By Joshua Maloni
Whether it’s a new rock act at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, a country-pop artist inside Tootsies Orchid Lounge on Broadway in Nashville, or a jazz act wailing away on Delaware in Buffalo, the goal is often the same: A career in music.
It’s an elusive target that most will miss.
Digital Music News cited a Next Big Sound study revealing 91% of musicians are undiscovered. Music Marketing Manifesto, meanwhile, noted 82% of musical acts are unsigned by a label.
Though it’s easier to be seen and heard in 2019 thanks to YouTube and myriad reality singing competitions, these platforms won’t necessarily get musicians any closer to their prize.
Just ask the runners-up on “American Idol” and “The Voice.”
You remember them: What’s his name and who’s that girl.
It’s hard to “make it big” – even harder to launch a career.
It’s remarkable, then, that Amy Grant has had three of them.
The southern singer became a household name in the 1990s thanks to a sting of radio-pop hits, including “Baby, Baby,” “That's What Love Is For,” “I Will Remember You,” “Lucky One,” “House of Love” and “The Things We Do for Love.”
But many will remember Grant as Billboard’s Gospel Artist of the 1980s. Songs such as “El Shaddai,” “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” “Father’s Eyes” and “Thy Word” earned Grant a handful of Grammy Awards – and unparalleled success in contemporary Christian music. Her albums would chart for weeks and sometimes even months at a time.
The singer is also a formidable presence in the holiday album arena. “Amy Grant’s Old Fashioned Christmas” and “A Christmas to Remember” both went Gold. Her most recent album, “Tennessee Christmas,” was released in 2016. Beyond that, Grant has teamed with the Hallmark Channel on original holiday programming.
Grant also had successful collaborations with Chicago’s Peter Cetera (the song, “The Next Time I Fall”), Art Garfunkel (the album, “The Animals’ Christmas”), Michael W. Smith (cowriting his smash, “Place in this World”) and Tori Kelly (a 25th anniversary cover of “Baby, Baby”).
Today, Grant is an in-demand touring artist, still releasing songs and working on occasional TV projects.
So, what did she do differently? For one thing, Grant was clever in crafting songs that could be interpreted as Christian or just general pop; the lyrics were uplifting, the melody was catchy, and the intent was left up to the listener. Vocally, Grant’s chops are superb. She’s also completely likable, which makes people want to gravitate to her music.
It was an unlikely path for Grant – but one paved with success. She is the owner of three multi-Platinum albums, 30 million-plus album sales, six No. 1 hits, 10 Top 40 pop singles and 17 Top 40 adult contemporary songs.
The singer will share life stories – and songs from each of her genres – when she performs Oct. 17 at the Historic Riviera Theatre.
Grant is spending a good portion of the fall and early winter on the road. Following her show in North Tonawanda, Grant has a small holiday tour and then a residency at the famed Ryman Auditorium. She recently chatted with NFP while traveling through the Midwest.
The Nashville-based singer shed light on her career, passion for performing and all-around love of music. An edited Q&A follows.
Q: You’ve got two different, distinct, very cool Christmas tours coming up. First, tell me a little bit about teaming up again with Michael W. Smith.
Amy Grant: Michael and I are launching the holiday season with a seven-city tour with symphonies. And they will be lovely. Our special guest, Marc Martel, will be joining us. Those will be fantastic. Lots of travel; fun, long days. You know, we’ll arrive in a town and spend the entire day rehearsing with the symphony, and then doing the shows at night.
And those are a blast, because we drive into a town and it's like you get to see seven different cities roll out the holiday season decorations. Not for us – for the town. But talk about launching you into the holiday spirit. That's just the best.
And I will come back to Nashville and start the Christmas residency that Vince (Gill) and I have, my husband and I have at the Ryman Auditorium. We’ll do 12 shows in nine days. That's fun, because every night it's like, “Oh, hello, there's my neighbor. Oh, yeah. There’s so and so.” (Laughs)
We've done these for so long, they're like multigenerational. We did our first show, not at the Ryman, but at another building in Nashville in 1993. I mean, a whole new generation has come and gone since we started these shows.
