In my last blog post, I discussed a little about the history of CCM music, and how it’s popularity and social impact peaked in the 1990’s. In writing that piece, I found myself tempted to focus a little more specifically on the Christian music scene in the 90’s, but I decided that it would be best to use a separate post to expand the discussion on that specific decade and the scene that so many of us experienced at that time.
I was first exposed to CCM music somewhere around the mid 1980’s. I had grown up on oldies, mainstream top 40 pop, and country music, which included a bit of country gospel. The first time that I heard Christian music that seemed to compare to the pop rock I enjoyed on top 40 radio, was when my uncle gave me a mix tape he had made, featuring the rockin’ sounds of The Imperials, The Gaither Vocal Band, and Wings of Light. Of course, I’m kinda using the word “rockin’” a little sarcastically here, but honestly, the first time I heard the guitar lick for Higher Power, I thought I had finally found ‘Christian Rock’ music.
It wasn’t long after that when I started finding more rockin’ and updated Christian music. I first saw a Carman video at church camp, (the same camp where I gave up the ‘sin’ of heavy metal music…another post for another day). And then another uncle of mine started bringing home tapes by folks like Michael W Smith, David Meece, and Steve Green. Eventually, my parents even moved beyond Cristy Lane and The Singing Ledbetters, to the almost rockin’ Sandi Patti (hey…she covered White Heart…that’s kinda rockin’)
Speaking of White Heart, my first rock concert was seeing White Heart right here in McPherson Kansas in McPherson College’s Brown Auditorium. I was in the 5th grade and a classmate had just introduced me to the band’s Don’t Wait For The Movie cassette the week before. I was shocked when my parents said I could go to the concert, and not only gave me the 5 bucks to get in, but also gave me an extra two dollars for snacks or whatever…which I actually spent on a button pin of the album’s cover image.
From there, I discovered one of my favorite top 40 radio stations featured a Christian music program, Heartlight with Rhymin’ Lyman James, on Sunday mornings, which is where I first heard harder Christian rock like Petra and Stryper, and even some Christian Rap. When that show went off the air, I searched the radio frantically, trying to find more Christian shows on Sundays, and could occasionally pick up a show from a farther away station. What I really wanted, was a specifically all Christian music radio station. Eventually, Wichita got a Christian station, but by that point, I had moved on to much edgier, rockier stuff than the adult contemporary and inspirational stuff that station played, but it was better than nothing.
I give this personal history, just to try and lay some background to what became such a huge part of my life, by my teenage years. Music had always been a big part of my life, growing up. Neither of my parents were musicians, but I grew up treasuring the music they had exposed me to. Of course, I also treasured the top 40 pop and rock that I was listening to, that they weren’t always as enthusiastic about. I was actually quite obsessed with wanting to be a musician myself, and as my knowledge and love of Christian music grew, I knew I wanted to be a Christian musician when I grew up. There was really something so special about combining the faith I had grown into, with the kind of music that I loved.
I do remember hearing Amy Grant’s Baby Baby on the ‘secular’ radio for the first time in 1991. It was exciting to hear a Christian artist played right alongside the secular giants of the day. When not only Baby Baby, but also Smitty’s Place in This World both hit #1 on the mainstream/secular charts, it was apparent that Christian music was FINALLY making its mark on the world.
And boy, what a mark it ended up making on so many of us.
This music became integral in the lives of thousands of teenagers like myself. It was deeply integrated in our ‘youth group culture’ and helped us feel like we finally had a way to be relevant to the pop culture around us. And being musically relevant was really important to us Christian kids finding ourselves in the midst of the MTV generation. Our peers seemed to see Christianity as very ‘old-fashioned’ and boring. This exciting Contemporary Christian music finally gave us something to help us Christian kids prove that Jesus wasn’t boring…that Christians could be as fun and rockin’ as anyone else.
Christian music became a part of my own identity. I found my group of high school friends by realizing they listened to some Christian music. As I worked to fully assimilate into that group, they helped my Christian music collection grow and evolve through harder rock/metal and then alternative rock, by introducing me to more obscure artists and albums in the CCM market. In connecting with this new group of Christian rock loving friends, I started attending youth group functions at the church they attended. Really, this whole youth group culture thing was a major part of our identity as Christian teenagers. Our individual youth groups would cross denominational boundaries, and work together to create bigger and more exciting youth activities. And CCM music was always blaring at these events. The Living Epistles t-shirts we won and/or purchased through youth events and fund raisers, looked like rock music apparel.
