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No Room at the Bookstore
Rethinking the Contemporary Christian Label
Josh Langhoff

Another Christmas album? That was my first uncharitable thought upon learning that Amy Grant had released her fourth album of holiday music, Tennessee Christmas. Grant remains a living legend in the industry of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) after she peaked in popularity 25 years ago. Beloved by several generations of musicians and fans, not all of whom share her faith, she has written some of popular music’s deepest and most forward-thinking songs about that faith. Besides that, Grant seems to have an unfailingly gracious demeanor—she would never, for example, publicly gripe that someone had recorded too many Christmas albums.

Amy GrantSince releasing her 1991 crossover album Heart in Motion, Grant has transcended the genre of CCM so well she might have rendered it unnecessary. Believers from Mumford & Sons to Mandisa now regularly score general market hits alluding to their faith, and “Feel Invincible,” by the Christian hard rock band Skillet, was recently the most played song on mainstream rock radio, normally the province of heathens like Metallica and Five Finger Death Punch. While a market for explicitly Christian music still exists, even those artists frequently appear in secular settings and place their songs in commercials. These crossover musicians all owe a debt to Heart in Motion, the smash hit that taught CCM how to capture the public’s attention. With its songs about romance, multitasking, recovering from abuse, and Jesus, the album presented a portrait of Christian life in all its fullness.

At least since the days of Elvis Presley, many pop musicians have followed their smash hits with collections of Christmas music. Maybe they want to alleviate the pressure of replicating their success; maybe they just really like singing Christmas songs. And so in 1992 Grant released Home for Christmas, an elaborate affair that included new songs, Christian and secular carols, the London Studio Orchestra, and the American Boychoir. It quickly became one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time. Home was Grant’s second Christmas record; her first, 1983’s humbler A Christmas Album, used prominent synthesizers along with strings, choirs, and carols. Its best original songs, “Emmanuel” and “Little Town,” still sound fresh. (With their mixed meters and relentless syncopation, I can also attest they’re hard to teach the church praise band.) But the first track on A Christmas Album might prove its most enduring: “Tennessee Christmas” lends its title to Grant’s new album, which opens with a remake of the song.

Written by Grant with her husband at the time, Gary Chapman, “Tennessee” is lovely and thoroughly godless, in that it doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus. Rather, the song is an ode to Goldilocks-style holiday moderation: Colorado might have more snow, L.A. more sun, but Tennessee is just right. Like the rest of the songs, this new version of “Tennessee” was played by a small, subtle band and recorded at Grant’s Nashville house. It sets the tone for an album where coziness is a high ideal, not easily attained. Noisy children and rueful parents populate several new songs about the messy glow of family life; they also show up in a cringe-inducing remake of the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” But in other, stiller lyrics, Grant’s profound compassion covers listeners like a shawl. “Our painted old nativity is fragile like the lives we lead, silently reminding me God is with us,” she sings in “Another Merry Christmas,” which is not merry at all. (Even Grant’s irony sounds like a hug.) This has always been her great subject, or at least her subject most likely to make me cry: faith through hardship, seeing God most clearly in life’s pain. Whether they mention God or not, older Grant songs like “Lead Me On,” “How Can We See That Far,” and “Better Than a Hallelujah” all feel of a piece with these new Christmas songs and with Grant’s public persona. Littered with family photos and corny spoken asides, the Tennessee Christmas album also offers another portrait of a full Christian life—it just limits its scope to a single holiday.

Such a portrait was apparently not enough for LifeWay Christian Resources, a bookstore chain that, despite carrying Grant’s previous albums, will not be carrying Tennessee Christmas. The company has offered no reasons for their decision beyond a statement that hints they might be running out of shelf space: “We don’t discuss why we make product decisions… There are hundreds of thousands of products that we could carry online or in our stores. We’re only able to carry a few thousand.” For longtime Grant fans, though, the LifeWay decision recalls other controversies that have followed the artist throughout her career:

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Grant’s manager, Jennifer Cooke, remembers the time in 1991 when the song “Baby Baby” was on its way to becoming a #1 pop hit. “I had the unique experience of being at work during the day,” Cooke writes, “where in the midst of the excitement and busyness of working on a hit pop record, I would field a few angry calls about Amy Grant’s ‘selling out.’”

