Artists light a way for listeners to discover unique aspects of God’s character. But, in Christian music, is a woman’s point of view being edged out in favor of popular musical trends? ?Not if these leading female artists have anything to do with it.

Not much more than a decade ago, if you played in a Christian band, you were generally elated just to have enough greenbacks to get to the next gig. Ask StarFlyer 59, Bleach, the O.C. Supertones, Five Iron Frenzy, Seven Day Jesus and The Waiting. Even Third Day once traveled at the mercy of a fuel-thirsty van.

Now, there are more bands in the limelight than you can shake a stick at. Think Kutless. David Crowder Band. Pillar. Sanctus Real. Hawk Nelson. The Afters?and on and on and on. The pendulum of popularity has swung in favor of these bands of brothers like no other time in Christian music.

And female artistry is losing out on the gas money.

As labels divert artist development and marketing dollars to these male acts in this $700 million dollar Christian music industry, it’s tough to advance a female act’s career, let alone break a new artist who is a woman.

So, for those who dream dreams by singing into hairbrushes — or once did — we salute several of today’s top female acts: Sara Groves, Mary Mary, Nichole Nordeman, Rebecca St. James, Natalie Grant, Kierra “Kiki” Sheard, Bethany Dillon, BarlowGirl and Leigh Nash. These leaders share their perspectives for restoring Christian music’s time-honored tradition: Women and men standing shoulder-to-shoulder for the sake of the cause.

The Real Me
The most high-profile female artist of the last year has been Natalie Grant.

“I’ve had so many people say, ?How does it feel?'” the 2006 GMA “Female Vocalist of the Year” says. “I don’t know how else to say it but to be honest and say, ?I feel really, really good.'”

Enjoying the Pottery-Barn-styled home she shares in Nashville with her husband/producer Bernie Herms (Avalon, Casting Crowns), Grant’s dressed this June afternoon in earthy summer casuals. It’s a scene disguising the fact that she’s a scrapper, an artist who’s survived not one but two label shutdowns across her first two records — each time just as her career taxied for a blue-sky takeoff.

But her last two studio projects — 2003’s Deeper Life (Curb), which included the hit “No Sign of It,” plus 2005’s Awaken (Curb) — finally gave Natalie flight. Christian radio’s been one key to Grant’s takeoff. She’s long been admired for her vocal expertise and for spot-on emotional interpretation, as with last year’s moving No.1, “Held” (which also charted at mainstream radio).

“It took me a while to realize that it is OK to speak up; you have to take control of your own artistry,” Grants says, trying to key in on how she cleared the clouds. She gives ample credit to her record label, Curb Records, for sticking with her as she found her wings for a third time. She’s also taken charge by learning the craft of songwriting. “It took me on a real journey of self-discovery to find out what I wanted to say,” she explains.

Along with her husband’s coaching, Grant says she was inspired by other women whose artistry helps guide her toward discovering her songwriting voice — peers such as Sara Groves, Leigh Nash and Nichole Nordeman.

We Build
Grant says a woman’s artistry at its best “reflects that she’s empowered, that she’s a woman of substance and has something to say.” That’s a fitting description for todays top female acts. Several tend to focus their efforts on presenting an encouraging message to the Christian church.

Nichole Nordeman is a two-time GMA “Female Vocalist of the Year” widely recognized as a songwriter’s songwriter. With the poetry and precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, her lyrics cut to the crux of both human brokenness and divine hope.

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Speaking to the state of female artistry in Christian music, Nordeman reflects, “I have been obsessed recently with Sara Groves’ Add to the Beauty album. It feels very much to me like an example of what the strong but broken heart of a woman can offer in a culture where we seem mostly to be giving credibility — and airplay — to ?God is Great! God is Great! Praise His Name! He Reigns! He Rules!’ etc. Sara’s songs don’t deny any of God’s goodness. To the contrary, instead of heaping on the superlatives, she just starts peeling layers away…one song at a time…until I’m sitting at the red light weeping because I, too, want to add to the beauty, or build the kingdom one chunk of stone and messy bit of mortar at a time, or love someone who is impossible, just because it’s right to.”

Continuing in this vein, Nordeman adds, “This is what women bring to the table of Christian music. Or should. This is what motivates me now. First, that we look for the redemptive work of Christ’s love — always and in everything and everyone — and that we write and sing about that. Second, that we make a pact with ourselves not to perpetuate the mis-marketing of God — singing and saying empty and theologically shaky things because that might be easier and people might buy more records. And, thirdly, that the music we offer to the world and to the church is not just for the sake of stirring everyone up emotionally, but that it calls us to action — whether that action is serving anonymously in our community or taking a public stand against sex trafficking like Natalie [Grant] or exposing the suffering in Rwanda like Sara [Groves]. Once our music points to the redemption of the love of Christ on a broken planet, it has to ask, ?What now?’ Otherwise, we’ve brought nothing.”

Taking a public stand has literally defined the career of Rebecca St. James. Late last year her If I Had One Chance to Tell You Something (Forefront) signaled a newfound sense of freedom, joy and energy for doing what the Grammy-winning artist does better than anyone — rallying the Christian church to be and do its best.

“Rock Bec is back!” remarks St. James, and fans are loving it. During a recent visit to the White House, even President Bush appeared pleased with her efforts. St. James — who also moonlights as an author, speaker and co-founder of the SHE events for girls — has spent the first part of 2006 feeding her ever-broadening worldview. She says, “We’ve had some really, really amazing ministry opportunities so far this year, starting out in Kenya and Rwanda earlier this year — my first trip to Africa. It’s really been a blessing.”

Singer/songwriter Sara Groves continues to enjoy a remarkable season herself. While she’s been a popular favorite since her first hit single, “The Word,” entrenched itself on Christian radio in 2001, many of her most avid fans are fellow artists. In addition to Grant and Nordeman — who have already cited Groves’ influence — Jars of Clay, Bethany Dillon, Point of Grace and many others are quick to champion her artistry — especially her latest album, Add to the Beauty (INO). Groves’ critically acclaimed 2005 release sounded a clarion call to the church, urging it to become increasingly active in God’s justice work around the world.

“Long before the album ever came out, I felt like Add to the Beauty was my clear declaration of faith,” Groves says. “So, to have other people reinforce that is obviously a great feeling.”

Regarded for the vulnerability communicated in her art, Groves releases Just Showed Up for My Own Life (INO) this month. It’s an engaging, documentary-style DVD that’s a natural extension of Beauty, illustrating Groves’ personal transformation toward advocacy. She says this “paradigm shift, this heart change” is about being in greater community with the body of Christ. “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced.” (Read more about Groves’ poignant DVD on page 11)

Young Pioneers

The writer of 1 Timothy exhorts, “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Bethany Dillon and BarlowGirl are shining examples.

Dillon resembles a sort of prodigy singer/songwriter whose lyrics belie her youthfulness. A self-described tomboy from rural Ohio, she released 2004’s Bethany Dillon (Sparrow) at the age of 15, scoring big at radio with the No.1 single “All I Need” and the Top 10 hit “Beautiful.” Her second record, last year’s Imagination (Sparrow), landed her song “Dreamer” in the motion picture by the same name, put Dillon on the cover of CCM and further exhibited that she’s a blue-chip talent.

“I think I’m grateful that I still feel like one of the kids in my family,” Dillon says, reflecting on her achievements. “I’m happy all this has happened, but, if all of it ended tomorrow, I’m glad that family has been maintained.” On the edge of 18 years old, there’s little doubt Dillon’s best is yet to come.

Copyright © 2006 CCM Magazine, Used by Permission

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