Once Upon a Time in Christian Music

Gatekeepers

Have you ever bumped up against a gatekeeper? You know, the person in charge of a thing who bars entrance to their domain? They’ll let you through only if you dutifully bow to their power, repeat their creed, or maybe pay the right price. It helps if you have a nice face.

Once upon a time in Christian music, there were gatekeepers who stood along the boundary walls, deciding whose music was fit for Christendom. Their job was to keep offbeat outsiders from entering the rarified realms of Contemporary Christian Music, aka CCM.

A short list of the guardians included:

  1. the record labels who signed–or passed on–new artists.
  2. the radio stations who played–or wouldn’t play– the songs.
  3. the retailers who sold–or refused to sell– the cassettes and CD’s in their stores and catalogs.

Unified in their goal of keeping the name of Christian music pure, they often worked against each other, pretending not to be in it for the money or defending the fact they were also in it for the money.

I should qualify that this was my experience as a CCM artist.

In the 1990s, my husband Scott and I, aka Out of the Grey, joined the Contemporary Christian Music scene. Our songs rode the waves of CCM radio and we played for CCM audiences all across the country. Privileged to have been a part of that world, I’ll share some stories from behind the scenes.

Strangers at the Gate

The record label that signed us had initially passed on Out of the Grey (then known only as Christine and Scott Dente). They didn’t dig our first demo tape which was a mix of other people’s songs and styles. We had compromised a bit to try to fit the CCM mold. Chastened by rejection, we returned to the studio of a friend who encouraged us to be authentic and showcase the sounds we wanted to make.

We did just that. The four songs we wrote and recorded were truly us. This time, the record label signed off on our musical style. We gratefully signed the dotted line for their risk-taking investment in our first official Out of the Grey album,first official Out of the Grey album, which would include the songs from our demo. We had taken our first steps through the outer walls into the world of CCM.

But back in 1991, that record would still be a stranger at other gates of the CCM industry, aka the mindustry. The people in charge understandably wanted to keep the status quo. They were wary of new music that diverged from what was current. So, though we had crossed a gauntlet, Scott and I soon came upon more hoops to jump through.

The Power of Labels

Our Christian record label had taken a chance in signing us but they also did their part in guarding the CCM fortress. They were careful to sign acts that fit the definition of Christian artistry:

  1. sing songs about Jesus.
  2. behave like Christians.
  3. clean up nicely with hair and makeup for a photo shoot.

Back then, Scott and I fit those descriptions. One exec even checked in with us: “You know, I only know how to sell music to Christians. You good with that?”

We were good with that. We were Christians making music!

However, we were not interested in making musical mush to be spoon-fed through the conduits of acceptable art. We wanted our artistry to reach a deeper level of beauty and mystery, combined with Christian truth. This proved to be an elusive target.

Religious Litmus Test

For example, for the first Out of the Grey record, we wrote a song called, “Time Will Tell.”

In the lyric, I lamented the tyranny of perfectionism and worry about the future. In the chorus, I sang about giving up the struggle and trusting in the help that comes in time. Through cliche and personification, I hoped to convey a universal human theme. I can’t say what the future holds but, Time, indeed, always tells.

However, before we had recorded the song, our record label insisted we modify my original lyric to fit the Christian bill. “To get Christian radio to play it, it needs to be a Christian song.” 

“What?” I was miffed, already suspicious of the word Christian being used as an adjective. Now it was a litmus test for artistic expression within a simple song? 

Why did I have to put a God-shaped bow on it? Especially since every other song on our record would pass the religious litmus test. Well, okay, maybe not “The Dance” or ”The Only Moment.” But those had no hope of being radio singles anyway.

Scott and I really wanted the song to stand as a portrait of human struggle without forcing a God-leaning lyric. Instead, we gave in to the pressure and I made a minor change in the second and third line in the chorus. 

Time Will Tell

The original lyric was:

And I give up on myself again,

help will come, I can’t say when,

but time will tell

And I hold on for a better day,

how long I’ll wait I cannot say,

but time will tell, I know time will tell 

I changed the first half to say:

And I give up on myself again,

help will come but only when 

it’s in Your time

By adding “but only when it’s in Your time,” I transformed the song to fit the shape of the record label gate.

Playing with Radio Heads

Yes, we and those guardians of the CCM galaxy had played our part in keeping radio programmers happy.

We prayed that that capital Y was our ticket to the ears of tuned-in Christians. The squeakiest listeners couldn’t complain that our music wasn’t safe for the whole family.

