As the burgeoning worship music movement has gained momentum, it has brought attention to men and women whose stated purpose is to deflect it away from them and towards God. The vast majority of these worship leaders are arising out of the church itself, as they hone their talents week in and week out, seeking to lead the body of Christ to commune with God.
For more than a decade, Carl Cartee has been writing, recording and leading worship all over the world, impacting believers in a variety of cultures, all for the stated purpose of fellowshipping with the Father. That purpose is borne out in the 11 songs of his debut national release, Unfailing. Carl’s ability to write songs for the church--for both corporate and personal worship--is amply displayed on this project, from the anthemic “My Offering” to the wonder of “Unfailing Love,” from the honesty of “Chasing After You” to the longing of “Heaven.”
Born in Anchorage, AK, while his father was in the military, Carl’s exposure to music came early. “I was three years old and became consumed with a small handheld radio,” he remembers. “I loved listening to music on that thing and remember thinking how fun it would be to make music. I first played a guitar at about the same age. I had toy ones before that, but I remember my dad sitting his guitar on my lap and moving my hands over the strings to show me what to do.”
As he got older, Carl began playing any chance he got. His family moved back to North Carolina, where his parents were from, and he began spending a lot of time with his maternal grandparents. It was there that Carl first became exposed to the concept of leading worship. “One of my first influences was my grandfather Ed Hamrick. I watched him lead music in church as a little kid and it made me want to do the same,” he says.
Carl got that opportunity at age 12 when his church needed a piano player. “I gave it a try and got the job,” he explains. “From there I became really involved in the music ministry of our church and watching older guys model how to lead worship. When I started to hear God's call on my personal life to write and lead, it was natural a progression into a ministry that God had been grooming me for since I was a kid.”
As he pursued his music, Carl was drawn to singer-songwriters, starting with James Taylor. “I loved his singing and songs from the time I was a little kid. As I got older, Steven Curtis Chapman’s faithful ministry with Christ-centered songs spoke a lot to me. And right now, what I love about David Wilcox is that he writes about life. I live life and I really like it when it’s got a soundtrack.”
In pursuit of his musical studies, Carl attended Gardner-Webb University where he majored in music while working full-time as a worship leader at his church. His time at Gardner-Webb set the stage for Carl’s work today on several levels. He met Heather, the woman who would eventually become his wife; he was exposed to the concept of mentoring, which is now a cornerstone of his ministry; and he was exposed to overseas missions, which has become a passion for both Carl and Heather.
Carl says, “For the first few years of college, I felt like I had an unusual compliment of very wise, loving and godly people to invest their time in me--making my life and the course it took a matter of their concern. I was so blessed and honored to walk in the shadows of those people. In response to that, I realized that God was using music to give me influence among my peers and other people. I just felt like the chain would not be broken with me; I want to invest in people too. I always am a mentor and I always have a mentor. Everybody leaves their mark on each life they touch...the marks on my life are so precious to me…I just want to pass them on to others.” Apart from his personal mentoring relationships, Carl created the Summer Worship Experience, an intern program designed to disciple and train college-age musicians to lead worship.
It was Heather who first exposed Carl to overseas missions after she took a trip to India during college. “When she returned, she was so excited and she told me that I had to go,” Carl remembers. “Not too long after that we traveled to India and God touched our hearts for the nations. I think my purpose in leading worship extends beyond the borders of the US and the music industry. I just returned from Turkey where I was working with a bunch of missionaries who are stationed all over the Middle East. They never get a chance to worship with other believers, due to security reasons and restrictions in their respective countries. I will never forget the sound of their worship when we came together. It made me remember that the world is craving fellowship with the Savior and that I should do everything in my power to lead people to that place.”
As a part of that passion, Heather and Carl have developed a program to send instruments to worship leaders in developing countries. “At 14, I was blessed by a generous man who had inspired me to play music and bought me a beautiful guitar. I was marked by that event so much that I knew I wanted to do this for as many people all over the world as I could,” Carl explains. “I have always thought that our worship on earth was just the prelude for what’s to come in heaven. I feel God’s hand leading me to equip others to play is the prelude to announce the coming of the Lord.”
Over the past 11 years, Carl has released several independent worship projects while traveling throughout the country and the world, sharing his unique guitar skills and warm, passionate voice in the pursuit of drawing others closer to God. In 2004, he and Heather sold just about everything they owned and moved to Nashville in an effort to shake up their comfortable life. “I was tired of being lazy and comfortable in my gravy job in North Carolina,” Carl reveals. “My life did not take faith to live, and the Lord inspired me to live like I need Him if I wanted to see him move in my ministry. My dream had always been to write songs for other people and grow our ministry. So instead of belittling God with my small dreams and narrow vision for my life, I sold everything I had--right down to my shoes--and moved to Nashville, all with a desire to give God some room to flex his muscles.”
Not long after moving, Carl met Spring Hill Worship’s Joe Beck, who was struck with Carl’s approachable songs and eventually signed Carl as a staff songwriter at Spring Hill Worship. Over the next year, Carl’s songs appeared on the first four Spring Hill Worship compilations, garnering his first national radio airplay and leading to his debut solo project on the label. Most of Unfailing was recorded in 2005 as an independent project, but the Spring Hill Worship release features a new song (and the album’s first radio single), “Chasing After You,” that Carl and Spring Hill Music A and R director Phil Johnson wrote.
“Phil and I were having a conversation about songwriting. Phil shared with me a statement that a friend of his had recently made—‘I am tired of people using David's lyrics, without telling David's story.’ That thought inspired us to tell the story…not only of King David, but of all of us who are learning to make life about Jesus. In every season, failure and triumph, God’s glory should be our only ambition.”
God’s glory is obviously Carl Cartee’s ambition on Unfailing, which showcases his raspy, straightforward vocals and soul-searching songwriting. Carl has now created his own musical soundtrack for everyday life—music that captures his quest to glorify God and a soundtrack that many others are relating to as their own.