Around the same time, a concerned reader wrote to CCM magazine, “Does Amy Grant thrive on this crossover controversy? I heard her new song ‘Baby, Baby’ and have a hard time believing that the unsaved will take her witness seriously. I really do like her music, but I don’t plan on supporting this album.”

Another letter to CCM read, “Is the man in Amy Grant’s ‘Baby Baby’ video her husband, Gary Chapman? I’ve heard that it is not, and I think with her beliefs that she should not be in a video with someone besides Gary.” This reader had keen eyes; in the scandalous video, Grant danced and acted out an unbearably cute romance with the model Jme Stein.

Then in 1997, Grant released the fine album Behind the Eyes. Critics praised its painful honesty, while a music buyer for an unnamed religious chain told Christianity Today, “It’s not a Christian album. A Christian album should be clear on the person of Christ, and these lyrics are not.”

 

The questions raised by these arguments are older than the CCM industry: What constitutes Christian art, what is its purpose, and who is its proper audience? These questions haven’t been settled yet. Notably, the people listed above disagreed why the questions were important in the first place. For the anonymous buyer, the issue was purely taxonomic: a Christian album is clear on the person of Christ. The letter writers made the issue about Grant’s witness: her music was good but it wouldn’t win any souls, and it might lead people into sin. Cooke’s angry callers felt betrayed because Grant had been their artist, and all of a sudden she belonged to everyone—she had “sold out” to the wrong audience.

Those callers might not have known about Grant’s long-term crossover strategy. Way back in 1983 she told People magazine, “It’s like there’s a huge mountain called the music business, and this thing next to it, a little bitty saltshaker—that’s the Christian music business. My question is, how can I sing to that mountain of people out there?” When, in 1991, she finally found a way to bring her message to the world, most of her fans supported her, but a noisy few objected that the core of her message, Jesus, had disappeared. Where Grant saw herself simply reaching more people, these fans saw a craven sell-out move—much as later that year, some hardcore Metallica fans objected to the band’s radio-friendly Black Album, claiming the band was abandoning the thrash metal style they had helped create. True believers die hard, no matter what kind of music they listen to.

Taken as a whole, Tennessee Christmas is only a decent Christmas album, worth hearing once a year, but it could pass any “Christian art” test you could throw at it. Grant’s quiet rendition of “Joy to the World” is “clear on the person of Christ,” and the empathy of her new song “Melancholy Christmas” could serve as a witness to people who are hurting during the holiday season. I can, however, imagine certain devout listeners taking offense at her version of Frank Loesser’s Oscar-winning chestnut, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and not just because the song has been covered to death in recent years. Grant sings the duet with her second husband, country star Vince Gill. (She and Chapman divorced in 1999, and some listeners still haven’t forgiven her.) As they sing their way through a fireside seduction, complete with drinks and extramarital kisses, the concerned letters pretty much write themselves. Whether this song dissuaded LifeWay from carrying the album is anyone’s guess. In any case, other products not carried by the book chain include the music of J. S. Bach and gospel pioneer Andrae Crouch, and the writings of Marilynne Robinson and Paul Tillich. Tennessee Christmas is in good company.

True to form, Grant has handled all these controversies with thoughtful grace. Her response to LifeWay’s statement reads, in part, “Let’s all move on from that decision without arguing about it. But let’s not stop asking the questions about what it means to live in faith and reflect love to the world around us…” Where some people offer black and white doctrines, Grant asks more questions—just as where some people hear an annoying song sung by chipmunks, Grant hears a song about family and home.

 

Josh Langhofff is a church musician living in the Chicago area.

 

Works Cited

Carlisle, Dolly. “Christian Music’s Best Seller is the Sweet-Sounding Gospel According to Amy Grant.” People. April 18, 1983.

Cooke, Jennifer. “Amy Grant’s new Christmas album reignites the old ‘What’s Christian enough?’ question.” The Washington Post. November 1, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/01/amy-grants-new-christmas-album-reignites-the-old-whats-christian-enough-question/

Meyer, Holly. “LifeWay stores say no to Amy Grant’s Christmas album.” The Tennessean. November 1, 2016. http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/religion/2016/11/01/lifeway-stores-say-no-amy-grants-christmas-album/93114638/

Romanowski, William D. “Music: Where’s the Gospel?” Christianity Today. December 8, 1997.

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