In the early 2000s, I discovered that our local library had music you could check out, just like books. I went on a borrowing spree, trying to find new music and artists. One of the albums I checked out was Derek Webb’s She Must and Shall Go Free. I didn’t know who Derek Webb was and I had never heard his music, at least I thought I hadn’t. Webb had been a member of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) group, Caedmon’s Call, which had garnered some commercial success amongst the Christian radio and bookstore culture. I never cared much for what I heard from them, but to be honest, I had a bias against them because they fell into the CCM category (more on that in a bit).
Webb’s first solo album, the one mentioned above, was a broad departure from Caedmon’s Call and from CCM overall. It was downright salty, to be honest, using language (like “whore”, “damn”, “bastard”, and such) that was not welcome on Christian radio or in most Christian bookstores. But, the real departure had less to do with the words used and with the substance within. Before I dive deeper into that, it’s important that I provide some personal context.
I grew up in church. In 1985, when I was 14, my church brought in a new youth pastor. He was a great guy, a good friend, and his influence helped me develop a deeper faith. One of his early influences on me had to do with music. We spent several weeks, during youth group meetings, watching popular music videos and talking about what we were seeing in the videos and hearing in the lyrics. Then, he exposed us to some music made by Christian artists. The ones that stood out to me were Stryper and Rez Band. And I started gravitating toward what we called “Christian music” or CCM
Eventually, I became convinced that I should only listen to CCM. Specifically, I should only purchase music that I could get at our local Christian bookstore. Yes, I know, it was a very narrow way of thinking. And, I became very legalistic about it, looking down on others that didn’t do the same. I was quite the teenaged Pharisee. Along with Rez and Stryper, I started listening to other classic CCM bands like Petra, Michael W. Smith, and Amy Grant. My musical world was a sheltered one, housing only artists within that culture (other than U2, who refused… and rightfully so… to be categorized that way).
My devotion to CCM was at an all-time high in the early 90s, when I attended a Christian college. One night, as I was returning to my dorm from some kind of activity, I could hear Extreme’s More Than Words playing all the way through the hallway. I was immediately disgusted. When I got to my room, I discovered that it was my roommate listening to it on my stereo! I was incensed and proceeded to berate him mercilessly. That was who I was in those days.
I also remember going to see a show at the New Union in Minneapolis, back when it was on Hennepin Avenue. This was likely in late 1992. The New Union regularly had CCM bands, especially harder CCM bands, play on their stage. I don’t remember who was I going to see that night (I think it was a punk band called One Bad Pig). While we were waiting for the show to start, they were playing King’s X’s new self-titled album through the sound system. King’s X was one of my favorites back then (even though they didn’t really fit in the CCM world) and I didn’t yet have the new album. As I listened, I wasn’t listening for creativity or emotionality; I was listening to hear them say “Jesus” or “God” in their lyrics. That’s how entrenched I was in this way of thinking.
I can’t pinpoint the reason, but in 1993 I opened my mind to music from outside CCM. I started listening to the Black Crowes, Arrested Development, and Extreme, among others. Something was breaking in me… In August of that year, I left home for a long internship in south India. That was one of the hardest periods in my life. Music was already a source of comfort for me way before I left for India. But as I wandered aimlessly through my time there, homesick and stricken with deep culture shock, my musical comfort came from Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…, Seal’s self-titled album from 1991, and Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story… not the CCM artists that I used to lean on.
As the years have passed, I have come to understand why my personal departure from CCM began to take root. When I was in India, I was dealing with an immense amount of emotional pain. I was struggling in ways I had never before struggled. And, I was not emotionally mature enough to healthily walk through all that stuff. I longed for truth and for emotional resonance. And, when it comes to music, the truth was that I got more of these from Arrested Development, Extreme, and Seal than I ever did from much of the CCM stuff I’d listened to before. There was an authenticity and emotionality in this music that was simply absent or lacking in much of what I had been listening to. And, my heart was longing for those things. I didn’t need Christian axioms and clichés. I didn’t need to hear Jesus’ name over and over again in every song. I didn’t need regurgitated Bible verses. I needed something more real than all that.
Don’t get me wrong, not every artist categorized as CCM is fake or shallow. There have been, through the years, many Christian musicians/bands that have created important art that has contained genuine expression, social activism, and/or the power of faith and truth applied to real life issues in meaningful ways. But, there have been plenty of CCM acts that have really offered nothing or very little of themselves or of any real substance in their music. What’s sad is how CCM, as it became more popular in the 90’s, grew into a successful business, and much of the lyrical drivel that had become popular got reworked and made into new songs by new CCM bands. The meaninglessness and seeming lack of authenticity got perpetuated.
Enter Derek Webb’s She Must and Shall Go Free. It rocked my world. It also sent tremors throughout the CCM world. One of their own had gone off the reservation. Not only was he using taboo words, he was being uncomfortably honest in his lyrics. Consider the following:
I am a whore I do confess
But I put You on just like a wedding dress
And I run down the aisle
I’m a prodigal with no way home
But I put You on just like a ring of gold
And I run down the aisle to you
-From Wedding Dress
And it doesn’t get better once you see the light
You wake to find that the fight has just begun
I used to be a damn mess but now I look just fine
Cause you dressed me up and we drank the finest wine
-From Saint and Sinner
This is a rawness and self-revelation that had largely been absent from the CCM world. And, it was a little too raw for many Christian music outlets, as more than a few of them refused to sell the album.
Aside from how this album challenged the CCM establishment, it also deeply challenged me. I certainly loved the rebellious aspects of it. Yeah, please cuss, Mr. Webb! I cuss too! But aside from that superficial resonance, there was something much deeper that affected me. It wasn’t the “naughty” words. It was what they said. Webb had created the most genuine artistic expression I had personally heard from a CCM artist (although he pretty much officially stepped out of that world with the release of this album). I heard heart, anger, pain, sorrow, and deep, deep passion.
I became a raving fan of Derek Webb from that point. I followed his music closely, and have collected all of his solo work. Some of his other albums have affected me deeply as well, especially Mockingbird and Stockholm Syndrome. I’ve also followed his other projects such as SOLA-MI and the launch of one of my favorite websites, Noisetrade, which itself has been revolutionary in my personal musical world.
She Must and Shall Go Free changed me in a couple of important ways. First of all, it re-opened my mind to Christian artists once again. I am thankful for that, because even though there is still plenty of meaningless drivel out there in the CCM world, there are also some incredibly talented Christian folks out there creating significant art, such as Josh Garrels , John Mark McMillan, and Gungor. I would have missed out on some important and influential (on me) music had my mind remained closed.
More importantly, I was inspired by Webb’s courage in recording and releasing such a record. There was no assurance that there would be an audience for it. By including the themes and languages found in it, he took the risk of alienating much of his established fan base. As an artist from a CCM background, there was no guarantee that people who hated CCM or were unaware of it would listen to this music. He continued walking courageously through the next few albums and in the launch of Noisetrade, seemingly convinced that the CCM world had settled for so much less than it was capable of artistically and creatively. He seemed determined to challenge the CCM status quo and help people discover the power of genuine self-expression.
Obviously, such courage and its aims are near and dear to my heart. And the place in my heart for these things became deeper, clearer, and stronger because of She Must and Shall Go Free. If you would like to experience this album for yourself, you can stream it on the Gateway Record page until January 29. You can also download the album for free (plus tip if you so desire) from Noisetrade.