Walk with Him

David Crowder’s living among God’s people and working on his next verse

Photograph by David Walter Banks

Photograph by David Walter Banks
Photograph by David Walter Banks

This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.

He first appeared to me last November at a bar where I’d gone to watch the Falcons–Saints game. As usual, there were spirited drinkers with heavy beards milling around and grown-ups playing Golden Tee. In the third quarter a tall, disheveled man in a puffy jacket, with a John Deere hat pulled low over his glasses, ambled up through a halo of smoke and pushed his prophet’s beard into my girlfriend’s face. We were in Cabbagetown, where weirdness is next to godliness, so I reserved judgment. “It smells like french fries, right?” the man said of his facial hair, inching closer, giving my girlfriend an unmoored smile. She nodded, hesitantly. The man looked like he might be homeless, or on drugs. But before I could say anything, he floated away into the hipster firmament.

“That’s David Crowder,” my girlfriend said. “You won’t believe who he is.” Crowder, I soon found out, is one of the most successful Christian musicians in America. Over a fourteen-year career, he’s sold almost 2 million records. A double CD he released last year debuted at number two on the Billboard charts, behind only Adele. Stretching over more than ninety minutes and thirty-four songs, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]) is, like his previous six releases, engagingly eclectic: alt-rock, electro-pop, folk, ambient gospel, country. At the 2012 Passion conference in Atlanta, 42,000 college-age Christians packed the Georgia Dome to hear Crowder and his band. Crowder, the New York Times has written, “is among the most thoughtful, progressive, and exciting acts in contemporary Christian music.”

As it turned out, the Georgia Dome performance was a bit of a swan song for Crowder. Not long after, he broke up his band. “That portion of life was over,” he told me during one of the conversations we’d have after our odd initial encounter. “Period, full stop, end of the sentence.” We were sitting at a bar in Cabbagetown, where most of our discussions would take place. Indeed, since relocating here two years ago from Waco, Texas, Crowder has become one of the most ubiquitous—and implausible—characters in a neighborhood known for them: Christian rock star retreats not to a gated Buckhead estate or a Midtown penthouse, but to a working-class community of struggling artists, narrow streets, and old mill families. Today he rarely ventures beyond the plenitude of his neighborhood: a tavern, cafe, small grocery, and tattoo parlor where he recently had the word Honesty tattooed on his right wrist. Already on his left: I will rise.

The question is, will he rise? And if so, where?

Christian music today has become so huge that there is a Christian version of virtually every genre: Christian rock, of course, but also Christian boy bands, Christian metal, and, most recently, Christian rap. Collectively this has come to be called “contemporary Christian music,” or CCM. Some CCM acts, like Amy Grant (a “white gospel” singer born in Augusta) and Michael W. Smith (Grant’s one-time keyboardist), have made the Billboard 200 charts right alongside secular groups.

In the past two decades, an ambitious new generation of Christian artists emerged—including Atlanta’s Third Day, who have won four Grammys and been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame—that aspired to mainstream success by making music that wasn’t strictly for believers. The members of Switchfoot—a San Diego rock band, active since 1996, that has sold millions of albums and won a Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album in 2011—didn’t hide the fact that they were Christians. “But,” said Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, “they also didn’t just play in that shallow pool of the CCM industry, which was a big deal.” In more orthodox Christian circles, this compromise was distressing, if not evidence of outright apostasy: Was there such a thing as truly “Christian” music anymore?

David Crowder grew up in Waco, a Texas town not known for its shrinking violets: Ted Nugent and David Koresh have both called Waco home. As a kid, Crowder played soccer and basketball, rode horses, and staged pellet gun wars in the woods as often as he could. When he was eleven, he started running, deciding that he’d break the four-minute mile and compete in the Olympics. This never came to pass, though he says he got close to the four-minute mark.

