Danny Gokey Talks About the Move From Country to Christian Music & 'The Divide In Our Country'

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Danny Gokey performs on Nov. 22, 2015 at Lenox Square in Atlanta.

Sometimes taking advice from your heroes doesn’t always turn out like you hope. After placing third on the eighth season of American Idol, Danny Gokey followed mentor Randy Travis’ counsel and began pursuing a career as a country artist. Though Travis told Gokey he’d find success bringing “soul” to the country format, it turns Christian music was the better fit. He continues along that career path with the release of his new album Rise, which drops today (Jan. 13).

After his 19 Recordings/RCA Nashville country debut, My Best Days, didn’t exactly set the world on fire, Gokey made the transition to the faith-based music market with his second album Hope in Front of Me in June 2014. It soared to No. 1 on the Top Christian Albums chart and spawned the hit singles “Hope in Front of Me,” “More Than You Think I Am” and “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again.” He followed with a Christmas collection that hit the top 10 on the Top Christian Albums list and with Rise, he’s looking to continue the momentum. The title track is the lead single and is No. 9 on the Hot Christian Songs chart.

“When it was time to switch over I think people loved the authenticity because if you look at my country record, there were songs that had strong messages in them and that remained the same when I switched over to Christian music,” Gokey tells Billboard. “I was really thrilled with the reception that people gave me. When God has a plan for someone’s life, even if you take a wrong turn and people think you’ve made a mistake, God always uses everything for your good and I loved the fact that God’s plans prevailed in my life. God still had a plan even though it looked like the first plan didn’t work.”

Though his country career stalled, Gokey has found his niche in Christian music. The genre is a natural fit for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native who grew up singing in church. Early on, he was working in the music department at two different churches and at the same time had a day job as a trucker. “I drove an 18-wheeler semi-truck, a big rig,” he says. “I liked it actually. Was it what I wanted to settle with for the rest of my life? No, because music was where my passion was.”

He might have been content to continue pouring himself into the local music scene, except his first wife, Sophia, was a big fan of American Idol and pushed him to audition. Danny and Sophia had been high school sweethearts and married in 2004. The couple had been married for four years when Sophia died during what was supposed to be a routine surgery to correct a congenital heart problem. Gokey was devastated but kept his promise to Sophia and auditioned for American Idol just four weeks after her passing. Viewers were impressed by Gokey’s strong, soulful vocals and the heartbreak he’d endured made him a sentimental favorite as well.

“Suffering and hardship, I think we look at it wrong in this day in age,” Gokey says. “In our culture, I feel like everyone just wants the good life, the dream life, but I’m learning to embrace suffering because with suffering there’s so much good that comes out of it. Now do I want to go through hard things? I don’t, but there comes to a point in your life where you don’t fear it, you trust God. Trusting in God is important. He knows what is best. I didn’t want to walk through the loss of my spouse, but I did and I had to, and so many people’s lives have been impacted from that one story, from American Idol all the way to here where I am today. God does restore. God does heal and life does go on beyond the pain and the suffering, and actually God can make you better from what you went through than had you not went through it at all.”

Gokey remarried five years ago and is expecting his third child with his wife Leyicet. He has definitely endured more than his share of ups and downs and has poured it all into his music. Rise is a combination of pensive ballads and buoyant pop anthems that covers a lot of emotional territory. “Hope was definitely a theme,” he says of the new album. “I wanted my record to be authentic. I wanted people to turn my record on and not to just be entertained -- I definitely wanted entertainment to be a factor -- but I wanted them to feel inspired and entertained.”

Gokey also welcomes a couple special guests on the record. The poignant ballad “Chasing” features Jordin Sparks, and Kierra Sheard joins Gokey on the inspirational “Better Than I Found It.” “I saw Jordan at the American Idol finale and I got to know her better than I have in the past and when I cut this song I knew her vocal would go great on it,” he says. “When she heard the song she said she cried because she felt like it was a song that was her story. Here’s a girl who was raised in church and a girl who feels she has had some moments of chasing things that maybe weren’t worth chasing in hindsight, so she really related to the song. I love that she related to it.”

Gokey is also excited about the duet with Sheard on the message-driven “Better Than I Found It.” “I’ve listed to her music for 10 years. She’s just a powerhouse singer ... The song talks about the divide in our country. We have to talk about these issues that are going on. We can’t ignore it and pretend like it’s not happening or that it’s going to solve itself. It’s hard to quantify because there was a whole bunch I wanted to talk about and I felt like we did talk about so many different things and I hope people catch that inspiration and enjoy the groove.”

Gokey will be taking the new songs on the road as he joins Casting Crowns' upcoming tour. “With my Hope In Front of Me record I had no tour,” he says. “That’s why I have so much faith in the competence in God because I’ve seen what he’s done in the past. When we released the Hope In Front of Me record, there just weren’t a lot of believers and rightly so. I came from a failed project and odds just looked impossible. It wasn’t a personal thing, but I think it made the victory look so much more sweet because God can take the foolish things, things that look like they won’t work and make it work, so I didn’t have a tour to go on. We released the record and that was it. Now I have a 40-city tour as a support act with Casting Crowns. I’m going to do some fairs and festivals over the summer, but then it looks this fall I’m going to do my first headlining tour.”

In addition to recording and touring, Gokey also has the Danny Gokey Eyewear Collection, a partnership with Match Eyewear since 2012 that places him in thousands of store globally. Closer to home, he and his wife recently opened a bed-and-breakfast south of Nashville in Brentwood, TN. “We’ve had a lot of bookings, but I need more,” he chuckles. “It’s the only one in Brentwood. It’s on five acres of land and it’s just a really beautiful spot. We’re just trying to grow it.”

Music, of course, is his primary career focus. He’s excited about people hearing the new album and hopes Rise will appeal to both believers and those who aren’t. “I wanted it to be relatable to people who maybe never stepped foot inside of a church,” he says. “I feel like there’s such a separation and I wanted to fill those gaps with this record, but yet I did not want at all to exclude people who are in church. I hope it crosses borders, demographics and religious borders because everyone needs hope. Everyone needs that inspiration. My church background and all my experience of being a praise and worship leader, it plays into this record. It affects this record and it affects my live show. It’s the core of who I am, but I want people who maybe wouldn’t believe in Jesus, I want them to be able to understand and hear the messages and open up their eyes and their heart and maybe see something different than they have before.”

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