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5/24/2005

FROM THE ROAD: CHAPEL HILL, NC

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(Pictured above: Me at Christ Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, NC)

Tonight's concert was just minutes from Duke University, and the divinity school where Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most influential theologians in my life, teaches Christian Ethics. His book "Resident Aliens" and a couple collections of his academic essays have created more unrest, change and maturity in me than any other writings. The margins of his pages are marked with questions and exclamations, disagreements and yahoo!s, dog-eared and torn. I still don't understand it all or agree with what I do, but I'm thankful that God has used him to upset me and fuel a spiritual growth spirt in me that birthed much of my next record.

But Stanley wasn't in the crowd tonight. Instead the generationally mixed group of mostly young adults that usually attend Evolution came to the church for their normal weekly meeting time - and got abnormal me. 7PM on Tuesdays these people fill the small sanctuary to sing, teach, learn, catch up and prepare to leave and BE the Church. I was asked to facilitate that time this week with singing and teaching around the beatitudes - the focus of my next record WHITE FLAG.

Before the show could be begin, while Michael Olson was still doing his whale-like warm-ups and I was getting dressed in my soft-rock uniform, Brian (road manager) got a call from nature. It was a small restroom where he answered, a room with door doors though. One of them he locked after using it and the other he ignored, figuring it was just a closet or something. While doing what you do in such places that "closet" door opened and a woman on a cell phone stuck her foot and head into the bathroom causing Brian to let out a "Hey! Hey!" prompting said lady to back out quickly and allowing Brian to get back to his...business.

Brian stepped out of the bathroom and started relating this story to us wen the door to our green room (never green by the way) opened. It was the promoter for the show, the worship arts pastor there, with a smiling woman in tow. "Brian, I'd like you to meet our pastor, Pat."

It would be an awkward night of eye contact dodging for Brian.

I had a great night though. I started by playing 30 minutes of the so-called "hits" from my last two projects (all three of them), Michael Olson then crooned for 20 minutes (did a great job as usual) and then I finished the night with songs and teachings from the new record.

Afterward we hung out for a couple hours, playing songs I couldn't fit in the show for a small group of people gathered around the piano, taking pictures and signing children.

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(Pictured Above: Michael (with the mohawk), the victim of rock star graffiti)

And I got to meet a few of Hauerwas' students who told me a little bit about the man Stanley Hauerwas, more than the words on a page can reveal. Turns out he's human. Good to know. Maybe even you and I stand a chance of being as smart and impacting some day as he's been to me.

Thanks to everyone who came out tonight. And thanks to Pastor Pat for trusting me with your people and giving me something to laugh at Brian for for the rest of his life. Southwest Airlines, thanks for getting us and our gear here in one piece. (Why can't you guys fly everywhere?) Loren, great job promoting and putting together tonight's show...and for killer dinner.

See you on the road.

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5/23/2005

CULT-DE-SAC

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My best friend and I married sisters. He's my brother-in-law, road manager, booking agency partner (we started one last year) and co-pastor at IKON. We see each other a lot, not just because of those connections, but because he has four kids and I have three who can't go more than 48 hours without seeing each other, which is easy to arrange since we only live a mile apart.

Every other day, or more often we, he and I and our wives and all seven kids, gather in Brian's cul-de-sac to hang out. Brian's neighbors come out too. We all sit back, relax and take turns parenting the herd of 10-15 kids. Brian's yard is the epicenter of this community he and I affectionately call the "cult-de-sac." Becky and I are honorary members of the cult by marriage now due to a recent change in the bi-laws made by a two thirds majority vote among cult-de-sac members. Brian's wife (more than likely the key lobbyist in the bi-law battle) is the primary bringer of drinks, fixer of boo-boos, and unfolder of chairs in the cult-de-sac. Brian's yard is the most popular gathering place because she's there and it's home to the ever-popular trampoline.

But he may have competition now. His next door neighbor, Tim, bought a Green Machine. Not the kid kind but the full on adult sized big boy edition. Stand-offish at first, Brian and I eventually took our turn roaring around the circle racing our kids' Barbie and BMX bikes today. You haven't experienced remorse until you've smack-talked a four year-old into tears.

After being coaxed off our new favorite thing this afternoon we and members of the cult-de-sac bought some pizzas and hung out some more in Brian's front yard where his lawn is dying from all the daily visiting with neighbors and trampling by kids going on. And it will only get worse/better. Every day the cult grows, more neighbors gather in the cult-de-sac for conversation and snacks.

My neighbors, just a short distance away, park in the garage in hopes of avoiding the folks next door. The yuppies there are too busy working late and kids are too busy watching TV or something to ever just hang out on the porch or stop and visit for a while. My driveway is too empty and my grass is in too good of shape. Maybe I need to buy some pizza and a Green Machine.

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5/22/2005

LIFE IN THE PARTY

I was five when I first remember begging my mom to come sit with me for a while. I’d been lying in the dark for hours trying to shut my brain off and drift off to sleep like normal kids my age. My mind, like so many nights since, was pre-occupied with the problems of the universe. My mom listened as I told her I didn’t like forever. I didn’t like the idea that it just keeps going and going. That scared me. But, I said, I didn’t want to die either. Everything turning into nothings scared me worse. But then, I reasoned, if I was dead and didn’t live forever I guess I wouldn’t know being dead was a bad thing. I wouldn’t be around to feel sad about being dead.

I went on confessing my fears of being sick someday like this kid at school who threw up in front of my whole class and got made fun off. I didn’t want that but I figured it was bound to happen eventually. People get sick and I’m a people, I said, so I will probably get sick and feel horrible and maybe even throw-up on somebody.

Some nights I couldn’t sleep because of guilt and so when mom arrived I’d confess a litany of transgressions like Charles Manson before the Pope. I’d recount for her how I’d tortured my sister in subtle ways or lied about eating all my sack lunch at school. I’d act out entire conversations from earlier that day in which I’d said something hurtful to someone who’d said something hurtful first.

Other nights I was just worried. I was concerned about nuclear bombs, the sun burning out, tornadoes, and the watermelon seeds I ate the week before growing in my stomach and pushing a plant out my nose and ears and eyes and butt eventually. I wanted to know why people have to get sad and why Granny was old and if I would have to be sad and old one day too. I wanted to know how God wrote the bible and why people didn’t do what it said if they really thought He wrote it. I was worried that those people would go to Hell like my preacher said they would too.

These were the things that filled my mind then, and to some degree, in more grown-up seeming forms, still spin my gears today.

My mom’s solution was usually to rub my back, listen to me stress and ponder, and then coach me to close my eyes and imagine being in the best place doing the best things ever. I thought about sitting in front of my grandmother’s stove on a cold morning sipping coffee with her, playing with my cousins in her backyard, riding cousin Kathy’s horse Patches and then sitting down to a meal of something fried or barbequed. I relived roller coasters and funnel cakes and large Cokes at Six Flags in Dallas, skating with my friends at daycare to the Bee Gees or getting to stay up late and watch Solid Gold, the news and then Johnny Carson. Those were the best things in life.

Then my mom would remind me that people made TV shows and funnel cakes and God had so many things that were even better waiting for us in Heaven. So don’t worry about dying – she’d say. And she’d tell me not to worry about being sick or old one day because I was still very young and very well right then. She’d tell me not to think about wars and suns flickering out because those things will never happen in my lifetime. And watermelon seeds don’t grow if they’re chewed up and can’t get sunlight in your stomach.

And as her voice lulled me to sleep my head would swim in happy thoughts about all the great stuff God built for me in Heaven and all the good things here on earth to enjoy until then.

Today I walked into our church service to the tune of “We Are Family” blasting from the band and singers on stage. Spotlights of all colors whipped through fog and across the mostly smiling crowd as four-foot lime green balls bounced from raised hand to raised hand. Horns blew, confetti cannons erupted, screens flashed and voices shouted and sang. It was a party.

We celebrated what God has done in our church for the last month and a half as we learned about and practiced the idea of community together. The emphasis was called “40 Days of Community” and is an extension of Rick Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” program so many trendy churches like ours taught last year.

The cynic in me looked around at the bouncing Boomers this morning like a teen-ager embarrassed yet oddly impressed at his parents busting a move at his Senior prom. Awkward. Admirable. But the little boy in me, perpetually pondering, consistently concerned, always analyzing and worried, needed this.

