The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Nov6Filed under: American Idol, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion; Tagged as: American Idol, Amy Grant, Awake, BlackBerry, Casting Crowns, CCM Magazine, Gospel Music Association, Hello Hurricane, iTunes, Jimmy Kimmel Live, John Styll, Kris Allen, Larry Norman, Michael W. Smith, Skillet, Switchfoot
Switchfoot’s This is the Sound rocks the new Blackberry commercial.
During the past year, there have been public signs that Christian pop music is on the rise.
Last spring on American Idol, a pair of openly Christian contestants vied for the title and one of them, Kris Allen, won. Your TV doesn’t have to be on long to hear the rumblings of Switchfoot, one of Christian music’s top bands, on commercials for BlackBerry’s new Storm2 smartphone. Late in the summer, when Christian rockers Skillet released their latest, Awake, it perched itself atop iTunes’ rock album charts and at No. 3 overall.
Pretty good stuff for a niche genre, eh?
But beneath the surface, there have been rumblings for some time.
Late in the summer, Gospel Music Association president and CEO John Styll stepped down, saying he was sacrificing his salary in an effort to stabilize the organization, which has laid off a number of staffers. Then, in October, the GMA held an all-star fund-raiser – we’re talking Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith heading a lineup that included Casting Crowns and other chart toppers – billed as “Save the GMA.”
Even though that $1,000-a-head event apparently was a success, raising more than $350,000, there were rumors late last month that the GMA was closing its doors.
The association’s troubles come on the heels of other setbacks in Christian music, such as the shutdown of the print edition of the industry’s flagship publication, CCM Magazine, which was founded by Styll, and attendance drops at some festivals.
Christian music also has faced the double whammy of the economic downturn and the effects of a rapidly changing music marketplace less dependent on major labels for distribution and increasingly challenged by problems such as digital music piracy. (Yes, people are stealing Christian music. Go figure.)
These are problems affecting the music industry as a whole, and you know that if the top of the pops is getting battered, the foundations of a niche genre really must be getting shaken.
Sep21Filed under: album review, American Idol, Louisville, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion, Reviews; Tagged as: Brown Bannister, Casting Crowns, GMA, Gospel Music Association, Into the Light, Jeremy Camp, Joanne Brokaw, Michael W. Smith, Newsboys, Phil Stacey, Relient K, Rich Mullins, TobyMac
Listening to Phil Stacey‘s Into the Light, you think, if this guy wasn’t on American Idol, he should have been.
His debut on Reunion Records under the guidance of legendary Christian producer Brown Bannister sounds very Idol, with songs that showcase soaring choruses and emotional lyrics, and Stacey definitely has the chops to deliver them.
His post-Idol debut on Lyric Street records was a refreshing sound for the Christian market, introducing some country songwriter cleverness in songs like It’s Who You Know, and bringing some genuine energy to the project. But Stacey says he was miscast as a country guy and pop was always where his heart was, hence the move to the Christian pop label and embrace by Christian pop royalty — Michael W. Smith is his labelmate.
The result is a solid album with catchy tunes like Inside Out and soaring worship ballads like One. He also pulls out a great Rich Mullins cover, Hard to Get, that could serve to show some younger listeners there’s more to the Christian pop legend than Awesome God.
What’s really missing here is any sense of Stacey’s own individuality, which seemed to be so present on that 2008 debut. With Into the Light, Stacey has been embraced by the Christian music establishment. On future efforts, he needs to avoid sounding like a generic contemporary Christian artist.
Is the GMA in trouble?: My fellow Christian music blogger Joanne Brokaw has an interesting post about recent cuts and layoffs at the Gospel Music Association and the just-annouced $1,000-a-plate Save the GMA fundraiser. Is Christian music’s umbrella organization in danger of going under?
Close, but not quite here: Yes, we do have Jeremy Camp coming Thursday night and Casting Crowns in a few weeks. But there are two Christian tours of interest not quite getting here, but they will be close if you’re the road tripping type.
~ If you’ve wanted to see Newsboys with Michael Tait out front, they get as close as Wilmington, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, Nov. 15. Click here for Newsboys tour itinerary and ticket links.
~ You may also have heard plenty of TobyMac and Relient K live, but still find the concept of their Winter Wonder Slam tour together irresistible. It hits Louisville Nov. 29.
Click the play button to hear our chat with Kevin Skinner:
When I first heard about the singing chicken catcher from Mayfield, Ky., I said, “Oh, no.”
My fears had nothing to do with cultural stereotyping, or anything like that. It was that Kevin Skinner was starting his run on America’s Got Talent hot on the heels of two spectacular reality show flameouts.
