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‘Christian country’ artists convinced their music is able to ga

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–He once traveled the world, earning a seminary degree, working as a newspaper reporter and serving as a missionary to Bangladesh.
But Daniel Johnson recognizes his biggest challenge lies ahead of him. He hopes to help jump start Christian country music, an industry trying to regroup after various setbacks.
“The music’s not dead,” said Johnson, a promoter, songwriter and performer based in Nashville, Tenn. “It doesn’t matter what [record companies] do, the music is still getting out there and people are hearing it.”
Johnson’s reference concerns restructurings and cutbacks at a number of Nashville record labels that once promoted Christian or positive country artists. In addition, earlier this year the influential Contemporary Christian Music magazine eliminated its Christian country song chart.
But Johnson and other performers haven’t given up hope. In early September, they staged a “Number One” party on Music Row to honor seven Christian artists with chart-topping hits. The next day, 45 participants gathered for a symposium on the challenges facing their specialized music field.
Johnson said they discussed what the music should be called (“Christian country” or “country gospel”), the need for a universally recognized chart, for resources and for seeking God’s direction. The group agreed to meet again in December.
“I was trying to bring factions together and talk about some of the issues that have divided us,” Johnson said. “There were some people who said nothing was accomplished. But any time you get 45 people together from all over the country … I think God did a miracle. Who knows what’s going to happen out of this?”
Whatever takes place, Southern Baptists will play a key role, said Johnson, a member of Crievewood Baptist Church in Nashville.
Among Southern Baptists who spoke at the meeting:
— Larry Dunlap, a songwriter and pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Pleasant View, Tenn., who led the devotional. He drew his message on breaking down walls from Joshua 6.
“The walls are things that keep Christian country from being all we can be,” said Dunlap, who co-wrote the #1 tune, “He Is There.”
“It’s an instrument of ministry. Whether we have a chart or not, or gold records, doesn’t matter. It’s a tool to reach people who won’t listen to Southern gospel [music] or go to church.”
Dunlap added, “There’s people out there like the guy who has a hangover, or his wife just left him. He needs a message of hope and to know there is a better way. People can’t pray to the Lord until they know him.”
— Fred Bacher of Dothan, Ala., a radio station ad salesman who hosts “Sunday Country,” a five-hour inspirational radio show and, now, a television version. He spoke about how stations can profit from a Christian country format, noting that “Sunday Country” topped its region’s Arbitron radio ratings for every age group in its time slot last year.
“Most Christian radio is for Christians,” said Bacher, a member of Dothan’s Ridgecrest Baptist Church. “I want to do something for people who like country music but are unchurched. That’s why I interject positive country in the program.” Bacher spent 15 years as a pastor and five more as an evangelist before sensing that God was directing him into a new career.
Despite the problems Christian country has experienced lately, Bacher said he believes it has the same kind of promise as contemporary Christian music in the 1970s.
“We’ve got to get a [nationally] syndicated Christian country program,” he said. “Distribution is another need. There’s got to be one place where you can order this stuff.”
— Tony Rollo, a former minister of music and youth outreach and owner of a computer networking firm, who reviewed how radio-Internet links can spread this format.
Christian country can be compared to a battlefield,” said Rollo, who attends Lakeview Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla. A lot of participants are staggering and lack direction, he commented.
“Basically, you have people who saw a lot of dollar signs,” he said of the boom-and-bust cycle. “Things take time to develop. Unfortunately, American business is extremely shortsighted. If people throw money at something and it doesn’t show a profit in six months, they’re out of it.”
Rollo is establishing a new Christian Country Network (CCN) site on the Internet at “www.christiancountry.com” or “www.radiojc.net/ccn.”
While much of the site remains under construction, Rollo plans to include a variety of audio and video segments, programming, stories and pictures about Christian country. One feature will be broadcasts of “Gospel Country,” a syndicated show hosted by Les Roberts currently airing on 25 country radio stations nationwide. Roberts publishes a twice-a-month newsletter, the Christian Country Research Bulletin, and also has an Internet site dedicated to country gospel, at www.bigfoot.com~christiancountry.
“We will have discussion areas where people can express their feelings about a song,” Rollo said of his CCN initiative. “We want to facilitate freedom, where people can express their feelings … .”
He plans to start an e-mail forwarding service so fans will be able to type in the name of their favorite artist or group, followed by “@christiancountry.com.” The message will then be sent to the artist’s electronic mailbox.
Rollo added that he plans to use the CCN Internet site to build support for overseas missionaries, providing news about their work and enabling them to communicate daily with supporters in the United States.
While the lack of commercial success forces many artists to record, distribute and market their own music, Johnson said that may be a blessing in disguise.
While they don’t have someone else to pick up the bills, Christian singers have more freedom, he said, while retaining music rights for future sales.
“I think God is doing something special here,” he said. “He’s giving people experience in the music business, to let them know how to get things recorded and to market. When they’re no longer recording or touring, they will be able to concentrate on helping others.
“We don’t want to be in the Nashville music industry, we want to be above that,” he added. “We want to do things in a godly way, the way the Lord wants us to do them.”
Despite the medium’s Southern Baptist influence, members of many other denominations likewise minister through this music, he said. It reaches a lot of people, including church members who want to listen to country, he noted. “We want to give them an alternative to what is normally on radio,” he said. “We also want to influence secular artists; we want them to sing these songs,” Johnson added.
While his tour schedule kept him away from the meeting, the Fox Brothers’ Randy Fox believes audiences in America’s heartland appreciate this brand of music.
Concentrating on fairs and events like the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, the group plays about 200 concerts a year. While they have a recording contract, they sell most of their 14 albums on tours or through their fan club.
Fox, a member of First Baptist Church, Franklin, Tenn., said the industry needs an impartial association to back syndicated radio and TV productions. Such exposure would create visibility and spur more promoters to book Christian country acts, he said.
Backers must remember that it takes time for any brand of music to develop a following, Fox said.
“When I was young, country music was very small,” he said. “WSM-AM didn’t play it during the day and they were the home of the Grand Ole Opry.”

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  • Ken Walker