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Intersection of Life and Faith

CLAY CROSSE

  • 1999 1 Jan
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CLAY CROSSE
"There are insecurities in all of us. I've met the biggest names in Christian music, and they all question themselves. I question myself."


by Melissa Riddle

Sunny day. 1994.

I'm driving too fast, with the radio blaring. Scan. Beep.

Five seconds on one station. Scan. Beep. Five seconds on the next. Scan. Beep. Then the beginnings of what I came to know as "I Surrender All" catches my ear. End scan.

Hmm. Who is this? A younger, whiter {{Russ Taff}}, maybe. I listen so attentively, my car drives itself. By the "aaaahhhhhlllllllll" at the end, there are goose bumps on my arm. The oft-redundant, way-too-sunny for such a heart-wrenching-song radio personality caps it off with, "And that was the new kid, {{Clay Crosse}}, with "I Surrender All."

I remember telling the radio in my car, "{{Clay Crosse}}. Never heard of him. And what kind of name is that? It's sacred. It's pottery. It's clever. Whatever his name is, it takes quite a set of lungs to deliver a punch like that."

Fast forward, June, 1997. Clay Crosse and I are sitting in the kitchen of the stately Brentwood house he shares with his wife, Renee, and their daughters, Shelby and Savannah. He looks boyish, wearing white shorts and U2 Pop Tour T-shirt, not exactly what I had expected. "Did you make it to the U2 concert in Memphis?" I ask, admiring the lemon head on his shirt. "No, I missed it," he says, going on to explain that he was in Haiti on a World Vision trip. "Renee was able to go, but not me," he says. "It was worth it, though. I know I'm richer after that trip than I would've been after seeing a rock show."

"Hey, I've got the pictures here." He brings them over to the table. "This is the little girl I sponsor, Nadja. She's six or seven and living in that," he says incredulously, pointing at the tiny house with dirt floors. "It's probably no bigger than this kitchen." The next photo shows a small, crude structure with a few dark-skinned women standing nearby. "This is a World Vision-sponsored business. People bring their corn, and pay these women to process it. The ladies just load these donkeys up with corn, smack them on the rear, and they take off for home. Just like that!"

"Can you believe those women carry such huge loads on their heads?" I muse.

"Seems like the last place in the world you would put something, but people all around the world do it," he answers. "I saw this one little boy with a bag with three apples in it on top of his head, just walking around." There is no picture of the boy in front of us, but it is obvious Clay has him still freshly etched in his mind. "I just kept thinking how hard that would be to hold up there, those three little apples in a bag."

There were many photos. Fixing flat tires on the dirt road, the locals helping free the jeep from where it was stuck in the road. The joyous funeral procession with the casket lifted high, smiles and dancing all around. Nadja in front of her house. Mark Lowry (also a World Vision sponsor) trying to play soccer, making the Haitian children laugh.
Clay seems to know which picture is coming up before he flips one over, and yet he speaks of them as if he's looking at them for the first time.

"It was just such a constant state of survival there, people looking for food, carrying buckets of water or food on their heads--so much of their energy had to do with just eating," he says, returning the photos to their envelope. "Compared to the rest of the world, we live like kings here. We really do."

The Way the Wheel Turns

Walter Clayton Crossnois the youngest of five children, all raised in Memphis, TN, home of the king, the blues, and Federal Express. A shy kid who played in church baseball leagues, Clay found his identity at Leawood Baptist Church. At school, he says, "I was one of the nameless, one of the faceless." Even at a young age, he never really felt the need to be popular at school; he felt accepted and bonded with the kids at church.

It was there at age 14 when Clay, who had all kinds of experience as a shower singer, first sang in public. "The song was 'Pillar of Fire,' and I was very nervous, but the people were very encouraging." That one moment was enough to keep him interested in music.

He grew up, went to college, and while there, got a singing job at a local theme park, where he shook off some of his stage fright. While in college, he put together a demo, and looked for the opportunity to give it to someone in the music industry. One thing led to another; and the wheels began to turn. "In my mind," his wife Renee tells me a couple of weeks later, "I knew he had to use that talent." The music career that resulted "was never a shock."

"When I listened to the demo, I knew we would sign him," says Terry Hemmings, former president of Reunion Records. "The song was 'Unchained Melody' and it was incredibly moving." After a meeting at the Pancake Pantry, where Clay wore his FedEx uniform, and left early to make his route, it was a done deal. "He knew he had talent," Hemmings says, but "he thought himself quite average as a singer early on."

"There are better singers," Clay says, matter-of factly, when I asked him about what makes him unique. "There are better singers, there are better songs, there are better looking people out there. But for some reason the mix of what I have, the way I sing a song, the way I communicate with people--it has worked. All of that I owe to the Lord. There is no formula as to what is going to make it, but you just stick with it and persevere."

The debut album, ==My Place is With You==, catapulted Clay into the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Tours, television appearances, and two Dove nominations underscored the fact that Reunion's golden boy was in fact golden. His sophomore effort ==Time to Believe== released the following year, and around the same time Clay was honored with the Dove Award for New Artist of the Year. The world was spinning, and Clay was standing on top of it.

And yet, looking back, he concedes that he was spinning with it, not spinning it. "I see things differently now. With the first album, I was real intimidated by the whole process of making an album, meeting these new producers, getting all these songs. I didn't think there was a way in the world I could write anything," he says, adding that while he had final say on the songs that went on his albums, he basically sang what was brought to him. And he was happy to do it.

"There are insecurities in all of us. I've met the biggest names in Christian music, and they all question themselves. I question myself," he adds. "But my goal is to have total freedom [with the music] and to just let it flow. That's the direction I'm trying to go. I'm trying to work on it slowly, in little ways."

