A record sales phenomenon, America's female popsters POINT OF GRACE are hugely popular but berated by the critics. Tony Cummings investigates.
There can be few groups in the whole of Christian music where the gap between consumer and critic is wider than with Point Of Grace. To the great American public (at least those hundreds of thousands who listen to US Christian radio) these four twenty some-things from Oklahoma are the ultimate providers of hook-laden hits, snappy encapsulations of spiritual truth where switch leads, fulsome harmonies and catchy pop arrangements work their way insidiously into the grey matter. To the critics they are dismissed as being bland-ness personified, with even the normally reverential CCM magazine suggesting they were a "package of fluff."
Whatever the occasional axe-to-grind critic thinks, Terry Jones, Denise Jones, Shelley Breen and Heather Floyd have achieved incredible things since they emerged from the halls of Ouachita Baptist University in 1991. Their debut album garnered an unprecedented six number one singles and at last count they've had 16 consecutive number ones and four Top 10 albums.
New York Times magazine called the group the "hottest group in Christian music" and with over two million records sold, a Grammy nomination and an extraordinary sweep of Dove Awards, POG are clearly still on a seemingly unstoppable roll. Their fourth album 'Steady On' has been called by many fans their best yet. Its crisp, incisive production from studio maestro Brown Bannister (who first worked with Point Of Grace on 1995 gold-selling various artists album 'My Utmost For His Highest') gives the girls plenty of chance to shine while the songs, from many of Nashville's finest tunesmiths, are top quality.
At the heart of 'Steady On' is the group's unchanging desire to "minister to people." Every member of the group speaks passionately about their first and foremost desire - to help people. The music, although done with poignant care and a focused effort, remains secondary to their calling. "More and more," says Denise, "we have a message to share - and a responsibility to those people who buy our albums." Through the thousands of letters Point Of Grace receive regularly, a common thread emerges. "People need songs of encouragement," underscores Denise. "They are wanting to hear the word of God. We have been blessed and I think it's because we try to communicate what He would have us say."
Musically, 'Steady On' is something of a turning point for Point Of Grace, more personal vocals with the core of their identity intact. "I wouldn't call it a departure," Shelley muses, "but there was a new confidence for all of us behind the microphones this time. You can tell we're more confident and kind of 'go for it' a bit more." The trademark vocal styling of the group were further enhanced through arrangements by singer/songwriter Chris Eaton. Denise speaks for the entire group when applauding the skills and final product Eaton delivered: "He just brought a whole new aspect to our sound. He is so creative. This album, to me, is so present and exciting and energetic."
Part of the new energy heard in the grooves of 'Steady On' came not only from the musical changes in the group, but in the life changes for Denise and Terry. Motherhood for both has brought a new life perspective to the record making process, as well as bringing them to a new maturity spiritually, emotionally and mentally. Terry, whose pregnancy actually followed the schedule of the making of 'Steady On', laughs at the similarities of giving birth to a child and an album. "They're both my babies!" she says. "From the time we started picking songs, until we got the final masters, little Cole was listening to all the music too!" Denise, who also became a mum just prior to the making of the record, would concur and both marvel at the increased involvement in birthing this record - their usual role as vocals-only bystanders, was quickly transformed by producer Bannister. "Brown really included us and made sure that we were making the decisions," remembers Terry.
The origins of Point Of Grace are distinctly prosaic. After growing up together in Norman, Oklahoma the four teenagers were involved in a school singing group with the truly forgettable name of the Ouachitones. While practising harmonies around the piano one evening, the idea for the group was born. "All three of us were singing one night and felt like we knew that God was wanting us to do something with this," says Denise. "He has brought us here together and the harmony is there...
let's just try something for the summer." Shelley, Denise's roommate heard about the idea and wanted to contribute her talents to the group as well. The summer went great for the four girls, providing them with enough money to buy a sound system and enough confidence and support to continue. "We decided we were going to try this in the fall and see if we could survive," says Denise. Over the course of the year, the girls toured all but three weekends and learned enough about touring to become entirely self-sufficient. Dividing up the responsibilities between the four of them, they took care of booking, publicity, finances and planning the concerts. They had not only survived, but had recorded an independent album upon the request of fans and completed a highly successful tour by the end of the year.
In August of that summer, Shelley, Heather, Terry and Denise were sent by their grandparents to the Christian Artists Music Seminar in Estes Park, Colorado. At the seminar the girls were surprised twice, once by winning the Overall Grand Prize Group competition and, second, by the interest of major record labels. "We couldn't believe it was happening so quickly, but we could tell God's hand was in it," says Denise. So, the girls pressed on and, by February, had signed with Word Records and moved to Nashville to begin recording.
