It is hard to believe but I have to admit that my favorite album I have listened to in 2009 comes from an American Idol alumnus from Season 6.
Chris Sligh is a genuine original, blessed with a golden voice, a style of songwriting that communicates even as it defies the commercial “rules,” and a world view that encompasses edgy humor, rebelliousness, and rocksolid faith.
All these elements breathe life into every moment of his new album, Running Back to You. From the soaring resonance of “In a Moment” to the sly rhyming of “Love is Raining Down,” his music is rich in character; his character overflows with music.
From the beginning, Chris Sligh’s story didn’t conform to the norm. He was born into a musical but conservative family. His father was a gifted guitarist, singer, and songwriter who nonetheless banned non-classical music from his household. At night he would play recordings of works by Mozart or Beethoven as bedtime music; Chris, at age four or five, would listen, picking out and singing along with individual parts of the composition – maybe the second violin or lead viola – until finally falling asleep. Growing up in Germany, where his father worked as a chaplain among American troops, Chris was in his own words a “typical jock.” His enthusiasm for sports mirrored that of millions of guys his age back in the States – yet being far from home, he also developed a complex way of looking at life, in which elements of skepticism and worldliness tempered his church-based upbringing.
Beginning his college study in pre-law at Pensacola Christian College in Florida, Sligh transferred in his sophomore year to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, an equally fundamentalist institution but one that also offered more advanced opportunities for achieving his goals. “I wanted to major in music,” he says. “This freaked my parents out, because music is the most unmarketable degree there is. But I told them, ‘I don’t need jobs. I’m going to be a singer!’ And of course, that freaked them out royally.”
All these efforts came to a sudden end in December of his senior year, when Sligh was expelled for attending a Christian rock (4HIM) concert, apparently as great a transgression at Bob Jones as joining a coven. Looking back, though, he believes now that it was the best thing that could have happened to him: “Probably a year before that, I’d realized that I’d wanted to leave,” Sligh says. “So getting kicked out was a blessing in disguise. And four months later, I recorded my first album.” That debut, Vessel, was a solo acoustic project, self-produced and self-released. Touring at first on his own, building a following through coffeehouse gigs and word of mouth, he stretched his musical and lyrical range.
In 2006, Sligh auditioned for American Idol, more or less on a whim. To his surprise, his performance swept him onto a fast track to the final rounds. His willingness to take chances, his ironic wit, and his startlingly powerful vocals embedded him into the popular imagination. And his distinctive blend of talent, humor, confidence, and unpredictability led to an exchange with Simon Cowell that astonished and delighted the other judges, host Ryan Seacrest, and much of America.
Though he didn’t win, Sligh did captivate and stir discussion among the millions of American Idol viewers. He also demonstrated that he knew how to do whatever needed to be done to turn a performance, whether through singing or spoken words, into a home run. “With a song, you have three minutes to cram in as much information as possible,” he observes. Sligh’s willingness to challenge convention and to take creative risks is evident throughout Running Back to You. Produced by Brown Bannister (Amy Grant, MercyMe, Steven Curtis Chapman, The Afters), with guest coproduction from renowned musicians Will Owsley and Stephen Leiweke the project will evoke other artists of passion and commitment, from Switchfoot to the Killers. In the end, though, the lesson is reaffirmed – namely, that Chris Sligh simultaneously touches the heart and rocks the house.
And so it is…another great artist and song …”For those who have ears to hear”