July 9, 2008

The Music Plays On

Twenty years ago, Amy Grant released her landmark album Lead Me On. This was her coming of age disc, and the sound and contemporary feel was light years ahead of her earlier, more sugary releases. Few albums if any saw Christian music artists tackling such heavy issues as the Holocaust in the midst of the expected songs of faith and love. Lead Me On was an album that also included material by writers that were decidedly not believers but still had something of substance to say. This unexpected twist made a bold statement: Amy was an artist and a woman who refused to be defined by what others expected of her.

This disc also marked a period of increased success in the secular market as well in the gospel music arena. Amy's profile further increased after her duet with Peter Cetera of Chicago fame, surprising listeners and viewers of the associated video when they discovered that the young Christian singer was actually more relaxed and candid than her leading man. It was a small taste of what was to come.

For A&M Records to sign a Christian artist was a big step of faith. However, it paid off. Hollywood and the pop music charts embraced and rewarded Amy even as she stuck to her beliefs. How could this be? In addition to being attractive and charming, Amy was sincere and humble. Her involvement with groups like Habitat for Humanity made her well loved- long before it was trendy for celebrities to be actively involved in making the world a better place. 

Amy never flaunted or downplayed her faith, and she was not preachy about what she believed or how she conveyed it. A former A&M Records promotions man told me that Amy was one of the nicest and most sincere people he had ever met, making his job a whole lot easier as his work on her single Baby Baby made it a number one pop smash. The concurrent album Heart in Motion brought Amy to her highest point of popularity as she became even more controversial.

Guest appearances on other artist's work and movie soundtracks balanced songs both secular and sacred. Amy covered everything from old hymns to songs made popular by Elvis Presley, Carole King, and Robert Palmer. Her seasonal Christmas releases and solo albums contained a combination of both types of music, as well as songs penned by her. This was the pattern that continued for a few years, pleasing both secular and Christian audiences.

Unfortunately, some in the Christian community were frustrated and angered by their poster girl's refusal to play by their rules, forgetting the Biblical admonition to be ambassadors of Jesus to the world around them. This is a tough balancing act for anyone wanting to represent Christ well, but especially for those in the public eye.

Christmas projects and special releases aside, Heart in Motion was followed by House of Love, a likable but uneven collection that did include the perfect match of song, artist and duet partner with Vince Gill on the title cut. A video highlighting the making of the disc revealed the pair's chemistry. Her next release revealed all was not perfect in Amy's own home, however.

Behind the Eyes was a solid and powerful release, but it revealed a very unhappy woman in addition to examining topics of social commentary and faith. Critics justifiably applauded her honesty as well as her artistry. However long time fans read between the lines and many remained worried for her marriage and her personal life. Rumors gleefully spread in Hollywood and Nashville. Sadly, gossip sometimes disguised as concern made the rounds in neighborhoods of faith. Amy eventually divorced her husband, ending some speculation about her life, and many seasons later married her House of Love partner.

Although it would be years before their friendship culminated in marriage, neither Amy or Vince could escape speculation about their past. Whether or not the allegations of unfaithfulness were true, Amy's origins made it impossible for many folks to remember she was held to the same standard they were- and like them, she was also forgiven by God if she sought Him.

Retreating for a period of rest and refocus, Amy returned with the great Simple Things album, happier in tone and not quite as far removed from the pop feel of her earlier hits. Focus on homespun pleasures and the freedom that comes from forgiveness from the past highlighted the tone of this collection.

As life settled down, Amy journeyed back to her roots with a couple of Hymn projects- Legacy and Rock of Ages- as well as guesting on other artist's work. All very solid efforts from an artist who knows who she is and who she is in Christ. Besides being powerful testaments to her enduring faith, these discs returned her once again to the good graces of her original supporters.

Greatest hits albums told her journey in song, but a book about her life was not far behind. Fans expecting her Mosaic to be a tell all autobiography may have been disappointed. Instead, it is a charming collection of stories about her life. It reveals much about her and the ups and downs of life as a woman, wife, mother, Christian, singer, humanitarian, and celebrity. Just like Amy, it is a warm and honest account.

As her career moves into the later stages, Amy proves herself to be an artist that has endured many trends and personal changes. She succeeds due to the same thing that made her controversial to begin with: she'll play by no one's rules but her own as she strives to love and serve Jesus in the unique way He designed her. May the music play on.

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