Today Talbot cuts an even more unusual figure on stage. A Franciscan friar vowed to poverty, he is also a musician who is gratified by the success of his inspirational songs. "I don't have hit singles like Amy Grant," he says. "But I have hit albums."
Talbot, 33, has sold more than two million records since recording the first of his 16 LPs of Christian music in 1976. The proceeds, which exceed $2 million, support various Franciscan charities and the Little Portion Hermitage in Eureka Springs, Ark., a religious community of six men and seven women founded by Talbot. Although members devote themselves to prayer, study and community service, Talbot notes that he is not a "holier-than-thou monk. I'm a pretty goofy guy."
Take the time teenagers were cruising a local burger joint, blasting rock 'n' roll from their car stereos. In the interest of equal time, Talbot joined the procession in his blue Dodge van, stuck his head out the window and belted out What a Friend We Have in Jesus in a firm baritone. Back at the Hermitage he enjoys microwaved hot dogs and an occasional movie on the community VCR. As for the group's vows of chastity, he says, "I was once sexually active, and I have plenty of memories to remind me of what I'm missing."
Brought up Methodist and musical in Oklahoma City, Talbot formed his first band at age 10. By his mid-teens he had dropped out of high school to tour with Mason Proffit, a successful Midwest band. "We were the forerunners of country rock, along with Poco, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and New Riders of the Purple Sage," says Talbot. He is pleased that, although the band's five LPs never rocked the charts, "We were a good boogie band in concert."
And, it seems, a pretty fair party band offstage. Talbot says that he never tried dope, "got drunk only twice" and watched the excesses around him with dismay. At a concert where Mason Proffit opened for Janis Joplin, he recalls, "I saw her drinking Southern Comfort like soda pop." Searching instead for spiritual sustenance, Talbot, who had married in 1971, first tried "extreme fundamentalism. I became a walking, talking Bible and it really turned my wife, Nancy, off," he says. "She wanted a normal life." They divorced in 1978; Talbot sees their daughter, Amy, 13, about three times a year. In 1977 he began an apprenticeship with a Franciscan order in Indiana and took his vows a year later. "I had a definite call on my life," he says. "They say you are born a Franciscan and later you find out where you belong."
Talbot, whose newest album is called Heart of the Shepherd, spends a week each month on the road. Otherwise he can usually be found at his Eureka Springs retreat, praying, meditating and remembering that he's a friar first, a troubadour second. "You can't get too big a head living in a place like this," he says. "A Christian community is like sandpaper. There are too many brothers and sisters who call you on the carpet if you get a little haughty."
In 1968, when John Michael Talbot was 14 and a singer, guitarist and banjo picker for a country rock group called Mason Proffit, he was an anomaly in the psychedelic age: a one-man drug-free zone who liked to wear buckskins and a cowboy hat while performing for his band's tie-dyed fans.