There was Susan Boyle, the frumpy Scottish woman whose first appearance on AGT’s sister show across the pond, Britain’s Got Talent, became a YouTube sensation. And then there was Adam Lambert, the enormously talented American Idol contestant whose performances put him in a class by himself.
Both looked like shoo-in’s to win their reality/competition series, and both did not.
Not to take anything away from Boyle and Lambert’s worthy competitors, but it felt from Internet chatter and general commentary that their losses were due in part to voter fatigue with them — with Boyle’s come-from-nowhere story and with Lambert’s boundless talent. In competitions like this, viewers don’t like to be told whose going to win (or who should win, in the case of Simon Cowell’s Lambert endorsement) and they can turn on frontrunners.
Skinner’s debut on America’s Got Talent (that’s the clip, above) was somewhat Boyle-esque. He came from exceedingly humble roots, had judges and the audience cackling over his accent and his accounts of chicken catching, and then blew viewers away with his rendition of Garth Brooks’ heartbreaking ballad If Tomorrow Never Comes. Right away, his clip was being singled out on morning talk shows that referred to him as an American Susan Boyle.
But fortunately for him, that didn’t happen — not that Boyle’s done bad for herself since BGT.
Now, I didn’t keep up with AGT religiously. It’s been a crazy summer. Skinner buzz sort of subsided, and there was even a moment I wondered if he was still in the running. Other acts caught the public’s attention, from opera singers to 75-year-old comedians, most of them very talented people in their own respects.
Skinner, like a humble guy from Mayfield, kept his head down and played his music, and ultimately still had the most viewer-voters on his side at the end of the competition. He avoided a trap of overexposure that had swallowed two talent show darlings earlier this year and came out a $1 million winner.
Your reaction to the choice of Ellen DeGeneres as the new judge on American Idol may depend on how seriously you take American Idol judging.
It’s been hard to take the judging seriously for a long time, at least when they get to the live broadcasts.
Simon Cowell is there to be nasty, Paula Abdul was supposed to be sweet, and Randy, while maybe being the most substantive of the original trio, still seemed to be caught up in spinning phrases like, “those vocals were jumpin’ off, Dawg.” Huh?
New judge Kara DioGuardi took a few shots at constructive criticism this past season, but usually found herself shut down by Simon and a crowd that had little patience for it.
So, while I can see the argument that Ellen-for-Paula was trading a real recording artist for a comedian and talk show host, I cannot say I think the talent evaluation will take a substantive dive without Paula at the desk. This was not like Robert De Niro judging an acting competition or Tom Wolfe evaluating writers. Project Runway judging looks downright egg-headed next to the AI panel, which is essentially judging as entertainment.
The verdict was delivered a long time ago: Ellen is entertaining.
And she’s a music fan. When AI gets to the live rounds, it has turned the decision over to the fans anyway. So, if a fan is on the panel, and she’s entertaining, the audience wins.
If you don’t like Ellen, there’s probably no way you’ll like the decision. But debating her credentials to be a judge is taking American Idol judging too seriously.
Aug14Filed under: American Idol, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture; Tagged as: American Idol, Amy Grant, Brown Bannister, Chris Sligh, Danny Gokey, Harlan County, Into the Light, John Waller, Kris Allen, Man O' War Church of God, Mandisa, Michael English, Michael W. Smith, Mitchell Tolle, Phil Stacey, Reunion Records, Richmond, Russ Taff
When Phil Stacey was a contestant on American Idol, he was pegged as a little bit country.
So that’s where the Harlan County native ended up after the show, on the country label Lyric Street Records. In 2008, he released a self-titled debut.
But anyone who was paying attention and knew a little bit about Stacey could hear something in the twang: a message.
“Even on my country record, every song was based on a Bible verse, to me,” Stacey says. “People who knew Christian music would say, ‘How could you put a John Waller song on a country CD?’” Stacey adds, referring to a modern rock worship leader and songwriter, “but we managed to pull it off.”
Since then, Stacey has made what he calls “a lateral move from Disney’s country label to Sony’s Christian label.”
And what a Christian label.
On Aug. 25, Stacey’s Into the Light will be released on Reunion Records. That would be the same label as Michael W. Smith, with whom Stacey also shares a manager. And he recorded the album with legendary Christian music maestro Brown Bannister, who was behind many of Smith’s and Amy Grant’s big successes.
“It was intimidating going into the studio with someone who’s worked with such gifted people,” Stacey says, noting other Bannister collaborators such as Russ Taff and Michael English. “But at the end of the day, he started out as a youth pastor, and he has a minister’s heart, which set my nerves at ease.
“We talked about the Bible and verses behind songs, and prayed before tracking. I admire Brown more as a person than for his musical background.”
This fall, Stacey hits the road with Smith.
