Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SGN Music Awards

Tonight I attended the SGN Music Awards at River of Life church in Smyrna. This set of awards is organized and sponsored by the Unthanks, who run This afternoon, a friend who couldn't attend said, "I hope they get a few people out for the event." Talk about being off the mark...

I arrived an hour early to help pass out programs. At 30 minutes before show-time, we ran out of programs. At 20 minutes, we were running out of seats. Chris and Amy Unthank became emergency crowd control, banning saved seats and finding single empty seats to match up with the crowd gathering in the lobby. In the end, every seat was filled, and the lobby crowd stood for the whole show.

The nominees for these awards are chosen by the staff of SoGospel, and then voted on by the public. Besides the standard "Favourite Group" awards, they take it a step further and do a few industry related awards like "Engineer" and "Producer". And actually, this is really cool: The "Songwriter" and "Producer" categories are broken up into "Artist" and "Professional" divisions. So often, it's the performing songwriters who win public-voted awards, so it's nice to see full-time staff writers get some formal recognition.

The show opened with the Freemans, and they had great energy for kicking things off. Some of the performers from the Harmony Honors were on stage again tonight. Tribute Quartet and Mike and Kelly Bowling returned with the same song, and Three Bridges sang a different song, "Step Back on the Rock" (minus the stage leap - much more dangerous in this location!). The King's Heralds have been in ministry for over 80 years, but tonight they were up for Breakthrough Artist of the year! I loved what they did at NQC last year, and they were fantastic tonight.

Gordon Mote had one of the best performances of the night with "Somebody Who Can", with the Isaacs on background vocals. So cool! The Imperials were total rock stars with their version of an older song called "Water Grave". I've never heard the original, but I loved this song! Karen Peck and New River were awesome, as usual. Karen Peck really understands stage presence. So many artists try to fill every empty bar of music with some kind of Gospel shout-out: "Aren't-you-glad-Jesus-came-down-and-died-and-saved-you-from-death?" Really, who's going to say no to that? Karen's not afraid to simply hold her ground, sit in the music, and communicate the message. Love her!

Gold City sang their awesome song "Preach the Word". This song always shakes me up. You know, the exact week Dad retired from 43 years of ministry, I got the call saying my Visa was approved, allowing me to take my ministry to Nashville. I don't think that was a coincidence. I would never compare my ministry to Dad's, but I can't help but feel that God was in that timing.

HisSong ended the night on a crazy high note with "Joy in my Soul". Overall, this was such a great night! It was well organized and smoothly run, and when your main problem is not finding enough seats for the throngs of people walking through your door, well, who can complain.

My suggestion? Next year - the Ryman!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

SGMG Harmony Honors

Last year this time, I was writing about the Southern Gospel GMA Week showcase. This year, instead of a traditional showcase, they decided to use the night to host the 4th annual SGMG Harmony Honors. The awards were described as being "objective" in that there is no balloting or nomination process. Instead, the awards are given to artists who, over the past year, have won a number of industry awards and/or have had top sales of product and digital downloads. Other than the top ten songs of the year, there were no real categories that I could see.

In the Southern Gospel realm, this was definitely a star-studded night. I sat up front in the industry section, and many major artists were there. Some received awards, some performed and some were just cheering on friends. Doyle Lawson gave one of my favourite acceptance speeches of the night. I guess he receives some criticism for playing both secular and gospel bluegrass music. He pointed out something that I've always stated: If you sing a gospel song in a secular environment, that might be the only Gospel some people ever hear. He said this is how God called him to minister, and until God tells him otherwise, this is what he's going to do. Amen!

In his speech, choral genius Lari Goss remarked that Southern Gospel is so unique because it's lots of fun, yet it deals with serious theological themes like the cross and the blood. It's sometimes hard to define Southern Gospel to people who've never heard it, so I think I'll be adding this point to the description from now on.

