Musical Tastes: My Personal Adventures in Music (Pt. 4)

My Brush with CCM Celebrity

I have been reviewing the development of my personal tastes and convictions with music. In my last post, I recapped how I was introduced to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).

As I began collecting the albums of various CCM artists, I had mixed feelings about my new found musical interest. On the one hand, as a church attending kid who wanted to take his faith seriously, I thought I must listen to CCM exclusively because it honored the Lord. Yet, on the other hand, I was a bit embarrassed by the quality of CCM. Though some of the songs were spiritually uplifting, the music had an amateurish, syrupy, bland sound and I could not, with clear conscience, recommend CCM to my unsaved friends as an alternative to their secular music.

I can remember reading a comparison chart some Christian youth magazine put together where many of the CCM groups were listed and declared as suitable matches to specific secular bands. So, if for example you liked the secular groups Duran Duran and Journey, then you would equally enjoy the CCM groups Whiteheart and Petra. The problem, however, was that neither Whiteheart nor Petra sounded as good as Duran Duran and Journey. The entire chart was dishonest because none of the CCM groups listed sound anything like their matched secular counterparts. I started to see similar lists posted in the music section of Christian bookstores and I secretly thought they were a lame attempt to make these groups better than they really were.

Just when I was beginning to figure my fate as a young, music loving Christian was to suffer with mediocre sounding CCM, a Southern California metal hair band by the name of Stryper came on the music scene.

Now, it was not that Stryper was the absolutely best rock band, CCM or secular, ever to play. They certainly had their share of problems. For instance, the goofy yellow and black spandex outfits and the ridiculous attempt to justify their goofy outfits by tying their band to Isaiah 53:5. Yet, in spite of these “flaws” they were just way above sounding syrupy and bland, at least in my mind, and I liked the metal edge.

By the time I discovered their existence, they had released two albums: The Yellow and Black Attack and Soldiers Under Command. I had to special order them from a mom-&-pop Christian bookstore a Pentecostal couple had set up in the two back rooms of their house. The lady behind the register seemed a tad troubled that such Christian music even existed, and a bit shaken some punk who lived in her town would order it to begin with.

Another local music store carried full-sized wall posters of the Stryper guys, so while other teenage boys hung posters in their rooms of a bikini clad Heather Thomas or Janet Jones, or big rock bands like Van Halen and RATT, I had posters of four long-haired pretty boys dressed up like bumble bees.

I collected all of Stryper’s albums up to In God We Trust, the album they released before they had their year of “backsliding” and released a secular-oriented album called Against the Law. By this time, my interest in Stryper as a group was waning because God had genuinely saved me at the end of my college freshman year and I was becoming more interested in spending my money on theological books rather than CCM.

Even after the guys from Stryper failed commercially as a secular band because their Against the Law album was not well received by anyone either Christian or worldly, and even though they made a testimony tape with Matt Crouch, son of Paul Crouch of TBN, apologizing and asking the CCM fans to forgive them for their couple of years as backsliders, I was no longer interested in their music.

During my first year in college, there was a smart mouthed guy named Steve Wiggins who lived in my dorm. I would often see him down in the lounge area of my dorm playing rock classics like Stairway to Heaven or Sweet Home Alabama on his guitar. He was quite talented for a smart-mouthed punk. I had some classes with him and he was a favorite with all my other class mates because he was… well… a witty smart-mouth.

As I noted above, God was pleased to save me the final week of my freshman year of college, so I went into my summer break a brand new Christian and when I returned for my sophomore year, my focus on life had been totally shifted. I attended church and was active in my college youth group before I was saved, but now I had a renewed commitment.

On one Sunday evening, during the “invitation” time at my SBC church, I noticed the smart-mouth Steve Wiggins walking forward to speak with our college pastor. I perked up and watched him get counseled and pray a prayer. I filed the moment in the back of my mind. A few months later, I was gathered with some friends for a time of fellowship, and the host of our gathering informed us Steve was going to stop by and play some Christian tunes for us that he had written. I thought to myself, “Steve Wiggins the smart-mouth?” Sure enough, he did come, and he did play, and it was outstanding. He also told us a little about his testimony and how he came to know the Lord.

After that, we began to develop something of a friendship. We would say “Hey” to each other on campus, talk a bit at Bible studies and church, and I especially enjoyed when he stopped by my place and told me, “Hey man, I wrote a new song I want you to hear.” His music was excellent and the lyric content profound. We always encouraged him to make a demo tape and see if any music studio would be willing to record him. Steve did take up our encouragement, and he made a demo tape, and he sent it to a studio in Memphis that was interested in recording him.

Before I knew it, close to the last year or so before I graduated, Steve moved to Memphis to start a recording career with Ardent studios. He originally recorded under his name, Steve Wiggins, but after he recorded his second album called Big Tent Revival, he and the fellows who played with him took the name, Big Tent Revival, as the name of their group. They quickly became popular and were consistently nominated for a Grammy for the best gospel album each year they released an album. I always tried to call and congratulate Steve on being nominated and we would catch up a bit as to what was going on with each other.