However, just after the release of “Time Will Tell,” Scott and I were spending a day at the label promoting the single to radio programmers.  From a padded cubicle, we were phoning radio stations, asking the programmers and DJ’s to add our song to their playlists.

Many were happy to add Out of the Grey to their rotations and thanked us for making the music. But Scott and I remember well the wall we hit during a call to a particular Contemporary Christian radio station in Alabama. We knew beforehand that they had refused to put our song on the air. 

“Why?” we asked the head programmer. He said, “not Christian enough.” Nope, not an overt Christian theme, even with the modified “in Your time.” Just an artistic look at a mundane conundrum. 

Anyway, that DJ’s refusal bruised our brains. I think Scott asked him, “Did you play Stephen Curtis Chapman’s huge hit ‘I will Be Here?’ That doesn’t say anything about Jesus.”

The guy hung up on us. Probably never rotated any Out of the Grey music after that. 

Mom and Pop, God Love ‘Em

Still other would-be power players were the small (and large) Christian bookstores meting out their limited shelf space. With careful, sometimes persnickety, criteria, Mom and Pop (God love ’em) balked at the slightest whiff of worldliness or weirdness. They didn’t want their customers getting skittish. It was their business after all to decide which cassettes would sell as well as their Christian knick-knacks.

I remember the story of a best-selling artist (God love her) who revealed her face without make-up on the cover of her latest CD. Rumor had it, the photo made Christian retailers uncomfortable. They refused to display it in their stores. Too raw? Too real? Who knows? The CDs were recalled, their covers made-over to fit the look of a true Christian singer.

Who can blame the owners of those businesses? They had a living to make. Plus, the holiness of God was tied up in all they sold. As uncomfortable as many of us were, mixing business with ministry, we did have families to feed and a faith to uphold.

Now for Some Real Christian Music

One more story about gatekeepers. Out of the Grey bumped into a few shining Christian stars whose parameters for real Christian music were also quite narrow.

Once, after we performed a 4-song set at a CCM festival, the artist next in line took the stage and shouted into his microphone: “Hey y’all, I hope you don’t mind if I sing some songs about Jesus?”

I am complaining a little but mostly I am grateful. Out of the Grey got to make lots of music and work with top notch industry people along the way. And make a living! It’s just fun to look back and realize how silly were some of the games we played.

I’m not sure how it works nowadays. Back then, when Christians scanned the airways for orthodox art, they often got regurgitations of what worked before. Too much of it was predictable and boring.

I get it: powerful music can get past the brain’s gatekeepers and travel straight to the heart. When we’re driving in the car with our kids, we don’t want provocative ideas slipping in without warning. Yet, adults and kids alike tend to tune out an old cliche unless it’s expressed in a fresh way.

Time and Time Again

There’s always a rub when someone new comes to town. The elders have their doubts while the youngsters gather around the spectacle. Artists innovate to find their voice and gain an audience. Art asks the big questions, leaving room for listener interpretation and new ideas.

Who can say if we needed all of those gates. Christendom itself is a big word for a wide space.

Yes, Religion has its creeds and boundaries to keep the bad guys in disguise from breaching our truth structures. But squeaky clean can make for sterile living and weak immune systems. And change is always at the gates.

Can we find the balance, trusting God to guard our open minds and hearts?

I can’t say if, in time, the story of art finds the perfect fairy tale ending.

This time, I’ll let Time speak for itself.

45 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in Christian Music”

  1. Christine, I was right there with you on this. My story is a bit different, in that I never got past the gatekeepers to where you and Scott were. But along the way, I was told all of what you said here. It’s always brought to mind that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Toto and Dorothy begin to realize the charade, and the “Great and Powerful Oz” bellows, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

    But there he was, the gatekeeper—just a regular guy, turning cranks and dials—creating illusions of grandeur and insisting that others do the near-impossible and bring the broomstick of the wicked witch before he’d even consider helping them get anywhere.

    In the end, I finally made it to a large gatekeeper—who then turned me away based on age. “Your music’s great. Memorable. Great look. But I’m sorry: we thought you were younger by your photos. We really don’t sign anyone over 25—28 at the most—though we hope to sign around 17 or 18. Then we figure you get three years artist development, and another three, most are let go.” I have always thought it strange that they would cater to the songwriting and ideas of youth over experience, those who’d lived enough to face struggle and find themselves a bit. (Mind you, I wasn’t “old”; I was 31 at that time.)

    What you said about having a “nice face” or dressing the part (e.g., makeup, etc.) resonated with me, as well. Because they actually liked my face (as much as that shouldn’t matter). So why would my age detract from that? The answer—one I didn’t like—was that even the CCM world was making decisions based on sex appeal to listeners. And 31 isn’t is somehow not as sexy as 21. All I could think was, “I just want to share encouragement with people, not have them fawn over me.”

