Born in MD, to Christian bookstore owners. Addresses: Record company-Rocketown Records, 404 Bridge St., Franklin, Tennessee 37064-9040.

After Christian pop artist Michael W. Smith started his own independent record label, Rocketown Records, he knew which artist he wanted to be Rocketown's first. Chris Rice, who'd been traveling the country for more than a decade with his youth ministry, was the chosen one. So after Rice's debut release on Rocketown, Deep Enough to Dream, in 1997, the Christian songwriter had to add touring to promote his record to his already-packed schedule of youth camps and retreats.

Rice was raised in Maryland by his parents, who were Christian bookstore owners. He was known for his gift with kids-talking, listening, singing, playing ball with them-and was somewhat hesitant about signing a record contract that would obligate him to time away from his youth ministry. "After 12 fruitful years of full time teaching, singing and worship leading in youth and college retreat settings, I wondered how my life would change this year with the release of Deep Enough to Dream," Rice wrote in his bio. But his recording career only served to extend his outreach. In his contract with Rocketown, he stipulated that 15 weeks a year be reserved for his youth ministry. Billboardcalled Deep Enough to Dream "one of the most successful new releases ... in the Christian music industry." Releasing a record did change things for Rice-he was more accessible than ever. He started receiving letters and e-mail daily from students and adults from as far away as Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Korea.

Although Deep Enough to Dream was Rice's first release, he had experience and success at songwriting for other Christian artists, Kathy Trocolli most notably. He began his songwriting career in the 1980s and was named the American Songwriter Christian Songwriter of the Year in 1995 for Kim Boyce's "By Faith." After his own release, Rice immediately was referred to as Christian music's James Taylor, which accurately described his folksy guitar style and sweet voice. But his songwriting was based on years of experience answering kids' questions, which made his songs unique. "Rice isn't afraid to confront the Big Questions-How do we get to know God? Why such suffering if there's a great and loving God? etc.," said Eugene, Oregon's Register-Guard in 1998. "But [he] still has a common touch, putting existentialist flesh on divine queries." Rice came across in interviews as distinctly down to earth and likable. Another review that painted Rice as a quiet and humble thirty-something songwriter was found in the Dayton Daily News: "Rice's lyrics show why he is so popular with teens-he's genuine, and he doesn't talk down to anybody."

The first release was a charm for Rice and Deep Enough to Dream earned six Gospel Music Association Dove Award nominations in the spring of 1998 including New Artist, Male Vocalist, Pop/Contemporary Album, and as both artist and songwriter for Inspirational Recorded Song of the Year. He wasn't awarded any Doves, but during a performance in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the week after the awards ceremony, the crowd chanted "oh for six!" and awarded him an honor of their own-a talking parrot stuffed animal they called "The Parrot Award."

Rice's first release as a recording artist was also Rocketown's first release as an independent record label, and a lot was proved in their first joint outing. In starting the label, founder Michael W. Smith told the Tennessean in 1997, "We said, 'Let's be small. Let's create something the way it used to be If it fails, I'd rather go down as an independent than sell it. To me it doesn't matter about the money, what matters is the vision." And Smith's vision, as he stated it in the early days of Rocketown, was family. He wanted the business to be like a family, based on relationships. Which was why Rice found so comfortable a home with the label. "They are so focused on really helping me and with what I am doing rather than turning me into some big star," Rice told The Tennesseanin 1997. "It's more relationship oriented. They're really interested in what I'm doing in my life and enhancing that rather than taking me out of that." Rice's success with Rocketown allowed the label family to take on some new members-a band called Watermark signed on after Rice's debut and was preparing to release its debut as Rice was preparing for his second.

Despite being a self-proclaimed slow writer, Rice was ready with his second release in the fall of 1998-just a year after his first. With Past the Edges Rice moved away from "the folky sound of the first album into a more aggressive, acoustic pop vein," wrote Billboard in 1998. "Rice has a warm, accessible voice, but his calling card is his poignant lyrics, which reflect universal questions and concerns."

With added horns, synthesizers, strings, and the occasional accordion, Past the Edgeswas even called funky. Rice came across on this release more as everyman-and that's how he approached writing it. "I take the stance in some of these songs of a nonbeliever because I don't want to just feel like an answer man," Rice told Billboard in 1998. "I want to identify with both believers and nonbelievers Even as a Christian, there is a lot of stuff I'll never figure out, and it's okay to not have the answers, but it's not okay to drop everything and not question and not think." Rice's producer, Monroe Jones, concurred in the same article. "He doesn't approach things from a clich," he said. "He doesn't approach it from 'I know it, so you need to know it.'"

Although Rocketown enjoyed the widespread coverage of Sony distribution, Rice kept things very personal with fans. He joined Michael W. Smith and the husband-and-wife duo Wilshire on Smith's two-month "Live the Life" tour in the fall of 1998. The tour was planned so that Rice and Wilshire, co-openers for Smith, could have time before the show in many cities to meet with concertgoers in the parking lot.

by Brenna Sanchez

Chris Rice's Career

Started singing in Christian youth ministries, 1985; signed to Rocketown Records, 1996; released debut record Deep Enough to Dream, 1997; earned six nominations at Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, 1998; released Past the Edges, 1998.

Chris Rice's Awards

American Songwriter magazine's Songwriter of the Year, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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