CCM Crossroads -- Myths, fishbowls & reality

It's an archetypal image in Nashville mythology - a young singer pulling into town with a one-way bus ticket, a guitar, a pack of songs and big dreams.

The ones Charlie Peacock meets also carry worn-out Bibles and are convinced God wants them to use their music to save souls.

"I've come into contact with my share of aspiring Christian recording artists," said the veteran of two decades of secular and sacred work as a songwriter, performer, producer and record- company executive. "If I had a nickel - make that a dollar - for every time one of them told me he was writing with unbelievers in mind ... I'd be as rich as Bill Gates."

The problem is that singing to unbelievers isn't what Contemporary Christian Music artists actually do. They sign contracts to produce what Peacock calls "a kind of Christianized pop-rock music - music which changes with the pop music of the surrounding culture."

It's a niche product called "CCM" and selling it has become a $500 to $1 billion-a-year business, depending on who does the counting. As a rule, CCM is sold in Christian stores to Christian consumers, who hear it played on Christian radio or at Christian concerts. These professionals are paid to preach to the choir.

Contemporary Christian musicians know they have to use explicitly Christian images and code words or their core fans will revolt. They also know they have to avoid many controversial, gripping, soul-wracking issues that are fair game for secular performers. This makes it hard for CCM artists to write openly and honestly about the pains and joys in their real lives.

The rare "crossover" artists who succeed on the religious and mainstream charts face even greater pressures. If Nashville is a fishbowl in which celebrities struggle to maintain a smidgen of privacy, then CCM stars live in a fishbowl perched over a Bunsen burner.

"There are so many people who are way too obsessed with their favorite CCM artists. This means they are just as obsessed with entertainment as anybody else in this culture, only they're obsessed with Christian entertainers instead of secular entertainers," said Peacock, who recently finished writing "At the Crossroads," a book describing what he believes is an identity crisis within this industry.

"Either way, this isn't healthy. ... I can't tell you how many people tell me that they don't even go to church anymore because CCM has become their church. They see their favorite CCM stars as ministers, not musicians. Stop and think about that."

No one has inspired more soul searching than pop diva Amy Grant, whose songs have evolved from praise choruses into smooth statements of quiet faith and a few nagging doubts. In 1991 her innocent, yet flirty, "Baby, Baby" video infuriated many fans, who accused her of selling out for secular success. Last year, many insiders said her "Behind the Eyes" album shouldn't be considered for a Gospel Music Association Dove Award because it contained few, if any, clearly Christian lyrics.

Now, Grant and her husband Gary Chapman, a singer-songwriter who hosts TNN's "Prime Time Country" talk show, have announced their separation after 16 years of marriage. The singers asked their fans to pray. Meanwhile, the tabloids are preying.

Once again, it's time for debates about the state of CCM's soul. The bottom line, argues Peacock, is that many of these painful tensions are rooted in clashing views of "what this music is supposed to be and what it's supposed to accomplish."

After all, there are outspoken religious conservatives who still believe that music that includes any elements of rock 'n' roll is, by definition, Satanic. Others insist that CCM must return to being merely a tool of evangelism, especially with the young. Meanwhile, there are millions of evangelicals - usually grooving in megachurch pews -- who have yanked every imaginable style of pop music right into their worship services.

"If I could wave a wand and make it all go away so we could start over, would I do that? You bet," said Peacock. "But that isn't an option. The question is: What are we going from here?"