If the Shoe Fits
- Steven Douglas Losey Contributing Writer
- 2003 11 Nov
After 20 years of plugging away as a successful group in the Christian market, NewSong suddenly made huge waves in 2001 with its smash hit, “The Christmas Shoes.” Spotlighted on mainstream and Christian radio alike, the song also inspired a book and a movie. But even after its steady and successful history, does this unexpected turn of events label the group as a Christian novelty act?
“I’m grateful, and I’m not ashamed,” founder and front man Eddie Carswell says of NewSong’s success. “In light of eternity I’m thankful to have something to be identified with. It’s something I appreciate. We’ve had a lot of great things happen to us. That was just another chapter of God’s entrusting us with something He wanted to happen. I’m praying that the movie is going to play this year and that the song will play on radio again so we can use that as a platform to represent Christ to whoever is out there. I don’t want to get past that, but I don’t want to get stuck there either.”
Three years ago, NewSong — comprised of Matt Butler, Billy Goodwin, Michael O’Brien, Scotty Wilbanks and Carswell — was preparing to release its 12th disc, "Sheltering Tree" (Reunion), when Carswell and former band mate Leonard Ahlstrom penned “The Christmas Shoes.” Although "Sheltering Tree" was not a holiday album, the tune was added to the disc anyway. The following year, the cut was released as a single to Christian stations and, thanks to its poignant message, crossed over to mainstream radio, landing at the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Singles chart. The song also inspired author Donna VanLiere to write the novella, "The Christmas Shoes," (St. Martin’s) that was translated into a movie of the same name starring Rob Lowe (“West Wing”) and Kimberly Williams ("Father of the Bride", “According to Jim”). “We were getting different opportunities through the song and movie,” says Carswell. “We received so many letters and e-mails from people who were touched by what they heard on that record and saw on television.
“Before 'Sheltering Tree' came out,” Carswell continues, “people in the industry said, ‘These are some awesome Christian songs to encourage the body [of Christ].’ But we found that the unsaved were buying it for the Christmas song and getting all of our other messages. They were hearing things like, ‘Nothing Without Christ.’ That was the most exciting thing to me initially.”
Shifting to the present, despite the rapid way that music trends change, NewSong is still making music that’s both musically and lyrically viable — most recently on its 15th release, "More Life." “Lyrically we’re living in this world. I’m out there involved in the circumstances of everyday life, and that’s what most of these songs are about — asking God to speak to my heart and then living my life and watching what’s going on around me,” Carswell explains. “We’re like magnets. All the stuff of the world just clings to us. I think the whole CD is just God’s giving people more of that peace, love and joy that they really want to see in their lives and less of, ‘I don’t know if I can make it through the day.’”
And how does a group like NewSong, with two decades and 16 albums to its name, continue to make this music relatable to generations of music listeners? “We started our ministry in the church service,” Carswell confides. “You have to be able to do a lot of different musical things because there are all kinds of people there. God has had an impact on our lives and changed how we approach things, but the heart of it is the same. We produce other things, help young bands and listen to what we enjoy. That all affects what we do and how we approach things musically and lyrically. As God speaks to us, we try to distinguish what He’s saying to us and, hopefully, it touches other people as well.”
Another way NewSong has reached out to a broader audience is through its “Winter” and “Summer JAM” tours, founded by the band in 1995. The concerts feature a variety of music and styles, and for every veteran act on the stage, there are also newcomers like Detour 180, Todd Agnew, Royal Ruckus and Mizzie who were most recently on the bill. “Six or seven years ago nobody else was touring in the winter,” says Carswell. “It was a great thing God gave us to do. We’d usually have five or six buddies out with us. It was typical to have crowds of 5,000 or so in the winter. We’ve had 15,000 before. You show up and pay $10. If somebody doesn’t have it, we let them in anyway.”
When asked about the crowds that come to hear NewSong’s music today, Carswell says, “It’s just like our record. I think people are looking for a little more life. They’re stressed, they’re pulled, and they’re torn. Rick Warren says in "The Purpose Driven Life" that, ‘God puts enough time in our life to do His will.’ Everything else is just stuff we’re throwing in there. We just need to base our decisions on God’s will and allow Him to put more of Himself in our day and less of the chaos.”
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