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SAWYER BROWN

Mark & Beach Street Records

Country music fans know Mark Miller as the frontman of the veteran band Sawyer Brown, which first found fame in the 1980s after winning Star Search and has since released 16 major label albums, including the brand new Mission Temple Fireworks Stand. But Christian rock fans may know Miller as the founder of Beach Street Records, the label with Casting Crowns and singer/songwriter Josh Bates. Considering he's been a lifelong believer, this avenue makes perfect sense, though Miller is the first to admit he wasn't at all familiar with how the Christian music industry worked at first. It wasn't until a phone call from Bates' father and meeting a string of connected friends—including Steven Curtis Chapman—that Miller started entertaining ideas of a label, which he continues to balance with Sawyer Brown's packed calendar.

How did you get started working within the Christian music industry?

Mark Miller: I got a call from Josh Bates' father [a pastor], and he wanted me to work with his boys on a Christian project. I was a big Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith and Third Day fan, but I wasn't hooked into the industry behind the scenes. But when Josh was 13 and [his brother] Eric was 15, I had them play for me and I was amazed at how phenomenal they were on mandolin and guitar. Josh had not gone through puberty yet and had an incredibly high voice, but I've never been a big fan of taking children out their life as a child and turning them into a recording artist. I don't remember what I told them, but it might have been to the effect of "call me when they get out of high school."

Sure enough, their father called and said the boys have progressed even more, asking if I would produce them. I told Pastor Bates I appreciated his confidence but had no idea where to start in the Christian music industry. He said "I think you're supposed to do it" and hung up the phone.

Where did you turn at that point?

Miller: The only friend I had in the [Christian] industry [at that point] was a guy who mixed some of our records. So I called him one day and said, "This is Mark," and he said "The answer is yes." I said, "You don't even know what I'm going to ask," and he said, "Yes, I think you should do it." I told him I got a call from a pastor who had two really talented sons and he wanted me involved in their careers. He told me he had a feeling what the call was about and said he'd help. From there I told Pastor Bates I'd get involved since he was so adamant, and soon I started to spend some time with Josh to get more familiar with his talents.

At what point did the buzz on Josh and ideas about Beach Street start to brew?

Miller: My good friend Terry Hemmings, who at one time owned Reunion [Records], had his kids in the same school as my kids. He found out about what Josh and I were doing, and told me there was really something there. Even though he was out of the music industry at the time, he said we should do something together. And before you knew it, he was offered a position as CEO of Provident. He called and said, "Now we can do something together." He was serious.

Where did Casting Crowns fit into this equation?

Miller: One day Terry, my brother and Steven Curtis Chapman—all of our kids go to school together—went out to play golf. We had a Casting Crowns demo playing in the car. Terry said, "Let's sign them, and I'll give you your own label to do it." Steven [who wound up co-producing its debut with me] wanted to think about it. So the next morning, we got together, and Terry told me to call [Casting Crowns' lead singer] Mark Hall. We told him there was something different about his band, and we signed him to a deal over the phone.

What was it about the demo that clicked with you?

Miller: When I'm given something, the first thing I always try and listen to is the voice. From the very first syllables, I knew I liked Hall's voice. The same with Josh. They're each distinctive and have their own character. Another thing I noticed was what an incredible songwriter he was; I sat in awe over the gifts God had given him.

How do you juggle time between Beach Street and Sawyer Brown?

Miller: I have no idea, but it all works out because of a divine plan. The new Sawyer Brown record took four years to make, which has given me time to work with the Casting Crowns and Josh records. I do feel like God's opened the door through Sawyer, and I'm not sure if I would've been in this position without it.

How does Mission Temple stack up in Sawyer Brown's catalogue?

Miller: It's been a four-year labor, the longest it's ever taken us for an album. Steven Curtis and myself wrote a few songs, and he contributed two by himself. It's just a collection of what I've been experiencing. We've kind of covered the gamut over the years, so that didn't limit us at all with Mission Temple. The title song itself is just a rocked-out gospel song, and then you've got "They Don't Understand," a ballad that makes us really take a look at ourselves and the ultimate sacrifice that our Lord made. People are so busy and caught up in their own world that they don't look around or care, and the song challenges that. On every album there's a bit of fun, plus we like to rock and have a lot of movement. I grew up in the Pentecostal church, so music's always been a big part of our worship. When I sing a song—a ballad or an up-tempo rocker—I feel it all the way down to my bones.

What is your take on the whole talent competition/reality TV craze since that kick started Sawyer Brown's career?

Miller: All I can speak of is my own experience with it, but it was probably the most exciting time of my career to this day. We had been told everything from "you don't have it" to "good luck, but you're not quite there yet." Then overnight, we land on the first year of Star Search when the ratings went through the roof and everybody's paying attention. I tease my kids all the time that we're one of the original "American Idols," and in a sense we were. I will say that with all of the trash on TV, at least Idol is a show I can let my kids watch. It shows people following their dreams from one week to the next, and as long as they're singing good songs and keeping their clothes on, I enjoy it.

What do you hope to offer to the artists you're overseeing?

Miller: I honestly just pray I'm wise enough where God wants me to be in each act's career and lives. I want Josh to grow as a writer and articulate what God puts on his heart. The same goes for Mark Hall, though being older and with more experience as a youth minister, he has incredible insight he's able to articulate. I didn't have big plans to begin with for Beach Street. I'm basically going off faith and following God's lead.

by Andy Argyrakis
courtesy of www.christianmusictoday.com

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