    I’m not bitter. Sad, but never bitter. And I get the strong sense that you aren’t (though I hear your wry wit in your writing). What I loved about songwriting and singing has never been changed by those experiences. Only my perspective on it has changed; and as exciting as it seemed then to be picked up by a label, from where I stand now, I can’t help but feel I dodged a bullet of sorts.

    I’m sorry to know that something you loved so much was tainted with “yuck” back then. But please know that you made a difference to many, many people—myself included. Your music and lyrics challenged and encouraged me through some of the most difficult times of my life.

    Wow, I can still recall getting what they used to call a “sampler” back then—two songs by each of several new artists—and just being immediately hooked with the first four bars of “Wishes.” To this day, that is one of the best musical hooks I’ve ever heard. And your (what I referred to as) “angular” and unexpected melodies and voice changed the way I thought about music and its possibilities as a writer. In that way, you and Scott are part of the fabric of my becoming as a writer over the years. Though I’m not actively pursuing music anymore, I still write, because what is inside needs to come out. More of my writing is by way of books now, but the goal is the same: to encourage and connect people to what matters.

    So thank you for all you gave and are still giving.

    Nothing done through and for love is ever wasted.

    Reply
    • Erik, that is quite a story and sadly, not surprising. Thank you for writing about your experience AND for continuing to write! That’s what we do to stay sane, encouraged, and connected. BTW, your website looks good and I look forward to reading your blogs ( :

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  2. If my personal music collection is any indication, I’d say you guys had it right. Over the past couple years I’ve gotten rid of all of my CCM cds except the early Vineyard stuff and EVERY CD you guys produced. I still listen to and ENJOY OOTG! Be different, it works!

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  3. Thank you for sharing your journey with the gatekeepers. Your music was so unique, so moving, so beautiful. There was no one like you guys, and that was pure joy for those of us who loved music and God. Moving and deep. Thank you for pressing on and getting to my little tape player!!!! I had that Twila Paris CD. Her pic was raw and real. That’s what this Christian was searching for…and still is. Big hug from Illinois!

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  4. Hmmm. Don’t think I approve of that photo. Your messy hair, your b*droom eyes, Scott’s “Hey, you wanna piece of this?!” attitude… No folded hands, no plaintive, skyward looks. Not even a BIBLE fer crying out loud… But seriously. I kind of gave up on most pop music, “Christian” and otherwise – a long time ago. In CCM especially it seemed like some new trend would surface in pop music and a week later a CCM band/artist would jump on that trend. “Metallica? Sure, CCM has a band that sounds just like Metallica…”, (Sandi Patti…?) then the month after that, CCM radio would be flooded with Metallica sound-alikes. Meanwhile, pop had moved on to the Next Big Thing and the cycle started all over again. Of course there are always the outliers, God love ‘em, but you seldom hear them on K-LOVE.

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  5. Good Morning,
    May Grace and Kindness rain upon you today in Jesus’ name. One of the things I had to learn at a very young age is that “in the long ALL institutions serve Themselves”. Institutions are built and run by fallible people with sin nature, thus regardless of their creed or mission statement they will in due time stray. We see that in Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 that Jesus rebukes his own churches because they have strayed. I preach “be faithful to God, not your church” You are to serve Christ and do His will not be a puppet for an institution. As a career manager I often am in a situation where the firm I work for is abusive to my subordinates. I have to choose: do I stand up for my subordinate’s well fare, or back the company’s unjust motive?

    I live by this creed:
    I pitch my tent
    with the
    Unloved
    Unwanted
    The forgotten
    and Forsaken
    of man
    As it is written in Isaiah 61. Jesus has come for the meek, lowly and the broken hearted.
    In my walk, with every interaction, my goal is to draw that person Closer to Christ. That simple. And if I do or say something that draws them further from God then I have sinned against that person and God. That’s a tough thing to do every minute of your life. However, That’s my mindset. I decline to be a puppet and promoter of any institution (secular or faith based).
    That is my experience and mind set.

    I Honor you both. You have kept the faith and stayed True to Christ. Life is hard. Yet, you have overcome. You are both a blessing.

    With
    Dignity
    and
    Kindness
    Ali

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  6. Christine – I first heard you and Scott play at a concert in 1999. Friends invited me and I was interested in going out, but was not looking forward to a typical CCM concert. I was so knocked off my seat by your performance that I bought all of your CDs and became a great fan. Afterwards, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t hear you on the radio. They should have played everything of yours all of the time!

