Amy Grant has done more than blaze a trail for contemporary Christian music. Her later crossover and pop-rock albums determined the dialogue within evangelical popular music about what constitutes “Christian music.” She has been both the darling of the Christian music world and at times criticized as an artist who sold out her gospel message for the lucrative success of mainstream appeal. Those detractors are once again few, however, as Grant has musically gone back to even deeper roots than the folk-rock of her early albums; rather, two of her most recent releases have been collections of old church hymns she sang as a child.
On November 25, 1960, Amy Lee Grant was born to Burton and Gloria Grant in Augusta, Georgia, the youngest of four daughters. After her father’s medical residency in Augusta ended, her family relocated to a hundred-acre farm in Nashville. Grant’s parents raised her in a home where their Christian faith was central. On Sunday mornings with her Church of Christ congregation, Grant heard clear, rich harmonies accentuated by the hymns sung a cappella, a practice standard in that denomination. During her time at Nashville’s elite all-girls school, Harpeth Hall Academy, she left her parents’ church for one on Nashville’s Music Row. Feeling musically encouraged as never before, Grant soon picked up a guitar and began writing and performing her own songs. Sweeping floors at her part-time job in a Nashville recording studio soon yielded valuable connections, as producer Brown Bannister gave her permission to use the equipment to make a tape of her songs for her family. Executives at Word Records, a gospel recording company, shortly heard the tape, and a sixteen-year-old Grant signed a contract with Myrrh Records (Word’s Christian music label), releasing her self-titled debut album in 1976.
Grant juggled her record’s success, singing at churches, schools, and camps while attending college. She studied English literature at Furman and Vanderbilt Universities. While recording her next album, My Father’s Eyes, she met Gary Chapman, who penned the album’s title cut; they married in 1982. After Grant left college before earning her B.A., her music transitioned from the folksy singer/songwriter style imitative of her favorite artists at the time to a pop/rock sound that was more Carole King and Elton John than James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. She next released Age to Age in 1983, which garnered her not only two Dove Awards for Contemporary Album of the Year and Artist of the Year but a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance. Selling 1.5 million copies, the album made Grant the first white solo gospel artist to earn a gold record.
Three albums later, Grant broke the contemporary Christian mold with Unguarded (1985), a record produced with the pop mainstream in mind (secular radio played the song “Find a Way,” which later showed up as a music video on MTV). Songs explicitly about or referring to Christ, which had been the trademark and identity for the contemporary Christian genre to that point, were in shorter supply on this album. In 1987, Grant became a mother when her son Matt was born, and her new role in life spurred 1988’s Lead Me On, her most critically acclaimed album, which contained even fewer evangelical catch phrases. As her songs increasingly focused on broad themes like love and social action/awareness, they became less easily shelved under a purely Christian label.
If her previous crossover success had stoked the fires of debate over what defined contemporary music as Christian, Grant’s full-out mainstream success with Heart in Motion sealed it for some Christian music fans; one of the songs reached number one on pop, gospel, and adult contemporary charts (“Baby, Baby,” inspired by Grant’s second child, her daughter Millie), and three of the album’s other songs were top-ten hits. In 1992, Sarah Cannon (named for Opry legend Minnie Pearl), Grant’s second daughter, was born. The following lighthearted House of Love album went double platinum and featured a duet between Grant and Vince Gill on the title cut.
In 1998, Grant released her darkest album, Behind the Eyes, and audiences soon drew connections between news of Grant’s impending divorce and the album’s themes of longing and regret. Especially after she married Vince Gill in 2000 (she divorced Chapman in 1999), some Christian radio stations refused to play Grant’s songs. In 2001, she gave birth to Corinna Grant Gill, and she began collaborating with Gill on albums that reemphasized acoustic sets over the pop sound that won her mainstream appeal.
Amy Grant’s Tennessee Christmas, a concert with her hometown Nashville Symphony and other guest artists, first took place in 1993 and soon became a tradition in the capital city. These concerts generated such revenue for the symphony that officials expressed their appreciation in 2006 by naming the new Kenneth Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s stage in the Laura Turner Concert Hall after Grant. Grant is a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.