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Crowder talks Grammy Award nomination, headlining Winter Jam and his trademark beard

Atlanta-based, Texas-transplant Contemporary Christian singer Crowder has escalated from the lead singer of the David Crowder band in the '90s to a major solo success with his first release in 2012. Watch this exclusive interview with the Grammy-nominated artist. (Video by Tyson Horne, Melissa Ruggieri/AJC)

It wasn’t apathy, but maybe nonchalance that overcame David Crowder when he learned in November that he was nominated for a Grammy Award.

"I'm in a dead sleep. I'm sleeping like, crazy good sleep. Like infant sleep. My wife hits me. I wake up like, 'Oh my word! What in the world?!' and she says, 'You're nominated for a Grammy for the album.' I go, wait, the whole album? And she says, 'Yes, the whole album.' I'm like, that's amazing! And then I went back to sleep."

Crowder is laughing as he recalls the unfolding of a momentous career achievement, but even after spending mere moments with the cheerfully laid-back singer-musician the only thought is, of course that's how he reacted.

The lanky, bespectacled Crowder — an Atlanta resident since 2012, when he and wife Toni relocated from Waco, Texas — is an intriguing guy. His fierce intelligence and dry wit are subtly on display as he sits in a studio at sixstepsrecords, his label since 1998 (which partners with Nashville's Capitol Christian Music Group) with his self-titled band. The sleek studios are adjacent to Buckhead’s Passion City Church, founded by Atlanta native Louie Giglio, who also created sixstepsrecords and along with wife Shelley - director of label operations and artist management for the label - has been instrumental in the formation of Crowder’s career.

A bird’s nest of a beard — his trademark — splays across his chest as he sits on a piano bench to talk. His dark jeans are cuffed enough for a peek at his carrot-colored socks, which is no way match his white shirt covered by a spiffy camouflage jacket, but somehow still work. Because that’s the beauty of Crowder. His idiosyncrasies are his charm.

Atlanta-based, Texas-transplant Contemporary Christian singer Crowder has escalated from the lead singer of the David Crowder band in the '90s to a major solo success with his first release in 2012. Crowder is nominated for a Grammy on Jan. 26 and will headline the 2020 Winter Jam Fest,  including a stop at State Farm Arena Feb. 1. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)
Atlanta-based, Texas-transplant Contemporary Christian singer Crowder has escalated from the lead singer of the David Crowder band in the '90s to a major solo success with his first release in 2012. Crowder is nominated for a Grammy on Jan. 26 and will headline the 2020 Winter Jam Fest, including a stop at State Farm Arena Feb. 1. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

On Jan. 26, Crowder will vie for a best contemporary Christian music album trophy at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards for “I Know a Ghost.” It is the fifth nomination of Crowder’s career — the first coming in 2010 (best rock or rap gospel album for “Church Music”) when he still fronted the David Crowder Band and his most recent in 2016 (best contemporary Christian music album for “American Prodigal”).

But while Crowder, 48, is grateful for the professional accolades, he’s more invested in the validation he receives from his ample fan base.

“Those (awards) are really incredible. But at the same time, what are they really? It’s a bunch of people that are saying we appreciate your efforts and what you’re doing. But what’s more amazing to me is when you’re in front of people and you see the songs translated from whatever your intentions were to all of a sudden (being) in front of someone else,” he said. “It’s absolutely an honor for sure, but at the same time, I don’t have a whole lot riding on it. It would be amazing to win (a Grammy), but I really like seeing the songs having a life in somebody else more than anything.”

Crowder jokes that red carpets scare him, but he won’t have the opportunity to be bombarded by braying photographers and inane questions in Los Angeles this weekend because he will be in Tupelo, Mississippi, to headline the Sunday night performance of Winter Jam.

The annual touring Christian caravan is the reason Crowder missed the 2016 Grammy ceremony and why his life revolves around little else in January through March most years.

Crowder is planning a special setlist for his Winter Jam headlining slot. Photo: Brooke Bennett
Crowder is planning a special setlist for his Winter Jam headlining slot. Photo: Brooke Bennett

He most recently played Winter Jam in 2017, but this is Crowder’s first run as headliner.

The tour — which visits State Farm Arena Feb. 1 — remains an anomaly. Created in 1995 by Valdosta-based contemporary Christian music group NewSong, the Winter Jam treks don’t require a massive cash outlay for a ticket. Instead, fans are encouraged to donate $15 at the door, and seating is general admission.