Something I’ve never admitted to anyone but family is that I’ve always been prone to profound sadness. What some people mistake in me for depth or maturity or introspection is simple nagging sorrow. As far back as I can remember it’s been there. It’s not depression. It’s not despair. It’s an overwhelming immutable sense of wickedness and reality's imperfection. It's smothering at times. I can’t put into words what it feels like, this lamentation that for me seems to get worse with experience and age. It makes me more prone to cynicism and anger than others seem to be. It brings tears and frustration. I can’t express it or cure it but my songs and words are one feeble attempt after another at doing so.

I enjoy life, friends, love, nature and all the things my mother had me cling to instead of bedtime demons. But a constant current of persistent heaviness flows underneath my life’s solid foundation of faith and hope.

I believe Jesus felt this too – though I may be wishing so to ease my own heart. He’s called a man of sorrows. He ached deeply for human kind, moved not only by His desire to be known but also by His awareness of our sorrow, He moved into our neighborhood and lived and cried among us and eventually freed us from sin – the source of so much darkness in this place. And the book He wrote His story in gives plenty reason for lament. It begins with the desertion of God by man, continues with one messed up family tree after after another birthing one bad guy and flawed hero after another, climaxes with the death of God, moves on to the hope of the resurrection but quickly turns back to depravity when the Church is formed from sometimes-bickering and always-persecuted followers, and ends with a bloody war before finally culminating in mans' wedding to God and the inheritance of blissful life everlasting. God doesn't exactly paint the rosiest picture of history or Himself for us. That's how I justify my allergy to casual positivity anyway.

Recently I've been trying to figure out why the heaviness is there. But until I know if this morbid fascination is a product of generational angst or some spiritual perceptiveness, I’ll continue to craft and yearn for moments like this morning. The way my church celebrated what God has taught us this morning, with the lights and glitz and oversized toys, isn’t how I celebrate. I’d prefer to commemorate by just listing all the good things God has done in my life and the lives of others. I’d prefer to get together with a small group of friends over a great meal with a relaxed schedule and conversation that oscillates between stimulating honesty and pointless hilarity. I’d like to watch a stupid movie with people I like to hear laugh. I’d prefer Gavin DeGraw or Weezer over Sly and The Family Stone.

But even though this celebration wasn’t the way I’d party it was a party I needed. Partying is something Christ did, turning water into a keg of strong whine, kicking up his heels and maybe even dancing a little. Even knowing the sins of every heart and the atrocities that awaited Him didn’t keep him from celebrating with those closest to Him the great life God had given them together. The cross was tomorrow, and while it wasn’t to be ignored, today was flooded with reasons to party in spite of it.

And maybe celebration for Jesus and us is like funnel cake visualizing for kids. Maybe the celebration gets us thinking – If life right now here in this moment is this good what waits for us when time has passed – when nothing stands between the goodness and greatness of God and us? And maybe celebration is like a smiling mother, forcing us to take ourselves less seriously just long enough to relax and listen to calming wisdom. Maybe it helps us correct perspective and store up strength for the sickness that waits for us somewhere out there in the tomorrows. And maybe celebration fosters surrender, tearing us away from drawing boards strewn with our plans to solve every problem and run the world. It reminds the confounded again that they are small and God is not, that when we are wrought and weak God is still good and able and the world spins by His hand with no need for ours. Maybe parties are important because when we leave them we are better able to hold our plans less tightly, love more deeply and sacrificially, and spend our hours on things that will outlast this present darkness. Maybe for those aware all's dying there's much needed life in the party. Maybe churches should throw them more often.

Maybe. All I know is that the constant sadness that accompanies being so aware of reality and my own heart feels a little lighter right now. I laugh thinking back now on this morning’s hippies doing what resembled an epileptic Macarena in the sanctuary. And I remember liking how my face felt unfurrowed and smiling. I can still feel that weird calm and comfort of being connected to all those jostling strange people as we hugged and hand shook knowing we dance and sing and shout for the same Father. And I want to take that party with me as a reminder that while there is always reason for sorrow there is also cause to celebrate a life I don’t deserve and a God who is great and doing great things in me, in spite of me and around me every day.

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QUOTABLE: NATION

"Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate."
- Ulysses S. Grant (American 18th US president (1869-77), famous commander of the Union armies during the late years of the American Civil War. 1822-1885)

"Merging one's personal aspirations within the aspirations of the nation, falling into step behind the flag, has long been a popular means of overcoming doubts about the substance of one's own life."
- Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon (Theologians and authors of "Resident Aliens" 1982. Hauerwas named Theologian of the Century)

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
- Adam Smith (Scottish philosopher who greatly impacted the formation of the ideals capitalism and democracy. Author of "Wealth of Nations". 1723-1790)

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5/21/2005

YOU DON'T NEED NASHVILLE #3: PRIORITIES

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(Top priorities: Gabriella, Gresham and Penelope)

Reason #2 why you might not need a record label? They don’t love your family, friends and church as much as you should.

Let me back up. If I ran a record company and wanted it to be both profitable for me and healthy for my artists right now I would only sign single people or married people without kids willing to travel together.

Right now CCM records sell best when they have the full support of radio play and touring behind them. But right now radio stations are playing fewer songs than ever before. So artists must tour incessantly to make up for that lost exposure. An artist can’t sell enough records to make a label the biggest profit possible (or any profit at all) without doing so. You have to be a road dog if you’re not a radio star.

The problem with touring is – and this is what no one wants to say out loud in CCM circles – it’s unhealthy for the artist and his/her family. The best scenario for a married artist is to share a bus/van/plane with their spouse. But many of us have spouses with attachments of their own back home in Nashville – friends and family they need to see, church services and opportunities to serve they shouldn’t miss. There’s a craving for neighborhood and normalcy that goes unmet on tour.

The need is greater when kids come along. I talked to a child psychologist soon after my first child was born about how to best manage touring and my family’s mental health. I knew from working at an orphanage the damage an absent father does to a child’s concepts of God and self-worth. It’s for a reason that the bible calls God our Abba (Daddy): Dad’s are important living metaphors for God, lending children their first glimpses of God’s character and love. The psychologist told me that under no circumstance is it ever healthy for a child over three and under adolescence to be without either parent for more than a few days. And it’s never healthy for a child to miss his/her routine for an extended period of time either. Kids, she said, need the same breakfast table, cereal, naptime and bathtub most days. It makes them feel safe.

And then there’s church. It’s ironic to me that “Christian” artists spend so little time in church, much less serving there. Our music informs the Church universal about doctrine, about the values of God. Yet we sometimes think we’ve arrived and no longer need to keep learning those things ourselves? We sometimes think we need no one mentoring and guiding and correcting and encouraging US as we do such dangerous work? Yes, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to speak about God for God, regardless of what your job is, without being tethered to God’s people – the same people on a consistent intimate basis.

I can’t get by with writing bad theology because my pastor or worship pastor or co-pastor or someone from my church would call me on it. And I couldn’t have made it through my first tumultuous year of touring (when I toured too much) without my Sunday School class and others surrounding my wife with care – serving her and checking in on her to an almost smothering degree. It was great to be loved by them through the hard times when I acted so stupidly. And I would have a larger ego than I already do if I didn’t crawl around on the floor with one year-olds from time to time on Sunday mornings or disciple a group of students or teach a bible study or serve in other ways that remind me I’m not special, I’m just one more functioning part of a greater organism called Church.

The harm done by travel is not the label’s fault. No one makes artists abandon kids, wives, churches and friends. Labels are businesses. They need profitable successful artists so that they can take care of their own families. But now matter how much money we artists lose them they can’t make us tour more. That’s our choice. And it’s a choice many artist friends of mine make. Then, when their marriage is crumbling and their kids don’t like them anymore, they point a finger at their label. But these artists chose popularity, happiness or ministry over community, church and family – on their own.

I say ALL this to say that whether you remain an indie artist or sign a deal you will sell more records if you play more shows. I’ll tell you how to get those shows in a later post but for now take the time to examine your life realistically – signed or unsigned.

If you’re single: How many days can you be gone each month and still have real relationships with non-musician friends and family? With that schedule can you commit to some gathering of Christians who will teach you and serve you but also encourage and correct you as you give back to them in any way they need on a regular basis?

If you’re married: How many days a month, and for how many days at a time, can you SAFELY be gone from home? What steps will you take to insure that your marriage stays healthy when you are gone? Do you and your spouse have a church you can lean on and serve? Do you have a minister or older Christian friend to ask you regularly how you’re serving your spouse, how your marriage is, how you are dealing with temptation on the road? Please, get someone to travel with you always. Never be alone on the road. Guard your marriage like the precious jewel it is.