But the best part of the night was, of course, the live performances. The show opened strongly with Jeff and Sheri Easter, now with their daughter Morgan filling Charlotte Ritchie's position. Tribute Quartet came next, and they were fantastic. Great song and great stage presence. Austins Bridge definitely fits into that "progressive Southern" category. They're just crazy talented and great stage performers. Actually, one of the things I really appreciated about tonight was that all kinds of Southern were presented, and not just the quartets (not that there's anything wrong with a great quartet!). The Crabb Family and Lillie Knauls both did traditional gospel, and the Isaacs did their own unique blend of bluegrass and Southern. They are just so great live!

Mike and Kelly Bowling and Brian Free and Assurance provided lots of big singing and great harmony. Three Bridges win the award for Most Physical Performance of the night as the lead singer took a flying leap off the stage to shake hands with audience members. I just love them! Gordon Mote sang the beautiful "Wake Up Dancing", which was intimate and moving. The show ended with Karen Peck and New River singing "Last Night", which is definitely one of my favourite songs of last year. So good!

After the show I got the chat to visit with a bunch of friends. You know, at last year's showcase, I think I saw two people I knew. Tonight, I didn't even get a chance to speak to everyone I knew. That just feels to wonderful to me. This has been a great week. I'm really looking forward to a day off when I can sit with all the things I've learned, email all the people I've met, download all the songs I've heard...maybe that's not really a day off?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

GMA Recovery Day

I dragged myself to work this morning on 5 hours sleep. Why am I still up tonight?

Not much to say tonight, only that the new ideas from GMA are spinning around in my head. I'm going to attend the Southern Gospel showcase tomorrow night, so I'm still involved a bit, but to be honest, I'm just ready to work.

Several times this weekend, I heard the words "making music is blue collar work". I get this, and I know I'm a hard worker, I think this weekend is inspiring me to focus my approach to that work even tighter and tighter. I've felt myself on this path for a few weeks now, and this weekend seems to have been an inspiration and a confirmation, all at once.

Don't know if this makes sense to anyone else right now. Maybe it's still too new in my head. I guess right now, I just feel things shifting in me creatively and in my focus, and that's all very cool and exciting. Can't wait to see where it leads me...

Monday, April 21, 2008

GMA Indie Impact - Day 2

Amazing day! Completely exhausted! This morning started at 8am (8ish for some of us), and I didn't get home til 1 am. (I've adjusted the time on this post to keep the date accurate.) Loooong day, but gooood!

The morning started with a chapel service for all GMA registrants. The music was lead by Travis Cottrell - fabulous band, and he has a great voice. Beth Moore gave the message, and she was awesome. I really only knew her by reputation, but it was clear she had many fans in the audience. She spoke about Jacob and the angel, and related that to times in our life when we need to "wrestle with God". Such a great way to start the day!

Next was the opening of the exhibit hall. An hour and a half later, I'm dragging around a bag of free stuff. Good times...

I almost skipped the next session because of its uber-cheesy title: "How to build relationships during GMA Week that will last". I only went because I had friends in there (maybe I could have rationalized that as 'relationship building'?), but seriously, it was fantastic. The opening part on how to network at industry events was fine, but then we broke up into groups of ten. We had to introduce ourselves, and give our email address to everyone in the group. Well, we had amazing people in our group - the woman who works at X-Box who's feeling a call to ministry, the woman from Nigeria who wants to bring CCM to her country, and the "Mom-ager" - a mother managing the career of her daughter.

Next we had the Networking Roundtables. This was great last year, so I was pretty excited about it. Basically, it's a room full of tables and each table has an industry professional in fields like radio, management, booking, etc. You rotate through the tables in 15 minute sets. I didn't get as much out of it this year, but I did sit at Tom Jackson's table for a while, and that was amazing.

Last year, I skipped the Live Showcase so I could watch the Walk of Fame inductions, so this year I decided to attend the showcase. Everyone puts their name in a hat, and over the course of 2 hours they pull names out and those people get to sing. I put my name in, but it didn't get drawn. That was cool though cause a few friends got to perform, including Virginia Hill, who was on the Indie Fest line-up with me and Gerald last summer. Everyone was good, and some people were extraordinary.

