May 02, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


The Word in the Words 

The gospel of the tune.

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Love songs are fairly common in pop music, but the idea takes on a different dimension when the object of that love is Jesus Christ.

Or the love demonstrated to humanity in the Lord's preparation of heaven.  Or a collective global love under one deity.

These are themes that gospel musicians have long addressed through their songs, but the genre's come a long way from chanting Gregorian monks.

"A lot of songs nowadays are not biblical text," says the Rev.  Chuck Traylor, minister of worship and music at Grove Avenue Baptist Church.  "The main thing in Christian music is going to be the message of the songs.  They need to have some value to it.  To be biblical, be correct theologically and be honoring to the Lord."

Many of the songs Traylor picked for the service two Sundays ago were not fresh out of Scripture, but rather meditations on themes from the Bible modeling Christian responses to human events.

Former congregant Rachael Hill had died in the tragedy at Virginia Tech, Traylor says, and the congregation was hurting, had questions.  So he selected "It Is Well With My Soul," a song written by an attorney in Chicago in 1873 after all four of his daughters died in a shipwreck in England.  Prior to that, a soloist sang "I Can Only Imagine," a radio hit by the contemporary Christian group Mercy Me.

The messages born in gospel music can comfort, but they can also convince.  Ashland gospel vocalist Bubba Johnson once received a call from a fan who told him he was depressed, holding a drug-loaded syringe, when Johnson's song  "Cast All of Your Cares" came on the radio.  He dropped the needle.

Johnson sings at services for five Richmond-area churches each month when he's in town.  He also stays busy performing with four backup female vocalists, a keyboardist, a bass player, a congo player and a drummer.  Because most of those musicians have day jobs, when he travels during the week, he performs solo.

Following his calling from state to church, last year Johnson retired early from a career in government to perform full time.  

Not all gospel music dwells in church pews.  Austin Stalnaker performs with Crucial Elements, a reggae band with a monthly gig at the Cary Street Café.  Stalnaker, who identifies himself as a Christian in the sect of Messianic Jews, says he would have played gospel, but was drawn to reggae.

Although the band does not advertise itself as a Christian rock act, Stalnaker says reggae leaves plenty of room for him to get his message across.  He points to a long tradition of Bob Marley and other reggae singers sowing images of Zion and references to King David's Psalms into their music.

"I feel you can be religious in reggae, and it's not so contrived; it doesn't alienate so many people," Stalnaker says.  "After a show, when I talk to people, that's the time to do it.  It's not necessarily with the mic in your hand.

"That's a hook, I'm a fisherman," he says.  "They see you're an artist and they want to know what makes me tick.  Jesus makes me tick, Yeshua makes me tick."

Austin Stalnaker

Singer for Crucial Elements

Alias: The Jah Lifter.

His crew: Two guitars, keyboard, drum, bass and three-part vocal harmony.

Favorite lyric: "Jah children we have to fight to against the waves, because there's peace on the other side of the breakers."

What brought him into the fold: Stalnaker grew up in a secular family, but was drawn to religion after reading "The Jesus Generation" by Billy Graham.

The Rev.  Chuck Traylor

Minister of Worship and Music, Grove Avenue Baptist Church

His crew: Roughly 130 singers in the choir.

Gigs: Two a week, 9:15 and 11 a.m.  on Sundays.

Bills, bills, bills: Christian love won't get your congregation songs for free.  Depending on the size of your church, congregations can pay a flat fee to Christian Copyright Licensing International to acquire lyric sheets that can be printed out or projected on screens for Sunday sing-alongs.

What brought him into the fold: Traylor grew up in the church and felt called to music ministry when he was a junior in high school.

Wardrobe malfunction: The Grove Avenue choir went without robes for a while after donating their old ones to a church in Africa.

Bubba Johnson

Gospel vocalist

His crew: Four backup singers, four band members.

Gigs: At least once a Sunday.

Favorite lyric: "What mama instilled in me it still lingers on," from his song "Tribute to Mama."

What brought him into the fold: Johnson's mother instilled his love for music and the church, earning her a tribute song (see above).

Recent highlight: Johnson recorded music live at Fifth Baptist Church with nationally known gold-record vocalist Dorothy Norwood.

Little gold statues: At the 1st Annual En Sound Music Award, Johnson and the Omega Singers won for Traditional Gospel Performance.

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