When music industry veteran Brown Bannister was in the studio working with singer-songwriter Amy Grant producing her seventh studio album, he had a feeling the project was significant.
Now, as he reflects on the 30th anniversary of the release of “Lead Me On” on June 28, 1988, Bannister, director of Lipscomb University’s School of Music, says it was a project that marked a pivotal moment for him.
The 11th overall album for Grant, “Lead Me On” released by A&M Recordings, was noted at the time as a departure for the musician known primarily for her work in the contemporary Christian genre. It was named the No. 1 Christian album of all time by CCM Magazine, in the 2001 book "CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music." The title song was featured in "WOW #1s: 31 of the Greatest Christian Music Hits Ever."
“’Lead Me On’ was one of those pivotal moments in Amy’s life, in the industry we were a part of, and in my life as a producer,” says Bannister. “I think Amy was at a place where she was ready to offer something different from all the great content she had made up to that time. Her managers, Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell, had just negotiated a dual-distribution deal with A&M Records and Word Records.”
As a result, Bannister and his team had the opportunity to work with David Anderle, vice president of A&R for A&M and an industry veteran who worked with artists like Frank Zappa, The Beach Boys and Judy Collins among many others.
“I’ll never forget the first song meeting with him,” he recalls. “After listening to everything we had, he smiled, said there were some ‘really good songs’ and then he kind of leaned forward with an outstretched hand toward Amy’s heart and said something to the effect of, ‘I want to hear this. I want you to go deeper. I want to feel like I’m getting the real ‘you.’”
Bannister says that was “a game-changer.”
“Kudos to Amy. She really rose up to meet that challenge,” he says. “It struck me that if she was ‘going deeper’ with her lyrics, that the sonic aspect of the record should reflect that as well.”
At the time, Bennett says Nashville studios were “pretty much burlap and barn wood,” resulting in a “dry” sound.
But he kept mulling over how to produce a sound that matched this different approach.
“I kept picturing a very ambient, deep sounding landscape,” remembers the Topeka, Kansas native. “So I thought of the Bennett House studio in Franklin. It was a pre-civil war house with 14’ ceilings, plaster walls and wood floors, with a fairly typical Nashville-type studio in back.”
Bannister got permission from the manager to record in the house instead of the studio. With the creativity of engineer Jeff Balding, “a stellar group of musicians and an amazing artist,” the team spent the next couple of months recording and exploring the natural sound of the house.
“When I listen to the record, I can still picture the exact setup we had there,” says Bannister. “Amy broke a lot of barriers throughout her artistic journey, and this was certainly one of them. Creatively, it was an epiphany for me.”
“Because I was given free reign by everyone involved, it became a kind of portal to much greater creative exploration and freedom. I am so thankful for that opportunity.”
Though Bannister has many memories of the project, one in particular stands out. During the first week of tracking, on Friday evening after the crew was finished work for the day Grant, who was nine-months pregnant, made a trip to the hospital and gave birth to her first child, Matt.
“She was back in the vocal booth Monday morning singing scratch vocals! #trooper of the year,” he recalls with a chuckle.
The project was not without its creative and personal challenges for Bannister.
“It resulted in a lot of time away from my wife, Debbie, and my first three kids. Fortunately for me, my amazing wife persevered through that long season, but not without challenging me to take hold of a healthier work/life balance, which began the journey to a truly healthy and amazing marriage and family life,” he says.
“As grateful as I am for the experience of producing 'Lead Me On,' I am eternally grateful for the redemptive work it led to in my own life.”
The experience took Bannister's career to a new level. Today, with a career of nearly 40 years in the music industry Bannister is one of the most successful music producers in the contemporary Christian music world, with more than 50 million records that he has produced being sold.
He has won 15 GRAMMY® Awards, over 20 Dove Awards and has been named “Producer of the Year” five times by the Gospel Music Association and is a member the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. For 30 years, Bannister has produced numerous artists including B.J. Thomas, Steve Wariner, Kenny Rogers and Kris Allen as well as award-winning albums for some of the industry’s top Christian artists, including Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Third Day, Mercy Me, CeCe Winans and Michael Tait.
Lipscomb’s School of Music, housed in the George Shinn College of Entertainment & the Arts, provides training in both contemporary and classical music. A variety of undergraduate degrees are offered including Bachelor of Music (composition, instrumental performance, piano performance, vocal performance), Bachelor of Music in Contemporary Music, Bachelor of Music in Music Education (instrumental, vocal/general emphases), Bachelor of Arts (music, interdisciplinary major in worship ministry), and Bachelor of Science (music) degrees. For more information, visit music.lipscomb.edu.
— Photos by Kristi Jones