‘Winter Jam’ Christian music tour spreads the word

For its 20th anniversary of gospel-based musical performances, NewSong’s “Winter Jam 2014 Tour Spectacular” will return to Happy Valley with a stop at the Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 17.

“Winter Jam” will feature multi-Grammy nominated Newsboys and groundbreaking Grammy-winning rap/hip-hop recording artist Lecrae. The all-star lineup also will include Tenth Avenue North, Thousand Foot Krutch, Plumb, Colton Dixon and a message from motivational and religious speaker Nick Hall.

In 1995, contemporary Christian band NewSong created the “Winter Jam Spectacular,” the United States’ largest annual Christian music tour. The show features Christian music’s best and brightest artists, spreading a gospel message on the biggest stages across the country. In 2013, “Winter Jam" was the No. 1 first-quarter tour, with a record-setting 42 sellout shows in 44 of the largest arenas in the U.S. With a combined total audience of 554,000 people, the tour was the biggest in “Winter Jam” history.

Formed in Valdosta, Ga., in 1981, NewSong quickly gained a following in the Carolinas. Founding members Billy Goodwin and Eddie Carswell wanted to make Christian music accessible to everyone. So they called a local promoter and rented a venue. They charged $3 at the door and prayed to God, hoping people would show up to pay the rent.

Current lead singer Russ Lee recalls how the vocal band became an instant success.

“They rented the Greenville Memorial, which seated about 6,000 people, and they not only filled the auditorium up, but they ended up turning away about 2,000 people,” he said. “No one had ever done that for a Christian event ever, not Bill Gaither, not anyone. So they thought they may be on to something.”

What started as a concert in Greenville, S.C., became a couple of concerts the next year, becoming “NewSong and Friends,” “January Jam” and, eventually, “Winter Jam.”

“We always tell people this is God’s tour, not NewSong’s tour,” Lee said. “It’s been amazingly successful and it’s grown exponentially, and we’re just grateful to God for it.”

Lee, who was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., grew up listening to mostly Southern rock and soul music, but he also loved the Philadelphia sound. His father gave him a love of music, playing guitar and singing old country songs by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, with his mother harmonizing.

“I didn’t really become a Christian or even become aware of Christian music, frankly, except for bluegrass and a little bit of Southern gospel,” he said. “I came from a really good musical family, and I’ve loved music since I’ve been able to understand it.”

Before he started singing with NewSong, Lee traveled and played music with a couple of local groups. When he turned 18, he became a Christian, and his whole life changed.

“I started singing in church and someone heard me and offered me an opportunity to travel, and I realized what I was supposed to do,” he said. “I started traveling and singing and one thing led to another.”

Aside from being an accomplished artist, Lecrae is record producer and entrepreneur. In 2006, he co-founded the independent label Reach Records, for which he is also co-owner and president. He is also co-founder and president of the nonprofit organization ReachLife Ministries.

Lacrae said he is excited about performing in “Winter Jam” for the first time. He added that he’s glad for the exposure it will bring for fans of hip-hop music, also a first for “Winter Jam.”

“If this is their first exposure to me, it’s always kind of a shock of excitement; the type of energy that I bring into the stage is all kind of electrifying for them,” he said. “And then there is obviously the fans; this is a unique time for them to see me in person and they’ve already connected with the music.”

With the success that “Winter Jam” has become, Lee gives thanks to the one who makes all things possible. “We’re just grateful to God for all that he’s given us and we want to make him known and make him famous and shine a light on him,” Lee said. “Music is the tool he’s given us to do that.”