Not much more than a decade ago, if you played in a Christian band, you were generally elated just to have enough greenbacks to get to the next gig. Ask StarFlyer 59, Bleach, the O.C. Supertones, Five Iron Frenzy, Seven Day Jesus and The Waiting. Even Third Day once traveled at the mercy of a fuel-thirsty van.

Now, there are more bands in the limelight than you can shake a stick at. Think Kutless. David Crowder Band. Pillar. Sanctus Real. Hawk Nelson. The Afters … and on and on and on. The pendulum of popularity has swung in favor of these bands of brothers like no other time in Christian music.

And female artistry is losing out on the gas money.

As labels divert artist development and marketing dollars to these male acts in this $700 million dollar Christian music industry, it’s tough to advance a female act’s career, let alone break a new artist who is a woman.

So, for those who dream dreams by singing into hairbrushes – or once did – we salute several of today’s top female acts:  Sara Groves, Mary Mary, Nichole Nordeman, Rebecca St. James, Natalie Grant, Kierra “Kiki” Sheard, Bethany Dillon, BarlowGirl and Leigh Nash. These leaders share their perspectives for restoring Christian music’s time-honored tradition: Women and men standing shoulder-to-shoulder for the sake of the cause.

The Real Me

The most high-profile female artist of the last year has been Natalie Grant.
“I’ve had so many people say, ‘How does it feel?’” the 2006 GMA “Female Vocalist of the Year” says. “I don’t know how else to say it but to be honest and say, ‘I feel really, really good.’”

Enjoying the Pottery-Barn-styled home she shares in Nashville with her husband/producer Bernie Herms (Avalon, Casting Crowns), Grant’s dressed this June afternoon in earthy summer casuals. It’s a scene disguising the fact that she’s a scrapper, an artist who’s survived not one but two label shutdowns across her first two records — each time just as her career taxied for a blue-sky takeoff.

But her last two studio projects – 2003’s "Deeper Life" (Curb), which included the hit “No Sign of It,” plus 2005’s "Awaken" (Curb) – finally gave Natalie flight. Christian radio’s been one key to Grant’s takeoff. She’s long been admired for her vocal expertise and for spot-on emotional interpretation, as with last year’s moving No.1, “Held” (which also charted at mainstream radio).

“It took me a while to realize that it is OK to speak up; you have to take control of your own artistry,” Grants says, trying to key in on how she cleared the clouds. She gives ample credit to her record label, Curb Records, for sticking with her as she found her wings for a third time. She’s also taken charge by learning the craft of songwriting. “It took me on a real journey of self-discovery to find out what I wanted to say,” she explains.

Along with her husband’s coaching, Grant says she was inspired by other women whose artistry helps guide her toward discovering her songwriting voice – peers such as Sara Groves, Leigh Nash and Nichole Nordeman.

We Build

Grant says a woman’s artistry at its best “reflects that she’s empowered, that she’s a woman of substance and has something to say.” That’s a fitting description for today's top female acts. Several tend to focus their efforts on presenting an encouraging message to the Christian church.

Nichole Nordeman is a two-time GMA “Female Vocalist of the Year” widely recognized as a songwriter’s songwriter. With the poetry and precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, her lyrics cut to the crux of both human brokenness and divine hope.