    Anyway – thanks for sharing this “behind the scenes.” It, sadly, makes sense now. I still love you and Scott – your way with words and chords. You still knock me off my seat!

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  7. Never experienced what you and your husband went through but I do understand how dealing with people and organizations can stereotype you and your music. They mold and shape you to fit into their box. But God works better outside of the box. Many people believe that you must act a certain way in order for God to make miracles happen in ones life. Over and over again, scriptures prove this to be wrong. The only thing Jesus would ask a person is if they believed in him. Having faith in Jesus changes everything.
    Your music is enjoyable and thought provoking. Most Christian labeled music is thought provoking too, but is heart felt to those who are believers. No matter who is playing or singing a song, the music rarely transforms lives, but God’s Holy Word does. Sharing Jesus should be top priority in any believers life. So share God’s Holy Word so that other lives can be transformed by the renewing of their minds.
    Continue to live out you & your family’s life the way you’ve been but as the word of God says, keep Christ in the center of all things.
    Blessings to you & your family.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your story! I’ve loved your music from the first time I heard it at Christian bookstore and still have the original tape that I “borrowed” from my roommate back then. Oops! Your music is in heavy rotation on my Spotify too. It was music like yours that gave me hope for the CCM genre and kept me interested. I not only attended many many concerts, I also promoted shows, volunteered at other shows and festivals, worked for a Christian radio station and even managed a local Christian band. I saw first hand those barriers or gatekeepers. So glad your music made it through to encourage and give us all something to relate to and ponder! Appreciate all you and Scott have done!!

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  9. Do you know that game people play where they think about the food, or author, or musical artist they would choose if they were stranded on a desert island and could only take one of the above with them? My collection of Out of the Grey CDs has always been on the very top of that list for me. The depth of meaning in your music, the sheer poetry and beauty of it (whether restrained and somewhat hindered by the gatekeepers or not) has had such a profound impact on my life and my husband’s, that I truly don’t believe it would be possible to overstate its importance. Last year, when I went through all the challenges of treatment for breast cancer, the song alarm I set for going to appointments was “Brave.“ My anthem for another period of life-change and struggle was “What’s It Gonna Be?” “Love Like Breathing” got me through a long period of personal conflict with the gentle reminder that my hope of truly loving the challenging people in life came from “the love sustaining me.” I could go on and on about the impact your songs have had, but I’m guessing you get the idea. Thank you for persevering through the gates, past the gatekeepers, even if it cost you a great deal of frustration at times. You may never know how much of a difference you have made.

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    • Kat, thank you for taking the time to write about the impact our music had and has. Sooo encouraging to know we still encourage!

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  10. A radio station in Alabama? Hmmmm…I wonder which one. Perhaps the call letters are We Do Just Commercials? 🙂
    I am thankful for your music and your writing on this blog. We drove our pathetically old church bus filled with teenagers from Birmingham to Nashville to see you and Charlie Peacock. Our kids had a blast. The musicianship, lyrics, and performance was as good as anything the world had to offer.
    As bad as the industry is and was, I still value the lyrical content, the music, and the lives modeled by the artists. I always look to find the outliers that break the trends. They have always been hard to find but worth the search.
    Thanks for walking out your journey for all of us to view…the good and the bad. I’m here for it.

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  11. My aunt was a staunch supporter of ONLY “strictly religious” CCM bands. When she heard I listened to OOTG, Amy grant, or any other bands she would become so angry and start pointing out songs or album covers and telling me how I would lose my way to GOD. I disagreed; your music and others help me bridge my real-world experience with my Christian ideals. I think many people would be shocked if they knew the inner working of industry gatekeepers in not only the mainstream but the CCM markets …. glad you persevered.

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  12. So sad to hear that this was all going on. But I think that we all could tell that even Christian music was still a business, at the end of the day.
    I was a teenager growing up in Franklin when you all hit the scene and honestly, I loved your music. I loved your voice and style and loved the raw writing. You all were stars in my eyes!
    I think you know my parents (Kenny and Susie Meeks) and know that my dad was also a musician trying to function in that system. I am thankful that now we don’t have to rely on record labels and executives but can also get the word out through other means!
    Thanks for sharing your story!

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  13. Christine, thank you so much for sharing a rare look into what you dealt with as a CCM artist back in the day! The level of judgement and condescension you faced in the industry blows my mind, but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Regardless, your behind-the-scenes details on how your songs have been shaped are truly fascinating, and I hope you continue to share more.