Q: I love Nashville. I've been there a handful of times. But the Ryman, I mean, that's got to be just the coolest place to play, with its history and the people who have been there. What is it like to have a residency at the Ryman?
Amy Grant: It's amazing. That is the most soulful space, just the way the audience is configured. The feeling you get standing on stage looking at everyone. It's an historic building, and so tours are happening. People are coming in – while we're sound-checking. (Laughs)
To me, that’s just so Nashville, is somebody buys a ticket to tour an old building – they see the film about it, they see the history of it, and then they walk into the auditorium. And in the auditorium there are display cases with original programs, ticket stubs, outfits of different performers – Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton – and then also you get, like, you're watching whatever show is going to be on the stage that night and doing your soundcheck.
And so, we'll be doing our soundcheck. And people will come up the front stairs, because, you know, part of the fun of the Ryman is that you can have your photo made on the Ryman stage. And so, they’ll just like kind of be standing in front of us. (Laughs)
It’s so Nashville. You know the history is always just one step behind the present; and so felt; and so visible.
Q: I'm wondering: You're coming here on Oct. 17. That's a little bit ahead of the holidays; but, you know, they start putting out Halloween decorations, I think, like on July 5 these days. So, I guess it's never too early to be thinking about the next thing. Is there any possibility you weave in any Christmas songs on Oct. 17? Or is it too early?
Amy Grant: I have not even thought about it. (Laughs) I guess if somebody shouted out a Christmas song, we’d try to get through it.
I mean, part of the fun of a live show is you don't know exactly what's gonna happen. I mean, I'll show up with a setlist. You know, like even tonight, we're working on a couple of really old songs to try to add to the setlist tonight.
So, we might throw something Christmas in; just for you, Josh, because you love the Hallmark Channel.
Q: (Laughs) That's very kind of you. Thank you.
"Amy Grant's Tennessee Christmas - Presented by Hallmark Channel" (Photo ©2018 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Katherine Bomboy)
Q: I was looking at your setlist. What could you tell me about your live show? You have amazing gospel songs and worship songs; you have pop songs; you have country songs. It seems like you were very strategic and thoughtful about how you’ve sort of woven all of those together. What can you tell me about the songs you're playing nowadays, and what we can expect when we see you up on stage?
Amy Grant: Well, probably like every artist that’s kind of just gone through multiple decades of making music, I sort of will get in the habit of including certain songs just because … I don't know; I guess it's just habit. Or I like them; or I always want to make sure I sing them. And, you know, some of those will be central to the evening. And then the others just kind of rotate in and out.
I’ll look up and go, “Whoo. We need to rotate this set. I've been doing these same songs for a while.” But there’s also a fun spontaneity. Sometimes somebody will shout out a song and, even if the whole band doesn't know it – because I don't play with exactly the same players. I haven't played with the exact same players for 40-plus years. But everybody on stage right now I have worked with for a long time. But nobody knows everything. So, it's funny: The other afternoon we were in Key West, and somebody shouted out the name of a song. And I went, “I’m going to tell you, I never sang that song live, ever, because it just requires too much breathing.” I mean, I couldn't sing that song when I recorded it! I barely got it done in the studio. It was a song called “Galileo.” It was never even on the radio. But then it stuck in my head.
So, we rehearsed it yesterday in soundcheck. The background vocalists are figuring out those parts and we're going to do it tonight. Just because somebody shouted it out in a soundcheck two weeks ago. But they won’t hear it. But then somebody else will. You know what I mean?
