The Lucky One
Amy Grant and her musical journey to the Kennedy Center Honors
By Randy Fox
Photography by Cameron Powell
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In the winter of 1981, a 21-year-old Amy Grant arrived at the renowned Caribou Ranch recording studio in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to record the tracks for her fourth album, Age to Age. An album that changed her life completely.
Although Grant was young, simultaneously navigating the rocky roads of a music career and college, she wasn’t alone in those journeys. From the start of her career six years earlier, as a young teen, she was surrounded by a trustworthy and creative support team of friends and relatives.
“I felt like everything we did was a chance to celebrate family and friends,” she says. “For the records I made at Caribou Ranch, we invited musicians from across the country and said, ‘Bring your wives and your children.’ The second week, my grandmothers, siblings, nieces, and nephews showed up.
“Jim Guercio, the owner of the studio, said, ‘This record’s going to sell a million copies,’ and we just laughed. For me that wasn’t what it was about. It was such a beautiful experience, getting to do something that I loved in the company of people that I loved.”
But Guercio’s prediction was on the mark. Released in May of 1982, Age to Age became the first Christian music album to be certified platinum and garnering Grant her first Grammy award. The album also placed Grant on a path that would redefine Christian music, bring her mainstream pop crossover success, lead to a successful marriage and creative partnership with country superstar Vince Gill, and rack up a laundry list of accolades and awards.
To those accolades, we can now add the Kennedy Center Honors, an award given to individuals and groups in recognition of their lifetime of contributions to American culture, which Grant receives December 4 at the annual gala at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (The event will be broadcast at 8 p.m. CST December 22 on CBS, and will subsequently stream on Paramount+.)
Beyond the list of achievements and honors, though, the central themes winding throughout Grant’s career are family, community, and collaboration, and her successes, great or small, have all flowed from those three founts of inspiration.
Amy Grant was born in Augusta, Georgia, but her Nashville roots run deep. Her great-grandfather, A.M. Burton, founded the Life and Casualty Insurance Company of Tennessee in 1903, specializing in low-cost policies for working-class individuals and small farmers, along with operating clear-channel radio station WLAC and eventually Nashville television station WLAC Channel 5 (now WTVF).
Later in his life, Burton turned his focus to philanthropy, giving away an estimated $100 million of his personal fortune to support colleges and universities throughout the world, including Lipscomb University in Nashville.
Grant’s father, Dr. Burton Paine Grant, was serving in the Army at Fort Gordon, Georgia, when she was born, but brought the family back to Nashville the next year. He then turned his attention to cancer treatment, eventually co-founding Radiation Oncology Associates of Tennessee.
“The longer you live, the more questions you have. Life gets messy, and there’s so much to sing about and celebrate. So much to be happy about and so much to be sad about.”
“In the first decade of my music career, I was always hearing ‘Your father …’ ” Grant recalls. “That was such a beautiful part of having a music career in a town where your family was a familiar name.
“My great-grandfather died right before my sixth birthday, but he always believed you should build whatever you could in your life and then give it to someone else. I cut my teeth on the language of generosity, and I’m so glad for that.”
Grant found herself attracted to music from childhood, singing at church and at school, including a new style of Christian music. “When I was in my mid-teens, my oldest
sister came back from college in Boston, where she had gotten into the first wave of Jesus hippie music,” Grant says.
“Jesus music” began as a West Coast fusion of traditional Protestant gospel music with the folk and folk rock sounds of the late ’60s. As the music grew in popularity and spread across the country, the style embraced more pop and rock conventions and attracted many younger fans.
“There was a coffeeshop that was connected to a church on Music Row where musicians started playing on Saturday nights,” Grant says. “I wasn’t old enough to drive, but I would get a ride down there. I loved everything about that environment. I felt more connected to myself, the people around me, and a God bigger than I could imagine.”
At 15, Grant began writing her own songs, with the goal of simply performing for her parents and classmates at Harpeth Hall, the private, all-girls school she attended in Green Hills. “A friend of mine helped me record a demo. He was taking a class at Belmont and had some studio time.”
That friend was Brown Bannister, who would go on to become a highly acclaimed and decorated Christian music publisher and songwriter. He took the demo to Texas-based gospel label Word Records, who signed Grant to their Myrrh Records subsidiary a few weeks before her 16th birthday.
“I had no ‘wow’ factor,” Grant says. “They told me, ‘You’re okay. Not great, but you sound sincere.’ And I was, but I had to learn the rest as I went. All these people stepped into management roles and support roles, and we were all learning as we went, and that’s what made it so much fun.”