Oh, and I also met up with some great Shoutlife people today! I love putting real faces to the cyber faces! Some of us had summer together on the patio of Panera. Nothing says "spring" like sitting on a patio!

From Panera, we rolled down the hill and into the Ryman for Sunday Evening Worship. It was lead by Michael W. Smith, Mandisa, and Israel Houghton and New Breed. At two hours of solid music, it was a bit lengthy for the end of a long day, but soooo incredible! I'm such a fan of Mandisa's, and I'm now a brand new fan of New Breed. Such an amazing mix of praise and rhythm and just cool, cool music!

And then, finally, my favourite part of GMA Week: The Songwriter Showcase. Hosted by Bart Millard (Mercy Me) and Mark Hall (Casting Crowns), the two hour line-up featured over a dozen stunning performances. Each song is performed by the songwriter, which is sometimes the artist, sometimes not. Where the worship service felt a little long for me, the Songwriter Showcase could have gone til morning and I still would be in my seat. It was just incredible. Each song is performed simply and acoustically, so you have rock bands going unplugged, and some songs simply performed with piano or guitar. Joel Lindsey and Sue Smith performed their Hoppers cut, "He Erased It" with piano and 2 part harmony - beautiful. Leeland did their Dove nominated "Tears of the Saints". I'd never heard this song before (I think most people over 25 hadn't either), but it was truly moving. You could feel something shifting in the room as this 'kid' sang about saving the lost of this world. Really incredible.

Another favourite moment for me was Toby Mac singing his hip-hop song "Made to Love" in an acoustic arrangement. I love this song, but to hear it performed with just 2 voices, guitar, and a guy on beat box was really cool. Mark Hall ended the night with "East to the West", which I just love.

Today was my last full day at GMA Week, so after exchanging email addresses and cell phone numbers, I finally got in my car to go home. I walked in the door at 1 am. I'm wired and exhausted and nowhere near ready to sleep. I can't believe I have to work tomorrow morning...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

GMA Indie Impact - Day 1

I don't know why I'm still up! It was an early and a long day, and tomorrow will be even earlier and longer, but I really need to write a little before turning in for the night.

So, today was Day 1 of my GMA Week experience. As I wrote earlier, I have been blessed with a scholarship to attend the weekend workshop called Indie Impact. The goal of these workshops is to help the indie artist, and I think they did a fairly good job of that today.

The morning started bright and early with music by husband and wife duo, The Dentes. Actually, they reminded me a little of me and Gerald. I really liked their melodies, but the sound was not good, so I couldn't hear any of their lyrics. The husband is a fantastic guitar player (lots of tapping and cool stuff), so that was awesome.

They were followed by amazing guest speaker Nate Larkin. The core of his speech was how having a false persona can keep you from God. He had this terrific metaphor about how sometimes we act like dogs - faithful, loyal, obedient - but then that cat side of us comes out - wild, independent, wandering. He build the metaphor in a detailed way to illustrate the different ways we relate to God. Really great speaker!

Next we had the only panel of the day to discuss "How big is your 'Why'?". It was all about purpose and your calling, but frankly, I'm pretty clear on that stuff, and nothing really new was said for me.

But what followed next was fantastic. Tom Jackson is a world-renowned performance coach. His speciality is developing a live show that will engage your audience and leave them changed. He didn't do any hands on work today, but he did lay out the basics of his theories, which was incredible. Took lots of notes!

At lunch, I ran into fellow Canadians Ali Matthews and Rick Francis. They're both very cool and super-talented, so that was all good.

After lunch, we started with a booking seminar with Tara Leigh Cobble. You may not have heard of Tara, but in her first year as an indie artist, she played over 200 shows. For those who are wondering, that's incredible! She is a booking machine, and she broke down her techniques and strategies into very doable pieces. She is just an absolute work horse, and reminded us that making music is 'blue collar work' - You have be prepared to work hard and get your hands dirty. Very inspiring!

