind becomes popular is that it speaks to the emotions of the people hearing it and to their needs.
“As we’re struggling and in difficulty, we need regular reminders of the Gospel because in times of temptation we will be tempted to doubt. If that is true outside of music, then it should be also true of music. When difficultly comes, turn to songs that are going to remind you of the truth. The truth itself is going to reach your emotions in ways that you need.”