Grant and her team learned their business well, and by the time of her breakthrough album, Age to Age, in 1982 she’d found a familiar and comfortable groove. “There was almost a decade when I was either in school full time or making a record, touring, publicity, recording, touring, publicity. That was a happy cycle for me,” Grant says.
The success and accolades continued to pour in. The “Queen of Christian Pop” helped define the newly minted musical category of “Contemporary Christian,” released her first Christmas album in 1983, and became the first Christian music artist to score a hit on the Billboard 200 chart with her 1984 album, Straight Ahead. By the time she returned to Caribou Ranch in late 1984 to record her next album, she was in her mid-twenties, navigating a rocky marriage to fellow Contemporary Christian artist Gary Chapman, and feeling the need to expand her lyrical palette.
“While I was recording, I was visited by Dan Johnson, who was pretty high up at Word Records,” Grant says. “I told him I felt like I needed some wiggle room lyrically. Nobody was going to listen to me if I was singing the same stuff all the time. I wanted to write and record songs that weren’t just gospel. The longer you live, the more questions you have. Life gets messy, and there’s so much to sing about and celebrate. So much to be happy about and so much to be sad about.”
At the same time, Word Records was forging a three-year distribution deal with A&M Records. It’s a common arrangement for independent gospel labels, but in this case, Word had a potential pop star waiting in the wings.
Released in May of 1985, with a tremendous promotional push from Word/A&M, Grant’s next album, Unguarded, became a major crossover success and introduced her to an entirely new audience. With a mix of spiritual and mainstream themes, the record went gold six weeks after its release, hit No. 1 on the Christian album chart, No. 35 on the Billboard pop album chart, and spawned two crossover hit singles, “Find a Way” and “Wise Up.”
“Unguarded gave me permission to write and collect songs that moved me,” Grant says. “That’s what everyone wants from music: Please move me! Help me to look at something differently.”
Grant’s star continued to ascend over the next 15 years. In 1986, she scored her first No. 1 pop hit, “The Next Time I Fall,” a duet with former Chicago vocalist Peter Cetera, while continuing to place on the pop and Christian charts. A Christmas album recorded with folk rock legend Art Garfunkel was showered with nominations and awards from both the Christian and secular sides of the music industry.
Despite criticism from some in the Christian music world, Grant says that her excursions into more secular waters came from following where her creative spirit led, as opposed to being a calculated move.
“I was just continuing creative relationships with people I already knew and enjoying the process of meeting more musicians and more songwriters,” Grant says.
“We were just doing what you do with music, and that’s exploring. Everything new just felt like it was the next wave of experimentation, the next wave of curiosity.”
The most significant addition to Grant’s community of collaborators arrived in 1993, while working on a Christmas special. “It was filmed in Oklahoma, and I had Chet Atkins, Michael McDonald, and Vince Gill as guests. I walked into that first rehearsal and there was a world of people I hadn’t worked with before. Vince saw me and said, ‘Hey, c’mon in and unknit that brow. It’s gonna be okay.’ He was such a relaxed and welcoming person, and I really did celebrate that connection.
“We worked together on that special, and then my management also asked him to participate in a fundraiser we had agreed to do for the Nashville Symphony,” Grant continues. “When I heard his voice, I thought he was one of the best singers I ever heard, so I asked him to sing on my song ‘House of Love.’ Those three things all happened within three weeks. I thought, ‘This is someone that I want in my life in whatever capacity. I have always worked with a great community, and I wanted him in that community.”
Like Grant, Gill began his career in a niche genre (bluegrass) before moving into more mainstream country music. They also shared a love of collaboration and were both in troubled marriages that ended with divorce.
After Grant’s divorce was finalized in 1999, the pair began dating. They married in March 2000, and Grant’s tradition of hosting Nashville Christmas concerts evolved into Grant and Gill’s annual “Christmas at the Ryman” performances.
Over the past two decades, Grant has continued recording and touring, published a memoir, starred in a reality TV show, and focused on her family. She also continued her family’s tradition of giving back to the community through her work with St. Jude Children’s Hospital, The Red Cross, Second Harvest Food Bank, MusiCares, Nashville Rescue Mission, and many others, while also assisting a multitude of nonprofits through her Helping Hands Foundation.
While Grant’s list of achievements is impressive, she wasn’t expecting any honors when a phone call came from the Kennedy Center earlier this year.
“I was in London, because Vince was doing a show with The Eagles,” Grant says. “We took our youngest with us, and I was with my friend [and manager] Jennifer Cooke, who brought her son. She had a phone call she had to return about the Kennedy Center Honors. I thought, ‘They’re going to ask me to sing for someone being honored.’ And then she came to my hotel room and said, ‘Sit down…’ ” Grant is being inducted with a class that also includes actor George Clooney, Cuban-American composer Tania León, legendary singer Gladys Knight, and rock icons U2.
