Although Amy Grant cannot claim to have invented the contemporary Christian music (CCM) style of gospel music, she did the most to popularize it in the 1970s and 1980s before successfully crossing over to pop music in the '80s and early '90s. When Grant came along as a teenager in the mid-'70s, "inspirational" (i.e., white) gospel music was a tiny subgenre, its records sold almost exclusively in Christian bookstores and almost exclusively in small numbers. By the mid-'80s, when she released Unguarded, her first album to be marketed to a secular as well as a Christian audience, gospel music constituted eight percent of U.S. record sales, a higher percentage than that for jazz or classical music.
She achieved this breakthrough for CCM and for herself by forging a pop/rock sound that matched the production values, and often aped the styles, of pop/rock, and by writing lyrics that often were ambiguous in their meaning, sounding to Christian music fans like appeals to God and to more general pop fans like love songs. She also matched the staging of rock concerts in her shows, which often played in venues more typical of secular performances than religious ones. And her music videos, which emphasized her photogenic appearance, were on a par with those of pop stars. When it occurred, her complete crossover to pop was more a slight shift of emphasis than a major change of direction. Nevertheless, it made her a controversial figure in the Christian music community of the '80s in a way similar to Bob Dylan in the folk music of the 1960s: she was both the field's biggest star and came to be viewed as something of a traitor. As her career went on, however, she managed to mend fences with traditional fans and achieve a balance of pop and Christian-oriented songs on her albums as her career became less of a full-time focus for her and her record sales declined from the heights of her pop heyday.
Born November 25, 1960, in Augusta, GA, where her father, Dr. Burton Paine Grant, was doing his residency, Amy Lee Grant was a descendent of one of the most prominent and prosperous families of Nashville, TN. Her great-grandfather, Andrew Mizell Burton, was a wealthy insurance executive and philanthropist. She was the fourth and final daughter born to her father and her mother, Gloria Grant, following her sisters Mimi, Kathy, and Carol. The family moved briefly to Houston, TX, in 1961 before returning to settle in Nashville. In addition to being well established socially and financially, the Grant family was also deeply religious, belonging to the strict Protestant sect the Church of Christ, which was sufficiently conservative to ban the playing of musical instruments at its services; worshipers sang the hymns a cappella. Despite this stricture, Grant was allowed to begin taking piano lessons when she was ten. While in the seventh grade at the private Ensworth grammar school, she turned to the guitar. Although she was baptized in the Church of Christ, she soon followed her sister Mimi in attending a breakaway variant of the faith, the Belmont Church of Christ, which took a less formal approach, more in keeping with the Charismatic movement.
While attending the private girls' prep school Harpeth Hall, Grant began performing with her guitar at devotional meetings at the school, playing songs by such favorites as James Taylor, Carole King, and John Denver. None of them, however, sang religious songs, so Grant augmented her program with her own Christian-oriented compositions. While working as an intern at a recording studio, she made a tape of her songs for her parents that was heard by producer Brown Bannister, who in turn played it for gospel singer Chris Christian, recently retained by gospel label Word Records as a talent scout. Christian took the tape to Word, which signed Grant to a recording contract while she was still in her mid-teens.
Amy Grant, her debut album, was released on Word's Myrrh Records imprint in 1977. It sold 50,000 copies during its first year of release, a very good sale for a Christian album at the time. The songs "Old Man's Rubble" (written by Bannister), "What a Difference You've Made in My Life" (written by Archie Jordan), and "Beautiful Music" (written by Lanier Ferguson) all ranked as Top Ten hits on Christian radio. Grant graduated from high school in the spring of 1978 and began performing concerts around the country that summer. At first, her touring was restricted to two weekends a month as she attempted to combine her budding musical career with college; she enrolled at Furman University in Greenville, SC, in September.
My Father's Eyes, Grant's second album, was released in April 1979. The ballad "Father's Eyes" had been written by Gary Chapman, a young aspiring Christian songwriter, and it carried a subtle religious message rather than the sort of overt statement typical of gospel music. That message was positive, and it alluded to elements of Christian belief, but it also could be appreciated in nearly secular terms. The more openly religious "Faith Walkin' People" also earned Top Ten airplay on Christian radio, but "Father's Eyes" was the real hit off the album, helping it to strong sales that would accumulate to a gold record certification by 1987. In the short term, My Father's Eyes attracted enough attention to earn Grant her first nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Gospel Performance, Contemporary or Inspirational.