In 1997 I received a phone call from Steve and he told me he was going to be in Anaheim to perform for a Harvest Crusade. He wanted me to come down to hook up after the show so we could talk. He told me he would get me VIP seats and all I needed to tell him was how many folks were coming. I invited a friend and his wife, and we drove down on a Saturday when Big Tent was performing.

Per Steve’s instructions, we arrived an hour early and entered a special entrance that allowed us to by-pass the long line of crowds. Once through the special entrance, we were escorted to the VIP section where a young gal checked our names and took us to our seats. My friend and his wife left me for awhile to look for his cousin who attended Greg Laurie’s church. While I was sitting there reading my Bible, I noticed three long, stringy haired guys enter the VIP section. A moment later, another long haired guy showed up and joined them. His hair wasn’t as stringy as his pals. In fact, it was neatly permed like a woman’s.

The young gal escorted the four of them to the row of seats immediately behind me. Even in the VIP section, the rows between the seats were exceptionally narrow, so that the knees of the guys were right up against my head. The permed haired guy sat behind me and I remember as I looked slightly to my right, I would see his zebra skinned boot as he sat with his left leg crossed. When he went to switch crossing his left leg to his right, he would bump my shoulder and I would hear this, “Sorry about that bud.” To which I would reply, “No problem.”

In addition to putting up with zebra boots bumping my shoulder, I had to listen to their inane conversations about pseudo-Christian topics. They prattled with each other over the infallibility of backward Bible codes in the book of Daniel and whether or not we were on the verge of the end times with the Clinton presidency. They also talked insistently about how great Van Halen was in concert when they played in Anaheim.

Eventually my friends returned and the show started and Big Tent Revival performed wonderfully. After everything was finished, my friends and I made our way down to the center stage and got Steve’s attention. We spoke a bit and he told me he wanted to go get something to eat. He invited us down into the locker room area where all the other CCM bands were getting their belongings. We were again escorted with Steve, and when we went down into the locker rooms, he introduced us to all sorts of CCM folks like Crystal Lewis and Audio Adrenaline.

While Steve and I were speaking with the guitar player for Audio Adrenaline, I noticed the four guys who had been sitting behind me coming into the locker room. I immediately recognized the zebra skin boots on this little fellow with the pretty, woman-like hair. I told Steve about the guy in the zebra boots bumping me all night long and their goofy conversation about Bible codes. The guitar player from Audio Adrenaline says, “Are you talking about him?” as he pointed to zebra boots. I replied, yep, that’s the guy,” and he responded, “Oh, that’s Robert Sweet, the drummer from Stryper.”

I was stunned. “You mean to tell me that the drummer for Stryper was kicking me in the back with his zebra skinned boots and discussing the nonsensical “theology” of Bible codes? I use to listen to their music!” I all of the sudden felt honored to have my shoulder kicked.

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3 thoughts on “Musical Tastes: My Personal Adventures in Music (Pt. 4)

  1. I always struggled with the below par quality of CCM of which I’ve been listening to for 30 years. I do think the quality has improved over the last 10 to 15 years. I think a real shift started to take place after DC Talk released “Free at Last” in ’92 but then particularly “Jesus Freak” in ’95. Also Jars of Clay’s first album was released in ’95 and I think these latter 2 albums upped the ante. CCM is always going to struggle keeping up with the quality of secular music, but I think it has grown and matured a great deal in recent years. I think you can pick out a handful of recent albums that are equal to any secular stuff being produced, but the challenge is always to make certain the lyrics are Biblical, thought provoking and well crafted. If any one of those components is missing and the music is below par it simply doesn’t have the impact it could.

    I think one of the most encouraging trends in CCM is to give a fresh lift to some of the old hymns with slightly varying melody lines and clever instrumentation. For example, I love what Fernando Ortega does with the hymns or even a indie group like Wayfarer.

  2. Oh man, up until this article I’ve only been just interested in your stories… but now you metion Steve and BTR. I used to spin those guys non-stop. Had all their stuff up through their retirement (even if they’re back I think it was still a break of sorts).

    I always struggled with CCM and the quality control of both the sound production AND the theology. As a young guitarist who cut teeth learning to play all the songs on Metallica’s self titled album I just couldn’t understand why Christian music had to (ahem) suck.

    BTR was always on the other side of that. They always had great sounding stuff that was very meaningful. And I could pick up their songs on my guitar and sing them in church (along with Third Day songs) and feel great about it.

    Thanks
    Les

  3. The problem, however, was that neither Whiteheart nor Petra sounded as good as Duran Duran and Journey.

    Disagree. Whiteheart remains my favorite band. But they didn’t get good until 1988. Maybe that’s the problem here. :-)

    As for the story about Steve Wiggins, wow! I always liked BTR. Not the deepest lyrics, of course, but I enjoyed their music quite a lot.

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