As the seven members of the Atlanta-based band Casting Crowns settle into the front of one of their tour buses, they are all warm and friendly, eager to share the latest photos of their kids and happenings at their churches. If they seem more like your child's favorite teacher, your next-door neighbor or a local youth group worker, it's because they are. They'd be the first to tell you they are unlikely pop stars -- and therein lies their charm.
The act is getting ready to sound-check for an appearance where the band will join Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and MercyMe at Nashville's Loveless Barn to raise money for the Gospel Music Association (GMA). Just a couple of days earlier the group played the Sommet Center, Nashville's downtown arena, drawing an enthusiastic crowd anxious to hear new music from its Nov. 17 release, "Until the Whole World Hears."
Casting Crowns is the top-selling act in Christian music, earning the No. 1 slot on Billboard's Top Christian Album Artists year-end tally for the past two years. The release of "Until the Whole World Hears" -- which sold 167,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, landing it at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 -- cements the band's status as the genre's leader. It's a fact that's even more remarkable because the group hasn't yet achieved a crossover hit.
Casting Crowns' 2003 self-titled debut has sold 1.7 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, spawning such hits as "Voice of Truth" and "Who Am I." The band followed with 2005's "Lifesong," which has sold 1.2 million units. "The Altar and the Door," released in 2007, has sold 949,000 copies. Along the way, the act has also issued a 2008 Christmas collection, "Peace on Earth," and three live projects.
It's the group's deep connection with the lives of its fans -- it literally practices what it preaches -- that is behind its consistent success. The members continue to work at their local churches; they schedule recording and touring around their church commitments, making sure they are home for Sunday and Wednesday services. Though such dedication might seem an obstacle to career advancement, it hasn't been for the group. Casting Crowns has won 23 GMA Dove Awards, a Grammy, an American Music Award and numerous other accolades.
"From the outset of their recording career Casting Crowns has remained faithful to their mission as part of the youth ministry of the churches they serve," Provident Music Group president/CEO Terry Hemmings says. "As a full-time youth pastor, [lead vocalist/primary songwriter] Mark Hall lives life with his 400 teenagers and their families each week, and the songs are born of that everyday experience. Such authenticity and purpose provides life-impacting lyrics that truly connects on a deep level with audiences."
Hall and the rest of the band -- Megan Garrett, Brian Scoggin, Hector Cervantes, Chris Huffman, Melodee DeVevo and her husband, Juan -- are firm believers in putting faith in action, and that philosophy fuels "Until the Whole World Hears," the band's fourth studio album. "We really want to see believers kind of step out of their chairs, get out of the pews and get involved in what God is doing," Hall says.
One of the new album's most poignant songs, "Always Enough," was written when a member of Hall's church was killed in Afghanistan. "His son, Christopher, is in our middle-school ministry and his wife, Crystal, is a part of our church," Hall says. "We were on the other side of the country and couldn't be there for the funeral. We were on tour and couldn't cancel, so we were stuck. I remember sitting on the bus that night praying with our family and thinking, 'I need to be there for them. Why can't I be there for them?' That's really the message of the song. You can be there for someone, but there comes a point where Jesus just has to be enough."
"At Your Feet" is a worship song that features Cervantes and Juan DeVevo joining Hall on vocals. "Blessed Redeemer" showcases Melodee DeVevo on lead vocals. "The words were written in the 1920s to that hymn and Mark changed the melody to it," DeVevo says of the band's reinterpretation of the classic.
"Until the Whole World Hears" also includes such reinventions as "Joyful, Joyful" and "Glorious Day (Living He Loved Me)" from the hymn "One Day." "That song is basically about the life of Jesus," Huffman says of "Glorious Day." "When you have a song like that where you don't really sing about any of your own troubles, you are just singing every word about Jesus, people's hands go up and it's amazing to see everybody's reaction when you play it live."
Hall enjoyed experimenting with the classics. "You can really do a lot of cool things when you are rearranging hymns," he says. "With the song 'One Day' and 'Blessed Redeemer,' those are songs that people aren't going to sing much anymore, but those lyrics are strong. I grew up with the hymnbook. That's all I knew, so it's cool to bring them back."
At first, when the group came together, it looked like Casting Crowns had all the odds stacked against it. It has seven members, more than the average band. Frontman Hall was an over-30 youth pastor, and the act was being produced by Mark Miller, lead vocalist for the veteran country group Sawyer Brown, who didn't have a track record in Christian music. He had just launched the Beach Street Records imprint and partnered with Provident Music Group.
