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, Georgia, 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, Tennessee. 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, Texas 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, South Carolina, 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.) At the end of the Lead Me On tour, Grant took another pregnancy leave, her only significant recording activity for the year being a performance of the hymn "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus" on the Word Records various-artists album Our Hymns; she co-arranged the song, which earned her a share of a Dove Award for Country Recorded Song of the Year. On December 18, 1989, she gave birth to Gloria Mills Chapman, known as Millie. On May 26, 1990, a Billboard poll on the 1980s named Grant Gospel Artist of the Decade and Age to Age Album of the Decade. She would become equally successful in the '90s, but would do so by leaving gospel music behind almost entirely. Heart in Motion, her eighth new studio album, largely downplayed the serious side she had revealed on Lead Me On in favor of frothy pop/rock music.
Released in March 1991, it was accompanied by an aggressive promotional campaign on the part of A&M Records. (Grant later claimed that the label was trying to make up for its recent loss of Janet Jackson to Virgin Records by creating a new female pop superstar.) That campaign, along with a music video depicting Grant and a male actor pretending to be in love, helped make "Baby Baby" (which Grant said she actually wrote about her daughter) into a number one pop hit in April, leading to Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. It was followed by four more Top 40 hits, each accompanied by a music video, the first three of which also reached the Top Ten: "Every Heartbeat," "That's What Love Is For," "Good for Me," and "I Will Remember You." As a result, the album sold five million copies by the end of 1997. (The Heart in Motion Video Collection, meanwhile, went gold.) The Christian market came along, too, with Heart in Motion enjoying 32 weeks at number one on Billboard's Top Contemporary Christian Albums chart, while Christian radio found six songs it could broadcast, though it tended to prefer more thoughtful fare such as "Hope Set High" and "Ask Me" (which treated the subject of pedophilia and even asked the thorny theological question of how God could let such a condition occur).
Grant toured North America and Europe from July 1991 to March 1992. The following month, she was again named Artist of the Year at the Dove Awards and also picked up a Dove for Song of the Year as the co-author of Michael W. Smith's "Place in This World." She went on pregnancy leave a third time, but managed to contribute a cover of the Elvis Presley hit "Love Me Tender" to the soundtrack for Honeymoon in Vegas, released in August, and to record a second seasonal album, Home for Christmas, released in October, which hit number two and went platinum in short order. On October 11, 1992, she gave birth to Sarah Cannon Chapman, named after Harpeth Hall alumna Minnie Pearl, the Grand Ole Opry comedienne whose real name was Sarah Ophelia Colley.
With the massive success of Heart in Motion, Grant could afford to take some time off before tackling another album, but she undertook several recording projects in 1993. She participated in two spoken word albums for children, The Gingham Dog & the Calico Cat with music by Chet Atkins and The Creation with music by Béla Fleck, both released by the Rabbit Ears label. And she and Chapman put together Songs from the Loft, a various-artists collection of religious tunes for teenagers that won the 1994 Dove Award for Praise and Worship Album of the Year. Then she turned her attention to her ninth regular studio album, emerging with House of Love in August 1994. The album was patterned after Heart in Motion, with a combination of catchy romantic songs meant to hit the pop charts and more spiritual efforts to satisfy her Christian fans. The result was another multi-platinum success, even if the album sold less than half what its predecessor had. "Lucky One" made the Top 20, the title song (a duet with country star Vince Gill written by Wally Wilson, Kenny Greenberg, and Greg Barnhill, and featured in the film Speechless) hit the Top 40, and a cover of the Joni Mitchell standard "Big Yellow Taxi" reached the lower end of the singles chart. Meanwhile, the album topped Billboard's Contemporary Christian Albums chart for 12 weeks and Christian radio found five other songs to play, among them "Children of the World" and "Helping Hand," both of which hit number one. Grant embarked on a yearlong tour in support of the album that concluded in September 1995. A month earlier, she had been featured on the various-artists album My Utmost for His Highest, singing the song "Lover of My Soul." This enabled her to share in a 1996 Dove Award for Special Event Album of the Year.
In February 1996, Grant was featured on the soundtrack for the film Mr. Wrong, singing the 1976 10cc hit "The Things We Do for Love," which reached the adult contemporary chart. In December, she performed two sold-out shows dubbed Amy Grant's Tennessee Christmas at the Nashville Arena, beginning what became an annual event. Otherwise, she spent 1996 and much of 1997 working on her tenth regular studio album, Behind the Eyes, which was released in September 1997. The album earned critical approbation for what reviewers saw as a return to her early folk-rock style and for its serious, introspective lyrics. It would have been equally accurate to note that Grant, who always paid close attention to current trends in pop, had dropped the heavy synthesizers and drum programming after listening to new competitors like Sheryl Crow and Jewel. As for the lyrics, while Grant had always emphasized the travails of life, contrasted with the benefits of spiritual support, on Behind the Eyes many fans thought they detected suggestions of real-life romantic discord.