If you have kids: Same questions for you but also are you willing to give up your career or change it drastically at the first sign of damage to your children? Do you have an older friend who is a parent, someone who has balanced work and family well and raised pretty normal kids, who can teach you how to parent if you get stumped?

Prayerfully answer these questions and wrestle with these realities with those closest to you. I’ll post soon about how to get gigs once you've figured out how many you and yours can truly handle.

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5/20/2005

YOU DON'T NEED NASHVILLE #2: PROMOTIONS

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Reason #1 you might not need a label deal: You can promote yourself. (But it won't be easy.)

I'm on a small independent label. "Independent" in this context means we are not owned and operated by one of the big three Christian label groups: Provident (PMG), Word/Warner, EMI (EMICMG). Being on a smaller label also means less money for promoting a record - not a lot less, but less. So I've been letting my label do their thing while also operating from the indie artist handbook. On page 47 I think it is the handbook says you are your best promoter. You know you and your audience better than anyone. Who better to spread the word about you and your music than you?

Here's what labels would do to promote your music:

1) Create a publicity folder with:
-Clippings and reviews about your music
-Published articles by you
-Published interviews with you
-Publicity photos of you
-CD or sampler of your music
-Bio telling your story and the story of your current project
-Fact sheet detailing your radio and retail history as well as any tours you've been on and any award nominations or wins
-QUotes about you from important people
-Contact info for PR, booking and management

2) Send the publicity folder to media contacts and follow-up asking for:
-Reviews of the record
-Interviews with you
-Writing opportunities on the web or in print
-Any appearance on TV anywhere (TV is the most powerful promotion there is)

3) Build a website and put you on theirs

4) Let the retail marketers and radio promoters get the word out about you by:
-Getting your song played everywhere often
-Getting your CD in listening stations, on end-caps (the displays at the end of aisles)
-Getting your face on retail sales books
-Getting you a playing opportunity at industry events like CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), distribution showcases, GMA Week etc.
-Getting radio interviews

5) Creating and exploiting grassroots efforts like:
-E-mail viral marketing
-Street team promotions

Now, out of all that (and that's not every trick in the label's book but just the basics) what CAN'T you do for yourself if you have the money, time and desire? Nothing.

Here's what YOU can do:
YOU CAN MAKE A FOLDER at Kinkos with the cover of your CD on it and all the necessary papers in it. You can get lists of media contacts and mail that folder to them. Granted, not all of your contacts will be of the quality the label has and not all of the contacts a label has are ever going to be available to you - or interested in you. But you can mail a folder out to a lot of folks in media and follow up with them. If you don't have the time or the writing/creative skills but you have lots of cash you can hire a publicist out of Nashville for not cheap who will do this for you. Or you can hire a friend who majored in English and another with an artistic bent and another with good phone skills.

YOU CAN BUILD A WEBSITE for free! Yes, I said free. Blogger.com offers FREE blogging websites and there are other free site services out there as well. Problem is they don't look so great. So I taught myself enough html to customize one and borrowed the brain of a nerdy friend to take it even further. I use that site for booking. Now, it's not as purdy as my label-built site but it works. And who among us doesn't have a friend or friend of a friend with web building skills? I met one indie artist who found a college class in which students build a website for a grade. He stood outside the class and offered $100 and his meal ticket to anyone from the class willing to build his artist site for him. He had takers and wound up making it a contest: Whoever built the best site got the cash and the food. Genius.

Other options are purevolume.com and myspace.com. I have pages at both. My Space is free and allows me to upload up to four songs, post video, make and send announcements to interested parties, blog etc. Purevolume costs money but it's not much and it too allows easy posting of music and other promotional tools. (About now the labels are trying to figure out what they offer that you can't do yourself. It gets worse for them.)

Here are some indie artist sites and sites that help indies on the web (not necessarily free):
jerimaeyoder.com
indieheaven.com
myspace.com
purevolume.com
grassrootsmusic.com
clemencyministries.com
robbieseayband.com
beggarsfortune.com

You can also create a Google Group. This group allows you to store all fan e-mail addresses collected at shows or from your numerous web sites in one place. Then you can quickly and easily blast all of them at once with an announcement about a contest a show or your new record deal. You can link people there from a button on your websites that says "e-mail list" and BAM! they enter their info and you have one more fan you can serve up rock n' roll to via cyberspace.

Put a free tracker on your pages and find out how many hits you get each hour, day, month etc. Also learn what time zone they live in, if they came to you via a link from somewhere else, where that somewhere is, how long they visit your site each time, what time of day, what OS they use, what browser they use with what capabilities to handle video and audio etc etc.

The next level is buying server space for $5/month at A Small Orange or the like, uploading audio files and announcements in jpeg form and then pasting links to those audio/visual promotion tools in message boards, e-mails and on your web sites. Your small army of fans can beat the pants off any magazine ad in a matter of days if willing to pass the links along to people who'll pass the links along.

You're a promotion machine now! Look at you with a growing e-mail list, a couple of free web sites, folders flying all over the country and newsletters filled with tour dates and updates zinging through cyberspace to your Google Group.

Now, before you get all uppity there are things you CAN'T do for yourself on the promotions front. You can't get on the radio in a big way. You might get a non-reporting station or two (stations that don't affect the charts) but never the networks. There are people who would advise you to give it a try by hiring their buddy Mr. Independent Radio Promoter. He's got a disc he sends out to radio stations just like the labels do. Thing is, no matter how good that promoter is (and he better be because he isn't cheap) CCM radio playlists are shrinking. They're half of what they were four years ago - around 12 current songs now. After you factor in core artists like Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, three songs by Jeremy Camp, two songs by Casting Crowns and Mercy Me - well, there's not much room left for us C level signed guys much less a place for you. Save your money and buy more stamps.

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5/19/2005

WHERE DAMMIT COMES FROM

Gabriella Bubbles
She was sitting at the kitchen table coloring and eating breakfast - she's a multi-tasker; got that from her mother - when we heard her juice cup spill and then the word, "Dammit." Now, we don't watch cable TV, not because we're super spiritual, but because we're super not interested. So she didn't here it there. And while her mother does get a little ticked off at the way Tennesseans drive (there's no concept of turn signals or fast lanes in this state) my wife's not a big cusser. At most she'll declare someone a jerk under her breath. And I, being a Christian rock star much closer to perfection than the ordinary depraved shmoes I'm forced to live among, certainly have not uttered such profanity around her tiny ears. So who taught it to her?

There's a little girl in our neighborhood who's 8. She's a bouncy bubbly seemingly sweet girl who apparently says "dammit" - and apparently says it often. Gabriella went over to Cursing Girl's yard one day last week to swing. She was only there an hour. Seemed innocent enough. No gunpowder residue on my little girl's hands when she returned. No smell of adult beverages on the breath. No stolen goods strapped to her tricycle. No hickeys or other evidence of foul play.

I just thought it was interesting because I've been talking and writing a lot lately about the idea of depravity - the belief that all of us are born evil, bent away from God and not towards Him. I say often that this world around us doesn't make us wicked but only reveals the wickedness already in us - only feeds it. TV, music, cussing girls, bars, bad parenting, low rise jeans, political discussions - these things are miracle grow on the sinful seeds planted in our heart at birth. And I thought about this today when at my kitchen table, in MY house, vulgarity bloomed for the first time.

I've tried hard to preserve her innocence, and sure she's pushed her little brother a few hundred times before and whines frequently when she doesn't get her way, but this morning felt different. She had selfishness and whininess fertilized just being with me. But "dammit" came from someone outside and there are a lot more someone's out there able to feed her depravity to full bloom. Kind of makes me want to lock her away from everything and everyone else. But I realize, and it makes me extremely sad, that this perfect little girl has a damned heart. Take away Cursing Girl and Bothersome Brother and Selfish Whining Dad and it may take a little longer but her heart will still one day push something wicked through her unblemished surface. Something bent and broken and despicable will spill out of her soul and up through her hands or mind or mouth eventually. No matter what.

Yep, today I'm mourning because depravity is no longer a theory in a book. It's real and it's wriggling in my perfect little girl. Makes me wanna cry...or cuss.

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5/18/2005

YOU DON'T NEED NASHVILLE #1

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(ABOVE: Louisiana based Indie artist Jake Smith, pic from JakeSmithMusic.com)

"You MIGHT Not Need Nashville" is too long but much more accurate. By "Nashville" I mean the record labels based here of course. Nashville, the city, while a beautiful temperate place to plant yourself, is definitely not a NEED for you - mainly because there's no good Tex-Mex here, but that's another post.