Next was a workshop on using the internet. I was excited about this one, but it ended up being a thinly-veiled commercial for a company who provides internet services for artists. The one good thing was they discussed creative ways to connect with fans, so that was useful. They mentioned several times that we should all be blogging. One step ahead of you there...

We had a workshop labeled "Multiple Streams of Revenue" which sounded great and was. In addition to discussing the multiple streams, Vince Wilcox also gave a great and simple overview on money management for artists. Money is so rarely discussed in a healthy and practical way in ministry circles, so I think this was just great for everybody.

We ended the day with a short worship session with Alli Rogers. Great voice, and I think we all needed to sing a bit at that point.

At the end of the day, I met up with Tara Jackson to tell her about the workshops, go over my new bio, and to get her new CD! Yay, Tara!

Tomorrow morning starts again at 8 am... or, you know ... 8ish...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Allison Durham Speer interview day...

It's getting late and I really need to stop working if I want to get any sleep. I've been shut down lately due to allergies. I forgot how horrible they were! I had a long list of goals for last week, and the only thing I accomplished was singing in church on Sunday (which went very well). I finally got in a good work mode today, so despite the late hour, it's kind of hard to stop!

Before I forget, please check out my latest SGM Radio article, Ben Speer and the Elvis Sessions. (I can't believe I didn't post this earlier!) It was such a pleasure to tell this story!

I met with Allison Durham Speer today to interview her for next month's article. We had lunch at the fabulous, tucked away Caesar's - home style Italian food, delicious! After lunch, we chatted about her family, her constant dedication to improving her craft, and her new project, The Elijah Conference. That article will be up May 1. I promise I'll post a link sooner than mid-May!

Despite the allergy-ridden week, a few great things have happened. I've received some great feedback on Real Big Fan, including a few amazing quotes for my web site. I've also started revamping my entire press kit, including a brand new bio.

And here's the really exciting thing: I hadn't planned on attending GMA Week this year, but yesterday, I was offered a scholarship to attend Indie Impact. This is the first 2 days of GMA, focusing on the needs of the indie artist. It includes seminars, 2 worship services featuring amazing speakers and musicians, and the Songwriters Showcase (the highlight of last year's GMA Week). Even though I hadn't planned on attending, I'm really crazy excited about going. I really need something like this right now. I'll be blogging all weekend, so feel free to join in on the festivities.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Dottie Rambo at NSAI!

What a night! NSAI's Christian Writers Night is always great, but tonight, it was truly incredible: Dottie Rambo was the guest speaker!

I've been a fan of Dottie's for years. Her lyrics and melodies are inspiring and beautiful, and should be assigned homework for every Gospel songwriter. I've sung many of her songs, and "Sheltered In the Arms of God" has been particularly important for me. Monika and I have sung it together many times, and in my time of grieving, it carried me through many hard moments.

I'd never seen Dottie live, though I've heard and seen her many times on TV and CDs. I also have cassette tapes of her songwriting classes, so I've heard some of her personal stories. In person, she is very, very tiny. She wore a leather suit and full, fabulous make-up. And for those with an interest: She plays a Martin.

Guest speaker nights are organized with a one-hour interview, followed by a Q&A. We heard a lot about her childhood, including a wonderful description of her first discovery of her songwriting talents. First song at 8, touring at 12, and a publishing deal in her early twenties - what a life! She has now written over 2500 songs! It's no wonder Fanny Crosby is her hero. Who else is that prolific?

The guest speaker is always invited to play a few songs, so Dottie picked up her guitar and asked if there were any requests. Everyone else hesitated, so I called out "Sheltered in the Arms of God". She took a deep breath. Just seven months before his passing, Porter Wagoner and she recorded this song for her latest album (yes, she's still recording!). As she told the story, her voice choked up, and it became clear to me that this song has blessed the writer as much as its listeners. As she played the first verse, she forgot a few of the chords. But she was wonderful as she laughed at herself and said, "Hey Songwriters, do it this way!" She then invited us to sing along on the chorus, which was just incredible! Some people sang parts. Most of us choked back tears. What a blessing!