The album entered the pop chart at number eight and went gold in less than three months as "Takes a Little Time" became a Top 40 pop and Top Ten adult contemporary hit, while "Like I Love You" also made the adult contemporary Top Ten and "I Will Be Your Friend" (written by Michelle Lewis, Dane DeVillier, and Sean Hosein) also reached the adult contemporary chart. The album won a Dove Award for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year. Grant toured for a month in the fall of 1997, returned to the road for four months in March 1998, and played 22 cities on a Christmas tour in November and December 1998. Meanwhile, there was other recording activity. She sang a duet with actor Kevin Costner on a cover of the Lovin' Spoonful's "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" for the soundtrack of his film The Postman (December 1997); she and country singer Bryan White sang a duet on "With These Hands" from the various-artists recording of songs from composer Frank Wildhorn's Broadway musical The Civil War called The Civil War: The Nashville Sessions (October 1998); and she sang "River Lullaby" on the soundtrack of the animated movie musical The Prince of Egypt (December 1998).
Grant and Chapman announced their separation after more than 16 years of marriage on December 30, 1998. Grant filed for divorce in March 1999, and the couple was divorced in June. The same month, she paired with the British Christian rock band Delirious? on "Find Me in the River," a song on the various-artists album Streams that earned her a share in the 2000 Dove Award for Special Event Album of the Year. In September 1999, she returned to acting in the television movie A Song from the Heart, a drama in which she played a blind cellist. In October, she released her third seasonal album, A Christmas to Remember, which topped Billboard's Contemporary Christian Albums chart for five weeks starting in November, made the pop Top 40, and went gold. Her television special of the same name was broadcast at the same time.
On March 10, 2000, Grant married Vince Gill. She gave birth to her fourth child, Corrina Grant Gill, one year and two days later. In May 2002, she released Legacy...Hymns & Faith, her first album of overtly religious music since her pop crossover, consisting largely of traditional material with several originals included. It topped Billboard's Contemporary Christian Albums chart and entered the pop chart at number 21. Grant and her producers, Gill and Brown Bannister, won the 2003 Dove Award for Inspirational Album of the Year, and Grant and Gill won the Dove for Country Recorded Song of the Year for the track "The River's Gonna Keep on Rolling" (written by Gill). Grant returned to pop music with her first secular album in six years when she released Simple Things in August 2003. The album topped Billboard's Christian Albums chart and entered the pop chart at number 23, the same number achieved by the title song on the adult contemporary chart. Grant seemed to sum up her hitmaking period with the release of Greatest Hits 1986-2004 and the companion DVD Greatest Videos 1986-2004 in October 2004. Soon after, she announced that she had ended her association with A&M Records, noting that she no longer fit with the label.
In April 2005, Grant and NBC announced that she would host a reality TV special, Three Wishes, that also would serve as the pilot for a possible series. On the show, she and a team of experts would make wishes come true for participants. Grant's follow-up to Legacy...Hymns & Faith, titled Rock of Ages...Hymns & Faith, was released in May 2005 on Word/Curb/Warner Bros. Records. On September 26, 2006, Grant released Time Again...Amy Grant Live as both a CD and a DVD. In the spring of 2007, she announced that she was ending her association with Word Records, which dated back to October 1976, with sales of more than 30 million albums, and signing to another Christian music major, Sparrow Records, by then owned by EMI and part of its Christian Music Group (CMG). Since she had maintained ownership of her masters, she took her entire catalog of recordings with her to Sparrow/EMI CMG, which remastered and reissued her 16 albums on August 14, 2007 (in some cases packaged as two-fers). In October 2007, Grant's new label released a new single-CD Greatest Hits album (not to be confused with Greatest Hits 1986-2004). In the same season, Waterbrook Press published her book Mosaic, containing poems and stories. In celebration of Mother's Day 2009, she released a four-track EP, She Colors My Day, as a digital download on May 5. It contained two new songs, the title track and "Unafraid."
Grant recorded Somewhere Down the Road, her first album in five years, in a studio she and husband Vince Gill built in their home; the record came out in March 2010. Three years later, she teamed with producer Marshall Altman for How Mercy Looks from Here, a record dedicated to her late mother. In 2016, Grant released Tennessee Christmas, her first holiday album since 1999. ~ William Ruhlmann