"He picked an unusual path -- he waited until his career should have been over," Miller says of Hall's late entry into the music business. "Then you hook him up with a country guy that produces the record and everything shouldn't work. Everything that we do is so unorthodox; it just shouldn't work, including the numbers. That's when I attribute 100% to God's provision."
However, what might not have looked like it added up on paper began adding up at the cash registers. "All our CDs have three elements," Hall says. "You're always going to hear, 'God loves you, he's pursuing you' -- and you're going to hear the gospel."
The success of Casting Crowns also demonstrates the power of the Christian consumer. "Believers buy groceries and they buy CDs," Hall says. "They buy all kinds of stuff."
And although the band hasn't had a crossover hit, Miller thinks Casting Crowns has mass appeal. "People buy their records that don't buy Christian records," he says. "People go to their concerts that don't necessarily go to Christian concerts. You don't sell that many records just to the Christian community. You aren't going to do those kind of numbers."
The band admits to feeling pressure to succeed with each successive release. "You can play it off like you don't feel it, but who doesn't want to be liked?" Hall asks. "There is definitely a lot of pressure that people are expecting something now. I tell myself constantly that if God wants us to keep writing songs, he'll keep giving us songs, and I have to remind myself that a lot."
Thus far, it doesn't look like Hall and the band need worry. A presale campaign has been going well, and the title track has been blazing up Billboard's Hot Christian Songs chart, sitting at No. 2 for a fourth straight week and selling 53,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Hall says the group was late in finishing up the album, so there wasn't any advance music to listen to at first -- initially retailers were just selling air. "A lot of Christian retailers and mainstream retailers just believed in us. To us, it's such an encouragement that they decided, 'Hey, we believe in what you do, so we're going to just sell it,' " he says. "People appreciate what we do and they know if we're going to make a record, we're not going to just make noise. We're going to talk about things that matter, and we've seen a lot of trust with our industry."
Miller says that trust is based on Casting Crowns' track record. "The message is real. Mark Hall makes no bones about who they are and what they sing about and he never has," he says. "Even if you are a believer or a nonbeliever, you respect that and you are drawn to that honesty. When I go to their concerts, I walk around and I want to see who is there and I see everything from a family of six to kids with fishhooks in their eyebrows. You see a little bit of everything and that's mainstream, that's middle America buying albums."
The band stays connected to middle America through an interactive Web site that features videoclips, blogs from the band members and their crew, and Twitter. "It's a great tool to have," Juan DeVevo says.
Provident Label Group senior VP of marketing Ben Howard agrees. "Our new CrownsFans.com Web site is focused on the relationship with fans of Casting Crowns' music, ministry and message," he says. "It will be a media-rich site filled with fan features including extensive video, the band's entire discography and exclusive content."
In addition, Casting Crowns was a featured act on Yahoo Early Edition, which streamed the record for seven days before the release date.
According to Howard, fans can use Twitter, Facebook and e-mail to send links to their favorite songs, which are being streamed on CrownsFans.com. The band's entire catalog of music, as well as all the video from live DVD releases, is also available for streaming.
Hall is particularly active and revealing on Twitter: When someone corrected his spelling on a recent tweet, he responded, "You've officially picked on a dyslexic. Now go kick a puppy! :)"
"I'm dyslexic and have ADD and I'm a poster kid for all those things, so it makes our experiences on the stage very adventurous," he says. "You never know what's going to happen." During the Nashville arena show, he warned the audience that with his ADD, he might forget the words to the songs he wrote. Pointing to the stage in front of him, he said there was a teleprompter with his lyrics, but being dyslexic, he couldn't read them anyway.
He's even enlisted his Twitter followers in a weight loss challenge he's calling "Casting Pounds." "All of us are signing on to a weight loss challenge," Hall says. "We've done it on Twitter and if you want to follow, the challenge is out. We're hardcore into that now."
Howard expects the band's fall tour to help drive sales of the new CD. The 40-city the Whole World Hears tour wraps up Dec. 4, and to date 125,000 fans have attended, according to the label. That's also reflected in the band's live DVD sales: The RIAA has certified "Live From Atlanta" and "Livesong Live" platinum, and "The Altar and the Door Live" is certified gold.
Fans will see a different tour lineup for Casting Crowns this time out; for Scoggin, replacing longtime drummer Andy Williams (who exited to join his wife's band Soul Sister Sally) has meant an opportunity to become part of an organization he'd long admired.
"I've known Mark and the band for several years now, but the cool thing about being a part of Casting Crowns is it's not just a band. It's a group of people who are the real deal, who are really living it seven days a week -- not just tour buses and catering, but churches, people and ministries," he says. "So it's been a real honor to use some of the gifts that God has given me -- communicating and making disciples of people. It's been a real blast."