Sparrow Flies High With Rock Sermons

Los Angeles Times
April 1st, 1984
© 1984 Los Angeles Times
Thanks to Rob Marshall

By Martin Halstuk

Billy Ray Hearn is trying to put God into rock 'n' roll.

As president of Sparrow Records, the nation's largest independently owned Christian music record company, Hearn has gone a step beyond the evangelical messages that have traditionally been set to ballads and country music and instead has set religious lyrics to rock 'n' roll and new-wave recordings. Many of the new releases on the Sparrow label sound just like the pop music played on any Top 40 radio station. The difference is the messages.

"The lyrics are not just about Jesus or God, but about life from a Christian point of view," Hearn said with a faint Southern drawl. "They could be love songs, they could be anything, but they're from a Christian point of view in music."

Mostly, Sparrow's audience is white, middle class, Protestant, between the ages of 18 and 35, and "came up in the rock culture and wants the Christian experience in music they've come up with," said Bill Hearn, Billy Ray Hearn's 24-year-old son, and Sparrow's senior vice president. "We take the music of the street and apply Christian lyrics to it. We try to reach them with music they can understand and relate to."

Last year, the Canoga Park company, which was founded in 1976, sold more than 2 million records and cassettes worth about $8 million, and Hearn anticipates earnings of about $10 million this year.

Sparrow's success mirrors the growth of what the record industry calls Contemporary Christian Music or CCM. One such artist, Amy Grant, who records on the ABC-owned Myrrh label and who will appear at the Universal Amphitheatre Friday and Saturday, is the first CCM artist singer to go gold with "Age to Age." Selling 500,000 record albums may not make the heavens shake compared to the 30-million-plus worldwide sales of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album. But, keep in mind, we're talking about Christian music, not traditional pop music.

Grand's popularity, while not on the Sparrow label, is in a sense a tribute to Billy Ray Hearn. Hearn is credited with creating Myrrh, the Contemporary Christian Music label of ABC-owned Word Records, in the early 1970s. In 1976, Hearn left Myrrh, based in Waco, Tex., to start his own label, Sparrow.

In his Sparrow office, Hearn drops an album, "War of Love" by English Christian singer Sheila Walsh, onto a turntable.

"She's our own Pat Benatar," Hearn said, and in terms of production quality, Hearn isn't exaggerating in his comparison with the sexy "secular" rock 'n' roll Grammy winner: the Walsh album has been produced by British rock superstar Cliff Richard, himself a born-again Christian. The difference between a Benatar and a Walsh is not in the medium, but in the words.

Here, for instance, is the chorus to Walsh's "God Put a Fighter in Me":

Where have all the Christian soldiers gone
Where is the resistance will not one be strong
When will we stand up tall and straight
Rise up and storm the gate
How can we fail to get excited
The battle is ours why don't we fight it
Battalions of darkness rise above me
But God put a fighter in me

In the early 1960s, Hearn brought folk guitar music into a Texas church where he was choir director. Then he introduced drums. Now, it's rock 'n' roll.

"We may be offending some of the old saints," Hearn said, laughing. "Tradition is always hard to break."

Christian rock 'n' roller Steve Taylor, also a Sparrow artist, breaks tradition with a sledge hammer. Taylor doesn't gentle chide people to live Christian lives, promising salvation in exchange for accepting Jesus Christ as the Savior. Taylor rages.

You act like you're above it all
You say faith is a crutch
For a mind that's closed
You guzzle your crutch
and shove it up your nose

You save the whales
You save the seals
You save whatever's cute and squeals
But you kill "that thing"
That's in the womb
Would not want no baby boom

You say humanist philosophy is
What it's all about
You're so open minded
That your brains leaked out

Taylor's lyrics, set to a heavy rock beat, reflect the right-wing attitudes of many Moral Majority fundamentalists. For example, two sentiments he expresses in his first album, "I Want to Be a Clone," are anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality.

I hear the Reverend say
Gay is probably normal
In the Good Lord's sight
What's to be debated
Jesus never stated what's right
I'm no theology nut but
The Reverend may be a little confused

Taylor, interviewed in Los Angeles recently while making a rock video for his second album, "Meltdown," insists he takes no political position in his music. "I don't want to align myself as politically liberal or politically conservative--that only gives people a chance to label you and write you off," said Taylor, who, like other CCM artists, is a Christian. Taylor's father, in fact, is a Baptist minister.

Taylor said he has been unable to get his music played on Top 40-format radio stations in Denver, his hometown. One programming director told Taylor his music would "offend the station's listeners."

"I'm not saying it's a conspiracy, but there's definitely a bias," he said. "(Bob) Dylan got less air play after his highly publicized conversion. People wrote him off as a 'born-again' fanatic."

But Taylor has no trouble getting air play on KYMS-FM in Orange County, one of a growing number of Top 40 all-Christian music radio stations. Of the 1,600 religious radio stations in the country, KYMS general manager Jack Kandel estimated that about 50 follow a Top 40 music-and-information format. Kandel pointed out that "a decade ago, there were no contemporary Christian radio stations."

"Christian music has surpassed jazz and is chasing down country in popularity," claimed Greg Fast, KYMS music programming director.

Not everyone in the record industry agrees that CCM's popularity will grow. "I don't think it works. Musically, it didn't work for Dylan," said rock artist manager Arthur Spivak of Management III, the rock 'n' roll management firm owned by entrepreneur Jerry Weintraub. "For the most part, kids don't want to be preached at. Message music, in general, be it political or religious, is something people shy away from because it makes them think. You can't preach to a kid who wants to hear about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

The Hearns, however, contend that the sales of Amy Grant attest to the popularity of Christian music--and they are banking on it. Sparrow has a roster of more than 20 singers, and the company is involved in a wide range of Christian-oriented ventures, including rock videos, computer and video games, book publishing and a musical exercise cassette, "Exercise for Life," released last year, with a sequel coming out this year.

In addition to theological questions raised by Christian rock 'n' roll, one clergyman interviewed questioned whether a merchandised theology could be of significant depth. Is religious being exploited for commercial motives?

"I don't like the idea that we're selling Jesus," Hearn said. "You can say any sermon you hear from a pulpit on Sunday is selling Jesus. You have to do a certain amount of merchandising to make the public aware of what you're doing.

"We enjoy money and we enjoy being successful, but we do what we do because we want to get the message out. It's not the easiest way to make money in music. We're preaching through music. Instead of preaching about drugs or sex or violence, I want to preach about something else."

Halstuk, a Times copy editor, is a former Oakland Tribune reporter.