No one quite expected what was to follow the release of 'Point Of Grace', least of all Word Records, who let it go out with a ' seriously cheesy cover pic that suggested more of a cornball Southern gospel offering than the radio-friendly pop on offer. Radio hit after hit were plucked from the album and the group were catapulted to the big time becoming in the process role models for a whole generation of America Christian teenage girls. That brought its own tensions. Heather told CCM magazine in 1995, "You want so much to be perfect for those people," she says of their audience, "to be able to stand up there and be perfect, but you just have to come to the realisation that you're not a perfect person. You just aren't and the only way we're going to get through what we do in this ministry, and it remain a ministry, is to stay in the Word. The only way we're going to remain pure to our heart and our mind is to stay in the Word."
With their acclaimed fourth album Brent Bourgeois, newly appointed A&R head at Word, and producer Brown Bannister were involved in the song selection process. But in the end, the final cut was made by the four women who have a longstanding tradition that they must all agree on a song before the group can record it. It's in this process where Point Of Grace endures critics' hardest blows. They have been accused of recording songs that don't search the darker corners of life and don't require a lot of thought from listeners -songs that always bellow a glass-half-full mentality.
This criticism evokes a good deal of emotion from the members who, as Terry says, toil over their song selection. And it's in this discussion with each woman that one realises the women of Point Of Grace know exactly who they are and who is listening to and buying their music. Denise says, "I think for us, I feel like we need to keep it simple. The true Gospel is very simple. I have to think about plenty in life. Sometimes, what I need is to hear a lyric that is plain and simple, yet the truth. What moves us is what moves our audiences... We may not be the coolest, hippest people. We may not know the coolest music, but we do know who we are and who our audience is."
Terry is adamant: "Our songs definitely push people to think about their lives, the commitments they have and where they're going to put their time. Our songs have pushed me to go deeper. If people really listened to our albums, they wouldn't be able to say that our lyrics aren't deep."
Bannister, who has worked with everyone from Amy Grant to Carman, at times wrestled with the group's song choices: "I know we would have loved nothing more for them than to do some introspective stuff and more tangential kind of issue songs and aspects of straggle. What they said to me was the most enlightening thing: 'We're artists who are probably more like their fans than other artists.' They're right. I just think it would be dishonest to approach them to do really deep kind of introspective or theological questioning. It would be a discredit to them." Song selection notwithstanding, as any of these four women will confirm, life isn't simple. Both Terry and Denise, the proud parents of Cole and Spence respectively, are performing daily the incredible act of balancing early motherhood with touring. Each takes her son on about every date, along with two separate nannies. Shelley is working on her relationship with her new husband, David. And Heather is writing songs, has recently bought a house, is taking guitar lessons and working out what it means to be a single woman in the '90s.
While it's blatantly obvious these females believe to the depths of their souls the words they sing - that God is faithful, grace saves and better days are on the way - it's soon apparent that these seemingly fairy tale characters are true-to-life. They have just as many questions and frustrations with life -and its Creator that they sing about so optimistically - as anyone. Denise has spent this year watching a close friend - a God fearing woman, she says -battle depression. "I've doubted God more than once this year, asking, 'Why aren't you healing her faster?'" She is quick to add, "If I never questioned this year about what was going on with my friend, I may not have realised God showing me who He is, that he's big enough to handle my questions and that He's faithful."
So why does that insight never find its way onto a Point Of Grace record? "I think if we found the right song, and it really hit home, we wouldn't be opposed at all to putting it on there," Denise says, noting that some of their songs, like "Rain Down On Me", do address darker times. Shelley offers a different, and rather candid, response, "I think I'm afraid to doubt God. I have had thoughts where I'm not sure if, when it's all said and done, I'll be one of those taken up with him. But that's more about me than Him." For Shelley, that thought of last days has been prevalent for the past year. "I don't want to over-spiritualise this. I'm not really like that. But I do believe that the last days are coming, and I have a real sense of urgency to tell people God loves them."
It's easy to see Heather is on a self-proclaimed journey of exploration. But struggles are still there, she admits. "I do have days when this whole singleness thing, especially in the midst of married women and children, gets overwhelming. Yes, I do have days when I sit on the couch and eat chocolate. I can really wallow in it, but there's no peace in it and I know that." The single life has also provided Heather with the luxury of time to devour books from which she seems to be taking life philosophies. One of her latest discoveries is Frederick Buechner's Magnificent Defeat. "I was reading a part where Buechner is describing the setting of the Lord's Supper. With every sentence Christ said, the disciples' world was rocked. Buechner points out, 'In other words, when He says this bread is my body and this wine is my blood and invites us to partake, He is telling them to take His life into themselves and live it for Him.' That's overwhelming. To think He's called me to live His life here on earth for Him. I think about that a lot, especially when I'm out on the road. If it's true that I might be the only Christ some-one ever sees, then how would Christ want someone to experience Him?"
Indeed, it's obvious this foursome is well aware of what they're
about, both professionally and personally. The phrase, "They know who
they are" could easily be a tagline for the group. Perhaps it's that
identity awareness that will keep fans coming to concerts, buying the
albums and being moved by the songs enough to gush.