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The Musings of Billy Smiley (WhiteHeart) about the christian music

Published on Jun 19th, 2016 | Posted by Anthony Martinez
Billy Smiley, best known as a guitarist in WhiteHeart, music producer and currently member of the band "The union of Sinners and Saints" with John Schlitt, recently spoke right through the page of his current band, about culture in Christian music from today.

Worth that current musicians and singers in Christian music, consider what Billy says below:

             << I have been feeling somewhat uneasy with music, culture, politics, and I have a sense of unrest with almost everything that the world seems to offer. I wonder if anyone else out there feels the same way.

    Two statements that I have read recently gave even more clarity to my own thoughts while John Schlitt (Petra) and I talked, wrestled, and worked on lyrics and music that we were writing for our new album “The Union of Sinners and Saints”. Our perspective from an additional 20 years of living, learning, and being away from the popular Christian culture that we were both part of and in in the 80’s and 90’s helped us write with a perspective of “What can I do in this season of my life that is meaningful”, “How can we use this platform to encourage others to do the same with their lives”, and “Where is this world heading into”?

    I do not necessarily long for the golden years of the music industry (although I am so thankful to have grown up in the creative decades of the late 60’s and 70’s where music seemed to thrive on each artist wanting to be different from the next), but John and I both seem to have a passion to almost prove ourselves all over again, because we have to write and we have to sing. That is what we love to do!

    One of the statements that triggered this response from me came from a fellow musician last month, Regie Hamm, who said:
"Christian music as the platform for an artist performing for an audience, is pretty much a thing of the past, now. It has morphed into a forum for worship leaders. The new incarnation of "faith based music," is the white, acoustic guitar-playing singer/songwriter, who has a good (but nondescript) voice. He is just dangerous enough looking to give him some street cred. And his music will be a very well constructed amalgam of all of the least sexual popular music of the day.

    In the end, it will still essentially be created with barriers and roadblocks and hindrances. And there’s the rub. Creativity requires freedom. Why did everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Katy Perry start out in Christian Music …but then leave? An artist can only paint the same painting - with implied instructions to only use the same 7 colors - so many times.

    I love Jesus. But I would imagine even HE probably gets tired of having his name continually rhymed with "frees us."

    If Bono wants to know why Christian Music isn't more real, he need look no further than his own music. He should understand that if he had brought "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" to his Christian record label, they would've had a staff meeting to come up with the idea of changing his thunderous prayer of the seeker to …"I've Finally Found What I'm Looking For." Because in the ghetto of Christianity, we need answers. NOT questions. And we can certainly have NO declarative statements that question our own beliefs. You see, you can't close your eyes, throw your hands in the air mindlessly, and sway from side to side …to that.

    The chasm between music that comforts and reinforces our deeply held beliefs and music that explores beyond our deeply held beliefs will always be a very difficult one to bridge. Although, it actually might be easier if religious certainty didn’t keep getting in the way.

    Faith and spirituality can barely survive religion. Imagine how tough it is for art.” 

    The music of today truly is a difficult world to walk in, and still provide for oneself financially. I too was moved by early Christian artists, but I agree with Regie - We have lost the freedom to be free in the music that the Living One gave us; whether it’d be Rock, Pop, Classical, Country, Hip Hop, R&B, Gospel, or Worship.

    There is Rock and then there’s Christian Rock, there is Pop and then Christian Pop, there is Country and then there is Christian Country, There is Hip Hop & then Christian Hip Hop. There is R&B and then Christian R&B.
But there is not a mainstream version of Worship! Worship music and Gospel music are the ONLY genres that do not imitate the world. They are ours and ours alone. Yet do we treasure that for what that means, and create great art out of that singular aspect of what that could mean to people all over the world?

    So what do we do instead? We make radio music for a culture that doesn’t tune into radio. And if they do tune in, it is for the 38-year-old in a SUV who wants positive music with an uplifting message that doesn’t get in the way or challenge their thinking too deeply. We constantly make bad imitations out of art, without creating great art ourselves.

    We still don’t recognize our history. Bill Gaither pretty much saved the Southern Gospel genre single-handedly, because he loved what that kind of music meant for him, and he cherished the people in it, the sinners and the saints!
Contemporary Christian Music started out being made by artists whose lives were moved, changed, and saved out of the mess they were in, and then they wrote about those experiences with the music they were creating in the culture they lived in.

    Billy Ray Hearn loved that, and made us young artists feel liked we mattered, and we could share what we were feeling. He never once mentioned writing a song for radio. He loved songs that MOVED him. I remember him sitting in a hotel room as we (Whiteheart) were singing him new songs for our first project with Sparrow Records at the time. As we sang “Fly Eagle Fly” and “Maybe Today”, his eyes were closed and he swayed to every ebb and flow of the acoustic guitar with the three-part harmonies. We came out of that moment thinking we could change the world because he loved what he heard and affirmed that feeling to us!