These activities had to be squeezed in, however: Raised in a traditional Southern Baptist household, he set aside the majority of his free time for worship. Music, like religion, permeated the hot Texas air of Crowder’s youth. He listened almost exclusively to Elvis Presley, Bill Gaither, Willie Nelson, and, yes, Olivia Newton-John. “That’s everything I’ve done—all of my music, right there,” he said. He played keyboard as a kid, but was no prodigy: “The music director would tell me, ‘David, there’s a slider on the side of the keyboard that says “volume”; if you could turn that all the way down, that’d be fantastic.’” He figured he’d go into the insurance business, like his father. Knowing that, he felt free to study music at Baylor University.

Baylor is a Christian university, but, according to Crowder, more than half of the students there in the early nineties didn’t set foot in a church. He believed this was because of the dogmatism of most Southern churches. “You’re not allowed to really question things: Why are we here? Why is [there] evil? The answers were just coming from a place of certainty.” And by his early twenties, he had doubts. Back home, there had been a family crisis—one he won’t discuss. But in his 2004 book Praise Habit: Finding God in Sunsets and Sushi, he wrote that it was “something very terrible” that made him feel like “God was not there.” He told me, “I decided I don’t have issues with this Jesus guy, but it doesn’t look like this traditional approach is the way to go about worship.” A college friend named Chris Seay, now a pastor in Houston, talked about starting a new, laid-back place of worship for young people. “I had a deep sense that I was called to pastor,” Seay told me. “But, like David, I knew it didn’t look anything like what my dad and grandfather”—both ministers—“were doing. Dave was one of the people that when I’d talk about that, there was deep resonance. We both had the sense that if the time ever came to start a church, we’d do it together.”

As a junior at Baylor in 1995, Seay asked Crowder to be responsible for the music at University Baptist Church, or UBC, which they founded together. (It was abbreviated, Crowder said, “so we didn’t run people off with the Baptist thing.”)

At the end of UBC’s Sunday service, the congregation sang along to hymns backed by a band, but Crowder had a hard time finding traditional church songs that got college kids excited. For a while, he and Seay would close their service with the pseudo-spiritual mid-nineties radio staple “Hold My Hand,” by Hootie and the Blowfish.

During the week, Crowder and Seay would pore over Ecclesiastes, looking for raw material. But what they found didn’t resonate. Seay challenged Crowder to write some songs himself. Crowder did, timidly at first. “The first song I ever wrote,” Crowder said, “was called ‘You Alone.’ I asked my roommate after we used the song in the service how he thought it went. He said it was terrible. It was the same three chords over and over, the same words over and over.”

Most everyone else disagreed. “You Alone” would become one of Crowder’s most enduring songs, and it and dozens like it quickly had UBC’s congregants standing in the halls and leaning into the windows. Three hundred and sixty showed up to the first service, but the church soon moved to a theater that could seat a thousand, where his words echoed: You have given me more than / I could ever have wanted / And I want to give You my heart and my soul. This church was less like a lecture to these college students and more like a concert or a family reunion.

Crowder began performing around Texas, mostly at church retreats; he begged professors to let him miss class. It wasn’t long before Crowder realized selling insurance wasn’t in the cards. “If something feels true, you get into it,” Seay said. “And that quickly began to happen on a large scale for Dave.” Remaining in Waco, but touring regionally for the next few years with a student band assembled at UBC, Crowder put out an independent record called All I Can Say, recorded in Austin, in 1999. It was just him doing what he did at UBC: no official band, no label, no entourage.

A man named Louie Giglio, who had run a Bible study on Baylor’s campus before moving to Roswell, Georgia, in the mid-nineties, loved songs like “You Alone” and helped fund All I Can Say. Giglio set up a small Christian label called Sixsteps-records in 2000 and released Crowder’s first album with a band, Can You Hear Us?, two years later. Crowder had begun touring nationally in 2000 with the David Crowder*Band (the asterisk is an inside joke best understood as “we’re different”), but he still made it back to Waco most Sundays to perform at UBC. Songs like “Our Love Is Loud” were being compared not only to the work of major Christian singers like Matt Redman, but also to Dave Matthews Band. Crowder looked different—like Buddy Holly gone rogue—and told stories that could veer off message.

