Atlanta pop rock band CASTING CROWNS have seemingly sprung from nowhere to become one of CCM's biggest selling acts. Tony Cummings reports.
Usually when record company publicists throw around the phrase "overnight success" it hides the fact that the act in question has spent years on the road playing small time gigs and probably releasing independent albums. However in the case of Atlanta-based band Casting Crowns no other phrase seems to fit the group's astonishing rise from local church obscurity to million-selling CCM stars. How a seven-piece church praise band turned pop rock ensemble struck platinum (sales of one million copies) with their 2003 self-titled debut is already the thing of CCM legend. The first single, "If We Are The Body", a hugely challenging song about the Church, became one of the hottest songs in American Christian radio history catapulting the band's frontman/principle songwriter Mark Hall into the big time. Now the band have returned with another album, 'Lifesong' for Beach Street/Reunion, which pundits are predicting could be as big as its predecessor. Hall again shows himself to be a songwriter prepared to denounce the hypocrisy and piousness in the Church and his song "Does Anybody Hear Her?" will no doubt unsettle more religious spirits with its telling lyrics, "If judgment looms from every steeple/If lofty glances from lofty people/Can't see past her scarlet letter/And we've never even met her."
Casting Crowns guitarist Juan DeVevo spoke for all the band when he expressed his amazement at Casting Crowns' phenomenal sales success. "No one is more surprised at the past couple of years than we are. A couple of years back we'd never thought about competing or signing a record deal or anything like that. It had never crossed our minds. And to think God had all this planned for us, just a youth band, is amazing."
Casting Crowns, formed during frontman Mark Hall's tenure as a youth minister in Daytona Beach, Florida five years ago, developed its unique sound while leading Wednesday night worship for its youth group. Accepting a similar post in Atlanta, Hall and other band members relocated in order to continue and grow their music ministry. The band has a heart for youth ministry. Each band member has served in some capacity, whether as a youth worker, band leader or small group leader during Casting Crown's four years together. Says Mark, "I'm a youth pastor before I'm an artist. Music, for me, is the tool to gain the right to talk to somebody about something eternal."
To prove that this is more than just words Casting Crowns are still rooted in local youth ministry, working every week with 400 young people at Eagle's Landing Baptist Church just south of Atlanta, Georgia. In the whirlwind of Christian celebrity and success, this calling supersedes all others, a fact that's more than apparent in the schedule the band keeps. While they could obviously be booked 52 weekends a year, they make a point to be home every other Sunday, as well as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of every week. It's not just a matter of responsibility with them. It's a matter of passion. It's a challenge, one that even their youth group wasn't convinced they'd meet. But over time, the band proved they were up to the task. "Sometimes, they test us just to see what we'll do," Melodee DeVevo says, "but we've been really careful with their schedule, careful to be there on Sundays. Even if we roll in at 8.30am on Sunday, we get off the bus and go to Sunday school. They see that and they respect that."
A lot of what they teach their students, like a lot of what they sing about, is better witnessed in action. Hall says, "We worship and we pray a lot. Through our songs we teach our students how to pray that way. In fact, the song 'Lifesong' like many of our songs simply came from what I found myself saying and praying while leading the students, from the questions that come up in my time with them."
It was the summer of 2003 that a country music artist started a little boutique label and signed the then unknown Casting Crowns as his first act. The country star was Mark Miller, frontman of the highly successful Sawyer Brown, and his label Beach Street Records. The first single from the 'Casting Crowns' album was "If We Are The Body" and it turned out to be the biggest Christian song of the year. Yet even as 'Casting Crowns' was certified gold, Mark Hall was clearly a singer/songwriter whose ministry rather than album sales meant the most to him. In 2004 he told Billboard magazine, "It has been the conversations with people after concerts and the emails - I read them all and try to answer every one of them. Just the ministry that's taking place between me and someone in Okinawa totally blows my mind. I've been encouraging someone in the Netherlands who heard 'If We Are The Body'. Because of radio and music, the ministry of a song I wrote for 25 kids is on the other side of the world somewhere. That still amazes me."
Mark is keen to emphasise that Casting Crowns are much more than him and six backing musicians. A recent CCM magazine gave a run down of the other members of the and. Hector Alonzo Cervantes, 24, was born in Daytona Beach, Florida. The young Hector took up guitar, drums and bass at age 13. Although his elementary teacher used to write, "I haven't figured him out yet," on his report card, she also said, "He's a leader." He married Christy earlier in 2005.
