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Cheat Sheet: Christian Crossover Stars

by Wendy Lee Nentwig

Cheat Sheet: Christian Crossover Stars


For the first time since 1997 -- and only the third time ever -- a Christian album took the no. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 last week. And thus did TobyMac's Eye on It prompt many chart-watchers to exclaim, "Toby who?"

TobyMac, aka Toby McKeehan, has been around for decades, first finding chart success in his early 20s as one-third of Christian hip-hop superstars dc Talk. Hits like "Jesus Freak" helped the trio fill stadiums and win legions of fans, but since those early glory days, Toby has dialed back the white-boy rap a bit, cofounding Gotee Records and launching a successful solo career with genre-straddling music that borrows from reggae, rock, funk, soul and, yes, hip-hop.

He's certainly not the first to push beyond the sometimes-confining boundaries of the Christian genre -- or the first to get noticed for it. While the last Christian release to top the Billboard 200 was 1997's You Light Up My Life by LeAnn Rimes (an established country artist who didn't really have any ties to the world of Christian music), there had been an even more explicit crossover success earlier that year: Bob Carlisle's Butterfly Kisses (Shades of Grace). The middle-aged Christian crooner struck a chord with parents everywhere thanks to his touching (some might say treacly) title track.

Today, TobyMac represents a new type of Christian artist who looks at the world through a lens of faith, but naturally manages to have mass appeal, too. The lines are much blurrier now. But it took a lot to get him to this point. The Imperials were among the earliest crossover acts. Originally a straitlaced Southern gospel quartet, they found favor with Elvis Presley in the mid-'60s, appearing on his Grammy-winning gospel albums How Great Thou Art and He Touched Me, and often joining him onstage. During the 1970s Jesus Movement, the lines between rock, folk and gospel became less defined; Bob Dylan got saved, and spiritual themes in music didn't necessarily relegate an album to a record store's gospel bin.

But as CCM grew into its own genre in the '80s thanks to acts like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Leon Patillo, even its megastars found their releases set apart and sold almost exclusively in Christian bookstores. Business was booming, but artists were pretty much just preaching to the choir. In the early '90s, Grant and the machine behind her set out to change that with Heart in Motion; soon, videos for tracks like "Every Heartbeat" and "Baby Baby" earned her heavy rotation on VH1 and MTV. Michael W. Smith followed suit, using his Miami Vice stubble to win fans in the adult contemporary genre. Then Jars of Clay blew those previous crossover successes out of the water with their mid-'90s hit single "Flood."

Christian music had broken out. Switchfoot, Lifehouse and Plumb followed in the wake "Flood" created, finding success on movie soundtracks and through TV placement. In the new millennium, "I Can Only Imagine" began as a slow burn for Texas-based band MercyMe, but three years after its release, the song caught fire in the mainstream market, resulting in Almost There going double platinum.

Meanwhile, singer-songwriters like Mat Kearney and Dave Barnes started out their careers in multiple genres, rendering the notion of crossing over almost moot. Kearney promoted his debut disc by touring with the likes of John Mayer, Sheryl Crow and Train, in addition to headlining VH1's first-ever You Oughta Know tour in spring 2007. Barnes topped the charts after a fashion when Blake Shelton re-recorded his track "God Gave Me You" last year, but he has found success as a performer, too, with albums like 2012's Stories to Tell.

Most recently, Adam Young's Owl City has found mainstream success (initially with 2010's smash "Fireflies") while not alienating his faithful following. His new single, "Good Time," a duet with Carly Rae Jepsen, has helped him land appearances on Today, The Tonight Show and Conan as he charts a course others will no doubt try to follow.

Early crossover artists had to fight hard to be seen in a new light, while others found mainstream success almost by accident; today's Christian artists move between genres almost effortlessly. Follow the trend through the years with the records below.

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