by Danl Blackwood
(This article was originally written in Oct '95, just as Whiteheart was embarking on a relationship with a new record label, Curb Records. There have been even more changes, since this writing. Checkout the Whiteheart News Page for all the latest news.)
If you've heard anything at all about Whiteheart, then you know that this group, who have undergone possibly more changes than any other group in CCM history, is in the middle of the biggest change during their 13 year history. With yet another personnel change, a new record label, a new producer, and an expansion of their direction, Whiteheart continues to grow and mature both in music and ministry. The biggest part of the change seems to be the fact that they have now signed with, Curb Records, a mainstream record label. However, in reality this is minimized by the fact that most record labels are mainstream companies now (or at least owned by mainstream parent companies), including Sparrow and Reunion. The difference with Curb is that they handle mostly mainstream artists. Before we get into the ramifications of this new venture, let's take a brief look at one of the most enduring groups in contemporary Christian music.
Two of Whiteheart's original members, Mark Gersmehl (keyboards, composing, and vocals) and Billy Smiley (guitars, composing, and vocals), started out as musicians with the Gaither Trio. Later, when they released their first album as Whiteheart in 1982, the members in addition to Gersmehl and Smiley were Steve Green (of Inspirational music fame) on vocals, Dann Huff (one of the most prolific studio guitarists today) on guitars, his brother David Huff on drums (they later would form their own group, Giant), and Gary Lunn on bass (also a busy studio musician). The music was as much contemporary inspirational as it was pop rock. Through the years, the band has had what Smiley has half-jokingly called a revolving door for members. Just about every former Whiteheart member has gone on to become very successful in the CCM industry. Three other former members who made up the rhythm section for a couple albums were Gordon Kennedy on guitars, Chris McHugh on drums, and Tommy Simms on bass. All have become extremely successful session players, writers, and in Simms and Kennedy's case, a producer as well. While these men were in the group, Whiteheart developed a raw, rock identity on Freedom. This album is, by many accounts, the best album they've ever recorded. However, with the release of Inside, their latest on Curb Records, the group has once again attained that raw straight ahead rock sound - not metal, but definitely hard as nails rock and roll.
In 1986 they experienced one of their darker moments. Whiteheart lost Scott Douglas, their lead singer at the time, to an unfortunate incident involving his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for sex related crimes. This was a painful time, and is still "a hard place to heal." Just months before this, Whiteheart welcomed a young newcomer to the road crew staff as bus driver and roadie. His name was Rick Florian, and when they were looking for a new lead singer, Florian was observed dancing around off stage and singing along with their songs. He was invited to audition, and the rest is history. Florian told me when he did his first show with Whiteheart at Wheaton College in February '86, he almost self-combusted from the excitement, and he's been a whirlwind of "bombastic hyperactivity extraordinaire" on stage ever since.
Rounding out the current roster is Brian Wooten on guitars (who joined at the end of Freedom tour six years ago), John Knox on drums (joined a couple years later, and continues to hold down his gig as drummer for Adam Again), and newest member, John Thorn on bass guitar, who's in his second year.
So why is the current transition so drastic? You would think they've become accustomed to change. After all, including current members, there has been a total of 16 members, and four record labels. They started off in 1982 with Home Sweet Home Records, went with Sparrow in 1986, then to Star Song in 1990, but now Curb Records has something to offer Whiteheart that no one has before - the opportunity to break into the mainstream market. This brings me to a question I've heard and read dozens of times over the last year - Does this mean that Whiteheart will not be playing Christian music anymore? Quite the contrary, as you'll find when you hear Inside, and as the advertisements state, "the music is changing . . . the message isn't". With the help of their new producer Ken Scott, they have created a new sound that is charged with rhythm, melody, and emotion that literally took me by surprise from the very first track. As with every new Whiteheart album, Inside has brought the band to a new level of music and ministry. I believe it's this constant transforming of the music, without really changing the message, that has carried this band through the years of CCM. Because of the expanded direction and exposure that Curb will provide, it will also affect those who probably wouldn't otherwise hear Whiteheart.
What is the message? It is clear to this writer that the desire of Whiteheart is to reach a whole new audience with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With Curb, they seem to have "the chance for our music to be heard by the other 99 sheep." From the very beginning, many fans of Whiteheart have been touched and ministered to by the message they bring; not only attracted to the strong musical value, but also the lyrics that always speak from the heart. This latest project is no different, and Florian told me, "The lyrics on this recording affected me more deeply than any other project." This sincerity is carried over to the live concert, where Whiteheart is always very sensitive to the situation. As to concert ministry, Florian also shared, "God made art forms like music and the energy of a live concert attractive. This attraction inherently draws people and can, though well intentioned, manipulate them in maybe an inappropriate way, and the conversion process needs to be as uncoerced as possible." That's why now, instead of doing an "altar call" at every appropriate venue, Whiteheart will be ready, but leave it up to the promoters. The issue of Christian music and its relevance is a very passionate subject for Florian, and he has often spoken about this at pastor's luncheons.
Inside brings the official album count to 12, if you count the Nothing But The Best compilation albums released by Star Song last year. These, by the way, are the only compilation albums that Whiteheart was directly involved in. However, there are actually, 20 Whiteheart albums out there including the just released Star Song compilation album, Attack!, which seems to be a condensed Nothing But The Best release. Most of these other albums are in fact, compilations and re-releases by Home Sweet Home Records, and were never authorized by Whiteheart.
Even though Inside suffered many delays in it's release, Whiteheart has been very pleased with Curb's hard work. Florian expressed that "they believe in us, and are the hardest working bunch of people I've ever seen." Claire Parr, Vice President in charge of the new Christian Music division at Curb, has really worked hard to make this transition work for Whiteheart. By the way, Claire Parr is listed as Claire West on the credits, but since has married Bob Parr, who just happens to be playing the awesome fretless bass on "Speak Softly". While at Geffen Records, Parr was directly involved in Michael W. Smith's success in the mainstream market. Everyone was really excited when they found out that Ken Scott was going to be their new producer. You see, Scott was involved as an engineer on early Beatles recordings and worked with the great George Martin, and they wanted to "ask him a lot of questions about working with the Beatles."
So what is the future of Whiteheart? This spring they will be touring with Petra, Grammatrain, and johnny Q. public. They are also getting involved in cyberspace. This writer has released The Official Whiteheart Fan Home Page. There are also a few existing pages on the Web already. Most of the members (except for John Thorn, who pretty much just eats, sleeps, and drinks the Miami Dolphins) are involved in the Internet, digital music capabilities, and so on. Kurt Andress, office manager for Whiteheart Productions, continues to publish a quarterly newsletter for the Whiteheart Alliance Fan Club, and is also now managing a growing mailing list called Homespace that keeps fans updated on the latest news such as radio interviews and tour dates.
Will things ever slow down? Don't look for it anytime soon. Whiteheart's agenda is to honor God, therefore I believe He will bless them, and this new ministry direction; as Whiteheart has already been, and will continue to be a blessing to many.