MercyMe, Kirk Franklin discuss resiliency of Christian music

Looking back to the '80s, contemporary Christian music wasn’t exactly a hotbed of hipness.

Most music in the genre, with the exception of rockers Petra and White Heart, focused on organ-based songs and old-fashioned praise.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

But the mainstream emergence over the years of Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Switchfoot and MercyMe has come to define a new purpose for Christian music: It’s not just your grandmother’s church tunes anymore.

“The quality of the music has gotten so much better,” said Mike Blakemore, program director at the Fish 104.7, Atlanta’s contemporary Christian radio station. “I would put any Christian song against any mainstream pop song out there. It’s a more level playing field now.”

Fans of Christian music, as well as those who enjoy gospel music, will have opportunities this week to see some of their favorite artists. MercyMe will headline the Rock & Worship Roadshow Thursday at Philips Arena with Jars of Clay and other Christian acts, and gospel megastar Kirk Franklin will perform Friday at the Fox Theatre.

Today, the lines are more blurred between Christian and secular music.

Any casual listener tuning in and hearing the Fish’s most popular artists -- MercyMe, Casting Crowns and Atlanta’s Chris Tomlin and Third Day -- would have a difficult time distinguishing them musically from OneRepublic, Matt Nathanson or Nickelback.

The difference, though, usually lies in the lyrics, which, obviously, tend to focus if not on God, some combination of introspection and positivity.

But in the past decade, that approach hasn’t been the repellent to pop radio that it was when there were firm barriers between the Christian and secular music worlds.

Jim Bryson, keyboardist for MercyMe, knows firsthand the experience of crossover success. The band’s poignant ballad, “I Can Only Imagine,” peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and sold more than a million downloads in 2003, two years after first appearing on Christian radio.

Bryson is most proud of the fact that the song was played as it was written, with no clever radio edits to omit religious references.

“It was blatant what we were talking about and at that point, we knew there was a listener base. I remember talking to a program director at a mainstream station, and it was a station that played some pretty raw morning show stuff. When ‘I Can Only Imagine’ took off, they changed their format to be more family-friendly,” Bryson said.

The band has celebrated three No. 1 Christian hits -- “All of Creation,” “Beautiful” and “Move” -- from its latest album, “The Generous Mr. Lovewell.”

Bryson said he and his bandmates of 18 years are open to all types of music, which he hopes is reflected in MercyMe’s sound.

“I’m a big Beatles fan, and you’ll hear a lot of that in our music. But literally, we’ll listen to U2, to Willie Nelson, anything and everything,” he said. “A lot of people will say, ‘I can’t believe you’re listening to secular music,’ but that’s what you’re competing with and the kids are going to know it.”

With the tremendous presence of contemporary Christian music, some wonder what the difference is between that genre and gospel music.

Franklin had a candid response.

“It’s the hundred-pound gorilla in the room. It’s style and race. Gospel is mainly African-American, and contemporary Christian is mostly white people,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate to the mainstream world and it confuses people. Beyonce and Lady Gaga can do a video together, but I’ve done a song with [contemporary Christian star] TobyMac, and Christian radio will take my verse out. Christian radio doesn’t play my stuff. They’ll say it’s stylistic, but then when I’m on one of their artists’ songs, they take me off.”

The Fish’s Blakemore said he plays the Franklin-enhanced version of TobyMac’s “Lose My Soul,” and mentioned Mandisa and Mary Mary as gospel acts heard on the station, as well as R&B singer-turned-minister-turned-gospel singer Montell Jordan, whose “Shake Heaven” is getting steady play.

One of the key attractions to fans of contemporary Christian or gospel music is the live production, the chance to truly engage with the performer.

That’s one reason the Rock & Worship Roadshow caps its tickets at $10 -- an affordable option for families -- and Franklin is also conscious of presenting a reasonable ticket price.

The Texas-based Franklin, who also will host the fifth season of BET’s “Sunday Best” in Atlanta in March, revels in playing live and said that his monthlong “Fearless” tour, in support of his “Hello Fear” album, will be a full musical experience.

“I’m going to give you 18 years of music in one night. That’s my job to get up there and try to communicate what people are going through and speak to it so they leave with their feet hurting and every curl in their hair falling because they sweated it out,” Franklin said. “But I’m also up there to remind them that tough times don’t last long, but tough people do.”

Concert preview

The Rock & Worship Roadshow with MercyMe, Jars of Clay, Matt Maher, Hawk Nelson, Disciple, Group 1 Crew, Trip Lee and Bart Millard

7 p.m. Nov. 10. $10 (at the door only). Philips Arena, 1 Philips Drive, Atlanta. 404-878-3000,

Concert preview

Kirk Franklin with Amber Bullock, Isaac Carree, Deon Kipping and Jason Nelson

8 p.m. Nov. 11. $25-$35. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000,