Your Gateway to Music and More from a Christian Perspective
Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music by Mark Allan Powell
Hendrickson Publishers, 2002
This book has been a long time coming, and is sure to stand as the top resource for fans of contemporary Christian music. At a whopping 1088 pages Powell has done us all a great service by providing an extremely comprehensive look at the many bands, artists, and trends that make up the CCM scene. Included is a CD-ROM, which features the full text of the book (downloadable as a .pdf file) as well as other useful resources and web links.
When I first got the book, my inclination was to see if my favorite artists and bands were included, and for the most part they were. I then asked a bunch of friends to provide me with their favorite obscure artists, and sure enough, a large majority were included. Most of the artists that he failed to mention fall into the category of rather obscure independent bands, though to his credit, Powell has included many artists that are obscure and independent. It is rare that I read an encyclopedia cover to cover, but I did just that in this case, and learned a lot in the meantime. The book is so complete that by reading it you also get a great sense of the history of CCM from its roots, through all of its phases, to the present day. He covers the family trees that show how different bands and artists have been related over the years, while also including interesting anecdotes and reports on where some of those "missing" artists have turned up over the years. (Did any of us know that CCM pioneer Lewis McVay ended up wearing a Tigger costume in Disneyland?) Very few stones are left unturned. One gets the feeling that he didn't merely do his research, but actually listened to much of what he writes about. Boy, I'd like to get my hands on his music collection!
For this book, Powell has taken a rather broad definition of CCM, including many bands that are better known for their work in mainstream music, but who feature lyrics of a "spiritual" nature. He admits that some of them may or may not actually be Christians, but he included them for their contributions to the music scene, as well as the fact that at some point in time their music has been speculated on and discussed by Christians. This includes bands like U2, Creed, Eric Clapton, Violent Femmes, Rick James, Peter Green, Bob Dylan, and Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush. On the other side, there are many more obscure bands from the indie music scene that readers of the Tollbooth will be familiar with, such as Jai Agnish (though he mistakenly lists him under "J" as Jai Anguish), Luke Brindley, Appleseed Cast, Kate Campbell, and Danielsen (who interestingly enough gets a full page and half entry.)
And as for the entries, Powell is usually very balanced. Bands that deserve longer examinations, such as Daniel Amos, the 77s, Bob Dylan, Jars of Clay, Larry Norman, Amy Grant, and Phil Keaggy, generally get their due. The importance of the artist and the size of their body of work usually dictates the length of the entry (more on that later). And he doesn't pull any punches. Examined throughout are the many controversies and scandals that have rocked the CCM world, from the infidelities of Sandy Patty and Michael English, to the suicide of Vince Ebo, on to the criminal activities of Jonathan David Brown, and even the many travails of Larry Norman over the years. He addresses them in a very evenhanded manner while discussing their impact on their music and the industry at large.
Having said all this, I do have a few nits to pick. Apart from some occasional misspellings of names and miscategorizations (which are to be expected in an undertaking of this size), there are some areas I found a bit troubling.
First off, rather than merely reporting the facts on the bands, Powell often delves into the area of theology that some might find troubling. And even though I agree with him on a few of those points, such critiques probably don't belong in such books. He often finds fault in the end-times musings of certain artists. But most troubling is his finding fault with artists for what he calls their overly Evangelical or Fundamental leanings (two terms which he wrongly uses interchangably, tending to use the definitions that the mainstream media and world have applied to these words, rather than their true meanings.) There are constant jabs at evangelicalism as if it were some small abberant segment of the Christian world, when in fact it is probably the segment most responsible for the majority of CCM. As background, it might be helpful to realize that Powell is a professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and seems to come from a more liberal segment of Christianity than do most artists that he is writing about.
Secondly, to take the theology issue a bit further, Powell seems to gloss over the issue of homosexuality when it relates to certain artists, appearing to be very accepting of such behavior, which certainly is further to the left of most CCM artists and Evangelical Christianity. He spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the early contributions of Marsha Stevens, who, after a failed marriage, announced she was a lesbian. Powell seems to hold Stevens up as some kind of hero, and at five pages, he seems to give her more importance than she is due. Christians are generally tweaked in these entries for not being accepting of homosexual behavior. However, this issue only affects a few of the listings in the book.