She had wonderful stories about the amazing people who have recorded her songs, like Whitney Houston and Elvis Presley. Apparently, Elvis was scheduled to record an entire album of her songs, but it was near the end, and his failing health prevented him from completing the project. Can you imagine Elvis doing "I Go to the Rock"? Such a loss...

Oh, and another interesting story: She wasn't allowed to record "I Go to the Rock" for four years after she wrote it! Other people could record it, but her record label wouldn't allow her to record it because it was "too rock and roll". Funny, huh?

She wrapped up the interview by leading the whole group in sing "If That Isn't Love". Wonderful!

After the formal interview, the floor was opened for questions. What I love about Dottie, besides her incredible talent, is her complete humility, and her awesome sense of humour. She doesn't take herself too seriously, and she loves a good practical joke (who knew?). She often spoke about her love of music, God, and people. She answered questions generously and with a loving spirit.

She recognizes her fame, but at the same time said, "The Lord is the star. You'd be a fool to try to outshine Him."

What an incredible, incredible night! I was talking to my aunt in Newfoundland today and telling her a little of my recent experiences. She remarked on all the amazing opportunities we're getting here in Nashville, and how we never would have had most of these experiences had we not taken the leap of faith to move here. I think tonight is the perfect example of such an experience!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

I'm going to release my first single!

Yes indeed, it's a big weekend for radio around here!

First, a little Tin Pan South update: I was under the weather a few days last week, so we missed two nights of concerts. Friday we went to see "The Hit Men" - Jeffrey Steele, Bob DiPiero, Tony Mullins and my favourite, Craig Wiseman. We saw them last year and loved them, but this year's show was so poorly organized, it just wasn't enjoyable. We actually left partway through. Some stuff came up Saturday, and with the bad taste of Friday still in our mouths, we just blew off Saturday's shows. With the exception of Tuesday's outstanding show, it was a pretty disappointing week.

But of course, Friday I heard my song, which got me uber-excited, and now I'm ready to announce the next exciting thing in our lives: I'm going to release my first single!!!

I've never done this before, and I'm quickly realizing I know nothing about radio! Luckily, I'm surrounded by some gifted and trustworthy advisers. There are still lots of details to work out, so I don't want to say too much yet, but suffice to say, tune in to your radios May 1st!

Over the next month, I'll be doing a play-by-play of how this whole thing is going to come together, so check back often and join me on my learning curve.

Inspired by Tuesday's show and the excitement of my new challenge, here's the song in my head this weekend:

I'm diving in
I'm going deep
In over my head I wanna be
Caught in the rush
Lost in the flow
In over my head I wanna go
The river's deep
The river's wide
The river's water is alive
So sink or swim
I'm diving in

(by Steven Curtis Chapman)

Friday, April 04, 2008

I'm on the radio right now!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm at work by myself, so I'm listening to SGM Radio online, and they're playing my song!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm just listening, and it's all good music, and suddenly I'm hearing the clarinet and intro to DO YOU WANNA BE MY NEIGHBOUR IN GLORYLAND!!!!!

I am totally freaking out right now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tin Pan South - GMA Night

We're all set for a busy week of concerts. Tin Pan South is a nightly celebration of the songwriter and the song. We've bought passes, so we're planning on seeing one or two shows per night til Saturday.

As soon as I got the program, I knew I would have to see tonight's show at the Rutledge. GMA partnered with NSAI to present a night of Christian songwriters featuring Stephen Curtis Chapman, Billy Gaines, Ashley Cleveland, Geoff Moore, and Matthew West. In short - amazing!

Obviously, I'm well acquainted with Stephen Curtis Chapman's music. He was an excellent host, and as he and Geoff are co-writers, he often joined in on his songs too. He played his new hit, "Cinderella", which celebrates the father-daughter relationship - something that means a lot to me. He also sang his classic "I Will Be There" which I sang years ago at my cousin's wedding. Listening to it tonight, sitting next to Gerald, the whole song just took on a deeper meaning.