Spin Control

Clay's third album signifies the beginning of a new era of artistic development, a distinctive new turn of the music wheel. Produced by Mark Heimermann and Regie Hamm, ==Stained Glass== erases the notion that Clay Crosse is still one of the new kids, still cutting his teeth. No, this project proves Clay's got a full set, and he's using them all at once.

When producer Mark Heimermann was approached about working with Clay, he wasn't quite sure what to think. He wasn't keen on producing a pop/AC record, but to his surprise, that wasn't the plan. "Clay wanted to do something a little earthier, more vibey. He wanted to develop his own sound," says Heimermann. "I knew he was ready to develop as an artist, not just as a singer, so we pushed some envelopes." The result? "This record is so much more a part of what he is, the kind of music that moves him."

It's a balancing act, says Hemmings, "The third album is the turning point. Either you're for real then or you fade into the sunset." The intention of this album was to "stretch him vocally and creatively, so he could grow. And he's done a good job moving forward without totally abandoning what he is [musically]."

==Stained Glass== is definitely more musically aggressive and imaginative, with songs that both stir and sting. "Some will wish it was more pop, more palatable in the general market," says Hamm. "But Clay has to say what Clay wants to say." On every cut, there is an intangible, yet audible confidence that says, "This is really me."

"Clay is a singer. He has to sing; he becomes the song," Heimermann says. "This album is a big step for him, but it's only the first step. Now he can feel more confident to do what he wants to, expressing his heart."

"There are so many layers to Clay's musical vision," Hamm adds. "Artists explore their art. There are so many places to go that he hadn't been before. That's what he's doing."

Part of this exploration requires a pen, as Clay ventures into the shallow end of the song writing pool. "I think listeners see more of an artist when they know he writes [his own music]," Clay says. "On this album, I wrote co-wrote two songs. From nothing on two albums, to being a part of two songs on this one. It may not look like much to an outside observer, but to me it's a giant leap."

It's a leap he's making with great care and determination. "I felt like I was starting to stand still. On my first two albums, I was content to be a vocalist. I wanted to sing loud, loud and long. When you're more of a writer, I don't think as much is expected of you [vocally]. But if you're not a writer, it doesn't mean you're less of an artist."

That shy 14 year-old "Wally" seems, at times, to be hiding behind Clay's eyes, when we're talking about his music. There are hints in the way he pauses with "uhs," and in the way he's distracted by the creatures in his backyard in the middle of making his point. You can see that little boy when Clay comments on his own comments, saying "Oh, we've already talked about that, haven't we?" and "I like this conversation. This is good." There is an excitement in him about the new album, about the growth he's experienced artistically, but the words to express it don't easily surface.

Eventually I ask, "how do you keep this music career going?" At which he pauses, and answers almost apologetically, "It's gonna sound simple. You're gonna think, 'the formula can't be that easy.' But really, I think the secret is simply loving others. You know, being truly interested in other people--people that have nothing to do with your career.

"It's a simple thing, and that's my goal as an artist. The music's just gonna happen. I mean, I'm gonna keep striving for excellence in that area, for great songs, you know--to sing well, to look good, to do all that--the artist thing. But how I'm treating other people, that's what I'm gonna have to answer for one day. That's just my creed now. Success equals loving others."

The Fires of Home

Career aside, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Clay and his wife, Renee, have a strong, loving relationship. They've been together so long now, they finish each other's sentences. With daughters Shelby and Savannah, born in October 1997, they make a beautiful family, the kind you might see in the JC Penney catalog, minus the paper.

"I'm crazy about [Renee]. We're so close. I know what is important to her; she knows what is important to me," he says, beaming. "I don't know where my music's gonna take me, but my family is my success. We're healthy, we're focused on good things. Christ is the center of our home. Wherever we live, if things are good with my family, I'll be successful."

Renee admits that the music life is hard on a young family. There are difficult days when Clay is on the road and she's home alone with a toddler, but none of it has been a surprise. "The artist life is what I expected. I knew about the travel, so I've come to accept it." It's still a little strange, she says, when they're out and someone comes up, asking, "Aren't you {{Clay Crosse}}?" But she is confident that like all good things, God has planned this life for them, for now. "We're so thankful everyday" for what God is doing through Clay's music, she says. "And we're really happy. Whatever He gives us on top of that is just icing on the cake."

"We always go back to the fact that we were happy in Memphis, with the life we had there."

On Finishing Well

Sitting in this spacious kitchen, two hours of conversation behind us, I begin to realize just how much in common Clay has with that little Haitian boy and his head-held-high bag of apples. He's being creative with what he knows best, taking care of his gift. He's following his own instincts, taking more determined steps to grow personally and professionally. He's working hard to keep the load balanced, and his survival, as an artist anyway, depends on how well he manages it.

There is a great deal of pressure, but when the lights go up on stage and the music starts, Clay doesn't feel anything but perfectly at home. He'll bare his soul over and over again, with every ounce of passion he's got, to keep it honest, night after night. It may look and sound like a performance, but it is not an act.

Renee recounts a time not too long ago when she was able to see Clay perform. It had been a long time since she had seen him on stage, so she was glad for the opportunity to be on the road with him for this particular date. She wasn't exactly prepared for the experience. When he began to sing, she felt strangely detached. "It was like I wasn't even married to him, like I was seeing him for the first time," she says. "What a joy it was to watch him, to see him like that, after so long. I thought, 'Yeah, this is where he needs to be.'"

Personally, where it really counts, it's already in the bag.


This article first appeared in the August 1997 issue of CCM Magazine.