And finally, there is the issue of how some artists are included and the length of their particular entries. As mentioned before, Powell tends to hit the mark in almost all cases. But does Kathie Lee Gifford really warrant two entries (one under her current name and one under her maiden name)? And why include someone like Terry Bradshaw, whose contribution amounts to just one really bad country gospel album? More nitpicking reveals that Ric Alba of the Altar Boys gets an entry under his own name (as well as under the band's name) while someone as important to the industry as Gene Eugene doesn't get his own listing. As for one of my favorite bands, CUSH, Powell refers to them in the past tense, even though the band continues to be quite prolific (with hopes of putting out about five albums this year alone). And his listing for the band shows that he doesn't seem to understand the concept behind what they are trying to do. And then his denominational proclivities get in the way with inordinately lengthy listings for the very few Lutheran artists who appear in the book. While Jonathan Rundman is a wonderful artist, he is a relatively unknown independent artist, yet he receives nearly three full pages of attention, and the even lesser known John Ylvisaker gets nearly a full page, while many more popular and historically significant bands get short-shrift.
But despite these gripes, Powell's Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music is an amazing volume that readers of the Tollbooth will want on their reference shelf. Heck, you know a book is good when it lists The Phantom Tollbooth as one of the two best Internet resources for Christian music information (the other being the all but defunct True Tunes site, which at one time was a great resource). Informative, comprehensive, and entertaining, you'll spend hours looking up entries for all of your favorite artists, and more often than not you'll find yourself saying, "It's in there!" I anxiously awaited the updated and corrected second volume, which I hope is already in the works.
Ken Mueller 1/29/03
This is a remarkable work. It is utterly breath taking in its breadth of artists included, the depth of the study of those artists and the heights in which it reaches in the writing and even in the theological content socio-musical commentary. It is fascinating at every sitting, turning up another artist to investigate and evaluate, nearly always bringing another gem of knowledge or insight. Mark Allen Powell is a New Testament Professor. You can tell. What may not look to be of advantage to a book on music quickly becomes one as we enjoy the thoroughness of research, the adroit theological perspective, cultural and artistic insight and the contextualization of bands, albums and themes and the academic yet accessible tone of the entire work.
Everybody who has a Christian faith and loves music should have this on their shelf. There are many Christians who avoid the ghetto that is Contemporary Christian Music; this book is about a much bigger vision. Alongside every artist ever to record an album or do a gig in that particular sub cultural ghetto apart from the only omissions that I have yet to find, Beki Hemingway and Belfast’s Brian Houston, there are those artists who have taken their faith with them into the “real” world. Bob Dylan, U2, T-Bone Burnette, and Daniel Lanois are among the least expected.
Artists who perhaps were a thorn in the CCM industry's side get their deserved dignity and respect; see Larry Norman, the 77s and Leslie/Sam Phliiips. If only Powell was the buying public, justice would have prevailed in the Charts! Mark Heard gets six pages of lyrical analysis. With Sarah Masen he takes time to get inside the very mindset of the artist and her approach to the industry pinpointing her philosophy on “a wry smile”; surely this detail unexpected, unnecessary and gloriously unequalled!
Where other rock encyclopaedias have a tendency to skip and skim to be economical with the number of pages, Powell has time and room for the most in depth look at the artists who deserve it. Entries for Larry Norman, Steve Taylor and the 77s are literally the best biographies written with facts and statistics never getting in the way of a thorough look at the content of the songs.
Errors? Of course, but they are being put right with every new printing. For the record English poet and broadcaster Stewart Henderson who co writes with Welsh singer songwriter Martyn Joseph is mistaken for Jack Henderson an Englishman who joined Over The Rhine for a period. Am I picking hairs? Most definitely!
I did say everyone should have one. Let me say it one more time. Everyone should have one. Simply immense!
Steve Stockman 4/22/2003