Giglio also founded the youth-oriented Passion movement and, Seay figures, knew that Crowder’s oddball appeal would be a draw. Other Sixsteps acts included Chris Tomlin, also based in Atlanta and dubbed “King of the Sing-Along” by CNN.com. But unlike Tomlin’s music, Crowder’s resisted easy listening or categorizing. By 2005 he was using electronic sounds from eighties arcade games to worship God. His band sounded more like a cross between Owl City and Britney Spears than Michael W. Smith. “Church Music was our attempt to make a record that sounded like pop radio,” said Mark Waldrop, a twenty-seven-year-old former Baylor student who played guitar for Crowder’s band from 2007 to 2012. “We were listening to a lot of Katy Perry, and David got really into Britney Spears. He’s a pop culture junkie.”

“He communicates deep theology poetically,” said JR Taylor, a Christian musician and producer in Austin who has collaborated with Styx. “He fearlessly pushes the envelope musically, and he celebrates the divine dichotomy between reverence and whimsy.” While Crowder’s album *A Collisio*n offers Southern bluegrass and Remedy offers popular rock with electric violin and turntables, Church Music contains disco, prog and pop rock, orchestral strings, and a sound that approaches the “ambient synth-emo flare” of Owl City, as a mainstream critic put it. His voice is remarkable for its vulnerability, whether backed by synthesizers or acoustic guitar. It’s not an authoritative voice so much as a reverent one. That makes sense, given that he began in church and at church retreats throughout Texas, long before playing arenas like the Georgia Dome.

He and his wife, Toni, bought a big house in Waco, built by a cofounder of Dr Pepper. But he continued to live much like the man who wasn’t sure he should take the microphone at UBC.

Then, last year, Crowder made the most unpredictable move of all: He broke up his band. He’d been listening to a lot of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Sr., and George Jones, and he wanted a new sound, and maybe a wider audience. The year before, his wife left Waco to go to design school in Nashville. He decided to relocate, too—but to Atlanta, a place where he knew a few church people but otherwise would be anonymous. He liked it that way: a fresh start. A Google search took him to Cabbagetown, and that’s where he ended up settling. “Everybody was neighbors here. I haven’t been a lot of places that have that concern for fellow man.” The bars were a good fit, too. “If you want to get to the core of David Crowder,” Waldrop said, “it’s drinking beer and playing Golden Tee.”

Crowder doesn’t socialize much outside of a small circle of mostly bearded men, with whom he is anything but shy. Chief among them is a cherubic Indian with a thick neck and an even thicker Southern accent named Jay Desai. He is Crowder’s Atlanta neighbor, tour manager, driver, and de facto life assistant. Desai was born in London but grew up in Atlanta, where he dropped out of Georgia State to work as a sound technician. He reminds Crowder of his frequent flier number, orders his drink before he arrives, and runs sound at his shows. Desai once took Crowder to the dentist after the musician decided to race down the street wearing boots, crashed, and smashed some teeth. Desai has even had to remind him of his age. (“I thought I turned forty-two last November,” Crowder said. “I was told I was forty-one.”)

To Crowder, Atlanta doesn’t feel musically cutthroat the way musician friends of his complain about Nashville. Atlanta neighborhoods like Cabbagetown, with their cheap rents and cheap bars, have quietly nurtured a diverse group of musicians—from Blackberry Smoke to the Black Lips and Cat Power—for years. And out of Atlanta have emerged breakout Christian acts like Third Day and Casting Crowns, while major artists like Chris Tomlin have relocated here. Atlanta is ground zero for New South, megachurch Christianity, so it’s no surprise that it’s become a hub for Christian music. If Nashville has the recording studios, Atlanta has the recording artists. “Everybody is slowly moving to Atlanta,” said Mac Powell, lead singer of Third Day, who moved from Alabama to Marietta in high school and has since played some seventy shows with Crowder. “It’s crazy. There’s so much great music in Georgia, from hip-hop to country to Christian. It’s attractive.”

And if things got too wild for a Waco man, Sixstepsrecords would step in to help. Crowder has never lived in a major city before, so far from his family, where influences and temptations could lead him astray, as they did for a time in college. The label, he told me, shelters and protects its artists from commerce and fame. It was built with the idea of family: “That’s a real attractive thing to me because I think people—that’s how I experience God most, how I’m shaped. You display what your insides are by interacting through people.”