“He’s been so encouraging,” Stacey says. “He’d send me texts like, ‘Phil, I really like this record,’ which meant the world to me.”
So far, the Smith/Stacey tour itinerary does not include Kentucky, though Stacey says he does get back home frequently.
We caught up with Harlan County native and former American Idol competitor Phil Stacey this morning to talk about his new album, Into the Light, which is set to drop Aug. 25. Before we got into that, we had to ask him about the AI earthshaking news that dropped Tuesday about Paula Abdul leaving American Idol. That will presumably leave the show with Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi and Randy Jackson as the show’s new trio of jusges. Here’s what Phil said:
I don’t know that the audience will miss her as much after a couple of seasons, and it’s just Kara, Randy and Simon. I’m sure the audience will get adjusted to it. The ones that I feel bad for are the future contestants on American Idol.
Paula was the only one on the judge panel that knows what it’s like to put your soul into what you’re doing and have it criticized before millions of people. She judges with a tender touch. She’s always willing to say something encouraging. I appreciate that, because you can receive a hundred positive comments and feedback, and the one negative is the one that’s going to stick out. So when somebody that’s so important to the show takes the time to encourage you, it means a lot.
Not to mention the fact that as busy as her schedule was, she always took time out for the contestants. She came to visit us every week bringing gifts with little messages to encourage us and keep us going, like t-shirts that said “Shoot for the stars, and you just might become one” — far too cheesy to wear in public, but it was very nice of her. If kids were ever visiting the Idol set, she always wanted to be there to take pictures and provide gifts.
I think she’s a really special person, and I’m very sad to see her go.
Asked what viewers will miss on the panel, Stacey, who was LexGo’s Idol blogger last season said:
They’re missing a huge aspect, because now you don’t really have a performer. Kara can sing, but she hasn’t performed in front of as many people as watch American Idol for a career. She’s sang on the show, but she’s not been heard by that many people. And she’s obviously never gone through the scrutiny of trying to pursue a performing artists’ career and having doors repeatedly shut in your face, and that’s what the American Idol contestants are going through.
I think you’ll lack that aspect of it. Simon is judging what he can sell on the show. He’s the A&R guy, he’s looking for the whole, ‘What’s the bottom-line dollar figure?” Randy’s judging the raw musicality, because he’s a great musician. Paula was the artist, and the artist is gone. You have a songwriter on the panel, but the artist is gone.
We’ll have more on Stacey’s new album next week.
Well, it looks like it was well worth American Idol‘s time to come to Louisville last summer.
Kris Allen auditioned in the Derby City, and then much like this year’s Derby winner, Mine That Bird, worked his way through the field and finished first. Some Adam Lambert fans had to be like Jill Baffert, wife of Pioneer of the Nile trainer Bob Baffert, at the Derby saying “Who the (bleep) is that,” as Allen advanced through the competition. His audition barely registered on the Louisville audition episode, and early on, he seemed like one of those competitors who would probably be somewhat anonymously voted off in the winter.
But the dark horse kept his head down, worked on making some terrific music and wound up in the winner’s circle.
Give the man from Conway, Ark., a blanket of roses. He earned it.
Word came out early from the American Idol producers that Louisville had been a good city for the show. Simon Cowell dished out high praise, by his standards, telling Zap2it, “Louisville was good.”
Yes, it would have been nice to have had an actual Kentuckian who auditioned in Louisville in the final 13. That would have made the story of the Bluegrass State’s AI debut complete. But at least we can walk away from Season 8 saying Kentucky can pick a winner.
Some high notes:
- Heckuva a show for taking two hours-plus to tell us a few key words. I thought the return of Norman Gentle was great and the show kept getting better. It seemed Kiss had to be the highlight, and then Queen came out. Good Lord, Adam could front that band . . . As one who enjoys genuine surprise, Kris’ reaction to winning was delightful.
- Catch Adam Sandler’s University of Kentucky shirt in the Funny People commercial?
- Make sure to read Phil Stacey’s final Idol blog for LexGo.
- And take another look at our Louisville audition video, featuring Alexis Grace.
- Yes, Joanne Brokaw, it was the year of the worship leader.
- I was right. Wish I’d done that well at the Derby.
I’m going to take a quick lunch break here to join my fellow entertainment scribes out on a limb and make an American Idol prediction. It is a bit of a limb, because apparently this race is just too close to call. The website Dial Idol even says that, saying only 1.1 percent separates Kris Allen from Adam Lambert in their survey of busy signals for both contestants — a first in the site’s history.
And these are two very different cats, Lambert the flashy SoCal guy with a voice made for Broadway or glam rock and laid-back Midwesterner Kris.
