God and the Music Biz

CHRIST CHURCH IN NASHVILLE HAS the hottest choir in town, bar none, and the Pentecostal service on any given Sunday is liable to rock the pews. But earlier this month, when word came of two out-of-wedlock pregnancies in the congregation, the reverberation could be heard in all 50 states. Wynonna Judd held a press conference and said she had conceived and had no immediate plans to wed. The week before, the Gospel Music Association had announced that married Christian-pop singer Michael English had impregnated Marabeth Jordon, who is a singer with the trio First Call -- and somebody's else wife.

Nashville mostly ignored Judd's announcement. After all, she is a singer who's Christian, not a Christian singer. But the town did its best to make English's problems an occasion for reflecting on the temptations of stardom. Warner Records' Christian division, Warner Alliance, said it would stop selling English's records. A week after sweeping six categories at the GMA's Dove Awards, English, 32, halted his career -- and sent the six trophies back. ""It's kind of a wake-up call,'' says Rev. Scotty Smith, who counseled English, Jordon and executives at Warner Alliance.

Yet the call went unheeded among Christian contemporary-music fans, who made a distinction between the ironies of English's sin -- he and Jordon had just done a benefit tour for unwed mothers -- and his songs. They snatched up any of his albums still on the racks. Christian radio stations that banned his Michael Boltonish hits were barraged with nasty calls. ""They were more angry with us than with Michael English,'' said Mark DeYoung at WNAZ in Nashville. ""They weren't condemning of him at all.''

The fans haven't always been so forgiving. While there's black gospel, Christian country -- and even Christian rap -- for 10 years the heart of the Christian-music boom has been the songs modeled on the '70s soft rock of Carole King and James Taylor. It's sappy-sweet and never sad: the object of love is Jesus, after all, so it's never unrequited. When Christian pop stars like Amy Grant, followed by her keyboard player, Michael W. Smith, began dropping Jesus' name from their lyrics to sell to wider, secular audiences, Christian fans felt betrayed. ""A lot of people thought of [Grant] as their own,'' says Chaz Corzine of Grant's management company, Blanton/Harrell. Undaunted, Christian contemporary stars pushed farther into the mainstream market. The object of the singers' love grew vaguer; videos got gauzier. (Even English -- staunchly Christian in his lyrics -- sings, ""Only Your love can set me free . . . I need You to save me tonight.'') Grant turned up on TV shows sponsored by beer companies, shocking the traditional gospel audience that had grown up on wizened quartets humming ""blood and cross'' hymns. But as Grant's crossover succeeded -- she hit the top of the pop charts with ""Baby Baby'' in 1991, from the quadruple platinum album ""Heart in Motion'' -- younger Christians found they had something in common with their secular contemporaries. ""What "Heart in Motion' did,'' says her manager, Dan Harrell, ""was give Christian kids something to be proud of. They could say, "Hey, we're normal'.''

The elders of the gospel scene, however, are still concerned with spreading the Word through music. The boom has made them wary. As mainstream companies like BMG, Warner and EMI have bought into gospel labels or founded their own, there's fear that decisions will be ruled less by prayer and the guidance of pastors than by the bottom line. ""They aren't in there for evangelical purposes,'' says Harrell. ""They are using them for diversification.'' Still, Harrell says the mainstream labels have been good for Christian music. ""Things have matured in terms of distribution and sales,'' he says. ""The big labels provided the money to do that.'' (Exactly how much sales have matured will become clearer in July, when Christian bookstores, which sell 80 percent of all Christian music, begin reporting sales through SoundScan, a computer network that Billboard magazine uses to compile its top-seller charts.) The boom that has tripled revenues to more than $500 million in the past decade has also raised the production quality of all Christian music, not just that of the crossover darlings. ""Now you can tell a new act when you see one,'' Harrell notes. Traditionalists should realize, too, he says, that secularized Christian stars are better than other influences Christian kids are exposed to. ""They were comparing Amy to the Blackwood Brothers,'' says Harrell. ""They've got to compare her to Madonna. There are Christians that don't understand our culture too well.'' ""The sad thing is, there are people in Christian music who live in their own little world,'' says Smith, who, with four gold records, packed arenas on his recent tour with Grammy-winning Christian rappers DC Talk. ""It's time to say, "People, we've got to find out what the real world is like'.''

The mainstream industry hardly understands the Christian business any better. Zach Glickman, who represents Russ Taff, a Christian and a country singer who left his gospel label for Warner's mainstream country division, expected business on the Christian side to be easier, but it never was. ""Some people are genuinely wonderful and some just have the lingo down real good. There were times when I would ask for an advance for Russ, and the answer would be "Let us pray about it.' You're talking to a Jew. To me that's just a jive answer. God is not in the record business.''

Now the boom is driving mainstream acts, especially country performers, to the Christian market. ""Artists are viewing the expanding gospel format as an avenue for exposure,'' says Dan Bradley, a publicist for Lee Greenwood, who has sung his 1984 hit ""God Bless the USA'' on Robert Schuller's ""Hour of Power'' and the ""700 Club.'' But too much open devotion, it seems, can hurt a mainstream artist. Ricky Skaggs says he's still playing the same bluegrass-influenced country music that made him a top act in the early '80s. But since he underwent a ""second blessing'' that inspired him to quote Scripture from the stage, he has hit a wall. ""The record label was wondering whether I'd shut up if I saw my record sales dying. They died, but I didn't shut up.''

Skaggs's gamble may yet pay off in this world. Some Christians think country music, rid of its drinking and cheating songs, can provide the next big expansion for musical ministry. ""We saw figures that 50 percent of people that attend country concerts go to church on Sunday morning,'' says Todd Payne of Cheyenne Records, a new Christian country label. Like its audiences, country music has its roots in the church, making it easily adaptable to a gospel message. So blurry is the line between Christian and mainstream country that some Christian promoters are contemplating crossing over first and coming back to the Christian market later. ""We're not preachers,'' says Bruce Haynes, whose songs, though full of salvation, contain enough wit and bona-fide country sound to have brought mainstream labels like MCA and Epic courting. ""We're getting play on a lot of secular stations. That's the market we want to hit.''

The only one not actively planning a crossover, it seems, is English, who spoke to Newsweek from Florida, where he retreated after the scandal. Since it broke, he has been encouraged to be the next to wade into the mainstream. He says his first task is to restore himself in the eyes of his peers. ""I grew up singing Christian music and Christian music is where my heart is. I'd like to sing [Christian] music again, but I don't know if I will be allowed to . . . I knew when I was accepting Artist of the Year, I was actually saying goodbye.'' He reported that Jordon, whom First Call has replaced with a studio singer, has miscarried. Jordon could not be reached for comment.

English might take comfort in the fact that Christian music is now robust enough to handle a suggestion of hypocrisy. Perversely, the buzz created by the scandal only testifies to the popularity of Christian music: a few years ago, his story might not have made the papers at all.