Remember the days when Grammy-nominated and Dove Award-winning artist NewSong merely thrived in the blooming music industry? Those decades when recording acts toured from coast to coast to generate album sales? But then the digital music revolution turned conventional thinking on its head. Today, instead of touring to move units, most artists release new music to drive fans to their concerts. And in this new era where tours rule the day, who is one of Christian music’s primary gatekeepers and most influential bands?
But make no mistake; this group’s remarkable story is more about faithfulness and the favor of God than one band’s daring innovation. In fact, the most pivotal moments in NewSong’s career repeatedly begged the question: What was NewSong thinking?
Even the act’s first major label deal still raises eyebrows. For that matter, one might have asked what the Word Records label group was thinking, taking a chance on a vocal ensemble from Valdosta, Georgia. When Eddie Carswell and Billy Goodwin, who continue to lead the evolving group, started out in 1981, neither of them imagined NewSong would repeatedly outdo itself for so many years and counting. After all, with the exception of U2, what breakout band sees its third decade eclipse its first two?
“I attribute that to God having His hand on us and helping us in spite of ourselves,” says Eddie. “We’ve tried to be faithful to our mission – to tell people about our relationship with Christ – since the beginning. I remember thinking, even before we started NewSong, that it’d be great to have a group of real guys that you could relate to, get up on stage, hold an audience’s attention with great music and then share how to come to know Christ. Even though we love the music, the ministry part of what we do is the main focus.”
Indeed, try getting Eddie or Billy to reflect on NewSong’s notable success – the 20 #1 radio singles, numerous awards, and national television appearances are the tip of the iceberg – and they’ll immediately take you back to what matters most, their mission. Even from the outside looking in, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a heart for evangelism has always defined what they do. And that, perhaps more than anything, makes their repeated achievements – including some absolute stunners – so extraordinary.
For instance, consider NewSong’s most enduring recordings. This is a band that could fill two entire albums with its #1 singles alone. Yet the group’s two most requested, most performed songs, “The Christmas Shoes” and “Arise My Love,” were never major hits at Christian radio – not even close. And you could write a book about “The Christmas Shoes.” (Or make a movie … or, hey, both.)
Believe it or not, as an afterthought, NewSong recorded what would become not only the biggest song of its career, but one of America’s most beloved Christmas standards. Mainstream stations took the song to #1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, and the crossover hit, which also invaded the country charts, touched off a dramatic domino effect that continues to this day. Highlights include a series of New York Times best-selling novels by Donna VanLiere, and two top-rated CBS television movies based on the books and featuring music from NewSong. (CBS’ The Christmas Blessing was television’s most-watched movie in 2005.) VanLiere’s fifth novel in the series, The Christmas Secret, just hit stores in October and the third book-based movie, The Christmas Hope, will air this holiday season.
Of course, the annual hoopla surrounding NewSong’s seasonal recordings has called for a major Christmas tour each year, and the band has been happy to oblige. After all, nobody does tours like NewSong. When the group introduced its annual “Winter Jam Tour Spectacular” in 1995, NewSong started to change the public face of Christian music. The mega-event on wheels has become one of the gospel music world’s biggest annual tours, with some history-making moments along the way—like setting a record in 1999 for the largest attended indoor event in South Carolina’s history.
“We wanted to do a concert in Greenville, South Carolina, and had already played the larger churches in the area, so we asked the promoter about the BI-LO Center,” recalls Eddie. “It was fairly short notice, and he explained the only dates he had open were in January. The promoter also said he had never filled the 15,000-seat venue with a Christian event, and that a January date wouldn’t give him enough lead time to sell tickets in advance.” Well, that settled that. “Yep, we told him we didn’t want to sell tickets anyway and decided to take donations at the door,” Eddie says. “The night of the concert, when they finally closed the doors, they had to turn 2,000 people away. The place was jam-packed – it was an unbelievable night.”
To this day, NewSong’s multi-artist, ticketless concerts give thousands the opportunity not only to hear incredible music but, of course, to also hear the Gospel message. During 2009’s Tour, more than 69,000 Winter Jam attendees made either a first-time commitment to follow Christ or rededicated their lives to Him. More than 335,000 fans attended the 35 dates of the 2009 Spectacular, ranking it among the largest tours of any kind during the year’s first quarter, according to Pollstar.
Among its most impressive feats, NewSong’s accessible brand of modern pop has long held the rapt attention of diverse audiences, which include pre-teens, grandparents, and everyone in between. In addition to founding the “Winter Jam Tour Spectacular,” NewSong organizes another series of annual events, which specifically target youth. Today, the band hosts five Xtreme Conferences each year with as many as 25,000-plus youth in attendance.
NewSong’s burden for youth extends beyond its primary goals of evangelism and encouraging discipleship, especially where abandoned and underprivileged children are concerned. For many years, the band partnered with World Vision, the evangelical relief organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide in tackling poverty and injustice. Then, in 2006, NewSong decided to focus its social justice efforts specifically on helping orphans through adoption. “We partnered with Holt International, which specializes in adoption and child welfare around the world,” explains Eddie. “By that time, Holt had already placed more than 50,000 children in loving homes, and had done all that under the radar. It’s been a real honor to come alongside them and tell others about them through our tours.” Winter Jam 2009, alone, resulted in the sponsorship of more than 4,600 children through Holt.
With an incomparable career still on the rise after all these years, the temptation to stay in your comfort zone must be substantial. But this is NewSong we’re talking about so … what comfort zone?
Not only is this band not playing it safe, NewSong shuffled the entire deck even as they prepared to release the long-awaited new album, Give Yourself Away. For starters, the band recently launched its own record label, His Honor Music. “We’ve had fantastic label partners in the past,” says Eddie, “but this gives us even more flexibility to do things on occasion that are a little more radical.”
Radical? Sounds like fun. And NewSong is working with innovative producer Charlie Peacock (Switchfoot, Ten Out of Tenn) for the first time, too. “There’s a real sense of anticipation as we enter this new place in our career. None of us ever dreamed in a million years that God would do all this through NewSong,” Eddie says. “The long and short of it is that He has blessed us in the midst of our weakness and here we are now 28 years later, and God’s still using us. Isn’t that crazy?”
Crazy good. And while there’s much to celebrate in this fresh season for NewSong, the major change that excites fans the most is the recent return of beloved lead singer Russ Lee. The singer/songwriter extraordinaire who captivated audiences during his first tenure (1993-2000) reunites in splendid fashion on the band’s new album.
While the groups that started with NewSong are either done or are having their occasional reunion tours, Eddie, Billy, Russ and company continue to nurture creativity by moving beyond conventional thinking. Or, as Eddie humbly puts it, “The innovative ideas that mark NewSong’s history don’t seem profound at the time; they just come about naturally.”
Thankfully for everyone involved, NewSong thinks the way it does.