Whereas other musical genres, such as country and rock & roll, have documented their respective genre histories extensively, the same cannot always be said of Christian music. Back when bands like LoveSong and Gentle Faith started playing Jesus songs for mostly hippies, this musical movement was viewed as an unacceptable subculture by some, and one without legitimacy or much of a future. However, these fifty-something years later, what was originally termed ‘Jesus music,’ has continued to grow and evolve—and against all odds. Long-haired hippies gave way to more respectable looking CCM artists of the 80s and 90s, and these days contemporary Christian music and worship music are nearly synonymous. Turns out, ‘Jesus’ and ‘music’ made an inseparable pair, after all.
During the COVID pandemic, when artists of all genres mostly stopped performing live, Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin (also known as the Erwin Brothers) recognized a once in a lifetime opportunity to interview many suddenly homebound and available Christian artists for a documentary about Christian music history. Initially released to movie theaters, The Jesus Music traces Christian music back to those early hippie days, and features interview segments with some of its biggest stars, including Michael W. Smith, TobyMac and Amy Grant.
Although the Erwin Brothers may be best known for their fictional movies, including Woodlawn and Mom’s Night Out, these two prominent Christian filmmakers cut their teeth creating music videos for Christian performers. Therefore, they are as much a part of the Christian music world, as they are documenters of it. “My interest in it,” notes Andy Erwin, “began with DC Talk. I connected for the first time with Christian music during my freshman year of college. I remember back with Columbia House, where you sign up with a penny for eleven cassette tapes. And I remember distinctly my first cassette tapes were Jesus Freak (DC Talk), the first Jars of Clay album, God by Rebecca St. James, Bloom by Audio Adrenaline and Threads by Geoff Moore and The Distance.” Music video creation naturally led to the brothers directing feature films, including the music related MercyMe documentary I Can Only Imagine. “Our whole career is intertwined with the music that we love,” adds Erwin. “So, the (Jesus Music) film is sort of a love letter to the music that shaped us and the artists that impacted us.
Many viewers have commented on how The Jesus Music only scratches the surface of Christian music’s legacy. For instance, when respected documentarian Ken Burns created the Country Music for PBS, it was an epic, eight-part series.
“There’s still thought about expanding into a series,” says Erwin, “We had talked about that for a while because we ended up interviewing over one hundred artists, with hundreds of hours of interview footage to kind of go through.” The original intention, however, was to create a theater experience and distill content down to many of the style’s essential artists. “We really kind of came up with the idea of looking at it through those early pioneers,” Erwin continues. “The ones that kind of did something special and romantic and fought for their voice being heard. And we really kind of narrowed the lens down to that. Some of the stories that came out from some of those early days with Maranatha and Larry Norman, and tracing that through Amy (Grant) and Smitty (Michael W. Smith) and DC Talk, were a real treat.”
A few scenes in the film feature Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith holding and talking about the album Maranatha! Vol. 1: The Everlastin’ Living Jesus Music Concert, a 1971 Calvary Chapel concert recording that featured Gentle Faith, The Way, Children of the Day and others. These were some of the pioneers Erwin refers to. Fans of Grant and Smith may not know anything about LoveSong or even Maranatha Music (the label that released this album), but Grant, Smith and many others that came after, certainly know and treasure this album. This singular album’s release gave many aspiring musicians the courage to create their own Christian music.
Of course, no theatrical movie can include every artist, so the Erwins had to exclude many—including some that they especially love, such as Rich Mullins. They feel he deserves more screen time than they could have given him in the documentary. “We had to narrow it down to those trailblazers that carved a path,” Erwin explains. “We had five decades to cover.”
The Jesus Music represents a renewed interest in Christian music and explicit recognition of its history, which is long overdue. “Christian music is still a relatively young art form, that really just found its voice in the late 70s and early 80s,” Erwin explains. “I asked Steven Curtis Chapman when I interviewed him, ‘For those of you that led the race for the first several laps, where you get to the point in your career where you hand the baton to fresh legs, what does that moment feel like for you as an artist?’ And he got emotional. He said, ‘It’s the hardest part of my career. Those of us that have led, struggle to figure out where we fit now.’” Christian music hasn’t always been so good at recognizing its early pioneers. Perhaps The Jesus Music is a first big step in the right direction. Maybe this film’s footage of and interviews with some of what Erwin calls its ‘trailblazers,’ will jumpstart a movement for the genre to be much more intentional in honoring its historic figures.
“We really wanted to unearth what is the story of Christian music,” states Erwin. “These early rebels were Jesus freaks that found a relationship with God. Their music didn’t fit the church halls, and it didn’t fit the culture they came from. And they were kind of without a home. Nomads. And they fought to forge a path to be heard. I think that’s incredibly romantic.”