Jesus freaks, out in the street, handing tickets out for God
(from “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, released in 1971)
In Nashville circa 1972, there was no shortage of music-making along 16th Avenue South, the heart of Music Row. But another, presumably larger creative force had begun to stir at the corner of 16th and Grand: Belmont Church of Christ had become an anchoring regional location for the youth-driven “Jesus Movement” that was aflame in various pockets throughout the country. What set Nashville apart from most other areas of spiritual activity during this unprecedented cultural era was the significance of its role in helping to midwife a full-blown, non-secular pop genre: CCM, short for contemporary Christian music.
The nascent style, initially referred to as “Jesus Music,” had quietly begun to blow eastward from the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., where vocalist Gwen Moore was living at the time. Moore, who recalls that “kids by the hundreds were being baptized in the Pacific Ocean,” says, “It was tough for us to relate to the old hymns we’d grown up on because of the significance our music had developed in our lives—the music of revolution and protest, the confessional songs of singer/songwriter hippies.” Soon after Moore relocated to Nashville in 1974, she found the Koinonia Christian Bookstore (and later, Bookstore and Coffeehouse) on 16th Avenue, where Steve Chapman, Ron Elder and other local musicians were playing sweet-spirited but lyrically penetrating original music about their Christian faith, every Saturday night. Chapman, co-founder of Koinonia regulars and pre-CCM recording artists Dogwood, says that “our lyrics were Biblically based, but our melodies bore the mark of the secular music of the times. We had no idea,” he says, “that we were helping pioneer what became known as ‘contemporary Christian music.’ Koinonia was a gift from heaven. It was a training ground for us.”
“Koinonia was indeed reflective of a move of God,” offers Moore of the spiritually affecting climate experienced at the concerts held in the tiny building. “It was a vital non-church venue where young music lovers could hear artists who were ‘ministering’ in a more contemporary style. The music gave us a place to come together and experience something as a group.” WIthin a few years, Moore herself would frequent the Koinonia stage as part of Word Records’ vocal group Fireworks. Moore and fellow Fireworks member Gary Pigg would sing backup on Amy Grant’s 1977 debut album, later reprising their roles onstage at Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium in 1980, when Grant (then a college junior and a rising star) staged her first-ever concert with a full band.
In the half-dozen or so years before Grant almost singlehandedly began to propel the fledgling CCM format to broader mainstream success, Koinonia’s weekly concert series was drawing attention not only from young devotees of Jesus, but also the hippies, hangers-on and homeless who hovered in those days near the corner where Belmont Church’s staff sought to provide assistance and outreach. As Grant, then a teenaged regular in the Koinonia crowd, recalls it, “There was a thriving bar right across the street and a strip club nearby. I remember one night we heard this crash outside. Two girls had crashed their car. We all ran outside,” she says, “and some Eagles song was just blaring from the car. We’d all been inside singing . . . it was everything, all at once. It wasn’t ‘us and them,’ it was like, ‘Come on in,’” says Grant of the resounding collision of cultures and music occurring at the intersection of 16th and Grand. “This was not a pristine group of people. It was ragtag, and nobody had it together, but everyone was captivated by this incredible experience of community that came because of . . . this . . . spirit of God, I don’t know.”
Human affairs, of course, were also at play. While musical and cultural influences were intermingling, and top-flight studios and session musicians were standing at the ready to add professional polish to this emerging, home-grown sound, Nashville was also attracting creative out-of-towners who aspired to music careers. “[New residents] would hear about this community down on 16th Avenue,” explains Grant, “and they would come down and just be met by this eclectic group of very alive people.” There was a particular influx from Abilene [Texas] Christian University, who, Grant says, had been coming to the city to work on the numerous shows at Opryland. Among the ACU transplants was Brown Bannister, who later would be pivotal in launching Grant’s career.
Bannister, who would go on to a production and songwriting career that has since netted him more than a dozen Grammys, began attending Belmont Church and co-led a youth group. Amy Grant was in Bannister’s group, and he recalls the first time he heard her sing her original music, at a youth retreat. “I remember being struck by her personality, charisma and her gift of engagement—making you feel like the only person in the room—sharing songs in a totally conversational style.”
Brian Mason, longtime local radio personality and a frequent Koinonia attendee in those days, remembers somewhat conversely that Grant would sometimes be called up to the stage from her spot on the elbow-to-elbow-packed floor, and that her relative inexperience may initially have clouded others’ recognition of her potential. Mason recreates the scene as he recalls it: “‘What? This is a kid from the youth group. . . . Oh, okay, c’mon, Amy.’ Nobody had any idea what was going to happen with her,” Mason says, laughing. Grant’s own expectations at the time were evidently similar. “I loved popping up for a song or two . . . [but] there were so many people whose talent far exceeded mine,” she says. “I was just the girl who sits in the crowd.”
“Koinonia was definitely what made me want to start writing songs,” Grant affirms, emphasizing that music was never the core reason for the bookstore and local outreach. “It was just a gathering point. It was all just about serving that community, being a part of that community. That was the template for me,” says Grant. “That was my first experience of music and community.”
Adds Brown Bannister, “Koinonia was a place where Amy was exposed to radical Christians and artists who were actually beginning a genre of music—without even knowing it. The important thing,” says Bannister, “is that it wasn’t about the music business, careers or money. The bedrock motivation was to share the gospel, to communicate the truth. I think that being in that atmosphere was a key component of development for her, both spiritually and creatively.” Of his and Grant’s role at the starting line of mainstream contemporary Christian music, Bannister says, “We were right in the beginning years of what became the CCM industry. I am sure there were probably smarter people than me that could see it was about to explode, but we were blissfully unaware of what it would become, because the focus was on the message—not the genre.”
Brian Mason, whose long-running, eponymously named Sunday morning radio program faithfully preserved the music and memories of CCM’s first wave, remembers that Koinonia “wasn’t about mixing entertainment with ministry. There was constant attention to staying in check—are we entertaining or are we ministering?—and making sure that ministry had the priority. One thing that made it so inviting,” he adds, “was intimacy. It was like we’re all sitting in someone’s living room. I mean, literally, you’re on the floor. It was exciting but unpredictable. Groups would come from regions in every direction—it was a fire marshal’s nightmare.”
It was something like a dream, though, for those who experienced the spirit that informed Koinonia’s golden age. Grant, whose debut album came out just before her 1977 high school graduation, remembers returning home to Nashville during college breaks to find “it was never quite the same coming back,” she says. “I would come back and go to the coffee shop. But everything was changing so fast. Change happens all the time, so it wasn’t a bad thing,” says Grant. “People continued to be drawn to that environment, to Belmont, specifically, because of [pastor] Don Finto. I think that church was just a huge welcome mat. People would come and get excited about using their musical gifts: ‘I can do this?’ I think it just caught on and spread.”
Belmont Church, whose congregation included another major early CCM artist, Michael W. Smith, ended up being what Mason calls “the contemporary Christian music church face for this area. I would stress that it was not an intentional thing,” says Mason, “but God’s design. We were a different game, and we were an unlikely game. Most of the players,” Mason points out, “were these a cappella-singing Church of Christ people. All [who contributed to birthing CCM] brought their own experiences to it, whether it was sitting in a pew in a Church of Christ, or being in a successful rock and roll band, or coming out of the drug era, or a combination of any of that stuff. But Nashville was incredibly unique, and unlikely, for that reason. Koinonia was a seed. Belmont was a seed, an unwitting seed.”