One of the few clean-shaven men in Crowder’s circle is Giglio, now pastor of Atlanta’s Passion City Church. (Giglio, through his publicist, declined to be interviewed. Earlier this year, news that Giglio had once made anti-gay remarks in sermons led to his withdrawal from giving the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration.) Along with a few Baylor professors, Giglio helps Crowder decide if his songs are appropriate for Christian consumption. Some aren’t. “One song I wrote recently,” Crowder said, “was very questioning. One of the lines was If there’s a God up in heaven, Lord let me feel Him somehow. Well, there’s no issue with putting that on a record so people can ask that question out loud. But to have it play at a Christian conference just seems not necessary. You’re supposed to be announcing that there is a God up in heaven.”

On his own, Crowder is less cautious: He told me he’s written country songs, which he hopes a mainstream artist, like Blake Shelton, might use. “Songs like ‘Drove Me to Drinking’ and ‘Damn, It’s Morning Again,’” he said. “Things I can’t do. It’s one in a million any of them will land.” It was clear, from the excitement in his voice and his downplaying of the possibilities, that this was the frontier. Though he texts with Seay all the time, and sees him a few times a year, he still keeps these songs largely to himself. He hasn’t shown them to his former bandmates, though Waldrop knows that he used to “tinker” with writing country and bluegrass songs and “would be wildly successful if he performed them. Our whole last year was a lot of just hanging around green rooms with mandolins and banjos and acoustics; it was obvious that was what he really wanted to do. So it wouldn’t be that weird of a transition, especially with the beard and the hair.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Dave wrote a novel,” said Seay, “or wrote a hit song for Beyoncé. He’s brilliant.” But Crowder is nervous to put his own face behind secular music—so nervous that he’s considered using a pseudonym.

One Monday night in January, I met Crowder at a tavern. He was coming from a prayer meeting at Passion City. He ordered a whiskey and the waitress smiled, bending over him: “Tall.” It was less a question than a confirmation. He nodded. Met by Desai and a few other friends, he laid his huge hands on the table and told a couple of tangled stories, including one about his performance in Beaumont, Texas, a few days prior. “We drank them out of five different liquors,” he said. “Two whiskeys and three rums. I’m not talking five bottles, I’m talking five kinds of liquor.” Desai nodded. “We drank all evening, and it was only like a hundred and forty dollar tab.”

The song and dance of sinners does not bother Crowder, as evidenced by his frequent appearances at this tavern—which his handlers asked me not to name—where he ambles around and tells stories about the road, hanging out with the lead singer of Megadeth (also a conservative Christian), and late-night explorations of the tunnels beneath Cabbagetown. This is where he sits next to plumbers and lawyers and strippers, plays video games, and asks strangers to smell his beard. It is also where he celebrated what he thought was his forty-second birthday the day we met. There are ways to make sense of this. “If I walk into a church,” Crowder told me, “He’s at work there. If I walk into a bar, a brothel, or wherever, there is [also] the presence of God. My only job is to be attentive and aware of it—carry redemption into whatever spaces I enter.”

There was a time when this logic wouldn’t pass muster. Kevin Max, of the Grammy-winning Christian rap band DC Talk, was criticized for smoking a cigar and drinking a beer in the late nineties. Amy Grant and Sandi Patti’s divorces scandalized CCM—many radio stations and bookstores banned their music afterward. “Today,” said Mark Moring, who covered Christian music for more than a decade at Christianity Today, “a number of Christian artists have gone through divorces and nobody hardly blinks.” Powell agreed that the industry is changing, “but you’ve still got to be careful.”

“Nobody was mad at Jesus for being in the synagogue all the time,” Crowder said. “The religious people were upset that he was always with the prostitutes and tax collectors and the reprobates—those that were seemingly unfit for religious participation.” He paused. “I’d rather be out here with them. I’m trying to follow this dude Jesus, and it feels like that’s where he is.”

