An Interview with Dave

Here are three things you can count on.
        1. Somewhere right now a Georgia Tech fan is blaming a referee for his team’s annual embarrassing loss to the Georgia Bulldogs.

        2. Somewhere right now a Georgia Bulldog fan is still drinking a little bit too much and talking about how “we gonna beat LSU.”

        3. Your local contemporary Christian radio station is playing a song by Casting Crowns.

I don’t know how to prove my first two statements but the third one is easy. Find a radio and tune it to your local Christian station. It’ll likely be somewhere in the low 90s on your FM dial and it will also have a word like Joy, Fish or Love in the title. Okay, go do it.

I told you so.

Now wait two minutes and try again. This time they’re playing a song by Chris Tomlin. Go.

Jackpot.

Obviously, this isn’t a Casting Crowns or Chris Tomlin problem. It’s a radio problem. The same experiment works for your local hip-hop and R&B station. They’re playing a song by Drake right this second.

Bingo.

In 1993 I started a long conversation with my friend Dave about the state of Christian music. Our conversation still hasn’t ended. Over the last 20 years, Dave has published articles about Christian music and even has his own weekly radio show. That makes him an expert.

Christian music has changed in that time. Casting Crowns and Chris Tomlin are successful and talented musicians with a sincere faith. When I was growing up, Christian artists were the ones who weren’t quite good enough to make it in the mainstream. Also, Christian music is seeing a bit of a resurgence of sound theology and commitment to the local church. Again, this is evident with artists like Tomlin and Casting Crowns.

Has the Christian music industry finally been reformed?

Are the days of sappy love songs to Jesus finally over?

Have we heard the last of bands like this?
Recently I got to ask Dave about all of this. It’s funny how a conversation that began in a college dorm room between two friends almost 20 years ago continues today on the blogosphere where millions will read it.

Okay thousands.

Hundreds?

Okay, my wife.

I love you honey! I’ll stop by the store on the way home.

Gimmie Five
Jay: Everybody that cares about Christian music has heard Casting Crowns and Chris Tomlin. But Dave, give us five albums we should check out from bands we’ve probably never heard of and that are not currently played on 92.7 The Shepherd.

Dave:
Digging In
Jay: For most of the 80s and 90s a lot of Christian music seemed to be a poorly produced copy of what was popular in the mainstream two or three years earlier. Are those days fully gone?

Dave: I think a lot of progress has been made in that area but the Christian music industry definitely isn’t there yet. As long as there’s popular music, there’ll be someone to ape it and market it as a safe alternative to the church. Record companies are looking for what sells and not necessarily what’s pushing the envelope artistically. Safe pays the bills.

Having said that, I think quite a bit of progress has been made from a production standpoint. There’s no doubt that what you’re hearing coming from the Christian market is, in most cases, every bit as polished as what’s coming out of the mainstream and sometimes more so. So much so, that you get that “Christian music sheen” that permeates much of what’s considered popular or acceptable in the industry. Really, who can’t tell the difference between a “Christian” song and a “secular” song if they’ve been listening to the former for any length of time.

But great music doesn’t come from the production values. I just talked with Kevin Max, of dc Talk, last night about this very subject. Kevin referenced his favorite band, Queen, and how they broke the mold with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which came so far out of left field that it practically forced the listening audience to perk up and pay attention. As followers of the God of all creation, Christians should be doing just the same thing.

I think it comes down to authenticity and believability on the part of the artist. I recently read Michael Gungor’s blog, “Zombies, Wine, and Christian Music” on his band’s website. While there are parts of it that I don’t necessarily subscribe to, he’s spot on with most of the points he makes. The one that really struck a nerve with me was his comparison of most modern Christian music to a “musical zombie.” Here’s a quote. “There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus. And it’s really not even the style or the lyric that is the problem to me, it’s the fact that I don’t believe that the singer is feeling the kind of emotions in singing that lyric that would lead to that style of singing. It’s that same kind of creep out that you feel when somebody gives a really loud fake laugh. It’s just a weird and uncomfortable feeling.”

So to answer your question after all my rambling, I’d have to say no. There’s still a separation between music that’s considered acceptable and safe in Christian circles and music that’s artistically viable. Mainstream music doesn’t consult Christianity on trendsetting. They just do it. I wish the opposite was true.

Don’t get me wrong in thinking that I’m down on “Christian” music. I wouldn’t do what I do if I was. Bands and artists such as Switchfoot, Future Of Forestry, LeCrae, (as well as Kevin Max & Gungor) give me hope. Basically I encourage artists to be as evangelical or as parabolic as God has called them to be. There’s room for both. But whatever you do, be genuine.

