Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. — James 1:17 (NIV Bible)
NASHVILLE — Amy Grant wasn't having much success writing the lyrics to a love song. She propped up her 6-week-old baby Millie in a car seat on the kitchen counter and looked at her. "My absolutely adorable child," she remembers. The lyrics then came fast like a gift from heaven: "Baby baby, I'm taken with the notion, to love you with the sweetest of devotion." About ten minutes later she was done.
"Baby Baby" was released in 1991 and rose to number one on the mainstream charts and was nominated for two Grammy Awards. She had successfully established herself outside the category of Contemporary Christian music. Twenty years later she is still singing that song and is coming to Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on August 20 for a charity concert.
"The song 'Baby Baby,' I so love that song because I wrote it about my first daughter," Grant said in an interview with the Deseret News, "but nobody has ever come up to me and said, 'This song changed my life.' They always make comments about songs that have some deeper spiritual message."
The roots of those messages were in hymns. "The most consistent musical experience I had growing up was church music," Grant said. "I just loved music, and I grew up in a church that did a lot of singing."
One of the few photographs she has of her childhood is of her sitting on a couch in her pajamas when she was 6 years old — a hymnal open on her lap.
Grant and her family would sing with the church on Sundays nights and Wednesday nights — and sometimes the church service would just be singing without any sermons. But her musical life was also tempered with playing LP records with her sisters. "We also had the Beatles, Three Dog Night, Elvis and Joni Mitchell," she said.
Music is close to Grant's core. She finds it always rejuvenates, always energizes. "Music is a lifeline."
To others, Grant's music is the lifeline.
"If I'm gassing my car. If I'm in the grocery store. If I am in an airport. People make the effort to stop and say, 'This song (helped me). And they almost always have to do with bringing some kind of relief during a hard time," Grant said. "Because that's really when songs find us where we are."
Grant's father spent his career in radiation oncology, and so as child she was very aware of cancer treatment. But that didn't prepare her for the loss of a close friend to cancer. "She had been a real confidant for 15 years," Grant said. "That's a loss. All you can do is just be there in it. You can't recreate that friendship. It is just 'goodbye.'"
Then she found the song "Better than a Hallelujah." She didn't write the song, but she made it her own, gave it her own meaning, when one day she read the lyrics on a computer screen: "We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody … The honest cries of breaking hearts, Are better than a Hallelujah." "And now when people come up to me and say how they needed that song desperately, I say, 'I know exactly how that feels. I needed that song too.'"
Loss is also behind Grant's upcoming concert on August 20. The evening is organized by the Anne Stirba Cancer Foundation and all proceeds will be given to the Huntsman Cancer Institute for breast cancer research. Peter Stirba began the foundation in honor of his wife Anne, a respected Utah judge who died in 2001 after a decade fighting the cancer. "You take something like that," Stirba said, "and you try to find some way to resolve in a positive way what was a very devastating loss for our family. And a personal loss to me."
This is the second annual concert the foundation has organized. "It is important to have the right kind of performer who is representative of not just quality musically, but quality as a person and artistic expression — and she is all of that," Stirba said.
Grant responds to compliments like Stirba's by turning to God.
"I know my own weaknesses as a human being, and as a musician, as a singer and as a woman," Grant said. "And so when somebody says something that is really complimentary, in my mind I always think several things: I'm glad I worked so hard at something that I loved. And always, right behind that is 'Thank you God for the opportunity to do this.'"
Grant remembers her pastor at Belmont Church in Nashville, Don Finto, giving her advice in the early 1970s about fame and where it might lead her. "If you do this for a long time," he told her, "you are going to get a lot of compliments. Just learn very quickly that when you get a compliment say, 'Thank you so much.' And in your heart just turn and thank God." Finto told her the compliment passes through her to God.
Grant said, "I was a kid when I was taught that. It has helped shape a very healthy pattern in my life — and it is the truth."
She has even seen this type of gratitude rub off on her husband, country music star Vince Gill. "He is a freakishly gifted musician," she said, "and I would say, in our conversation, 'What an amazing thing that God gifted you in so many ways.'"
The way he talks about his talents feels different to Grant than when they first met. "People will say something about his talent and he will now say, 'You know, God gave me an amazing gift, I'm very thankful.' It's true. God did give him a gift."
And Grant still gives gifts in her songs — sharing her deepest struggles and highest joys. She said there is no other way to do it. The music must mean something to her.
"I don't write songs that don't affect me on some level," Grant said, "because I figure if I am not moved by it, if its not something that I have a longing to celebrate or to be reminded of, if it doesn't affect me then how can I possibly think it is going to affect somebody else. My touchstone is write something that matters."
Grant by the numbers
Albums sold: More than 30 million
No. 1 Hits: 6
Walk of Fame Hollywood stars: 1
Grammy Awards: 6
Multiplatinum albums: 3
Platinum albums: 6
Gold albums: 4
First Album: "Amy Grant" in 1977