Every once in a while there’s a success story that defies the odds, overcomes obstacles, slays skeptics and rises from obscurity to top the charts. In today’s Christian music community, it is Casting Crowns.
The septet from Georgia burst onto the scene in fall 2003 with its self-titled Beach Street/Reunion Records debut. The album sold more than 1 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spawned three hits: “If We Are the Body,” “Who Am I” (a Billboard Hot Christian Songs chart-topper for six weeks) and “Voice of Truth,” which camped out at No. 1 for an amazing 14 weeks. “Live From Atlanta,” a 2004 CD/DVD release, scanned 103,000.
With the Aug. 30 arrival of Casting Crowns’ sophomore set, “Lifesong,” the industry is asking: “Can they do it again?”
Casting Crowns frontman/principal songwriter Mark Hall admits such expectations made him “a little worried” about the new project. But he got a great boost from artist friends Steven Curtis Chapman and Third Day’s Mac Powell, who advised, “Say what God wants you to say. Don’t worry about if this is going to do OK or if people are going to like it.”
To say that people liked the first album is an understatement. Casting Crowns — the Gospel Music Association’s reigning group of the year — is the most successful debut act in the Christian industry. Several factors have set them apart from their peers. Unlike many Christian bands, Casting Crowns have no desire to score a mainstream radio hit. Their music squarely targets the church audience, and the support of that flock has been enough to propel the group’s debut to platinum.
Casting Crowns began in 1999 as a worship band in Daytona Beach, Fla. After two years, Hall, Juan DeVevo (guitar/vocals), Melodee DeVevo (Juan’s wife, who contributes violin/vocals) and Hector Cervantes (guitar/vocals) relocated to Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga. There they were joined by Chris Huffman (bass), Andy Williams (drums) and Megan Garrett (keyboards/accordion/vocals).
Hall has served as a youth pastor for 15 years and regularly has 400 young people at his Wednesday-night service. Casting Crowns’ schedule is arranged to accommodate its members’ church commitments.
The band was discovered by Mark Miller, frontman for veteran country outfit Sawyer Brown, who signed them to his Beach Street Records, a Reunion imprint, and co-produced the first album with Chapman). “God has given him this incredible gift,” Miller says of Hall. “I told Mark: ‘You just figure out what it is you want to say, and we’ll make a record.'”
For “Lifesong,” Hall — whom the Gospel Music Association named songwriter of the year in 2004 and 2005 — wrote or co-wrote every song. He also wrote more lyrics that challenge believers on such songs as “Does Anybody Hear Her?” and “Stained Glass Masquerade.” The latter song — co-written with Nichole Nordeman — asks: “Are we happy plastic people/Under shiny plastic steeples/With walls around our weakness and smiles to hide our pain/But if the invitation’s open to every heart that has been broken/Maybe then we close the curtain on our stained glass masquerade.”
“What I was trying to say is I don’t think it bothers the world if people in church sin. I think it bothers the world that people in church act like they don’t,” Hall explains. “For some reason we [as Christians] feel that we have to act like we have it all together. We’re scared to show people that we struggle and that we are weak, so I guess I’m just trying to be the first in line to say, ‘Hey, I’m weak. I do dumb things every day, and it would be awesome to know that I wasn’t alone in this.'”
Hall absorbed the feedback people gave him after the debut album, and it served as inspiration for much of the music on the new one. “What makes the record exceptional is this isn’t just the making of a second record, this is the second record telling the story of the impact of the first record,” he says.
A few years ago, acts seeking mainstream success created a backlash among some in the Christian industry, who saw such aspirations as leaving the flock. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and bands that do not target the mainstream are almost viewed as underachievers. At a time when such acts as Switchfoot and Relient K, which started in the Christian market, have successfully crossed over to mainstream radio, some question Casting Crowns’ decision not to try to reach the same audience.
Hall says his label and other artists are supportive, but acknowledges that there is a perception that “if you aren’t out there impacting [nonbelievers], you aren’t in ministry.”
But he disagrees with this assessment and says the church is embracing his group’s position. “That’s what I think Nashville needs to see — that the church can handle our truth. At the same time, I don’t want to sound like if you are not writing the way I do, that you aren’t in ministry, because that’s crazy too.”
Casting Crowns will be on the road this fall with Building 429 and Beach Street newcomer Josh Bates. But, as usual, the band members plan to be at Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church for nearly every service, keeping themselves plugged into the source of their life song.
Excerpted and expanded from the Sept. 10, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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