You MIGHT need Nashville and I want to leave that door open upfront, before we get into why you might not. I hope, in however many posts this series takes, to answer questions I get often on the road about record labels and whether it's better not to sign with one. I hope my little answers to these big questions help you appreciate where you are, gain a better understanding of what it is labels and signed artists do and inspires you to copy the things you end up liking about us and avoid those you don't. Basically, I hope this little series gives you some wisdom and encouragement and helps you do whatever you do, wherever you end up doing it, a little better - armed with good information.

I get asked all the time on the road, by indie artists, if they NEED a label. Of course the answer is "I don't know if YOU do". But I know labels can be tremendous help to certain artists. Here's what they might do for you:

A&R: Helping shape the artist and the repertoire (thus A and R). Christian Music labels (from now on called CCM labels here) aren't, in my opinion, doing as much A as R these days. They don't do much to determine and cultivate the artist's performance, vocal style, musical direction and general skills. An extreme example of A done well would be a put together group - one that was created by a label or manager. They get vocal coaching, performance coaching, dance lessons, media training, styling, and have their musical direction largely determined by the label - they are the labels' the creation. Another example would be what we witnessed on Ashley Simpson's MTV reality series. The label controlled everything about her artistry until she wound up being more pop and less rock than she started out as - and sold more records than she would have.

What CCM labels do better is R. They shape the song writing and selection for a record. An artist who doesn't write their own songs would have an A&R guy out meeting with publishers (companies that write songs and try to get them recorded) to explain what kind of songs the artist is looking for. When a publisher has something fitting the artist's/label's need they'll pitch it to the A&R guy who may or may not include the manager and artist in it all. Ideally the A&R person, manager and artist would then choose the songs for the record. For a guy like me who writes his own songs an A&R guy determines when a song is in need of rewriting (something my publisher also does) or when a song is too this or that or just plain bad or good. In the end he decides, along with me and my producer and manager, what songs will make the record. As they listen A&R guys are thinking about art, marketing, radio, retailers, fans, clarity of message and lyric etc. The artist is usually just able to think about music. An artist is also possibly the least objective person in the room. They. after all, birthed these songs. Saying one of them isn't good is like saying one of their kids isn't as loved as the others. A mom always thinks her kids are beautiful right? So we need our A&R friend to tell us when our kid is actually the ugliest one in the class. (Wow, that analogy got weird fast didn't it?)

And two more, but not the least, jobs of A&R are helping choose the producer and musical direction, and acting as the liaison between artist and label - they are the face of the large label, where the artist may not be able to work daily with every individual in the building.

MARKETING: This department at a label gets its hands in all departments. They lend wisdom to the A&R process but also to the selection of the radio singles, timing of everything, touring, retail strategy, internet presence, grassroots strategy etc. These people figure out what to tell the world about you and your music, how to do it, who to do it to and through, and when. They are the all powerful communicators of all things you. Marketing figures out who they want people to think you are (it's not always who you really are) and decides how to get that image across. They also spend an equal amount of time building relationships you can't build alone with retailers and other gatekeepers - convincing them you're a great person or just a person making great music or just making music that will sell. They are your voice to the people you'll never get to speak to. They paint the only pictures of you and your message most will ever see.

RADIO PROMOTION: Without going down a rabbit trail about radio I'll just say CCM radio rules the CCM universe. They are the most powerful ingredient to sales and booking at the moment. They are also, at the moment, the hardest people to get help from. There so many artists and so few slots on a station's playlist (half as many on average as four years ago when I started out) that the odds of getting played are slim. The odds of getting played a lot are dismal. The odds of an indie getting the time of day from CCM radio are zilch. To increase those odds an artist can write certain kinds of songs and sign with a label that has a great radio department. Radio promoters are important because they get your music on the airwaves in cities you may never get to visit. Better, they get the message in your music to thousands who might need to hear it but can't make it to your shows.

FINANCIAL: Here's the truth. Call me greedy or whatever you like but part of why I do this job is because I need to feed my family and keep the lights turned on. Those needs are met because my label. among others, pays me and because they pay FOR marketing, publicity, radio promotion etc. I don't have thousands lying around to make a record and sell it. They do. Someone once said a label is a bank making loans with tremendous interest. That's pretty accurate sometimes but I prefer to think of them as partners who split the work load - helps me sleep better anyway. I make the music and do the ministry, travel etc. They fund and sell it. If they stop funding and selling I won't need them. If that happens I'm you, in my basement, wondering why my local station won't play me and Mercy Me won't return my phone calls begging to tour with them. (Actually, Mercy Me doesn't return my phone calls NOW.) We'll get to how exactly I make money - and how much - in a later post.

PUBLICITY: If marketing is your voice to the world, publicity might be their megaphone. My publicist works her tail off spreading propaganda, most of the time true, about me to her contacts in the media. Ever wonder how this week's CCM magazine cover girl was chosen? The publicist scurries around behind the scenes, far far behind the scenes, handing out pre-releases, pitching stories to publications about their artist, and writing press releases every time I do something remotely interesting: "SHAUN GROVES LEARNS NEW CHORD." And then their minions, the media, put that hearty tidbit of life-changing information in rotation on radio stations, magazines, webzines and the like.

Those are the main things a label does. There are labels that do even more - no label is the same - but these are jobs that every label SHOULD do or they're just friends who take a lot of your money.

I hope this has you thinking already about whether you really NEED a label or not - whether you need what they have to offer. Today I've given us all reason to stand in awe and appreciation of the label machine. I've shared the good news about labels: they do stuff for artists that most artists can't do alone. But as we continue to talk about being a label artist versus an indie artist I think you might find the label deal less and less attractive. That's because, while I like and respect labels and what they do in general, I also think their services are getting easier for you to duplicate. These services will have to grow and evolve soon or labels will become less and less necessary and awe-inspiring to indies like you. Already, I'm meeting indies on the road with more passion and direction than many marketers, more work ethic and contacts than a publicist might have, more musical insight and knowledge of what the audience wants than some A&R guys, and the cash to make and sell music on their own. That should scare labels a little and inspire indies a lot.

More inspiration and fear served up soon.

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5/17/2005

FROM THE ROAD: MONTGOMERY, AL


(pictured: Me, Matt Austin, Michael Olson)

Michael Olson (recently re-dubbed "Molson" to save time) travelled with Brian (my road manager) and I to Montgomery Alabama to play and speak in support of Discuss this SHLOG on my WAY-FM yesterday. WAY's Southeastern regional head honcho is Matt Austin, a long time friend of mine, who asked me to come play for the crowd of businessmen, clergy and listeners interested in partnering with WAY-FM to bring a WAY-FM station to the area. They currently have translators that rebroadcast WAY's music in Montgomery but no station actually existing in the city or staff interacting with local listeners daily.

That's something that sets WAY-FM apart from other radio networks. They try to put real people in an actual building in the cities they broadcast to. This allows listeners to contribute to the station by answering phones, calling with complaints or encouragement etc. and makes WAY-FM's programming more likely to float the boat of each city's listeners and better understand the needs of the local ministries, businesses and churches they partner with. There are other massive radio networks that just pipe their programming originating on one coast all across the country with no tailoring and adjustment for local weather and news, local concert promotion, local sponsors, or local accents. Imagine living in Montgomery and being forced to listen to some guy from California all day. How personal would that feel?

As an artist these large impersonal networks are a blessing and a curse. On the one hand they get my music out to far more people than one local station can. On the other hand they can't often advertise my show in Boise because the programming originates from somewhere 700 miles away and is also broadcast to SanAntonio listeners who don't care that I'll be at the Boise Civic Center next week. WAY-FM's goal is to eventually span the country but maintain that personal feel and service you usually only get from a local station. That's the best of both worlds so I gladly support WAY-FM when I get the chance.

WAY-FM is a CHR formatted station. Quick lesson on formats for those of us who don't work in the industry...Christian radio is divided into four main formats: Inspirational (aka. INSPO), Adult Contemporary (aka. AC), Contemporary Hit Radio (aka. CHR), Rock. Inspirational stations often broadcast teaching along with music and tend to be the least aggressive musically and have the oldest most conservative audiences. Adult Contemporary stations target, according to their own admission and not my opinion, 35-40 year old white mothers with small children. CHR stations generally aim a little younger and more aggressive, often claiming an audience of young adults, though they don't deny that moms of those young adults make up a large chunk of the audience as well. Rock is of course pumps out the most aggressive music and often attracts the youngest audience.

