When God Writes Your Story

Zach WilliamsBy Zach Williams12 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Rescue Story: Faith, Freedom, and Finding My Home by Zach Williams


On December 24, 2014, another event happened that we never would have imagined in our wildest dreams.

A few weeks prior, the pastor and the worship pastor at the church had asked me to be a part of leading the Christmas Eve services, which would be held in the main auditorium that afternoon and evening. They asked me to sing. This was the first time I was given such a visible role at the main campus. I chose the song and put together a custom arrangement with the worship band.

Jonathan Smith, a Christian music producer and songwriter in Nashville who grew up in Jonesboro, had come home for Christmas to visit family. Because his father-in-law was a deacon at the church, they attended one of the services that night. Their family had planned on going to a different campus but at the last minute chose to attend the main service. For some reason, they decided to drive across town to attend where I would be singing.

During the service, Jonathan and his wife noticed me. One of the reasons is that I was much taller than everyone else. His wife nudged him and asked, “Who’s the big dude?” “I don’t know. Don’t recognize him,” he answered. When it came time for my song in the service, I stepped up to the mic and poured out my heart. Evidently, with their initial intrigue about me and then after hearing me sing, Jonathan wanted to know more.

Right after Christmas, he called the church and asked for my email address. He sent me a message about hearing my song at the service, then added, “I’m from Jonesboro too, but now I live in Nashville. I write and produce Christian music. I’d love to visit with you while I’m here this week.”

By that point, I had been hit up by quite a few people making promises about a music career, but nothing ever panned out. Although I was new to Christian music, I was a veteran in the music business after spending many years as a touring and recording artist. After I read Jonathan’s email, I thought, “I’ve heard this a hundred times from people, but what the heck? I’ll meet with him.” So, a couple of days after Christmas, before he and his family went back to Nashville, Jonathan and I met at a coffee shop.

I shared my entire crazy story with him. Afterward, he said, “Man, you should come to Nashville so we can write together.” Unfortunately, my old life was coming back to bite me by getting in the way of this new opportunity. From all the years of doing drywall, I had blown out a disc in my neck. I already had surgery scheduled, and the recovery would take a while. I told Jonathan I was all in but would have to wait until I was healed up enough to drive.

It was hard to put this offer aside for now. As I’ve said, more than singing or performing, songwriting has always been my passion. I love coming up with an idea and then crafting a song line by line, chord by chord, to share some part of the gospel in a unique way. There’s a beautiful connection to the Creator when we start with a blank page and a headful of chords, then end up telling a story in four minutes that has the potential of impacting countless lives over many years. That’s exactly why music is a powerful and passionate tool to reach the world. And it all starts with a song.

As I was quickly learning, God’s timing is always perfect. Jonathan told me his wife was pregnant and he also had to wait to get together. For the next six months, we kept in touch, getting past my recovery and the arrival of their new baby. Finally, in the summer of 2015, I started going to Nashville for us to write songs together. By my third trip, Jonathan had reached out to his songwriting buddies and invited some of them to join us for cowriting sessions. For an entire week, we worked every day with someone different.

On my last day before going back to Arkansas, Jonathan had invited Mia Fieldes, a respected and popular songwriter who had moved to Nashville from her home in Australia. During the week, several of the other writers had brought up Mia, and everyone talked about how talented she was. Because of her reputation, I was a little nervous going into the writing session. Full transparency: by that final writing session, I had used up all the ideas I had brought with me. So for the first hour or so, I just shared my story with Mia as Jonathan listened in. When I was done, she talked about her connection to people who had dealt with substance abuse and how hopeless life can become.

Out of the blue, Mia said, “You should write a song called ‘Chain Breaker.’” While I stopped to let the idea sink in, she continued, “As big as you are, everybody’s going to believe you! . . . And with your story, that name for God with what He’s done in your life just makes sense.”

Agreeing with her, I asked, “Well, okay, so how does it go?” Immediately, Jonathan started playing the chords that became the intro to the song. When I heard the melody, I sang, “If you’ve been walkin’ the same old road for miles and miles,” the words that became the first line. We all stopped and looked at each other with a “What just happened?” look on our faces. From there, it was like God just took over and wrote the song for us. Literally in about fifteen minutes, “Chain Breaker” was finished, as if He were downloading the lyrics and melody and we were just trying to catch it.

Because we were writing at Jonathan’s studio, we recorded a demo of me singing the song. The next day as I drove home, I prayed all the way back for God to show me what He was doing with all this. Something was up. Something was going on. I could feel it.

After I had made several trips to meet Jonathan at the Provident office in Franklin, a suburb of Nashville, eventually some of the staff asked him, “Hey, who’s the big dude you’ve been bringing in here?” Jonathan told them I was a new songwriter buddy he was working with. Blaine Barcus, an artist representative at Provident, had become curious about me after Jonathan played him a few of our demos. Blaine asked me if he could come to Arkansas and visit the worship service I led. He wanted to talk and explore the potential of me becoming a Christian artist. Of course, I agreed, because in all my trips there and all the people I had met, no one else had shown an interest in me.

We had written “Chain Breaker” in early September 2015. In November, Blaine came to visit me at the church and spent some time schooling me on how the Christian music industry typically worked. He explained about putting a band together, coming up with the strongest set of original songs, and then scheduling a showcase to invite labels to come hear me. But he also painted a realistic yet bleak picture of how few artists are actually signed and then, even if they are, how it can take years to see anything happen. No promises and no guarantees. Because of his long career in the business, he informed me that if I was going to go down the artist road, I needed to settle in for the long haul and be prepared to make some major sacrifices. The good news was I figured he must be telling me all this because he felt like I had a shot at making it.

A couple of days after he went back to Nashville, I was at church on a Wednesday night getting ready to lead worship for a college service when my phone rang. It was Blaine. He said, “Zach, you aren’t going to believe this—and like I told you, this hardly ever happens—but we had a label meeting yesterday. We played some of your songs and the demo of ‘Chain Breaker.’ Terry Hemmings, the head of the label, called our attorney and told him to draft a record contract for you. He said, ‘It’s a matter of time before someone else hears this guy and signs him, so we need to jump on it.’”

Blaine ended with, “Brother, you’re being offered a record deal from Provident. Welcome to the family!”

Taken from Rescue Story by Zach Williams. Copyright © February 2024 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan, www.zondervan.com.