As we talked one night, three young men walked up to our table and sat down: thick glasses, nerdy sweaters, fancy haircuts. They were part of the Rend Collective Experiment, a band from Ireland. “We make organic worship music,” said one named Chris. Crowder was their “hero” for his combination of musical sophistication and devotion to Jesus. They were also fellow parishioners at Passion City: “Passion was the main reason we moved to Atlanta,” said Chris. “It was luck that David went there.” Crowder turned to me: “You never heard of Rend Collective?” I shook my head. “You don’t listen to much Jesus music, do you?” Chris continued, “We want to create an environment for people to have genuine encounters with Him, and to find themselves singing to Him in real ways.”

What are “real ways”? The more I listened, many of Crowder’s lyrics sounded secular. From a song called “Can I Lie Here?”: Can I lie here in Your arms / My only calm is You / Save me. And from “Intoxicating”: Inebriating You are to me / Completely captivating to see / Sending my world spinning You are, You see. You don’t hear the capitalized pronouns.

“When I say things and write things to put in the mouths of people, it’s shaping the way they think about God and each other,” Crowder told me over pizza the next day. “Even though they could just passively sing along, it’s informing theology and doctrine. You’re basically indoctrinating people, which makes you nervous.” He contrasted what he does with most pop music—which doesn’t offer itself as doctrine so much as background noise—mentioning an explicitly sexual Black Eyed Peas song called “My Humps.” “The music just sort of flows over you,” he said.

This funny, drinking, smoking, trucker-looking man who writes love songs and appreciates the Black Eyed Peas and the Lumineers alike could, I thought, be a mainstream star someday. He’s even got the requisite A-list pals, including NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III (a Baylor alum), and he’s gone surfing with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Christian star Powell, who released his first album of country music last August—a self-titled record that has sold close to 10,000 copies—agrees.

“Dave was one of the first guys I told that I was making a country record,” Powell told me. “He was encouraged. He’d been talking for a long time about doing something like that. Even though you start in a certain genre, you always want to make music that crosses those lines. He’s always shown those signs of wanting to do something other than worship music.” “Some of the soccer moms who listen to him might be upset if he became a secular star and talked about drinking all the time,” said Waldrop, “but most of his core audience would probably stick with him.”

“All beauty is God’s beauty,” said Seay. “All truth is God’s truth. If he writes something beautiful and true, anyone will respond to it.”

With a sense of humor, Crowder has already tried to bridge the divine and secular worlds in small ways. In a blog post written in 2008, he explained to a fan why alcohol was served at some of his shows. Without saying he imbibes the stuff, he encouraged open-mindedness: “I’m pretty sure that the bar was selling alcohol because it is a bar and that’s what bars sell. They typically like to make money and so they buy things, such as beers, from a distributor for a certain price and then mark it up to sell to people so that they will get a profit and get to pay their employees and get to stay open and such. Alcohol is usually a pretty big seller for bars. I am sorry this was shocking. I might add, both historically and currently, there are many people who love Jesus, and follow Him, that also enjoy alcohol regularly. If you have not encountered these people firsthand, you should attempt to enlarge your peer circle and I think you’ll get a clearer picture of the diversity of the body of Christ.”

His concerts, too, strive for something beyond church. “You know you are at a worship conference sponsored by David Crowder,” wrote the Christian author W. David O. Taylor, “when a fog machine kicks in and gobo lights wash the stage in color while the Welcome Wagon sings an exquisitely spare version of ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.’” If his lyrics have thus far been defined by reverence, his antics before audiences have been defined by irreverence. Crowder once leg-wrestled Powell onstage. “He beat me,” said Powell. “He’s a wiry dude.” Powell paused. “I mean this in a great way: He’s one of the most unique guys I’ve ever met. He’s a very eclectic, kind guy, but at the same time shy and almost Forrest Gump–ish. Crazy things happen to him.”

One time, Crowder was hanging out with Marty Stuart, a Nashville icon who used to play with Johnny Cash and has become a major collector of country music memorabilia. “Well,” said Powell, “he ends up in Marty’s warehouse with all that stuff, and he’s wearing Hank Williams Sr.’s jacket. And Marty’s going, ‘Perfect fit! Perfect fit!’ Like it was a sign.”