Stations of all formats fall into two larger categories: commercial and non-commercial (aka non-com). Commercial run ads from local businesses that sound like ads you'd hear on any other station. Non-Com stations do "share-athons" which resemble telethons, asking listeners to pledge to give to the station. Those who pledge a larger sum get what sure sounds like an ad played in rotation but is subtly different. These ads cannot make comparative statements. So no prices or discounts can be included in the ad for instance. It can't seem like it's promoting a product over another, in other words, or that station is not non-com and would lose some tax benefits. That's why a non-com station often refers to itself on air as a "ministry" while often skating as close as possible to commercial behavior. So if yo hear an ad for 20% off at Mattress King you're listening to a commercial radio station but if you hear, "This house of broadcasting brought to you by our sponsor Mattress King, a Christian owned family business for over 25 years" that's supposedly a non-com station. Seems a little sketchy to me. Seems like great music should compete head to head with great music for ad dollars and it seems like non-com stations are already advertising so why should they get the tax shelter commercial stations don't enjoy? But, hey, I got in at 2Am this morning so don't listen to me. What do you think?

Discuss this SHLOG on my message-board

5/15/2005

AUDIO LINKS REPAIRED

Audio links in the posts SHAMELESS PLUG and ROCK IN ROCKETOWN are repaired. I apologize for any frustration or wasted time. Thanks.

5/14/2005

FROM THE ROAD: INMAN, SC



I'll go anywhere for Chick-fil-A, even South Carolina in May. I love the Carolinas actually and visit those two states more than any others oddly enough. And when I'm there I always stop and grab some Christian Chicken - Deep fried Holy Spirit is what that stuff is.

And after that I feel spiritual again and so I soft rock to my greatest potential. Such was the routine in Inman. We drove until after midnight the night before and checked into the Holiday Inn Express. I'm not getting paid to say this alright but something flutters in me with anticipation every time we stay in a Holiday Inn Express because the shower heads in their rooms were all replaced at all of their locations about a year and a half ago I guess it was. I don't care about the beds in a hotel because I'm asleep - I don't know if it's dirty, lumpy, smelly or hard. I don't care about the food because I'm either up too early or too late to savor or choke on the complimentary continental spread. I don't care about the cost because I'm not paying most of the time. I care about the shower. After a long day in the car or hopping flights I want a great shower with excellent water pressure, temperature and spread. I need the shower to massage not pummel, to warm not scald, and to cover not sprinkle me. Ah, there's no greater luxury on the road than a Holiday Inn Express shower. (Holiday Inn corporate guys, please send free stay coupons to POBox 680055, Franklin, Tn 37068).



Then we woke up this morning and headed to the open field behind Lake Bowen Baptist Church where I witnessed - I kid you not - a pink-wigged clown riding a mechanical bull, a seven foot cow playing frisbee (pictured above) all while Building 429, Rachael Lampa, NewSong, a few independent bands, Michael Olson and I played for the crowd melting in the South Carolina humidity. It was a good day made better by the nicest people in the country (Southerners of course) and a more than ample supply of sweet tea.



After our portion of the day's events Michael (opening for me currently on select dates), my band and road manager and I hopped in our 15 passenger "bus" and made the haul back to Nashville - stopping along the way of course for large quantities of Mountain Dew or Dr.Pepper and one Pull-My-Finger pen.





That last item was for my son of course. I took no pleasure in demonstrating it's lifelike emissions for the guys.

Oh the spiritual journeys of the Christian rock star.

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5/13/2005

SHAMELESS PLUG

Click the cover below to hear a medley of songs from White Flag in stores July 12th or pre-order today at shaungroves.com.



PC USERS: Right click the cover above and choose "download linked file" to download the mp3 to your computer.
MAC USERS: ctrl+click the cover above and choose "download linked file" to do the same.

Feel free to distribute this mp3 to as many people as you'd like in any way you'd like. Thanks for listening. Shlog on.

SG

COMING SOON TO SHLOG

First of all, I'll be adding interviews with musicians, writers, theologians, businessmen and possibly a politician or two to SHLOG in the days ahead. Among those who've agree to subject themselves to my amateur questioning? Jars of Clay will be first. We'll talk Charlie Lowell (keys) about their new album of course but also some other stuff you may not know about the guys yet.

We'll also be finishing up the series called WHAT IN THE WORLD, answering some hate mail and questions about the discussion so far in the next post of the series. There are a few things you guys want clarification on and one other you want to stop coming here because of. If you choose to stick around I'd love your thoughts on the posts so far and any questions or "concerns" YOU have under your skin. I'll address as many as I can. This is a dialogue not monologue. I do MOST of the talking but don't want to do all of it.

And we'll start a new series tentatively called YOU DON'T NEED NASHVILLE all about how to succeed as an indie artist. How does an indie artist pay the bills, make a record, get it manufactured and designed, book gigs, get it on the radio and in stores and spread the word about it. Honest answers from experts in the field sure to empower indies and scare labels...just a little bit.

If there's anything you'd be more interested in seeing here just let me know. Comment now on this post or e-mail me at shaungrovesfanmail@charter.net

Stay tuned. More SHLOG on the way.

5/11/2005

WHAT IN THE WORLD #2: ROARING REPUBLICANS

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In part one of this series What In the World I painted a picture of how some Christians live out the supposed order from God to be “in the world but not of it.” These believers see “the world” (here we go again with the quotation marks) as being somewhere out there, removed from Christian culture and therefore in need of being brought to church, Christian concerts, Christian clubs, Christian businesses etc. These Christians sometimes see “the world” as sinfully dangerous to anyone getting too close to it, or as a place out of their way, so they prefer that the world come to them. So they attract the world by being the coolest, most “relevant” and likeable Christians they can be - with Jesus fish on their cars so the world can spot 'em when they want 'em. But this response is not the only way Christians are going about being in the world and not of it.

Conservative politicians typify the next group trying a different approach to putting this Sufist phrase into action. The thinking goes something like this. “The world” is still “out there” somewhere segregated from Christians but, the thinking goes, it shouldn’t be “out there”. It should be under us. It should be rule by Christ – or more honestly, by Christians.

This Christians, like the last group we scrutinized, may actually be powered by an intense love for God and people. This love moves them to run for office, fight perceived barriers to Christianity, and climb the rungs of the government to the White House as well. The thought being that a godly man on top of “the world”, if he’s not of it, can make the greatest fastest difference of all in it.

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Take Jerry Falwell, for instance. In him, an extreme example I know, we get a good look at how these lambs sometimes think about “the world” and what they think it needs.

When September 11th happened Uncle Jerry got ticked off and when Uncle Jerry gets ticked off he starts talking. And wow can he talk?

“And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ [spoken September 11, 2001, "God Gave U.S. 'What We Deserve,' Falwell Says," The Washington Post (September 14, 2001)]

Notice Falwell blames the “secularization” of America for September 11th and most things he doesn’t like about the place. He believes, as so many of these lambs do, that God can be separated from the world, thus creating “the world” – a place without God and in need of enforceable spiritual guidelines on a mass scale.

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He believes we kicked God out of school – that we are capable then of bringing him back in with new laws. He believes not being allowed to put the ten commandments up in a courthouse thwarts God’s power over those making laws, boots Christ’s presence out of our nation, and the only way to get those ten precepts back up there is to reinvent America’s government reinvented in God’s image – well, at least the Republican-friendly parts of his visage.

Jerry wants Christians in power so that the ungodly will be forced to act otherwise and therefore “the world” will be erased and a Christ-like utopia erected in its place. One problem with that plan is, of course, that it requires a tremendous amount of political power and political power doesn’t come cheaply in our system. It requires that large numbers of people all on one side of the aisle have to like you and your agenda. To please so many, Christian ethics sometimes have to take a backseat to political prudence – the ultimate seen as justifying the immediate. Jesus issues like poverty and peace making are shoved aside to support America-benefiting issues like capitalism and war. While God's early church shared their belongings and fed the hungry, clothed the naked and sheltered the oppressed, these lambs prefer to focus on government plans for the least. While Jesus shook a finger at the wealthy, saying that it is hard for them to get into Heaven for various reason, these lambs pass laws that benefit their supporters' pocketbooks. Instead of taking meetings with the widows and orphans and they are consulted by the insurance and oil companies, the unions and the NRA. These lambs must pay attention to the powerful first in order to become powerful themselves even though Jesus spent his time and life on the weak. These lambs are often willing to pay these prices though, and for good reason.

