David Crowder. Photo by Jenna DeWitt. Copyright 2010.
Nearly 60 years ago, one Baylor student announced a football game over the radio that changed the face of Christian music.
During the radio program, titled “The Game of Life,” the Forces of Good defeated the Forces of Evil in a parable so popular that listeners requested recordings. Jarrell McCracken, working his way through school as a sports announcer, placed the program’s fictional radio station’s call letters — WORD — on the discs. Word Records was born.
The Waco-based label originally recorded spoken-word programs and gospel music, including music by the Baylor Religious Hour Choir. The label soon expanded into “a burgeoning outburst of all kinds of musical activity,” as described by the label’s former artists and repertoire director Kurt Kaiser.
Kaiser, an award-winning composer, producer and artist, joined the label in 1959 after completing his Master’s degree at Northwestern University. While with Word, Kaiser signed artists and worked with songwriters that brought the label to national attention. Kaiser has worked with every type of artist, including Mahlia Jackson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Evie, Ethel Waters, Joni Eareckson Tada, Robert Hale, Ray Price, Homer Tankersley and Wayne Newton. He has also accompanied singer George Beverly Shaw with the Billy Graham Crusades.
Kaiser’s legacy as a songwriter could fill books, but his two most well-loved songs, “Pass it On” and “Oh How He Loves You and Me” have proved foundational for the music of the contemporary church as well as Word’s first musical, “Tell it Like it is,” which he co-wrote with Ralph Carmichael.
“It’s all very dated sounding now, but at the time it was very hip,” he said. “We would sell 14-15,000 a week. Everybody was singing it. Books and records… it was unbelievable. That was before there was a plethora of these kinds of things around. Kids thought this was really great.”
The musical “Tell it Like it is” was the original context for “Pass it On” and helped to make the hit song one of his most well-known contributions to Christian music. Kaiser recalls turning on the television in a motel room in Cincinnati and seeing the hit sung by 100,000 people at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
“The thought that occurred to me is, ‘Isn’t it amazing what happens when you take your hands off of something and let God use it the way He wants to use it?,” he said.
These deep roots of faith at Word were tested when corporate changes took place. First, McCracken sold part of the company to ABC in 1974 and stepped down as president in 1986. In 1992, ABC sold the company to Thomas Nelson, Inc. who moved Word out of Waco to Nashville, where it remains today under Warner/Curb. Some of Word Label Group’s top artists today include NEEDTOBREATHE, BarlowGirl, Point of Grace, Francesca Battistelli, Big Daddy Weave, Group 1 Crew and American Idol third-place runner-up Jason Castro.
Word isn’t the only major contribution Waco has made to the Christian music industry however. Baylor alumnus David Crowder has made waves throughout the world of church music with his unique sound and use of instruments. Through the David Crowder Band, the local music and arts pastor has won Dove Awards and Grammy nominations.
In addition to sending out the music and faith of Central Texas, Crowder also raises awareness about the community and Baylor to those who listen to his music. For example, Baylor was chosen as the location for Crowder’s Fantastical Church Music Conference in September, partially because of the diverse crowds the mega-gathering of Christian musicians would attract.
“As we have travelled quite a bit, we have a lot of people asking ‘where did you guys go to school?’ and ‘what did you major in?’ so that was part of the conversation,” Crowder told The Baylor Lariat in a Sept. 17 interview. “We feel almost like recruiters a lot of the time, so what I wanted to do is, in a sense, brand Baylor as a place to come and obviously, like myself, experience the education that is provided here.”
Yet, Crowder is just one example of Waco’s lasting impact on the Christian music scene. The university’s efforts, as well as those of churches, have kept the local music and its artists on the forefront of influence in Nashville.
“In Nashville, it is widely known that Baylor is, next to Belmont, probably the number one contributor to the industry,” said Dr. Charles Fifield, a Baylor senior lecturer in marketing and Uproar Records faculty sponsor.
Uproar Records, Baylor’s student-run label, serves as a learning laboratory for both student artists and music marketing students as they learn about their future careers in real-world situations. From auditions to concerts, recordings, music videos and photo shoots, the students are able to experience the music industry in their respective fields and form connection with the major labels in Nashville.
“I think it at least fosters a relationship to create more music and to pinpoint where an artist is strong in their style and their ability as an artist,” said music and entertainment marketing student Clint Washington. “They can take those lessons and then build that into more potential into being at EMI or Provident or Word or somewhere like that.”
Dr. Randall Bradley, church music professor and interim music minister at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco, said he believes that the area’s strong influence in the Christian music industry is directly connected to the deep religious foundations of the city and university.
“In the ’40s and ’50s, the youth revival movement launched from Baylor. Anytime you have a revival movement or a strong spiritual movement, you have a musical component that is spawned from that or the two work closely together,” he said. “Baylor is a place of faith, a place where people have discovered a deepened and enriched faith and the fervor of their faith has been fanned. That has also made Baylor a place where the music of the church has also found root. The seeds have continued to be sown.”