Jay: Talk about the band Thrice. They’re a band that gets a lot of respect from mainstream audiences (as well as other bands like Linkin Park) but Dustin Kensrue, the lead singer, is legit in his faith and committed to the local church. Why do you think this is so hard for a lot of Christian artists to pull off?

Thrice is one of those bands that gets me excited from a spiritual, lyrical, and musical standpoint. I think the respect that they get goes back to the point I was making about doing whatever you do in an authentic manner. Dustin is a Christian and his lyrics absolutely reflect that. There’s no mistaking the message in the songs. But he makes the music he wants to make without regard to fitting into a format or being pigeon-holed into a genre. His band gets respect because first, they’re exceptional musicians and treat the music as equally as important as the lyrics. A lot of folks in Christian music miss the importance of that by treating music as if it’s of secondary value. My thought on that is this – if that’s your mindset, stop doing music and go preach. There’s your calling. You don’t honor Christ by putting out second rate music to an evangelical message. The musical gifts you’ve been given come from the same creator who gave you the words to speak. But I digress.

Funny enough, I actually think it’s gotten easier over the years for artists of Christian faith to gain ground in the mainstream. Remember back in the 80s when Amy Grant caused loads of controversy with “Find A Way?” That was considered a major breakthrough. Christian artists simply weren’t being played on the radio at that time. Now, bands like Thrice (and it should be said that not everyone in the band is a believer), Switchfoot, Needtobreathe, Red, and others are doing things that would’ve been almost impossible then. I think that it comes down to authenticity again. The world at large may not agree with the message but if they can find an artist or band that’s believable, they’ll latch on to that and respect it.

As a counterpoint it seems, sadly, that artists who got their start in the mainstream are now finding acceptance in the Christian market harder to come by. This is a reverse of how things used to be when Christian music was trying to gain a foothold back in the 80s. At that time it seemed that most anyone who came out of the mainstream music world and professed Christ (Mylon LeFevre, Kerry Livgren, Joe English, etc.) was embraced because they’re presence in the market validated the industry to a degree. 


I recently did an interview with Lou Gramm, the former lead singer of Foreigner, who came to Christ several years ago. Lou is an incredibly humble guy whose life was radically changed by that encounter but he’s had a hard time being accepted in the Christian music industry because there’s skepticism about his background. It’s almost like the industry now wants artists coming from those circumstances to prove themselves indefinitely before they’re given a chance. Here’s the kicker. Lou became a Christian in 1992. Another example is Ed Kowalczyk of the band Live. A couple of years ago, Ed sent an open letter to Christian radio detailing his salvation experience and his desire to do Christ-honoring music in the Christian music industry. Live, without a doubt, was one of the most thought provoking bands to come down the pike in the 90s and Ed was the driving creative force. Christian rock radio should’ve been all over this. Instead when Ed released his first solo single “Grace” from his debut CD “Alive” it was met with indifference and skepticism and peaked way below what it should have. I had Ed as a guest on Crossroad Radio and he was genuinely one of the most gracious and humble interview subjects I’ve ever had the privilege of talking to. No entitlement whatsoever. To be fair, most of the acts I interview within the industry have much the same demeanor but I’ve had several who also thought more highly of themselves than what we’re Biblically counseled to do. Not so with Ed.

Jay: What role does good theology play in Christian art and how are those artists who pursue the study of God set apart?

Dave: Good theology is absolutely essential to art created in Christ’s name. Understanding as much as we’re able to grasp of God’s character should lead us to want to produce art of the highest caliber. Bad theology is like a cancer and it comes out not just in lyrics but also in the form of substandard music. That being said, I think that we can become a bit Pharasaical in nit-picking songs to death. You have to let a song be a song and understand that artist A may be at an entirely different point in their walk with Christ than artist B. That doesn’t mean that we should put up with bad theology or misguided ideas. But we shouldn’t expect every song to be a theological treatise either.

I have to give major props here to the genre known as “Holy Hip Hop.” Whether or not you like rap music, artists such as LeCrae, Trip Lee, The Ambassador, Flame, etc. do a fantastic job of taking the urgency of the music and matching it with the urgency of the gospel. These guys strive to be sound in doctrine while completely engaging their culture. In other words, they’re doing what Christ did when he ate with the “tax collectors and sinners.” In doing so, they’re some of the best examples of the authenticity that I spoke of earlier. The music is a vehicle for the message but it isn’t JUST a vehicle. These are artists who love their God and their craft and it shows in the quality of their product. It should be that way whenever a follower of Christ puts pen to paper.

The Plug
Dave Bumgarner is a husband, Wake Forest fan (yeah, he’s the one), probably owns a Dell Curry Charlotte Hornets jersey and may be a distant relative of James Garner. For more information on his show, check out www.crossroadradio.com or www.wbfj.fm.