Whether in politics or industry, these lambs belief the world belongs to Christians. The world is our court and everyone will play by our rules or be punished – or called un-American. They believe our nation was founded on Christian values but since them God somehow got locked out of everything we do by "secular" political, business and other leaders. They believe we Christians should win back our country for Jesus by political or business force so that citizen's must obey God’s laws re-written on paper by Congress even if those laws have not been written on the hearts of citizens by the Spirit of God (Ezekiel 36:27)

For these lambs, whether CEOs or Senators, one way to be “in the world but not of it” is to rule over it – above it - and may God Bless America because of it.

To be continued...

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WITH GOD ON THEIR SIDE?

This article, reprinted with permission from Jewly Hight, originally ran in the Nashville Scene. When I post an article here at SHLOG I don't do so because I agree with everything in it, but instead because the article made me think and I want to think some more out loud with you. So, read, think, comment, discuss. Here goes...

With God On Their Side?
(Gospel Music Association turns a blind eye to records that get spiritual without selling their souls to CCM subculture )
By Jewly Hight

If there was ever any question about whether an artist could make a gospel record that has nothing to do with the gospel music industry, the evidence is in. Last year, not one, but two people, Buddy Miller and Ben Harper, pulled it off, earning Grammy nominations in gospel categories for their latest albums. Meanwhile, the Gospel Music Association (GMA) did what any shortsighted governing body of spiritual music would do - ignored them. While it's doubtful that either artist would've felt comfortable inside the contemporary Christian music bubble, it's worth asking why their albums weren't gospel enough for the GMA.



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Illustration by Gilbert Ford


Miller's Universal United House of Prayer and Harper's There Will Be a Light, a collaboration with The Blind Boys of Alabama, both have enough gospel content to rival any of the albums that will prove winners at the GMA Awards April 13. The Grammys placed both records alongside GMA nominees like Randy Travis, The Crabb Family, Dottie Peoples and The Williams Brothers. Miller's album received a mention in the "Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Album" category, while Harper's received one for "Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album." Neither, however, made the GMA list.

According to GMA guidelines, a record's lyrics must be "based upon the historically orthodox Christian faith contained in or derived from the Holy Bible, or apparently prompted and informed by a Christian worldview" for it to be considered for an award. Both of the overlooked albums aced this lyrics test.

Miller, who frequently collaborates with his wife, Julie, a former contemporary Christian music (CCM) artist, made his most distinct faith statements to date on last year's House of Prayer. On this album, Miller's trademark hybrid of blues, soul, gospel and country brim with transcendental devotion. His ravaged vocals and alternately bluesy and keening guitar playing amplify the spiritual urgency of his lyrics, conveying meaning that words alone can't possibly express.

Backed by the gospel-steeped hosannas of Regina and Ann McCrary, daughters of legendary Fairfield Four tenor the Rev. Sam McCrary, and borrowing songs from the late great CCM misfit Mark Heard and The Louvin Brothers, Miller recorded some seriously spiritual music. In "Is That You," a song that he wrote with his wife Julie, he asks, "Lord, did you go down and take on the devil? / Lord, did you go down to hell for the key? / Buried in the ground, and then did you rise up? / Did you go down to hell and back for me?" Any writer would be hard pressed to come up with a more thoroughly gospel song than that.

Harper isn't as associated with music of faith as Miller, but he has persistently included songs with spiritual themes on his albums. There Will Be a Light, his partnership with the venerable Blind Boys, yielded a surfeit of sacred material. Harper and his Innocent Criminals depart from their standard jam rock on this album. His distinctive singing and the deep, careworn voices of the Blind Boys form a gospel choir, conveying just the sort of spiritual fervor that you'd expect to hear through walls of a foot-stomping revival in full swing. "Take My Hand" deals with trusting God, "Wicked Man" warns that a life of selfish gain will end badly, and both "Church House Steps" and "Church On Time" blend Sunday morning imagery with visions of heaven.

But what's gospel to the Grammys may or may not be gospel to the GMAs, and there's more to this than lyrical content. First, gospel music's gatekeepers suffer from a separatist mind-set. You'd think that an organization whose mission statement is "to expose, promote and celebrate the Gospel through music" would embrace anyone anywhere who creates good music that does this effectively. In reality, the CCM creed might more accurately read, "Blessed are those who target the right niche audience - that is, Christians who buy into the CCM subculture via Christian radio stations, retailers and concerts - for they shall be heralded as legitimately gospel."

This is where mixing spirituality, art and commerce gets sticky. Anything produced outside the CCM sphere of influence, no matter how well-intentioned, is generally suspect. Artists who make faith-oriented music for the larger marketplace thus often go unnoticed, and many of them are probably relieved.

Then there's the GMA's apparent discomfort with complexity, ambiguity or anything that defies easy labeling. Other than traditional gospel and bluegrass forms, little space is made in CCM for nuanced, roots-oriented styles like folk, blues and Americana. There isn't really a Christian NPR or AAA radio format to promote the growth of fringe artists. The GMA tends to promote artists who can be neatly pigeonholed and whose music presents an ideology that can be grasped on first listen. Even CCM luminaries like Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant and Sixpence None the Richer have incurred criticism for recording songs that aren't transparently Christian enough.

With paradigms like these, it's no wonder the GMA doesn't comprehend, much less embrace artists like Buddy Miller and Ben Harper, who weave spirituality into the fabric of their music. Thankfully, Miller and Harper get to make the music they want to make. Just as salutary, even people who don't patronize record bins marked "Christian" can enjoy it.

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5/10/2005

HELL RAISER

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Brian D. McLaren, an "emergent church" guru/speaker/author/pastor, has written A trilogy about becoming a new kind of Christian. The third book in the series, called "The Last Word and The Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity", uses dialogue to examine how our changing view of hell impacts our view of God and then life itself.

One character in the book says, "Millions of people, young and old, have given up on Christianity because our way of talking about hell sounds absolutely wacky. 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,' we say, 'and he'll fry your butt in hell forever unless you do or believe the right thing'... No wonder Christianity -- or that version of it -- is a dying religion in so many places in the world."

We once talked a great deal about hell:

"The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire." (Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, 1741.)

But now it's a word I've dropped from my vocabulary altogether and until today, when reading excerpts from this book, I never even noticed. And according to McLaren I'm not alone. In his opinion it's not a word or place more than a few pastors and Christians care to talk about. As he quotes Martin Marty, "Hell has disappeared and no one noticed."( U.S. News and World Report, January 31, 2000, p 44.) And this, he says, shapes the way we live out our faith, how we view God.

Most of us avoid Hell talk because we don't like the judgmental killjoy God who would allow such a pit of despair to exist. So, running from an overly maniacal view of God we run the risk of swinging the other way, towards a Buddy Jesus, an elderly doting smiley grandfather figure who's day and eternity revolves around making us happy.

Which is He? Some of both? All of one? The question of who God is, what He's like, matters. William Temple once said that if your concept of God is radically false, the more devoted you are, the worse off you will be. So what is the right concept of God? I'm reading this book to hear one man's answer to that question, but if this is a typical McClaren book, instead of answers to our questions we'll probably just walk away with better questions.

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5/08/2005

THE ROCK IN ROCKETOWN

Shhh...Here's a sneak peak at "Rocketown" my contribution to the new Michael W. Smith "tribute" record in the works at Rocketown Records. NOTE: This audio file link will stop working in 24 hours at midnight on May 9th.

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UPDATE/AMENDMENT/APOLOGY: May 9, 1:33PM. A big sorry to those of you who were unable to access the audio clip in this post. My fault. Too many hits for the server to handle. Should work now. Thanks for your patience.

5/07/2005

FROM THE ROAD: INDIANAPOLIS, IN

Today I played at the end of an exhibit hall inside the Indianapolis Convention Center - a long large room crammed with over a hundred companies, ministries and individuals showcasing everything from Creationism tracts (displayed by a model of dinosaurs boarding the Ark), Christian Hairstylist Association memberships and church construction services to Christian formulas for getting rich (Did you know you're not really saved if you're not really rich?) and quality items like this one...

FROM THE ROAD: INDIANAPOLS, IN

I'm sure the folks selling and wearing this shirt can still get into heaven, but their choice of rooms there is sure to be severely limited. "Right this way, Sir. You'll be spending eternity in our Banjos-Are-Forever Suite. If you need anything during your stay the guy that invented Testamints will be staying right next door in our Boy-Bands-Never-Die bungalow. Nice fellow. Great breath."