“This is someone that I want in my life in whatever capacity. I have always worked with a great community, and I wanted him in that community.”
Amy Grant on meeting her husband and collaborator, Vince Gill
“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it,” Grant says. “When you follow a creative path, you have to go where it takes you. It’s not like there’s an end game. One opportunity leads to the next, and it’s what you do with what’s given to you. Nobody’s thinking, ‘I will be a success if I wind up here.’ Every generation has its own voice and its own singer-songwriters, and for my story to be included in the Kennedy Center Honors? I just feel happy to be included.”
Grant is also not haunted by the implications of a lifetime achievement award. At the age of 62, she’s looking forward to the next chapter of her creative and spiritual journey with the same excitement and sense of discovery she had when she was 15.
“I love that I still have dreams and curiosity about what the future of music looks like for me,” Grant says. “And I really love living in a home where my mate is involved in music every day. Every day, somebody is dropping by. It’s hard to explain the dynamic, but once again I’m participating in a music community. I’m grateful to be surrounded by music on a daily basis, whether I’m making it or not.
“One day I was walking down the long hallway in our house,” she continues. “ ‘Big’ Al Anderson [of NRBQ], Chris Stapleton, and Vince were working on a song in the step-down den, which is open to the hallway. I was in a different part of the hallway carrying a basket of dirty clothes to the laundry room, and I heard them flailing on guitars and singing a song that they were writing. Without even thinking, I just set the laundry basket down and waved my hands up to the ceiling, threw my head back, and said, ‘I am the luckiest girl in the whole world!’
“It was a song that might never be heard by anyone else, but I was hearing creative voices singing this song for the first time. I felt like I was appreciating it with every cell in my being, and I had to respond with my body. Then I picked up the laundry and walked by the den and said, ‘Sounds great!’
“I know what music does to people. For me, that’s always been the goal. You just have to create an environment where music can work its magic, and it will.”
Kennedy Center Honors
Opening in 1971, The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., was established as a National Cultural Center for the United States with the mission of hosting all manner of performing arts.
The Kennedy Center Honors were launched in 1978 by American Film Institute founder George Stevens Jr. with producer and philanthropist Nick Vanoff. The goal was to create an annual award to honor living individuals, groups, and artistic works that have made significant contributions to American culture and society, similar to knighthoods in the UK or the French Legion of Honor. The first slate of inductees included opera vocalist Marian Anderson; dancer, choreographer, actor, and singer Fred Astaire; ballet choreographer George Balanchine, musical theater composer Richard Rodgers, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
The invitation-only, weekend-long ceremony includes a Kennedy Center Chairman’s Luncheon, a State Department dinner presided over by the U.S. Secretary of State, a White House reception traditionally hosted by the President of the United States and the First Lady, and the Honors gala performances at the Kennedy Center.
Honoree recommendations are accepted from the general public along with a Special Honors Advisory Committee composed of two members of the Kennedy Center board of trustees with input from past honorees and other distinguished artists. The Kennedy Center executive committee of the board of trustees selects the final slate of honoree recipients based on their lifetime contributions to American music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television. Honorees are not required to be American citizens. Over the years, 256 Kennedy Center Honors have been awarded to individuals, creative duos, married couples who were both accomplished actors, and members of musical groups — along with two special awards for the creators of the musical Hamilton and the television show Sesame Street.
Each year’s gala performance features appearances by a full slate of artists who have been influenced by one or more that year’s honorees. The list of performers is kept secret until the show is in progress in order to surprise both the honorees and the audience. The gala is traditionally staged in early December for a live audience in the Kennedy Center with an edited version of the event aired on the CBS television network the week after Christmas. The gala also serves as an annual fundraising event, supporting the Kennedy Center’s performing arts, education, and outreach programs.
In addition to Amy Grant, this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees are actor George Clooney, soul singer Gladys Knight, composer and conductor Tania León, and the members of the Irish rock band U2 (Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr.) The 44th annual Kennedy Center Honors, which took place on Dec. 4, 2022, will air on CBS and stream on Paramount+ on Wednesday, Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. CT.
"Christmas at The Ryman" with Amy Grant and Vince Gill takes place Dec. 12-21 at Ryman Auditorium.
The 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors takes place on Dec. 4th and will air on CBS, Wednesday Dec. 22 at 8p.m. CT. and stream via Paramount+ thereafter.