Attending Christian concerts and festivals became as high priority as youth group all-nighters and church events. In fact, these music events, were official youth group events. We would pack into vans and/or buses and travel hours to get to concerts, and even farther to get to the music festivals. Christians may not have invented the music festival, but they sure seemed to perfect the concept. The first major Christian music fest, Ichthus, started just a couple years after Woodstock made history, and it carried on for decades, until just a few years ago. But in 1984, a festival called Cornerstone started in Illinois, and would become the envy of the entire Christian music scene. By the 90’s, the festival organization owned it’s own land where they held the fest, and attendance grew into the tens of thousands over the years, and even spawned 2 other Cornerstone festival locations across the country. These festivals would last up to a week, and include many stages and tents that housed more music and teaching than anyone could keep up with. Cornerstone fest really became it’s own environment…a whole unique world of hair dyed, mud covered, and sulfur smelling teenagers and college students.
In between the concerts and festivals, trips to the local Christian bookstore were always looked forward to. Of course, the bookstore in our small town, didn’t have a huge music selection. I had grown up finding my Carman and Michael W Smith tapes there, but when my tastes changed to more obscure Christian artists, I had to leave town to find the larger selection of bigger Christian bookstores. But eventually, we started seeing more and more Christian music in non-specifically-Christian retailers. Even Walmart developed a respectable selection of CCM and Christian rock music.
For discovering new artists, albums, and Christian record labels, we had a plethora of Christian music magazines to read and subscribe to. CCM magazine was the first major publication to help promote the Christian music of the early 80’s. But by the 1990’s, it seemed there was always a new magazine to check out. Many of the ‘zines didn’t seem to last long, but over the years, True Tunes News, HM (originally Heaven’s Metal), and 7 Ball magazines became staples for those of us looking for the edgier/harder/more alternative side of the CCM scene.
Not only did these publications garner our loyalty and fandom, but we also found ourselves dedicated to specific record labels that released our favorite Christian artists. Many of the record labels were run by the artists themselves. Labels like Blonde Vinyl and Brainstorm Artists International started as independent labels with limited distribution, but eventually better distribution helped labels like 5 Minute Walk and Tooth and Nail become major players in the Christian music market. And there were always new labels like Tattoo or Sublime that popped out of nowhere and provided new artists and albums to enjoy.
It seemed that as my musical tastes changed over the years, there were always new Christian artists and sounds to meet the demands of my ever-expanding search for exciting and engaging music. Really, it seemed like the Christian music scene changed so drastically over the decade of the 1990’s, and for the better. In the beginning of the decade, we had Amy and Smitty to be proud of, but as Alternative and Grunge music took over the mainstream market, Christian music followed suite. When the originally corny rap group DC Talk came out with a bonafide alt/grunge sounding record in the middle of the decade, it was clear that CCM had progressed a lot in a few years. Of course, it was always easy to accuse Christian musicians of simply ripping off their ‘secular’ counter parts, but even though there were a lot of copy cats in the CCM market, the scene had grown and evolved to include just as many genuine and creatively original sounding artists moving out of the Christian underground, and into the spotlight. More and more Christian artists were even getting signed and released by the ‘secular’ mainstream market, and we fans were excited to see the scene bursting out of its seems.
Now, I think nothing indicates how much my personal identity had become entirely wrapped up in Christian music, more than the fact that I actually obtained a college degree in Contemporary Christian Music. Yes…I went to school and studied CCM!!! Of course, that degree really just meant that I took Music Theory, guitar and drum lessons, and played in the school sponsored rock band ‘ministry team’. And my intention was to go into youth ministry (See how much youth group culture was part of my identity too?) after my Associate’s Degree, but by that time I was convinced that my band was gonna get signed, and I was finally gonna become that rock star for Jesus. (And a few years later I realized that I was NOT cut out for real youth ministry)
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and as the decade turned over into a new millennium, our scene just sorta disappeared. We were probably too distracted with growing up, getting married, starting families, and the ‘real world’ to notice at the time, but after a few short years, we turned around to find it was all gone.
In that last blog post, I mentioned a Facebook group I’m a part of, that reminisces (and sometimes regrets) that 1990’s Christian music scene. One of the amazing things about this group is that it kinda feels like home. It’s great to find a place where so many people have had similar experiences with music and church culture. Even though we aren’t the same teenagers we were in the 90s, as many of our beliefs and views have changed, and some have even completely left the Christian faith, most of us still think of the music fondly, even though many of us no longer listen to current CCM. It’s just obvious that we all share this part of our personal history and identity…and that we value the memories and even miss the ‘scene’ that we were a part of. Not that that is unique to us…every generation has its nostalgia and era specific musical connection…but there does seem to be something unique to our experience. Maybe it’s just the way that pop culture and and faith collided to create our unique counter culture: rebelling against the secular “World” and rebelling against traditional religion at the same time…and having this very specific niche soundtrack to get us through it.