Of course this same guy is probably somewhere blogging right now, "Today a long-haired FM looking guy in need of some Testamints in a bad way came by taking pictures of our shirts. He smiled as he walked away. I think he may have gotten saved. Well it's been a long day. Thinking up new t-shirts to convict pagans really wears me out. I think I'll just take my shoes off, drink some hot tea and relax to my favorite banjo CD."

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5/06/2005

FROM THE ROAD: EVANSVILLE, IN

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Tonight I played at Seekers Coffee House in Evansville, Indiana. Small crowd. Good food. Lots of hanging out afterwards. I always enjoy playing Seeker's. Here's a little info about the place.

Seekers Coffee House & Café was started by two people aiming to provide their community with a positive-wholesome atmosphere.  It was planned to be a place that unites people, where they could hang out, check out some great musical entertainment or meet with friends.  On March 21, 2001 Cindy Castelli and Paul Zorich, two life long friends, opened the doors to the first Seekers Coffee House & Café located in Middleburg Heights, Ohio (a southwest suburb of Cleveland).

Now there are Seekers Coffee Houses popping up all over the place, serving up great wraps and sandwhiches along with fresh coffee and loads of indie music. In February of 2002 Seekers Coffee House Franchise Company was birthed to take the concept national.  Currently, there are stores opened throughout the Midwest, and franchisees have signed on from as far away as Portland, Oregon and Charlotte, North Carolina.

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GO DOWN YONDER, TAKE THE FIRST RE-WRITE

(POST FOLLOWS STRIP)
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Alright already! A guy posts one rambling and sometimes confusing little message and you bury him under a mountain of nit-picky e-mails. Get a life...I mean, it's an honor to be nominated...I mean, thanks for Shlogging and let us know how we can better serve you in the future.

OK, OK, you're right. I can do better.

And I did. Check out the new and improved WHAT IN THE WORLD #1: ROARING ISLAMBS v2.0 Hope you feel good knowing you helped rid "the world" of a little imperfection.

5/05/2005

WHAT IN THE WORLD #1: ROARING ISLAMBS

This is not a rant. A rant is an often pointless show of hostility/frustration - a temper tantrum without direction. This is going somewhere...I think.

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Did you know that the phrase "in the world but not of it" is rooted in Islam (Sufism) and not Christianity and isn't found word for word in the Christian scriptures?

Of course that doesn't mean that it can't contain some truth. But I've been thinking a lot about this little phrase for a long time now and I'm increasingly uncomfortable with using it and adopting it as Christian doctrine. It's at least worth taking a closer look isn't it?

My concern started when I began thinking about where I am and where "the world" is. This saying assumes we religious people (followers of Jesus, Buddha,Yaweh, Muhammad, the Haley-Bop comet) can be someplace other than "the world" and insinuates that "the world" is somewhere "out there."

FASHIONABLE FAITH...
So when this cliche started gaining popularity, while baby boomers were mellowing out to The Doors, a generation of well-intentioned and compassionate Christians began drafting maps to get "out there" and hatching grand schemes to "engage the world." Many of these roaring lambs (as they were later dubbed) decided the best strategy for getting to "the world" was to draw "the world" to them. The best way to spread the Good News - they thought - was to become the best, most contemporary, most "relevant", smartest, richest, most successful and intelligent-lighting savvy people they could be. Surely then "the world" (non-Christians segregated from the church somewhere) would be attracted to the Christian faith. And man - these boomers must have thought - our way will be much faster than what our parents and grandparents tried too. We'll be "intentional", "sensitive" and impossible to ignore. Why wouldn't the "pre-Christian" (as some called them) come join us. The converts won't trickle in, they'll pour in! - they mused - If we spin this whole religion thing right God's market share will soar, we'll have the coolest churches ever and then we'll create conferences to teach our kids and our kids' kids how to be the most "emergent", most "relevant", smartest, richest, most successful candle burning people they can be for the purpose of coaxing "the world" into Heaven.

Then, hundreds of guys went to seminary and then to the mall to buy Dockers and other casual attire. Soon Mega Churches resembling those malls outfitted with Jumbotrons for attracting the bored, day cares for attracting the busy and materialistic, and coffee shops for attracting the hip and addicted were erected all over the Southeast. Guys called "lead worshipers" or "Christian artists" grew goatees, grabbed guitars and did their best impersonations of musicians pagans pay to see. Then Christian record labels, film studios, magazines, book publishers, jugglers, magicians, radio stations, gyms, daycares, wrestling federations, newspapers, phonebooks, landscapers, car dealers, universities, authors, politicians, moving companies, fast-food chains, fashion houses, directors, clubs, skateparks, web hosts, TV shows, airlines, video games, cartoons and web sites sprang suddenly sprang up all over - creating a sort of Jesusland stocked with "Christian" doubles of "the world's" most popular amusements and industries. All because religious people now believed "the world" was somewhere "out there" (or up there) waiting to be "reached" by being impressed by people of faith. "The world" was treated as a place to be saved by Christian power and influence. The Kingdom would come most quickly - it was thought - when the faithful, one by one, reached the pinnacle of success as defined by "the world." Only competing with "the world" can transform the church into the kind of people "the world" likes and admires and wants to be. If we could stand on top of the world - the boomers thought - "the world" would be forced to stand with us, to take notice and give their lives to Jesus Christ.

And still today I'm fighting to overcome this way of thinking ingrained in me, this belief that to "change the world" I must climb the highest point in my "Christian" field so that more people can see my Jesus flag. If I can just impress and lure more non-Christians into my church or my shows with what a great guy I am or by promoting the many services God Inc. has to offer them then - Switcheroo!! - I'll be able to focus "the world's" attention on Jesus. But "the world" isn't "out there" waiting for us/me to become more appealing or excellent so that it has good reason to pay us a visit - is it?

To be continued...someday.

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5/04/2005

BRADY KIDS AND THE POSTAL SERVICE

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Who buys full albums anymore? I sure don't. But in a singles market, with literally hundreds of thousands of individual songs to choose from, deciding what to buy can be daunting. That's when peeking over the shoulder of a friend with too much music in his computer and copying like crazy can be helpful. Here are a few glimpses into my iTunes collection:

CATEGORY: COVER SONGS
1. Against All Odds - The Postal Service
Origianlly recorded by some old guys for a movie in the seventies, it was unmothballed and hipped up a bit by remix/neo techno wierdos The Postal Service for the Wicker Park soundtrack.
2. Everybody Hurts - Dashboard Confessional
Origianlly crooned by REM in the nineties this upbeat ditty was recently tackled by co-founders of the emo music movement , Dashboard Confessional as part of the MTV2 Album Covers Series
3. I Will Survive - Cake
Originally recorded for eight-track users I Will Survive became iPod worthy when Cake, best known for their hit Sheep Go To Heaven, gets through with it on their album Fashion Nugget. (There is an explicit and clean version of this song available on iTunes)
4. I Love Rock n' Roll - Hayseed Dixie
Originally recorded by Joan Jett back when I could rollerskate, this rocker gets rednecked real nice by country hillbilly-rockers Hayseed Dixie. Whereas the original made you want to pump your fist and wear leather, this remake will make you want to watch NASCAR and date your sister.
5. Wonderwall - Ryan Adams
Originally recorded by Oasis in a very stoic British way, this hook-laden song drips with melancholy when whined by americana-alt.rocker Ryan Adams on his Love Is Hell Pt.1 release.

CATEGORY: AMBIENT/DANCE
1. ALBUM: Verve Remixed Volume 3
Verve (a label) owns classic master recordings from some of the the world's greatest jazz performers. These original recordings are remixed by today's most progressive techno/ambient gurus for a new generation. Volume Three is my favorite. Includes songs by Nina SImone and Billie Holiday tweaked out by Danger Mouse and The Postal Service
2. ALBUM: Hotel by Moby
This album is more fodder for commercials and more temptation to dance when no one's looking from the bald man at the computer.
3. ARTIST: Apt. Core
Apt. Core is Will Hunt, drummer for Watermark, Shane and Shane and others, who aptly combines his love of scripture, drum loops and world music.
4. ARTIST: ANDY HUNTER
Featured on soundtracks and on tour with Delerious, this brit beat bouncer melds his Christian worldview with computers and turn-tables to craft sonic landscapes that can relax or make standing still impossible.