Grant focused on her schoolwork while still finding time to perform and record. Her third album, Never Alone (1980), featured songs mostly written by some combination of her, Chris Christian, Bannister, and Chapman, among them "Look What Has Happened to Me," which Christian radio made a Top Ten hit, but the LP was not as popular as My Father's Eyes, even though it earned her a second Grammy nomination for Best Gospel Performance, Contemporary or Inspirational. She toured with Chapman as her opening act during the summer of 1980. She then took a semester off from college and accepted concert dates on the Billy Graham Crusade and as an opening act for the Bill Gaither Trio.
Instead of returning to Furman, she enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville for the spring 1981 semester, but prior to that she undertook her first national headlining tour, playing 40 dates starting in February, backed by the Christian rock band of DeGarmo & Key. Some of the shows were recorded, and Myrrh released two separate LPs, In Concert in May and In Concert, Vol. 2 in November. Christian radio made Top Ten hits out of two new songs from the discs, "Singing a Love Song" (written by Jim Weber) from the first album and "I'm Gonna Fly" from the second, and In Concert earned Grant her third consecutive nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Gospel Performance, Contemporary or Inspirational.
Grant's life and career reached a turning point in the spring of 1982. Unable to balance her college studies with her performing and recording work, she dropped out of Vanderbilt 20 credits shy of her degree. Before that, she had accepted Chapman's proposal, and she married him on June 19. By then, her star was on the rise following the April release of her fourth studio album, Age to Age. This was her breakthrough as a gospel singer and, more than that, an album that tested the limits of how popular gospel music could be. Christian radio found three Top Ten hits starting with the number one "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" (written by Rich Mullins), followed by "El Shaddai" (written by Michael Card and John Thompson) and "In a Little While." Age to Age entered Billboard magazine's Inspirational chart in July and quickly raced to number one, where it stayed for an astonishing 85 weeks. It won Grant her first Grammy Award for Best Gospel Performance, Contemporary, and it finally earned her recognition from the Gospel Music Association, which gave her its Dove Awards for Gospel Artist of the Year and Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year. ("El Shaddai" was named Gospel Song of the Year.) In November 1983, Age to Age became the first gospel album by a solo artist to be certified gold; it went platinum in June 1985. Myrrh assembled a medley of the album's songs for release as an EP in the spring of 1983, and "Ageless Medley" made the Top Ten of the Christian radio charts and won Grant her second Grammy, for Best Gospel Performance, Female.
Age to Age made Grant a superstar within the gospel field. With that, her managers, Michael Blanton and Dan Harrell, began considering whether she could project her career beyond the gospel genre. In the summer of 1983, they sent her to the Caribou Ranch in Colorado, a first-rate recording facility used by the likes of Chicago and Elton John, to record a holiday LP. The modestly titled A Christmas Album appeared in October. Christian radio made "Emmanuel," a song written by Grant's keyboard player, Michael W. Smith, a Top 20 hit, and the album peaked at number four in Billboard's Inspirational chart. It became a perennial seller, going gold in November 1985 and platinum four years later. As Grant worked on her next album, Blanton and Harrell began booking her outside the usual gospel music circuit, and they did so with success. In December 1983, she sold out two dates at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.
Straight Ahead, Grant's fifth studio album, was released in February 1984, and while it did not equal the commercial success of Age to Age, it was also very popular. On March 31, it ascended to number one on Billboard's Inspirational chart, holding that position for 61 weeks. Christian radio made hits out of four of its songs: "Angels," which hit number one; "Thy Word"; "Jehovah" (written by Geoffrey P. Thurman), and "The Now and the Not Yet" (written by Pam Mark Hall). "Angels" won Grant her third Grammy for Best Gospel Performance, Female, and the album won the Dove Award for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year. Meanwhile, Blanton and Harrell continued to look beyond the gospel market. In the spring of 1984, Grant starred with Paul Williams and Tom Wopat in an hourlong TV special called Story, Songs and Stars that was based on the Cinderella story; it featured her music video for "It's Not a Song," a track from Straight Ahead with no overt religious theme. That summer, she toured the U.S. opening shows for country star Kenny Rogers. By October, she had sold out two shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, hardly a hotbed of gospel music.
