In Nashville, Mike Rimmer met up with Christendom's biggest selling female singer, AMY GRANT.
Let's summarise the story so far. Or maybe "a" story so far! Amy Grant, golden girl of Christian music, married Gary Chapman young, enjoyed huge success as the first Christian music artist to really cross over to the mainstream even managing a top five hit in the UK with "Baby Baby". Since the mid '80s there were rumours that the marriage was on rocky ground. The couple had three children, years of marriage counseling and then in 1999 announced that they were separating. Amy instigated divorce proceedings and it was finalised in 2000. A year later she married country artist Vince Gill and now they too have a baby. There are rumours of Gary Chapman's drug habit, his jealousy of his wife's success and if all the stories I've heard around Nashville are to be believed, he's not a nice man! Meanwhile, there were plenty of sightings of Amy and Vince out together in the last years of her marriage to Chapman causing local gossips to believe that the pair were having an affair.
It's not a pretty tale is it? Amy has always had her fair share of critics ready to judge everything she does and everything she sings so it's been open season for Grant Gossips. In American interviews she has consistently and strenuously denied any inappropriate relationship with Gill. Into this scenario, how does Amy move forward with her career? It's been a long time since the release of her last album 'Behind The Eyes'. After keeping things ticking over with a Christmas album, she was all geared up to release her new pop album 'Simple Things' before a new plan emerged. What better way to move back into the Christian scene than a hymns album? She's celebrating 25 years in Christian music this year and 'Legacy' mainly draws on the hymns and songs that have inspired Amy over the years.
Amy Grant and her minder are sitting in a hotel suite holding court during Gospel Music Week in Nashville. I have to confess that I really wanted to go in there and ask some pretty hard questions about recent affairs but when faced with Amy who is genuinely an absolutely lovely person and the prospect of the minder pulling the plug on my interview I have to confess that rather than following my hard nosed journalistic principles I chickened out and danced a merry dance around some of the above topics. And Amy wasn't giving much away!
'Legacy' is a country album co-produced by Vince Gill and long time Grant collaborator Brown Bannister. These are country and bluegrass versions of hymns and songs, rush recorded and rush released to squeeze into her schedule before the release of the pop album. When it came to the hymns project, Amy confesses that her original response wasn't enthusiastic. She explains, "My first thought was negative because I was thinking that's what a has been does, as their swan song!
Then you dig the hole and throw the artist in and cover them up and move on!" However Amy confesses that it was hymns that shaped her as an artist and so finding material wasn't difficult. "I own between 40-50 different hymnals and we started going through songs." She explains the thinking behind the album, "This is not about radio, this is not about sales, this is not about anything, except for having had that opportunity to do something 25 years to say 'This is where my authentic roots are. This is why I've invested myself musically like I have,' and it was sheer joy!"
Musically the success of the 'O Brother Where Art Thou' soundtrack has helped develop a market for the gentle country music of the album and Amy jokes, "I do think that there's something about a really kind of, off the beaten path project like that, getting such wide acceptance that does make everybody relax and not say 'Oh my gosh... there's a mandolin on here! Somebody arrest them!'."
At Gospel Music Week, the album is launched, fittingly, at a show at the famous Ryman Auditorium. She introduces the material saying, "If you choose to buy this album, then you choose to and if you choose not to, that's up to you." To some in the audience that felt like more than a statement about her "going country" but Amy says that isn't so. "I was really meaning more musically. That wasn't said as a reflection of 'If you support me as a person... ' that was just saying 'different strokes for different folks' because I know not everyone likes the same kind of music."
She continues, "I think it's always disappointing and disheartening when someone in the public eye experiences failure, or makes mistakes. I'm always sad when I hear about a marriage falling apart. I imagine children whose lives are pulled apart. I think it's normal that somebody would say 'I'm so disappointed in you' and I don't find fault with that at all. I just think each of us, as we live our lives, we do some things so great and we really mess up other things but nobody really knows except the person living that life, all of the dynamics that go into your actions and your choices. It's a mix of good decisions and bad decisions, taking care of business, ignoring things... it's all that stuff. What's really been unexpected for me has been that I never realised how high people's expectations are and how deeply people experience disappointment. I've always thought that human nature was pretty twisted, I assumed that in all people and that's not a licence for anything, I just figured that was the real reason we all need to be saved from ourselves. Having been through some pretty public shame, what I wasn't expecting was how many people feel so much private shame and now they feel an open door to come to me and say, 'I don't feel that you would judge me, I'm in this situation. ' I think the misperception is to look at someone who's been through divorce and say, 'Oh now they're going to encourage people to follow on their footsteps. '"
The experience of her failed marriage has actually put Amy in a situation where she can pass on to others the comfort that she herself has received. Sitting in the Sunday Night Worship Programme at Gospel Music Week she remembers, "We're singing songs about mercy and forgiveness and healing and in a very quiet way because I'm not really an outward person, I just said, 'I know this stuff is true. I know mercy is true, I know what forgiveness tastes like. ' I just kept feeling compelled toward people in the crowd. I can't read people's minds but I know that there are people here whose lives resembled my own very lost life for a long time. Just wanting for them, in whatever configuration they find themselves, to experience healing."