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  14. Wow, what an enlightening read! I wish that I could say that everything that you shared was a shock, but unfortunately it is not. In an ideal world things would be so different and artists would be free to express themselves. Thank you for your candor. As a fan since the late 1990’s I truly appreciate what you and Scott have accomplished with your art. Your music is still speaking to this day. God bless you and your family.

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  15. Hi Christine, thank you for the insights. Very illuminating! Are you going to reveal which songs were on the demo? My guess: Remember This, He Is Not Silent, Better Way to Fall, Time Will Tell. Remember and Time have catchy melodies. Better has that catchy and memorable musical interlude in the middle. Silent is not a typical airplay song but its message is so powerful that I can’t imagine anyone denying its quality. Did I get any of those correct? (By the way, my favorite from that album is The Deep.) God bless you always! -Nigel

    Reply
    • Oh you were very close, Nigel! The 4 songs on the demo that made it to the record were: He Is Not Silent, Better Way to Fall, Write My Life, and The Deep–(so glad it’s your favorite!)

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  16. I was surprised but then not again surprised that this happened. Time will tell is one of my favourites of yours and would have been good either way. At least the change made pointed us to God when we just don’t know the answers so you made a good choice. Also at least that opened the gate for many other profound songs to get through that would really provoke thought and attention. My Out of the grey albums are one of the biggest treasure troves of wisdom I possess and I honestly would not want to have been without them. God spoke to me time and again through your music and because of that I do feel you were speaking his words to us. As you know I still regularly listen and notice things I hadn’t noticed before or the meaning hits home at last! Yesterday I was listening to ‘All we need’ which I’ve heard many times before but it came alive to me in a new way. Thank you for persevering when the way was tough. As I always love to say No labour of love is in vain! Not one word was wasted.

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  17. Reminiscent of Leslie/Sam Phillips….sad the CCM community lost out on so much talent and original creativity. It is an unfortunate stain. Those of us who refuse to play the game of conforming and becoming a puppet are too often outcast, or told we not true Christians. I say, it’s okay, I’m in good company and I think Jesus would agree. Perfection according to man’s standards is pharisaical. I’m proud to be one of the flawed humans God continues to use for His purposes. Your music and lyrics were like a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

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  18. I think I’ve always hated the whole concept of “gatekeeping”, especially as it applies to people of faith trying to creatively express themselves. Wanting the message to be clear and explicit and agreeable to the lowest common denominator every single time kills art. And it insults the audience’s intelligence. C’mon, CCM industry, give us some credit! It’s not like we had to puzzle all that hard to figure out where God was in an Out of the Grey song that didn’t explicitly mention God by name.

    When I was a teenager first getting into music of the 90s, I limited myself to “Christian music” only, because I thought this was the morally right thing that was expected of me. As I transitioned out of college and into adulthood at the beginning of the 21st century, I broadened my horizons and started listening to more mainstream and indie music. I’ve grown to appreciate music of pretty much all kinds since then. Still, I had the unique experience of my love affair with music being kicked off by my youth pastor loaning me her copy of your first album, and it still strikes an incredibly deep chord with me, despite a lot of the CCM I liked back in those days not aging particularly well. I recently did a write-up of my favorite 90s albums, after making a herculean effort to catch up on all the music outside of CCM from those days that I now found to be interesting/influential. I made no distinction between “Christian” and “secular” when making this list; I just chose the albums I still enjoyed the most. Your debut landed at #6 on that list of 100 favorite albums spanning that entire decade. I think it’s more than just plain old nostalgia that put it there.

    Here’s the link, if you’re curious:
    https://murlough23.wordpress.com/2022/01/27/the-sweetest-albums-of-the-90s-part-v-1-20/

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  19. Wow! Wow! This is how bad things happen to GOOD PEOPLE! What a TRUE SHAME that, BORN AGAIN CHRISTIANS , TOO, FACED DISCRIMINATION BY TOP GATEKEEPERS!

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  20. Thanks for sharing. Even the secular bands have their niches and formulae, their “Brand.” C’est la vie. The good stuff lasts. OOTG holds up well. I’ve shed most of my youthful oft played faves. What continues in the rotation? Rush and OOTG. Dirt Poor Robins came along later, husband wife combo, Christians, and WAY off the main stream. Not unlike Dente & Dente inc. Thank you for coloring so richly my life’s soundtrack so far.

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  21. I’m grateful for the Christian music store in Lincoln Nebraska that displayed your CDs and offered a big set of headphones to preview your music in the early 1990s. I only needed a moment to listen, I bought them both right away.

    30 years later I was in a low spot and in that moment I heard your voice. I hadn’t heard your music in years but you were right there when I needed to hear it.

    Reply

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