    Bob McKenzie was another great mentor on the publishing side, giving me my first shot at producing an album called “Passin’ The Faith Along” with the Gaither Vocal Band, when my only experience at producing were the first Whiteheart demos. He was always moved by a ‘moment’ and taught me the importance of the live show and the “Song”. Bill Gaither and Bob Mackenzie always knew that a song was a game changer, and that it made a difference for the people hearing it for the very first time. Always the recipient, “the listener” was the most important person in the room!

    Most young Christian artists don’t know who Keith Green, Love Song, Larry Norman, or even Amy Grant is, because they don’t recognize or cherish those who came before them and how they paved the way. I got into Christian music because of all kinds of music thrown into my young ‘human mixer’ brain - Love Song, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, The Way, Larry Norman, Led Zeppelin, Randy Matthews, Andre Crouch and The Disciples, Queen, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Mustard Seed Faith, Honeytree, Bob Seger, Glass Harp, Steely Dan, and Phil Keaggy! They all crept into my life through a tiny record store bin in Farmington, Michigan. I read all of the credits on all of their record jackets; I was like a sponge, discovering who the players, engineers, and songwriters that were creating all this great music were that touched me so deeply. I was so intrigued by all of these musicians. A melting pot of mystery!

    I listen to Christian music now and ask, “Where are the poets? Where are the questions? Where are the champions or thought? Where are the dreamers? Where have they gone? What are the mysteries around us that we still don’t understand and are willing to write about and question?” As Christians shouldn’t we be obsessed with humbly challenging the culture of today with the best music, art, and performance the world has ever seen? Why don’t we do that?

Making great music, being determined about creating something new, something different with an ever-changing culture is what art is all about. Larry Norman’s trilogy was written from someone who didn’t have it all together. He struggled with so many issues, was always very puzzled with the Christian community itself, and even though he was a pioneer, he didn’t quite fit into the Nashville box they were creating. Keith Green was the same way. That is why so many people connected with these artists at the time; they mirrored the culture and the times. Read Larry’s lyrics from those 3 albums today and they still resonate! Every songwriter should be taking today’s news and writing new material that affects and challenges themselves and those around them.

    I also saw the clip of Bono on the new documentary with Eugene Peterson. Bono is so accurate in a lot of what he says, but I wonder what he and the U2 boys think of the ‘Christian Music Community’ for taking such artistic liberties with their songs in the mid 90’s. Their chord progressions, melodies, drum grooves, and even style was so frequently imitated when Worship Music became popular, that you could almost say that 50 - 75% of all the worship songs out there were and still are direct versions (with different keys or tempos) of the chords and grooves of “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “Where The Streets Have No Name.” I once sang around 10 of the most popular worship songs right over these U2 songs. It is uncanny!

    CCLI, and the Christian publishing giants probably owe U2 so much, that as a writer it is hard to believe that Bono and Band didn’t cause a fuss about royalty income. The worship community borrowed heavily on those musical structures when worship music first became popular in the mid 90’s. Then it morphed to sound like Phillip Phillips and Mumford and Sons. How many variations of “Home” and “Gone Gone Gone” can we have in the Christian circles of worship music and with the unison ‘oh-oh-oh’ chorus sections, the hats, and the hipster look-a-likes?

    I say this light-heartedly, and yet I have a deep hope and a challenge to the young musicians out there. I want to encourage you to go where no one has gone yet. Don’t imitate, but create. Use historical influences (as we all have) to create what you are going through, with your questions and journeys, and write great songs the world will connect to.

    I am hopeful, prayerful, and so thankful that I can still do what I love doing; helping and encouraging the new artist and songwriter. We are at a transition point in music with new and fresh expressions emerging again. I hope some of this will make you think, question, and push yourself to make your art and music even better than how you found it.

    Whiteheart always considered ourselves the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the business, because we really never fit in. We just strove like a lot of the artists at the time… to be honest, heartfelt, and make the best music with the tools we had. I hope we left all of you with something that helped you a bit on your journey, even with songs like “God Made Convertibles”, “Montana Sky”, or “Power Tools”. Not your normal Christian radio songs.

    I am thankful for all the people that have shared little bits and pieces of their lives with me over the years. I hope with ‘The Union of Sinners and Saints’ that we can continue to make great art, and celebrate with you, the listeners. Go buy the music. It is still worth the cost…

Billy Smiley (WhiteHeart, The union of Sinners and Saints)


This reflection has received positive comments from fans of The union of Sinners and Saints, which was where they unveiled the post. Billy could not have said it better.


  1. Its why my brothers and I never listened to the mainstream CCM, but instead focused on artists like Daniel Amos, Tonio K, Bruce Cockburn, the Choir, Mark Heard, etc. True to their art and heart.

  2. I want to encourage you to go where no one has gone yet. Don’t imitate, but create. classic rock music


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