Damian Taylor charts the 32 year career of CCM hitmakers NEWSONG
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At the very last recording session a bonus track was added to 'Sheltering Tree' which catapulted NewSong into mainstream consciousness. The origins of "The Christmas Shoes" are intriguing. D C Chymes was a self-confessed NewSong fan and also a DJ with WMLL Radio in St Louis, Missouri. He and fellow DJ Steve Shannon presented the Steve And D C Morning Show on the station, which was syndicated across various media outlets. One year Chymes became aware of a chain email telling the story of two young children who wanted to buy their dying mother a pair of golden slippers on Christmas Eve so she could meet Jesus looking her best. Unable to afford the amount at the till, a stranger standing by them in the check-out queue made up the deficit for them. D C read this story at Christmas time and watched in amazement as the radio station became swamped with phone calls, such was the profound effect of the story. It was from this response and a little prompting by D C that NewSong took on the task of turning the story into a Christmas song. "We read this story and we knew something was there," said Carswell, "so we kept stabbing at it, kept coming back to it."
Carswell and Ahlstrom's song adaptation of the chain-email received repeated airplay from WMLL and word-of-mouth plugs by the public touched by the highly sentimental musical saga. NewSong suddenly found they had a hit on their hands, one which claimed the number one spot on the Adult Contemporary chart on 6th January 2002 as well as giving the band their highest ever chart positions of number 42 and number 31 on the US Billboard and US Country charts respectively. The unexpected hit was not without its downside. Although Mark Allan Powell, the author of Encyclopedia Of Christian Music, called the song "a heart-touching ballad," others have not been so kind. Various news organisations such as Toronto City News, NBC Today and Gawker.com labelled "The Christmas Shoes" as the worst Christmas song of all time.
Regardless of the song's merits, its success allowed NewSong to embark in 1995 on the WinterJam Tour Spectacular, which led to a tour every Christmas season. By 2007, the arena tour was averaging crowds of 8,400, an almost tenfold rise compared to the first shows put on by NewSong. (As an aside to this, it was Donna VonLiere - the wife of Troy VonLiere, part of the band's WinterJam tour production management team - who wrote several books based on the song "The Christmas Shoes" which featured on the New York Times' Bestseller Lists and were made into films.)
By this time the group had had their second top 40 US adult contemporary hit as "When God Made You" from their 'More Life' album reached number 33. While "Christmas Shoes" has turned into a firm Christmas favourite, "When God Made You" has had the same effect at weddings. Eddie Carswell wrote the song to celebrate his daughter's wedding, and although he sang the first version, he invited Natalie Grant to sing the song with Michael O'Brien as a duet. "It's become one of our most popular songs," said Carswell, who recounted a story in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, about someone he met who was going to be married. "I asked him 'What song are you doing for your wedding?' and he said, 'When God Made You'. I said, 'Did you know I wrote that?' He said, 'No, are you serious?' It's just so contagious, the whole song." The band admit that the lack of a female in the group makes it difficult to perform the song live.
As part of their WinterJam tours, NewSong have supported several organisations such as World Vision and Holt International, who work with disadvantaged children. The tours are a great way to raise funds and encourage people to support the charities that NewSong back. WinterJam production member Troy VonLiere said, "WinterJam never ceases to amaze everyone involved. Fans continue to line-up to be a part of these special concerts and not only are they offered an electrifying evening of music and entertainment, we are seeing hearts moved and lives changed." Billy Goodwin gave his opinion on the motivation for performing at these events: "I think what keeps us going is not necessarily the fun we have with the music but it's that time at the end of the evening when we see people respond. It's amazing to see God use what little bit we're doing to reach people. That's really our motivation."
The group take their duties to support children seriously, with the Xtreme Youth Conference created so that children who were unable to attend their WinterJam tours would not be left out of proceedings. As Russ Lee, who rejoined the band in 2009, said in an interview, "We went to do a youth conference [in the 1990s] where a lot of the kids were being turned away at the door and the promoters kept their money. Some of them were poor kids from rural towns who went home disappointed and broke. We were upset about it." The Xtreme conferences grew annually and by the end of the 1990s more than 15,000 people were attending concert venues. Their work with the American youth was noted and the band had invitations to play in the Ukraine and El Salvador in the 1990s. This led to one scenario where an entire Ukrainian village committed their lives to Jesus when NewSong visited.
The first decade of the new millennium saw NewSong experience personnel changes and recording upheavals. Benson Records was folded by executive Clive Calder just after the release of "The Christmas Shoes", leading the band to work with Reunion, Provident and Integrity for a couple of albums each. Meanwhile one-time solo CCM hitmaker Clay Crosse joined and then left the group just as quickly in 2002, the same year that Steve Reischl said his goodbyes to his fellow NewSong mates. Scott Wilbanks rejoined the group between 2004-05 before leaving to join Third Day and concentrate on his production work. Soon after, Michael O'Brien left the band in summer 2006 with his replacement Drew Cline filling in for the band's autumn tour on a temporary basis.
After a two year stint by lead vocalist Nate Sallie from 2007 to 2008, the soulful voiced Russ Lee confirmed that he was rejoining the band in 2009. He spoke to Billboard magazine about the debt he felt he owed the group. "God used an opportunity to send me to songwriting school. It was a great opportunity to understand not just the craft of songwriting but the craft of connecting." Since Lee's return, the lineup has remained unchanged, with original bedrocks Eddie Carswell and Billy Goodwin, third longest serving member Matt Butler, Jack Pumphrey on drums, Mark Clay on bass and Rico Thomas on guitar accompanying Lee.
They say that bands mature with age and in NewSong's case, time seems to have enhanced their musical ability and popularity. Their 2011 album 'One True God', which was released on the group's own NewSong Records label, gave the band their first ever number one hit on the US Christian album chart, with it also reaching number 27 on Billboard's mainstream album chart. 30 years after their formation, the group had finally reached their apex.
Goodwin commenting on the success of 'One True God' said, "Sometimes you overwork something and finally, just release it to God. Say, 'I've done everything I can with this and I ask you, Father, to touch it, anoint it. Words, praise, just starts to come in our hearts." They are words which could easily be NewSong's mantra for their entire career: trust in the Lord and he will provide.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.
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