While Crowder has achieved marquee billing this year, the tour also includes familiar Christian performers Andy Mineo, Hillsong Young & Free, Passion - another sixstepsrecords artist - Building 429, RED, Austin French, Newsong, Riley Clemmons, Ballenger and Zauntee. Giglio is slated to make an appearance, as well as speakers Zane Black and Greg Stier. (Hillsong Young & Free, Passion and Giglio are on select dates and the latter two will not be in Atlanta.)

It’s a profitable juncture, though its 2019 numbers slipped a bit from the preceding year. According to concert industry trade magazine Pollstar, Winter Jam landed at No. 159 on its list of the Top 200 North American Tours for 2019. The tour played 43 shows last year, moving a nightly average of 6,373 tickets for an average gross of $137,000. In 2018, Winter Jam finished the year at No. 147 on the Pollstar rankings, with nightly average tickets of 7,695 and gross of $164,000.

But Winter Jam provides a massive platform, and Crowder knows firsthand how that type of visibility can amplify a career, even with non-headliner status.

“Part of what’s amazing about Winter Jam is being an artist that has been able to watch people attach to other artists that they found (on the tour) and are like, ‘That’s my favorite artist now for the rest of my life.’ You get to be in that moment because the reach is so broad with all of the genres (on the bill),” he said. “To move slowly up the ladder and now we get to close the night out is just crazy.”

Crowder's musical talents are vast - including guitar, banjo and piano. Photo: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com
Crowder's musical talents are vast - including guitar, banjo and piano. Photo: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

While contemporary Christian songs are often dismissed from a musical standpoint as being overly polished and simplistic, Crowder’s creations are an invigorating amalgamation of Americana (banjo is a prevalent instrument), EDM and rock — a little swampy and sometimes a bit Gothic.

He describes his lyrics as “intentionally liturgical,” but his ideal is unity.

“The intention for me is that all of these songs are like church music. Hopefully, it transforms us in a moment to be better people and more like we’re intended to be and what we’re made to be. Love your neighbor as yourself looks way different than what I’m hearing out there most of the time,” he said, then added with a laugh, “It’s a little rattier out there.”

When Crowder first moved to Atlanta, he lived in Cabbagetown (he and Toni have since relocated to the Chastain Park area, and he now uses rideshare everywhere instead of contending with Atlanta’s menacing traffic). He recalled the train tracks in the area and the idea that “you can look at the train tracks as a thing that divides, or you can turn the other way and see it as a thing that unites. I think a lot of times it’s just that our perspective needs to be shifted a little bit. I try to do that in some small way with the music.”

Crowder says he's happy for his Grammy nomination, but his real thrill is seeing fans react to his music. 
Crowder says he's happy for his Grammy nomination, but his real thrill is seeing fans react to his music. 

Credit: Filip Vukina

Credit: Filip Vukina

It’s been more than a year since Crowder released the Grammy-nominated “I Know a Ghost,” and he understands that fans are always restless for new material. He’s retooling some previous works (“to make new entities out of old entities”), but says he doesn’t yet have a “good angle” on a fresh album. However, he might experiment with dropping new songs online, as a sort of “breadcrumb trail.”

“I love the form of an album because I like having a concept and putting it in one little piece,” he said. “But I’d like to see if it’s possible for people to follow the trail.”

It would be remiss to spend time in Crowder’s orbit and not inquire about the genesis of his hallmark hirsute look. He jokes that the beard began as a long goatee “back in the Limp Bizkit days” and gradually lengthened.

He pauses to recall how long it’s been in current form and lobs another humorous anecdote.

“Me and my wife were traveling to Mexico for vacation last year, and as we were getting through customs, the guy looked at me and started chuckling and said, ‘How long have you had the beard?’ I started doing the math, and the year 2000 was the last time I shaved it off. At the dawn of the millennium I did this spiritual cleanse thing,” he said. “I came out of the bathroom (after shaving off the beard and hair) and my wife said, ‘Put it back now!’ So I took prenatal vitamins and used (Mane ‘n Tail) shampoo. So I told the customs guy it had been 18 years, and he started laughing and said, ‘I am 18. Your beard is as old as me!’”

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To watch

62nd Annual Grammy Awards

Premiere Ceremony will stream live on www.grammy.com at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 26. The show airs at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Performers include Aerosmith, Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Bonnie Raitt, H.E.R., Jonas Brothers, Charlie Wilson and Camila Cabello. Alicia Keys hosts.


CONCERT PREVIEW

Winter Jam 2020

With Crowder, Andy Mineo, Hillsong Young & Free, Passion, Building 429, RED, Austin French, Newsong and more. 7 p.m. Feb. 1. $15 donation at the door (general admission). State Farm Arena, 1 Philips Drive, Atlanta. 404-878-3000, www.statefarmarena.com.

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