One thing I hate seeing is this being boiled down to a Red State-Blue State thing, the presumption being the more conservative “red staters” will like humble Christian Kris and “blue staters” will like flamboyant Adam. It’s superficial and not fair to either contestant or Americans in general. Need we remind you of Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech. The Red State-Blue State thing is getting old, and it’s a lazy way to think.
Anyway, a matter of musical taste does drive my prediction: Kris Allen will win.
I pick him subscribing to the logic that Danny Gokey voters will naturally gravitate toward Kris. Yes, Gokey was a bit more of a vocal acrobat in an Adam tradition. But his overall vibe tracked much closer to Allen.
And Allen has been building momentum while Lambert has had a fan base for a while. Allen just feels like something of a Mine That Bird of American Idol, coming from the outside to overtake the front-runner at the end. Using that anology, will this be a Kentucky Derby or a Preakness for Allen? Remember, my limb is in the Bluegrass State.
I’d like to see Lambert win, as I have said before. He’s an amazing artist both as a stage presence and a creative force. And in the current pop landscape, Lambert is a true individual. Allen’s growth and artistry — particularly last week’s re-imagining of Kanye West’s Heartless — have been wonderful to watch. Neither of them would be an embarassing winner, but Lambert’s overall talent is still several shades beyond the rest of this year’s competition.
In the grand scheme of things Allen may be better served with the Idol victory, where Adam may do best if he’s a bit more free to chart his own course. And really, considering the Idol will be stuck with that horrendous No Boundaries song Kara DioGuardi co-wrote, the loser may be the real winner.
- For a second opinion, check Phil Stacey’s blog.
May15Filed under: American Idol, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture; Tagged as: Adam Lambert, American Idol, Anyerin Drury, Aretha Franklin, Chris Sligh, Christian, Christopher Cool, Danny Gokey, Elvis Presley, Eyesuponus, Joanne Brokaw, Justin McCarty, Kris Allen, Lil Rounds, Mandisa, Matt Giraud, Michael Sarver, Michael W. Smith, Mike Vandemark, Phil Stacey, Quest Community Church, Scott MacIntyre, Southland Christian Church, Whitney Houston, worship leader
This year’s American Idol finals offered the nation 13 singers from across the country with different strengths, looks, backgrounds and styles. But six of them had something in common, aside from wanting to be the next American Idol: They all had experience as church worship leaders.
That included two of the final three competitors in the eighth season of Idol, which wraps up Wednesday with a two-hour season finale.
Danny Gokey, 28, was praise and worship leader at two Faith Builders International locations in Wisconsin.
And Kris Allen, 23, has worked with praise and worship teams at two New Life churches in Arkansas.
Gokey was booted Wednesday night, so Allen is the one who is going on to compete in next week’s final against Adam Lambert, long considered the front runner in this year’s race. And that was fine by several Christian music observers.
“I see the worship leader in Danny, but Kris has more of the ability to be artistic,” said Joanne Brokaw, a Christian music writer who brought the preponderance of worship leaders in this year’s Idol field to light with a Feb. 27 post on her Beliefnet.com blog that asked, “Is this the season of the worship leader?”
Other artists in this year’s final group who have Christian music backgrounds were dueling pianist Matt Giraud, blind musician Scott MacIntyre, oil rigger Michael Sarver and Memphis mother Lil Rounds.
“The thing that really struck me was not just that they were Christians, but they were church worship leaders,” said Brokaw, who has since predicted Allen will win the finale, already being characterized by some as David vs. Goliath. “These are people who have actively been working within their churches as musicians.”
And that work can give a singer a leg up on the competition. Read the rest of this entry »
So there it is: Kris Allen and Adam Lambert are the last ones standing in the American Idol competition.
At this stage, it’s tough to see anyone go. And in the Copley household, we are very happy with the finale. Adam, the longtime frontrunner, and Kris, the underdog who sang his way through to the finale, all the while maintaining a trademark humility.
Funny thing is, in letting Danny Gokey go now, he got such an appropriate exit.
From the moment we met the Wisconsin man, his story has been the recent loss of his wife, Sophia, and Danny going on to compete in the contest she wanted him to try out for. Some complained the story got overplayed. I think that’s easy to say if you’ve never had the experience of losing a spouse.
That backstory also gave him the most fitting swan song, a not-a-dry-eye-in-America rendition of You Are So Beautiful. Freed from the competition, he seized the classic and made it his . . . and Sophia’s. To AI’s credit, they did not cheese it up, flashing pictures of Gokey’s late bride on the screen or anything like that. They let the moment be, and it was beautiful.
We all knew what it was about.
And do not worry about Danny. He will be fine. His phone is probably already ringing with serious offers, and he will be able to call his own tune. We will hear from him again. What a way to finish third.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich