Tony Cummings gives the lowdown on the pop rockers from Anderson, Indiana, SIDEWALK PROPHETS
In 2010 the annual Christian music jamboree the Dove Awards announced that the New Artist Of The Year were Sidewalk Prophets. Such an award must have come as a big surprise to British CCM followers (amazingly Sidewalk Prophets' big hit album 'These Simple Truths' hasn't been released in the UK) and a big surprise to long time followers of the band as the group had an independent album as far back as 2003.
Sidewalk Prophets - today David Frey (vocals), Ben McDonald (guitar), Cal Joslin (bass) and Justin Nace (drums) - first came together in Anderson, Indiana. The band told cross-references.blogspot.com website, "Dave and Ben actually started the band almost 10 years ago now when they met in college. Ben wanted to be in a band and let everyone he met in college know that he wanted to be in a band. Dave's roommate at the time was Ben's resident assistant in the dorm and he told Ben that he needed to meet his roommate Dave because he could really sing. The rest is history."
The name Sidewalk Prophets came soon after they formed. "Dave came up with the 'Sidewalk' which stems from a lyric in the Jars of Clay song 'Art In Me'. The line reads something like this, 'Images on the sidewalk speak of dreams descent'. Essentially, the way we understand this line of poetry is that God can be speaking through anything whether it's writing on the street or starts in the sky. 'Prophet' came from Ben's Word Of The Day dictionary. The definition of a prophet according to the dictionary is someone who speaks the truth about life. When we combined the two our name means - we're people who search for God in everything and seek to tell the truth about life from our perspective which is as followers of Christ."
In 2003 the group recorded the independent album 'Sidewalk Prophets'. But it was constant touring which sustained the group over the coming years. One of their specialities was church camps. Said Dave Frey, "I actually taught English education to sixth and ninth grade levels and pretty much just love kids. They are so open and it was just great to teach them. Even if I wasn't able to say that I was a Christian, to get up and share this joy and this experience. If they ever ask me why it is that I am always happy and ready to go then I can point them in that direction. That was a real blessing. Part of it is that I don't think I have grown up from when I was a youth. I think all of us really just have a heart for kids. We love those weeks at camp and just being around the kids. They are the ones that are going to lead the next generation for Christ.
"We actually had a group of kids at the very first camp we went to, which was actually the very first show that we did as well. We were leading worship there and those youth, still to this day are very good friends of ours. We stay in touch with quite a few of them and they come to our shows. One of them, Willie came five hours to Pennsylvania just to see us and we told him we could have come to a show closer to him. He just said he had to come see us. It was just really great. I think at those camps, versus the big tours and arenas, you actually get to be friends. You get to actually see the hearts of the kids and instead of just planting a seed, you get to watch it grow a little bit. We always hope those kids stay in touch with us and we can continue our friendship with them. It is one of the most beautiful things about being involved in the band."
After a few years of gruelling 150 gigs a year travel the group recorded the EP 'You Love Me Anyway'. But Sidewalk Prophets recognised if they were to progress in the Christian music world they would have to relocate to the epicentre of CCM activity, Nashville, Tennessee. Said Dave, "It literally took stepping out on a ledge to get us where we are today. We moved to Nashville on a wing and a prayer with nothing but an EP and a determination to play anywhere and everywhere we could. It was not safety that we were looking for, but I'd be lying if I said there weren't nights when I would lie awake and wonder what God was up to. God has continued to bless us ever since we moved here. One of those blessings was our bass player and drummer, Cal Joslin and Justin Nace. They are exceptionally talented players who have a great heart for ministry, and didn't mind struggling alongside us to make it. We actually connected on Craigslist. Go figure." A chance, or divine, encounter with a Word Records exec led to an impromptu showcase at a local Christian school, and the group were signed to the label in 2008.
