Every Sunday morning across the Bible Belt, thousands of congregations sing along as bands trade hymns for rock 'n' roll songs. But in recent years around North Texas, more and more Christian musicians are finding musical salvation outside the walls of the church.
My own band, Radiant, experienced our musical salvation on a Wednesday evening in Deep Ellum in the spring of 2002. It was our first time stepping into a traditional rock venue. We were the opening band on a bill at the Galaxy Club, and we had no idea what to expect.
The only thing we knew for certain was that part of our payment was a case of beer—not too exciting for guys who rarely drank. The backstage area was a tiny closet, barely big enough to store a few drumsets and some guitars. The paint was chipping from the black walls. I felt that at any moment I would need to dodge an old syringe falling from one of the shelves, or that maybe a drug deal was happening behind one of the sticker-covered doors.
Growing up as a preacher's son, it was unmistakably the kind of place I was always taught to stay away from. The thought kept racing through my head: What are we doing here? I looked at the other guys' faces and could see they were thinking the same thing.
It was a vastly different experience for us because up to that point we had only played for church youth groups and lock-ins, and for the built-in Christian crowd so prevalent those days at The Door. We were accustomed to pulling in two or three thousand dollars a performance. When this show ended, we stood outside the venue holding the single twenty-dollar bill that we were paid.
We couldn't help but laugh at the huge mistake we thought we were making.
Still, we had our reasons: We believed that distancing ourselves from Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was the best thing for our band's future. We were left with no choice, really: CCM was like a factory, churning out "inspirational" music that was anything but. Even though the Galaxy Club experience left a bad taste in our mouths, we stuck with our decision.
Nearly a decade later, a massive sea change has occurred. Dallas music venues and clubs are filled with musicians who learned their craft in a church auditorium. With a church on almost every corner, the Bible Belt is a harvest field full of musicians who cut their teeth on church songs until they're ripe enough (or brave enough) to try it in the club scene.
Air Review's Jeff Taylor got his start playing drums in church. For the past year now, though, he and his Air Review bandmates have been one of the bigger success stories of the rock circuit, selling out shows at venues like Curtain Club and Trees, and drawing big crowds to their supporting appearances on bills at the Granada Theater.
"I feel like there are a lot of people in the music industry that have come out of the church," Taylor says. "It's almost like a minor-league thing or development for a lot of musicians. It's a big deal to be a musician in church growing up, and it's really cherished and encouraged."
But if contemporary church music is like a baseball farm system, that means CCM is the big league, and a lot of Christian artists want to create music where there is more creative freedom.
"The Christian market is so focused as far as their topics," says Taylor's Air Review bandmate Hank Bentley. "We want to be broader and be able to explore more as a band. I don't think we wanted to have the constraints of being a Christian band, to basically [be limited] to a certain field of songs."
And it can be quite limiting. There's an old rumor out there that says Christian record label executives count how many times you say "Jesus" in your songs—and if the counts aren't up to snuff, they'll ask you to go back into the studio and throw in a few extra J-bombs. For that reason alone, most of the Christian musicians in Dallas could never exist in CCM.
"Being a Christian in the world of music just comes down to being myself and being honest with who I am," says Seryn lead singer Trenton Wheeler after a performance at the Granada Theater. "I'm not doing this music to try to convert people. I'm here for the music and I'm here to sing my song."
Unfortunately, though, that's not enough for CCM-types. And as that realm loses musicians like Wheeler, the greater Dallas music scene so far seems to benefit from artists like him, who are products of the church.
For many of these bands, it was never a question, really; walking away from CCM in order to have more creative freedom was the obvious choice. But for others, there was no choice at all.
"To play in the Christian scene for us would have been the worst decision we could have made," Midlake guitarist Eric Nichelson says between sips of a latte at Denton's Jupiter House. "We just weren't that band. You get a band like us coming in there and it's like 'What is this?' And some weird keyboard sound—nobody would have got that. If we were a little more commercial, maybe so, but we just never were. We went to church and we were involved in groups and stuff, but when we started playing live, it's like, you go to Deep Ellum, you go to the club, you go to the bar, because that's where the music is happening."
Still, the whole issue is something of a touchy subject. In preparing this story, a number of Christian musicians showed little interest in weighing in on the conversation, and understandably so: To classify oneself as a Christian musician comes with piles of baggage. It's no wonder Christian musicians are so trepidatious about being lumped in with music that lacks so much in creativity and tends to be preachy and fake.
"I have always felt that being a believer is a very personal issue," says Danny Balis, bassist for The King Bucks and a solo artist as well. "As far as it applies to the local music scene, I don't see how it makes much of a difference. I simply choose to believe in something that I go to in times of darkness. Something that offers personal redemption. I'll write about sin and falling and redemption, but they ain't [church] songs, man. It's just life."
And that's true enough: Artists like Balis write songs that are more real, and far less sugar-coated, than what is generally accepted in Christian music. That's the reason we are seeing more and more musicians who developed their skills in church turn into local heroes, filling Dallas bars and clubs every weekend. Because, ironically enough, it's the only place where creative Christian artists are accepted.
CCM's loss, I guess.