In late February, Crowder kicked off his It’ll Cure What Ails Ya tour at the Loft in Midtown. Pilgrims packed in, pushing toward the front of the sold-out room, which fits 650. Jay Desai and the rest of Crowder’s crew had built a backdrop for the stage best described as “bluegrass chic”: lightbulbs flickered in Mason jars, and packing crates made up a faux wall from which vintage portraits of Southern men hung alongside antlers. In the audience, sixty-year-old Marietta couples drank soda and held hands near pierced and tattooed college kids who looked like they’d come straight from a show at the Earl. A pair of self-described “Crowder virgins” sat patiently to the side while a woman tried to get backstage to give Crowder a pizza, and a Georgia Tech student told me he couldn’t wait to see “The Beard,” as this kid called him, up close. A bartender turned down yet another request for root beer, which he didn’t sell, as I approached; only five percent of the crowd at a show like this would be drinking alcohol, he said.

Around eight, Crowder emerged wearing a red trucker hat, his ubiquitous puffy vest, and blue jeans, trailed by his new eight-piece bluegrass band—all young, attractive, and giving the bearded man in the middle a wide berth. “Bluegrass,” Waldrop told me, “is exactly what he should be doing.” They opened with “Why Me,” a kneeling-before-God Kris Kristofferson song from Jesus Was a Capricorn that begins, Why me, Lord? / What have I ever done / To deserve even one of the pleasures I’ve known. This was a softer sound with more mainstream appeal than much of Crowder’s previous work. Desai was in the sound booth, beard swaying, as Crowder movingly sang favorites of his like “O Praise Him,” viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube, and “Let Me Feel You Shine,” a tune reminiscent of Mumford & Sons that begins, This place is trying to break my belief. He told me later, half seriously, that this new sound—equal parts pop, Americana, and bluegrass—was “glam-folk.”

At times, I found myself forgetting that his songs expressed any religious sentiment at all. They still sounded like love songs, which, in a way, they were. I was reminded of something Andy Crouch of Christianity Today had told me: “When a pop singer says, ‘I’m gonna love you forever,’ that’s not a promise that any human being can make. Our love doesn’t last forever. That’s a promise laden with theological meaning.” You can either listen to Christian worship music and say, “This sounds a lot like any old love song, only with capitalized pronouns,” or you can listen to a lot of pop and say, “This really sounds theological.” Who is influencing and borrowing from whom? Maybe it goes both directions. Maybe it always has. In any case, Crowder says he doesn’t like labels. He is simply a Christian who makes music.

I sipped my ginger ale and nodded along as he sang.

His penultimate offering was Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light.” Here was Crowder saluting and inhabiting both the secular and religious worlds at once, singing the words of the greatest country musician of all time—though no paragon of virtue—on the subject of salvation: I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin / I wouldn’t let my dear savior in / Then Jesus came, like a stranger in the night / Praise the Lord, I saw the light.

During the concert, Crowder told long, rambling stories, as was his custom. One was about a friend of his father’s in East Texas—“one of my people,” Crowder said—who jury-rigged an old van “purchased from a pawn shop” with a love seat, and often took young David around for rides in it. Another was about being embarrassed to take his clothes off for a massage, which his wife had arranged. “When we’re onstage,” Powell later told me, “the far end of our personalities come out—David’s especially.”

Perhaps the strangest thing Crowder did, however, was announce his phone number.

“I’d love to keep up,” he said toward the end of his set. “Does everybody have phones?” The crowd cheered, somewhat confused. “I’m gonna give y’all my number right now, if y’all want.” There was laughing. “Seriously. Get your phone out. I want you to call me. Okay, so it’ll be me and you talking. That’s cool, nobody else wants to talk to me.” He announced a 404 number, which the crowd typed into their phones in unison. “You got that?” he asked. “You only get it one time.” A young woman holding a PBR dialed the number immediately. She waited a few seconds, then turned to her friend and said, “It’s really him!”

A week later I finally dialed the number myself. I wasn’t sure what I’d actually say if someone picked up, but no one did; the mailbox was full. I asked Crowder about the number, eventually: “Yeah, that’s a phone we bought just for the tour,” he said. “Sometimes we answer it, sometimes we don’t.”