Although Ben and Dave had been writing together ever since their college days, they realise that sometimes three heads are better than two, so for their album they began co-writing with some of the top names in the industry. "We are completely comfortable writing with each other," Ben explained, "but there is a totally new dynamic that happens when you write with someone like Ed Cash, Jason Ingram, Ian Eskelin or Sam Mizell. A good songwriter doesn't come in and try to change who you are. Instead they bring something fresh to the table that makes you a better 'you' than you were before. The bottom line was, we wanted the best songs possible, and I think we got them." To make those songs pop the band called on the talents of Dove Award winning Producer Of The Year, Ian Eskelin (Francesca Battistelli, Stellar Kart) to helm the project. "Ian was intense, full of energy and ideas," Ben said. "We just clicked. He figured out who we were and then figured out how to elevate everything, vocally and musically, to the next level. He knew how to take our gifts and make them better. He is amazingly focused and yet totally outside the box."
'These Simple Words' was a beautifully crafted CCM set with pristine pop, raucous rock and wistful ballads skilfully blended together. And the first single from the project proved to be a Christian radio smash. Said the band, "We didn't think at first that 'The Words I Would Say' should be our first single. Of course looking back we're glad that it was the first single. In regards to the song becoming well known - we hoped for but did not expect that it would be used by God to speak to so many people's hearts. We get stories almost every day and are literally blown away by how this song has blessed people. It's humbling for sure!"
The lyrics are indeed inspiring. "Be strong in the Lord/And never give up hope/You're gonna do great things/I already know/God's got his hand on you/So don't live life in fear/Forgive and forget/But don't forget why you're here/Take your time and pray/These are the words I would say/Last time we spoke you said you were hurting/And I felt your pain in my heart/I want to tell you that I keep on praying/That love will find you where you are/I know 'cause I've already been there/So please hear these simple truths."
Said Dave, "'The Words I Would Say' is a fairly autobiographical song. Many nights, God would lay a friend or family member on my heart and I wouldn't be able to rest without literally writing them a letter. All of the 'simple truths' contained in the chorus have, at one time or another, entered into those letters. One of the great appeals of this song is the perspective. It could represent a father or mother writing to a child who has left, a fiancé writing his bride to be, a friend writing a friend. No matter where the listener is in life, this song will hopefully remind them of someone that needs to hear about how much they are loved by the writer of the letter and by God. I was inspired to write the song about my grandfather. My mother called and told me he was dying. At that moment, I was scared and my greatest fear was whether I would make it in time after a four hour drive to tell my grandfather in person that I loved him. Rather than panic, I sat down and wrote him a letter, telling him how much he meant to me. I started to realise that I was really writing a prayer of thanks for him. I knew even if I didn't make it home to share it with him that night, he would know he was loved. Even now I wake up at night and write my friends and family letters to know that I am thinking of them. Many times I'm afraid of sharing my feelings. If we can't share Christ's love and our love for each other, then what can we share with each other? Fortunately I made it home in time to tell me grandfather I loved him."
"The Words I Would Say" resided in Billboard's Christian Songs Chart for over 20 weeks. Another song on the album, "You Love Me Anyway", is currently charting in the States. It happens to be the band's favourite on the whole 'These Simple Truths' album. Said the band, "We wrote it during a thunderstorm in a basement in the middle of Indiana. When we finished the song we looked at each other and said 'WOW'. This song was definitely divinely inspired. It's been near to our hearts ever since."
The band are now working hard on writing and recording another album. But clearly there's still mileage left in 'These Simple Truths'. Reported Dave, "We actually have a deluxe edition of 'These Simple Truths' coming out, so we are pretty excited about that. We do not know exactly when, but it is coming out pretty soon. There will be a couple acoustic songs on it. We will also be including a brand new song that no one has heard before, which we are excited about sharing."
So have all the CD sales and acclaim changed Sidewalk Prophet? Dave thinks not. "Our band has not changed direction. I really feel our direction has been just to be regular guys. God has given us this gift of music. I think we take that for granted a lot. What we do is not just entertainment. It's trying to look at the Gospels in a different way. Each song has a message all its own and they speak to people. It's awesome to see God take a song that I intended to speak about my Grandfather and use it in a hundred different ways. I guess that is just our goal, to be men that are truthful and follow God wherever he calls us to go. We did some live shows in the Congo last year, which changed our lives. Then last week we were in California, so it's amazing the places he is taking us. We just hope to be faithful stewards of the gifts he has given us."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.