I have fairly eclectic musical tastes, and my music collection is definitely larger than it needs to be (just ask my wife). But although I’ve attended church regularly since the age of 16, I’ve never been much of a fan of the contemporary Christian genre. I’m not sure why, since I’ve always appreciated artists’ attempts to express faith. Maybe it was because my church tradition is more mainline than the evangelical tradition that gave birth to it. Maybe in snobbish fashion I thought there wasn’t enough artistry in what I heard.
So I was never a fan of Amy Grant, who didn’t even cross my radar until she was an established star. It took me a while to appreciate what she was trying to do with her talent and the mature way she went about it.
It was announced last week that Grant is a 2022 Kennedy Center honoree, an award given by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington to artists for lifetime achievement. She is the first explicitly Christian artist to receive the award (although I would argue that her fellow honorees, rock band U2, are subtly Christian), and it’s a fitting honor for an artist with a long and remarkable career.
There’s no need to rehash Grant’s biography, except to note that she has six Grammys and something like 20 Dove awards from the Gospel Music Association. It doesn’t diminish her accomplishments to observe that she came along at just the right time.
When she began her career as a teenager, contemporary Christian music was transitioning from its early days in the 1960s Jesus Movement, rooted in the folk tradition, to a more polished pop sound. Besides her vocal talent, Grant had a knack for writing and collaborating that conveyed the Christian message in a way that appealed to the emerging contemporary worship scene and fit easily into the evangelical Christian radio market.
I’ve always admired artists who are not content to stick with a formula, and just at the time Grant was crowned “Queen of Christian Pop,” before she was even 26, she took an enormous risk, changing the direction of her music by moving into mainstream pop music. Her self-stated goal was to be successful in both worlds, and with her album “Heart in Motion” (1991), she accomplished just that. Four songs from that album landed in the top 10 of the secular Adult Contemporary pop chart, including “Baby Baby,” which hit No. 1.
Some of her more fervent evangelical followers felt betrayed that she had turned her back on them. And her 1999 divorce and subsequent marriage to country music star Vince Gill further alienated her from some of the faithful. In truth, she was never the dogmatic, hyper-pious figure that some people wanted her to be.
I saw her in concert once, invited by my sister – a thoroughly dedicated fan, if ever there was one – to attend one of Grant’s Christmas concerts. She’s an engaging performer, easy to listen and relate to, and it was a pleasant experience. But I noted that only once during the evening did she make a religious remark, casually tossing out a phrase about the love of God. There was no sermonizing or evangelizing.
After her success in the pop world, it would have been tempting to abandon the Christian market, but she has not turned away from singing songs of faith, and that’s to her credit.
It’s interesting that the Kennedy Center – considered by some an elitist liberal institution –recognized the contributions of an evangelical Christian artist. The center tends to favor artists with a social consciousness – hence George Clooney’s and U2’s inclusion among the 2022 honorees – and Grant has openly supported charitable organizations that help impoverished women and children. So perhaps that and her soft-peddle approach to faith gave her a patina the center found acceptable.
Grant is 61 now, a grandmother who underwent heart surgery a couple of years ago. No longer the ingenue queen, she has become the grande dame of Christian pop as well as a respected figure across musical lines. But as something of a groundbreaker and unquestionably the most successful artist of her genre, she is worthy of the Kennedy Center honor. Count me a belated admirer.
Cary McMullen is a retired journalist and the former religion editor of The Ledger.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Amy Grant’s latest honor well deserved