One night – this has been a couple of years ago – but somebody, we were playing a beautiful old theater and somebody shouted out a duet that I had done with my producer, Brown Bannister, when I was a teenager. And I said, “There is no way! I don’t even remember those lyrics. Do you remember that song?” And he shouted back every word. (Laughs) And I said, “Well, you get up here and sing it!” And the crowd went wild. And the band didn't know the song. I kind of limped my way through the guitar part. This guy got up on stage. I'm telling you: It was the most exciting part of the whole night. It was just fun.
That's the whole thing about live music is that it's fun, and it's not perfect; and people make mistakes. And that's the beauty of it. That's the risk of it.
Q: Speaking of “Galileo,” I've been an entertainment journalist now for 20 years. I've talked to all kinds of different people and whatnot. But “Heart in Motion” is actually the first piece of music I ever bought.
Amy Grant: No way!
Q: Oh, yeah – for what that's worth.
Amy Grant: Well, if we don’t crash and burn tonight on “Galileo,” we'd like to keep it in the set. If it's not there, you'll know it was a royal disaster! (Laughs)
Q: Your PR team does a great job. Every time they send a press release, it's always a succinct look at what you've done. And, obviously, what you've done is significant. But one of the things your press releases always say is “Conventional wisdom has it Amy Grant put contemporary Christian music on the map.” I've always wondered how that happened, because there really was no template for you at that time. There are so many great Christian artists now that have had success crossing over into “popular” or “mainstream” music, or what have you. But what made you think you could do that – what led to that happening and it being such a success for you?
Amy Grant: You know, I don't know, Josh.
Well, first off, I was not the first person to do contemporary Christian music. There was a huge wave of that music, you know, contemporary kind of music with faith lyrics. When I was in my early teens, there was a band called Dogwood that never made a splash. I went to see them in the same coffee shop every Saturday night. I loved them. And so, I was influenced by other people.
But when I started making music, I wasn't even very good. There was a record company starting up in Waco, and they were just beating the bushes trying to find 12 people that did this contemporary faith music. And my sister had gone on a date with a man that had gotten a call from the record company, “Is there anybody that you know that’s doing this kind of music?” And he said, “Yeah. A friend of mine’s younger sister.”
That is so crazy. That's how I got my record deal. I was 15. But that kind of weird stuff happened over and over again.
The booking agent, that I started working with in 1984, was the same booking agent that was handling Police, and Sting, and he was taken with my music. And so then he started putting me with promoters that had never done this kind of music, but they just, like, threw me into the machine that they already did. You know what I’m saying? It’s like that happened so often.
I was with World Records – the same record company – for however many years I was working, almost 30 years, and Word, they went to A&M Records and said, “We have an artist that we believe could be best served by a record company that doesn't only serve mom and pop Christian bookstores.” They pursued A&M for me.
And there were times I just went, “I am just such an unlikely person to do this.” And I think it's because I never wanted it. I mean, I love music. I love music. But, you know, when I go and speak and sing and somebody reads that long list of accolades, I'm like, “Oh, my gosh, shut up. I hate the girl you're talking about. She sounds like an overachiever.” And that was not my M.O. I just kept waking up going, “How in the world did I get here?” And I still feel that way.
That's not false modesty. It's like, everybody that I've ever worked with, was so great at their job. And I just wound up in a circle of people that were just at the top of their game. And they carried me along. And what I brought was a sincere love of the music.
And I still feel that. And I was as happy in a coffee shop as I was performing in an arena full of people. And so, I go, “I’m going to do this till I die.” You know, when I'm in my 70s, I might be in the nursing home tour, but I know what music does for people. I know. Because it did it for me. Music has been a lifeline for me.
My life is as messy as everybody else's. You know, we’re all a mess. But, boy, music helps to get through.
The Riviera Theatre and Latshaw Productions welcome Amy Grant to North Tonawanda at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17. Reserved seating tickets range from $52-$82. Tickets are available online at https://rivieratheatre.org/event/amy-grant/; by phone at 716-692-2413; on in person at the Riviera Theatre box office, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda.