Sunday, December 03, 2006

Nashville Gets Into The God Business

.. and, according to
a story in today's Boston Globe, that business is very good. "The old joke in country music was that you couldn't die and go to heaven unless you did at least one gospel album," says Wade Jessen, director of Christian and gospel charts for Billboard and Radio & Records.

With each passing year, the hand-wringing over the downturn in record sales becomes a little more desperate. But one genre continues to experience steady growth: gospel and Christian music. In July, the Gospel Music Association -- which tracks artists who express Christian ideals in their music and hands out the Dove Awards, gospel's Grammy equivalent -- reported that sales were up a hallelujah-inducing 11.6 percent over last year. Consumers aren't the only ones who have increasingly embraced a gospel message in recent years. It's become a growing trend for mainstream artists known strictly for secular music to release albums singing His praises. This year alone, superstar country acts Alan Jackson and Alabama, R&B stars Patti LaBelle and Kelly Price, and blues-rock guitarist Jonny Lang entered the sanctuary. These latest worshipers join a new-millennium flock that includes "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard, Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child, Gladys Knight, Aaron Neville, and Smokey Robinson, as well as country veteran Randy Travis.

They're building on a longstanding tradition, of course: Country and soul artists, from Dolly Parton to Aretha Franklin, have long either sprung from the church choir or periodically joined up with it.

"I think there's just absolutely no way to have this discussion without going back to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," says Billboard's Jessen. "That really was a turning point in a lot of people's lives in this country. Five years ago there was a lot of noise in the consumer press about how after the terrorist attacks a lot of people were rediscovering their spiritual roots, going back to church."

"I think it has a lot to do with war and with the hurricanes and the tsunami and everything that's been happening," says LaBelle. "People have to cling to something, and you know [gospel music] is a wonderful place to cling."

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