Geoff More has an incredible voice and great songs. My favourite was "Erase", inspired by a trip to Rwanda. It's basically a plea to erase the differences between us and Jesus so that we may see and hear and love like Him. Beautiful!

Billy Gaines has a soulful voice and a great message. His songs showed a great sense of rhythm and pocket and improvisation.

It was funny about Matthew West. I'd heard his name many times, but I didn't really how many of his songs I know and love. I found myself singing along with him all night. He debuted a incredible song about his wife's journey to God that had the whole place singing along. Gerald said he's a little like a Christian Jason Mraz. Very cool!

And Ashley Cleveland - so amazing! That huge soulful voice and great stage presence and that cool pink guitar and just rocking praise. She had this great song about prodigals called "Little Black Sheep", and every time she sang it was engaging and cool.

There was so much to love about tonight. Every song was unique and strong - not a weak one in the bunch. And every singer had great vocals and strong communication skills.

I wish critics of Christian music were there tonight. If you think Christian music is wimpy, listen to Ashley Cleveland. If you think Christian music is geeky, listen to Matthew West. And if you think people go into Christian music because they can't make it in 'real' music, well, just listen to any of them!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

WAJ - Better late than never!

Yes, Write About Jesus was Saturday and it's now Tuesday, but I really haven't been on my computer all weekend. Mom and Dad left very early yesterday morning (we were all at the Cracker Barrel for breakfast at 6 am!), and I really just wanted to spend every minute with them. We didn't do a whole lot of 'activities' last week - just spending time together and chatting and going for walks and eating great food. They arrived safely home last night, and grateful prayers were raised.

I'm having my first quiet morning in weeks, and Dante is thrilled. He keeps bringing me chewed up balls and socks and other such treasures. It rained all last night, and the colours outside are cool and saturated. The air is soft and the birds are discussing the blessings of sunshine. And so, I get some quiet time to write.

Write About Jesus was an incredible day! Sue Smith does something wonderful with her workshops - she puts everyone on the same level. There is no separation of 'teacher' and 'student', or 'professional' and 'amateur'. Everyone is accessible; everyone's talent is respected. And because of that, you feel empowered and encouraged to share and learn.

This was my second workshop, so it was a bit of a reunion for me as well. Besides other WAJ people, I also met some Shoutlife and Song U folks.

My first workshop was Crafting Great Lyrics with Tony Wood, who wrote the lyric for "Shepherd of the Hills". The class was great, and after, I made a point of introducing myself. I was thrilled to hear that he was happy with my recording of "Shepherd". He said, "You were the right home for that song." How awesome is that?

Next I did Song Painting with Joel Lindsey. I'd heard great things about this class from several people, and I was not disappointed. He basically talks about using the words and notes to reflect the emotion of the song. The whole class was awesome, with detailed examples and exercises to do at home.

The class I was most excited about was Joel and Sue's Writing Musicals. It was only an hour, but I think it really could have gone on for half a day at least. There was so much information! The class was really well organized and very inspiring.

After lunch, Gerald and I hooked up and sat in on some song critiques. It's one thing to sit in on a great lecture, but it's another to watch these writers break down a song and make suggestions on improving it. The WAJ clinicians always have an eye to the market - "Where could we place this song?", "Who might record this song?" They're always open to saying, "So-and-so is looking for this kind of song right now. You should send it to...". WAJ is a great chance to get connected to the actual publishing and recording community, and I think we all appreciate that.

Our final workshop for the day was the Publisher Panel with Joel, Holly Zabka, and Rick Shelton. This was a great chance to look at the business of songwriting through the perspective of those pitching and selling the songs. Joel publishes, but as a writer, Holly is his publisher, so it was really helpful to see that writer-publisher relationship and learn more about that too.

They had 2 concerts planned for the evening, but we wanted to get in as much family time as possible, so we left early. This week is NSAI's Tin Pan South, so we'll be getting more than our fair share of concerts in the next few days!