All of this helped to set up Grant's major crossover move of 1985. Word Records made a distribution deal with the large independent label A&M Records, which reissued Straight Ahead just as Grant was appearing on the Grammy Awards show in February 1985, singing "Angels." As a result, the year-old album broke into the Billboard pop album chart in April; in May it went gold. That same month, Grant's sixth regular studio album, Unguarded, was released simultaneously by Myrrh for the Christian market and by A&M for the pop market. The overt Christian messages of the songs on Age to Age and Straight Ahead were scaled back considerably on Unguarded, which often featured hopeful, but religiously ambiguous, lyrics. That, however, did not prevent Christian radio from giving airplay to five songs: "Find a Way," which hit number one; "Wise Up" (by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Billy Simon); "Everywhere I Go" (by Mary Lee Kortes); "Sharayah"; and "Love of Another Kind." A&M's promotional muscle got "Find a Way" into the pop Top 40, and "Wise Up" became a minor pop chart entry. ("Find a Way" reached the Top Ten of the Adult Contemporary chart, and both "Wise Up" and "Everywhere I Go" also reached this chart.) Supported by an 18-month tour, the album went gold in September 1985 and platinum in June 1986, after it had won Grant her fourth Grammy for Best Gospel Performance, Female and the Dove Award for Artist of the Year.
As Grant continued to tour in support of Unguarded, A&M and Myrrh released The Collection in July 1986, a compilation that topped the Inspirational chart for 29 weeks and went gold in February 1987, then platinum in August 1989. The album contained two newly recorded tracks, "Stay for Awhile" and "Love Can Do." Both made the Top Ten of the Christian radio chart, "Stay for Awhile" at number one; "Stay for Awhile" also made the Top 20 of the Adult Contemporary chart. Grant won a Dove Award for Short Form Music Video of the Year for the song. Her increasing profile in the music business resulted in opportunities to work with other artists. Producer Michael Omartian, whom she knew from the Christian music field, invited her to duet with former Chicago singer Peter Cetera on "The Next Time I Fall," a song for Cetera's second solo album, Solitude/Solitaire. The album was released on Warner Bros. Records in June 1986, and "The Next Time I Fall," billed to Peter Cetera with Amy Grant, was issued as its second single in September. Spurred by a stylish video that ran frequently on MTV, the single topped the Adult Contemporary chart in November and the pop chart in December, leading to a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. At the same time, the always Christmas-conscious Grant had joined Art Garfunkel in recording a suite of songs written by Jimmy Webb as The Animals' Christmas, released by Columbia Records in November, and Garfunkel joined Grant on her first network television special, Headin' Home for the Holidays, which was broadcast on NBC in December. (There was also a home-video version, retitled Amy Grant's Old Fashioned Christmas, which went gold in 1992.)
Having completed all her recording and promotional activities in December 1986, Grant announced that she was pregnant and temporarily retired to prepare for the arrival of her first child. Matthew Garrison Chapman was born September 25, 1987. His mother returned to the music business with the release of her seventh studio album of new material, Lead Me On, in June 1988. Lead Me On was a surprisingly serious effort from Grant, its title track discussing (albeit in poetically heightened terms) slavery and the Holocaust, while "Faithless Heart" described adulterous temptations and "What About the Love" (written by Kye Fleming and Janis Ian) cast a skeptical eye on preachers, Wall Street brokers, and nursing homes. With a glossy pop production and Grant's impassioned vocals, the album was well received critically, leading to the by-now expected awards: a fifth Grammy for Best Gospel Performance, Female, Dove Awards for Artist of the Year, Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year, and Short Form Music Video of the Year for the track "Lead Me On."
But it marked something of a speed bump in terms of Grant's career as a record seller. Christian radio was enthralled, giving significant airplay to six songs: "Saved by Love" (number one), "Lead Me On" (number one), "1974" (a song about youthful conversion that led off the LP), "What About the Love" (number one), "Say Once More," and "Faithless Heart." The pop market was less impressed, however. The Adult Contemporary chart listed both "1974" and "Saved by Love," but only in minor positions, and "Lead Me On" spent just two weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 96. The album shipped gold and topped the Inspirational chart for 36 weeks, but despite a promotional tour that ran from September 1988 to March 1989, playing to a million fans in 135 cities, Lead Me On was a commercial disappointment from a pop perspective. (In March 2002, CCM magazine announced the results of a poll of its readers that named Lead Me On the number one Contemporary Christian Music album of all time.)