CATEGORY: GUILTY PLEASURES (Songs I love but don't want anyone to know I love)
1. Hit Me Baby One More Time - Britney Spears
2. Sunshine Day - The Brady Kids
3. Nine To Five - Dolly Parton
4. Stronger - Christina Aguilerra
5. Daybreak - Barry Mannilow
6. Peggy Sue - Buddy Holly
7. The Reason - Hoobastank
8. All About The Banjamins - P.Diddy et al
9. All Star - Smashmouth
10. Battle Hymn Of The Republic - Stryper
11. Survivor - Destiny's Child

CATEGORY: GREATEST SONGS EVER WRITTEN
1. Every Season - Nichole Nordeman
A poetic piano ballad using unpredictable lyric and melody to shed new light on an old theme.
2. Cathedrals - Jump Little Children
An amazing revelation by an outsider of the Church about how the place called church, and everything else in the city, hints at Someone greater behind the stained glass and concrete.
3. In Your Eyes - Peter Gabriel
More honesty about the human condition and our need for a spiritual solution than the average writer in the Christian music machine has been capable of producing...without cliches or simple answers.
4. Tony - Patty Griffin
Somehow Mrs.Griffin manages to write an energetic addictive head-bobbing song about a "little faggot" who "pulled out a gun and blew himself away."

More of my iTunes later. What are listening to?

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5/03/2005

FUN FOR A GIRL OR A BOY

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You make a list. You mail it to Santa. You whine and pray and wait for weeks, wake before dawn Christmas morning, run to the tree and buzz-saw your way through paper and cardboard only to find...a spring.

I don't like Slinkies. Actually it's not about affection, or a lack thereof. I just don't GET Slinkies. Who came up with this ghetto toy? Some guy forgot to shop for his kids one year (a boy and a girl of course), walks by a dumpster on the way to work and notices a spring from a busted machine of some kind hanging over the edge. The world's best selling toy and catchiest theme song are born.

Blogs are the Slinky of the internet. According to Business Week (May 2, 2005 p.57)...
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...there are about 9 million weblogs, or "blogs", out in cyberspace. 40,000 new ones are started each day. But, like the ever-present Slinky, the blog is having a hard time being understood and appreciated.

Part of that is because, if you're old enough (like me) to know the Slinky theme song by heart, you don't know what a blog is or where to find one - "Is that in Produce or Lawn and Garden?" If I asked my mom to check out my blog - which I'll do eventually - would she know I wasn't talking about a strange growth on my back or a new kitchen appliance for peeling grapes? Would she offer condolences or wrap me in a congratulatory hug?

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And if we know what a blog is it's only because we humored a friend once and actually read their on-line rants about politics, waded through detailed descriptions of what time they did what, how many bananas they had for breakfast or how much they looooooooooooove!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Justin Timberlake. 99.9% of blogs are as lacking in point as they are in punctuation, spelling and good grammar. They stand as evidence that our schools are cranking out graduates incapable of putting their thoughts and feelings into sentences, using both capital and lowercase letters, without leaning on the ever popular ; ) for expression. (That mini-rant was made possible by Mrs.Gazette, Mrs.Granberry, Mrs.Clark, Mrs.Adams and Mrs.Marshall - my elementary school teachers. Ladies, I thank you and my readers thank you.)

So blogs are new for most of us, have a bad rep and yet there are a lot of them lying about on the information superhighway. Like I said, they're like Slinky. Seems everyone will have one eventually but as yet, few figured out how to put them to good use. I'm not sure I can change that with SHLOG. I'm only doing this blog thing because friends/expert bloggers bugged me to for so long that I gave in and promised to try it for a month or so. If I never take it out of the box and find something useful or fun to do with it I'll trade it in for a new toy like...I don't know...my own podcast.

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Until I give up I'm hoping you find something entertaining, amusing, inspiring, or just plain time wasting here everyday. I'm planning on inviting guest bloggers (my road manager, someone in my band, my wife, and anybody else with free time) to fill in for me from time to time, as well as posting new songs as I write them, interviews by me of interesting folks, reviews of new music/books/blogs as I find them and more details about my day-to-day life than you may care to read. Let me know what you'd like to see/read and I'll put it under the tree for you - no whining necessary.

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5/02/2005

FLANNEL VERSUS SPANDEX

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There seem to be two kinds of celebrities. There are artists like Mariah Carey and Sean "Puffy" Combs (or some would say Avalon in the Christian music scene) who, by their own choosing or someone else's, create and flaunt differences between themselves and their audience. And there are artists like Nirvana (or Bebo Norman in the Christian music biz) who downplay those differences, try to fend them off or even fake similarities. This blog is yet another attempt, I think, by me to be the second kind of celebrity...I mean, person just like you.

I knew as a senior in high school, the year Nirvana screamed Poison off my favorite radio station forever, that the boys from Seattle had more money in the bank than David Lee Roth had buttless pants in his closet. Yet the way they showed up at award shows in borderline dorky shredded jeans and flannel shirts, didn't use gallons of hairspray (or any other hair care product for that matter) made me want to believe they were just like me. They were middle class, gangly, unskilled guitar bashers that my dad just might call the cops on for playing too loudly in the garage next door. They were "normal" and that made them likeable, the Rocky and Karate Kid in the early nineties rock n' roll title bout between fake and friend, pretty and pretty ugly, superhuman and just-like-me-only-luckier.

A former A&R guy for a major successful "Christian" label revealed a dirty little secret about some of my peers in this business. In a don't-tell-a-soul-or-I'm-dead kind of almost whisper he explained that his former label made it a much-discussed goal to separate the artist from the audience. The artist was clad in one-of-a-kind designer numbers too good for the malls of mere mortals. She had her hair treated, cut and styled for what a family of four coming to her concerts would spend on a week's groceries, and her dialogue on stage was pre-prepared by a performance coach and memorized to perfection so as to not appear to be only human when "connecting" with the crowd. And it worked. People bought CDs and tickets, it's hypothesized, because we everyday folk like to see somebody pretty than we, hear a song happier than our lives, and dream of being like the beautiful blessed Barbie on stage - always smiling, always on key, always dressed to perfection, always gorgeous, always better than real.

All this was the topic of conversation in Don Donahue's office this afternoon. After a morning spent taking a walk with my kids, explaining to them why trees get cut down to build houses in our neighborhood and what happens to the squirrels who called such a tree their home before its demise, I went to Rocketown Records (my label) to approve the packaging for my third CD (available everywhere good music is sold July 12th). With my Chick-fil-A combo number one in hand I sat across from my label's president ("THE MAN") and took in what was on his mind. Without betraying confidences I can't say much except that Don is a great boss for a singer-songwriter because he likes music, really likes music, especially what he calls "smart" music with "poetic" lyrics. And, well, honestly that doesn't seem to sell too well these days - at least not as much as the modern day equivalent of hairspray and spandex often does.

All this was on Don's mind because of a project Rocketown Records is working on right now. It's a tribute of sorts to Michael W. Smith , a veteran of the Christian music scene and co-founder (with Don) of my label. Basically, a bunch of younger-ish more modern rock flavored artists are remaking hits from Michael's career which spans more than twenty years. Getting reaquainted with so many of Michael's big songs has convinced me that Michael would flop if he were a new artist today -and that's gotten Don thinking as well. I'm covering Rocketown (Michael's classic from the 80's) on the project, for example, and it's one huge allegory that is never fully explained. It breaks all the rules of radio: no drums, all keys, takes over a minute to get to the first chorus, which doesn't contain the title of the song and actually sounds more like a bridge. In addition to those barriers to popularity, the song also talks about unsavory and far from "upbeat and positive" activities like prostitution ("the girls they made their runs out on the boulevard") and drinking adult beverages ("the drinks were two for one inside the crowded bars") in the very first verse. Those two subjects alone would get a record banned today. Truth is, Rocketown (the song), along with much of Michael's early music, wouldn't get played on the radio in 2005 and so he wouldn't sell records.

Instead, much (but not all) of what sells today is largely over-tuned, dumbed-down, metaphor-lacking, fifth-grade-reading-level Sunday school lessons preaching "God loves you and that's all you'll ever need to know". But that's just one guy's opinion. I could be wrong right?. I'm hardly objective.

Don and I pondered whether or not this attraction to the surface in music, theology/preaching, books, film etc is just a fad - Are we riding a pendulum that's bound to cross through the center and over to our side again someday? - or is it just one symptom of a greater change in us or our society that won't be easily gotten over? I don't know. But the idealist in me would like to think Nirvana would have still written and dressed and thought and rocked the way they did even if the leotard remained more popular than the flannel shirt. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the love of fame and fortune would have driven Kurt Cobain to tease his hair and sing falsetto to get on MTV. Or maybe Cobain and Vedder would have traded amps and lights for "would you like fries with that" and given up the rock n' roll ghost.

I don't know. And that's exactly where Don and I left it.

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