For the last 25 years Amy has been a role model for a generation of Christian music fans who have grown older with her. Does she feel the weight of responsibility as a role model when she makes life choices? She responds, "I would say the opposite. I would say I'm pretty oblivious to it! I think it would be a really odd feeling for somebody to wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm imagining that people are being affected by what I'm doing and so, I must live my life in a different way, ' and that just seems a kind of a false foundation from the beginning. I think all of us wake up in the morning and say, 'How am I compelled to live my life today? ' So you live it and people are either affected by it or they're not."
I argue that people do see her as a role model so is she saying that is their problem? "It's not their problem," she counters, "it's just like, when I was growing up, there were people who were my role models. A lot of them I never met but I just observed them from afar and I was affected by what they did. I don't think that put any pressure on that person, so, I guess I'm just saying that it's not about pressure, it's just about visibility and how people are affected by..." she breaks off. "I think I'm in over my head!... I had an English teacher that used to say, 'I think you're chewing more than you bit off! '. I think we've lapsed into that with this one!"
Looking on from the outside, you'd imagine that going through a divorce must have been very difficult for Amy when she's in the public eye because there's more pressure. She shares, "I think when you're going through a lot of personal pain, how that pain looks to other people is so far down your list of what you're thinking about. I guess that dynamic was a part of it but it was not a compelling force, it wasn't a driving force, it just happened to be public but it had nothing to do with the outcome of anything."
The real lives of artists are always different from the perception that is created for them by record company hype merchants and spin doctors. For someone with her level of wealth and success, Amy is remarkably down to earth, living a normal family life and family is very important to her. This is something that came back to her very strongly on the 'Legacy' album. She explains, "Doing this hymns record, at every turn I was surprised by realising this is where I came from! It might not have all the kind of hip, cool and groovy trappings of somebody else's deep past but it's the real deal for me! I was so strengthened by realising I had nearly forgotten. This is what I was fed Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, over and over again, by conscientious parents. This is MY heritage! This is my history! ' I just don't happen to be from a family that flaunts their 'familiness' and because I don't, I think I had reached a point where I wondered 'What was my 'familiness'? '. I had lost myself, coming out of the divorce and all that and so it was just really unbelievable."
In the recording of 'Legacy', her past caught up with her present whilst singing "My Jesus I Love Thee". She explains, "It's just the way the song develops, I remember singing it as a kid and the first verse, 'My Jesus I love thee, I know thou art mine. For Thee all the follies of sin I resign' and I remember thinking, 'Duh! I'm not ever going to steal or cheat or lie or kill somebody. ' Of course not!! That's like spitting in Jesus' face. Then the second verse, 'I love because Thou hast first loved me and purchased my pardon, upon Calvary's tree, ' which by the way, even at seven years old, I knew that I had been purchased with the blood of Jesus. Those hymns do a pretty heavy thing in the mind of a kid. No questions are left unanswered. Then 'I love Thee for wearing, the thorns on Thy brow, ' even the mental picture of Christ's humiliation. So all of that was familiar to me but when it came for the time for me to sing that third verse, I just got so choked up time and time and time again. We had to keep rolling the tape back because it was 'In mansions of glory and endless delight. I'll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright. I'll sing with the glittering crown on my brow' and that picture juxtaposed with public shame is so powerful. It was just my undoing. I probably think that was the greatest moment of healing for me, in the context of that album. People always talk about the timeline of Jesus' death. He knew everything that was ever going to happen. Every good and bad mistake, all that... I don't feel like I'm putting my words together very well here but that really impacted me and that ridiculously, outlandish, mercy and love and forgiveness were not wasted on this 41 year old woman."
It seems as though 'Legacy' has give Amy Grant the opportunity to look back, find her roots once again and rediscover a spiritual equilibrium. There's been healing and a number of the modern songs on the album point towards the mercy and grace she's experienced. Her life choices will continue to be debated and there will be some who judge and gossip and rumour will circulate. However much we want our Christian music artists to be paragons of virtue with perfect lives, the truth is that life is sometimes a lot messier and only a handful of people really know what happens in the privacy of Amy's life. Redemption means that in spite of our human frailties, we all get another shot and an opportunity to comfort others with the love and lessons we have experienced. All our choices have consequences but we have to look upwards and move forwards.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.