29 year old Juan Gene DeVevo was born in Jacksonville, Florida. Juan learned to play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin and banjo at age 15. His musical hero is Stu G from Delirious?, whose "huge guitar makes all their songs huge." Juan has been married to fellow band member Melodee for five years and when he's not mixing songs or making videos, the chances are good that he's walking the dogs Duke and Satchmo.
From Daytona Beach, Florida, 29 year old Melodee Summer DeVevo was "a joy to have in class but talks a little too much," according to her report card from school. She took up the violin, cello and mandolin at age 11 but was re-taught everything in college by her musical hero, violin teacher Routa Kroumovitch-Gomez. Melodee credits Melanie Hall, Mark's wife, as her spiritual hero.
24 year old Christopher Robert Huffman hails from Glasgow, that's in Kentucky, not Scotland. Chris is the trumpet/bass/guitar section of the band. He married Amanda just over a year ago and is an "aspiring singer."
Megan Denise Garrett, 26, is from McDonough, Georgia. Megan was "a good kid" (at least according to her elementary school report card). She learned to play piano at age 10, bassoon at age 11 and guitar at age 16. She's married to Ryan and is expecting her first child around Christmas.
Finally, 33 year old Andrew Joseph Williams is the band's eldest member. He hails from Lithonia, Georgia and learned to play keys at 12, harmonica at 16 and drums at 22. He's been married to Aden for six years.
One of the heartening things about Casting Crowns is that image-wise they don't fit the usual Nashville CCM stereotype. None of the men in the group are particularly good looking while the two ladies in the band, Megan Garrett and Melodee DeVevo, have not exactly slim figures. Said Megan, "From a girl's perspective it's intimidating to see all these perfectly beautiful singers, even in Christian music. I'm close to six feet tall. I've never been a small person. Melodee and I try to look nice when we go on stage, but at the same time we don't get stressed trying to do the heels and the bling-bling everywhere. Magazines and TV make you feel so inadequate, so it's encouraging when young girls and women come up to me saying, 'It's really encouraging to me to see a real-size person on stage for once.' I think that's one of the reasons I am who I am. for this season we're in."
Songsmith Mark Hall talked about the recording of the latest album, "I went through a little weirdness right before we started recording 'Lifesong' and we had some neat talks with Steven Curtis Chapman and with Third Day lead singer Mac Powell, just about the pressure stuff. And there came a point when I just had to lay that down and just do it. And even if not, I'm still speaking this Wednesday night to my kids back home." 'Lifesong', like the debut album that preceded it, finds Hall and Casting Crowns focussed on the same truth-can-be-a-tough-pill-to-swallow message: There are broken people within arm's reach of the Church and if there is any hope of healing, it begins with people who will be the hands and feet of Jesus. Not unlike "If We Are The Body", with its confrontational tone toward the Church, new songs such as "Stained Glass", "Masquerade" and "Does Anybody Hear Her?" prick consciences and seek to change hearts.
Mark Hall's lyrics are every bit as powerful and beautiful and pointed as before and if some choose to believe that the music of Casting Crowns simply "preaches to the choir," then so be it. Doesn't the choir need to hear it? "That's a misconception a lot of people seem to have," says Hall. "How can writing songs that challenge the Church, songs that ask Christians to consider their actions, be a bad thing? After all, it's the message that matters, not the labels that exist in the Christian music industry or even the biases shared among Christian music fans. Every Christian artist has a ministry - within and outside the Church - and each one is important. "Christian music is a good picture of what the body of Christ is like," he continues. "Different artists working in their gifts, working where their passions are. Everybody is passionate about what they do, about what they feel called to, so for one to say the other's ministry is more or less meaningful or spiritual or anything is ridiculous. There are way too many walls in Christian music. A lot of my friends are saying we're walled into worship, but if you ask me, we're all worship bands. Worship is a totally different thing, really. And everything we do is worship, so it seems like a lot of these walls should come down. I think the closer you get to Jesus, the more you start seeing that everybody has a ministry that they need to do. You just gotta be careful when you're out there not to look at the others as though they're not in ministry because they're not in your ministry."
For Casting Crowns, ministry is not about preaching at all, but about talking about and walking through the stuff of life. "I think people listen to you if you're transparent," Hall says. "If you say, 'This is where we all live,' then you can talk about the hard things. People want to hear the truth. You just hang around church for awhile and you'll see. People don't want you to talk around it. They want you to tell it like it is, even if it hurts. We're not talking about a bunch of new stuff, we're still talking about pain and other things where people really live. And we're still trying to live out what we're singing about."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.