With major label record contracts and chart-topping releases, Knoxville's most successful music scene is also its least known—Christian rockers.

by Mike Gibson

A time not so long ago in a place not so very far away, Travis Wyrick was lead guitarist for Sage, a rude, lewd L.A.-style metal band, a unit consisting of four hedonistic rock 'n' roll road warriors, hell-bent youth blessed with all the subtlety and social grace of so many besotted sailors. Sporting shaggy locks and skin-tight Day-glo britches, the boisterous quartet pillaged bars and concert venues all across the Southeast, bashing out crashing odes to the Party Life and scattering a trail of broken strings, empty bottles, and ravished groupies in its wretched wake.

What a difference a few years make. Nowadays, the 27-year-old Wyrick still sports the youthful good looks, long curly tresses, and wicked six-string chops that made him a crowd favorite on the keg-rock circuit. But the soon-to-be father of two has a new livelihood—as head of his elaborate home-based Mi recording studio—as well as a whole new set of priorities.

His spandex days now long past, Wyrick is an up-and-coming artist and producer on the burgeoning Christian popular music scene, and his studio is a headquarters of sorts for a slew of like-minded local rockers who have also made a splash on the Christian charts. Wyrick's recent Rugged Records release Mental Floss produced a number-one hit last spring with "Down," a thunderous exhortation to prayer that echoes (from a musical, if not lyrical, standpoint) the stark, guitar-heavy industrial mosh of Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails.

"I'm still in shell-shock," says Wyrick with an easy-going chuckle. "The record was just a bunch of stuff I'd been doing on my own, stuff I never intended anyone to hear. Then Scotty (Hoaglan, of local Rugged recording artists Nailed) played it for the Rugged people and they really dug it.

"This [Christian rock] is a big wave that's already rolling and getting bigger. The world isn't the same as it was 30 years ago, and a lot of people realize they can't preach the Gospel to younger people using the same old traditional methods. We're about spreading the message in a whole new way."

To a nonbeliever, the chain of events that brought Wyrick and company to their current station would seem merely serendipitous; to the spiritually inclined, it was clearly preordained. Hoaglan, the fleet-fingered lead guitarist for local Christian metal combo Nailed, first sought out Wyrick in 1994, impressed by the guitarist's do-it-yourself production work on Inferno, the locally-released compact disc that would prove to be Sage's swan song. Wyrick was still a bedroom knob-twiddler then, a precocious talent using primitive tools, working sonic wonders with little more than a four-track recorder and a handful of basic effects.

"I loved the sound quality of Inferno," says Hoaglan, a pencil-thin blonde with sharp, angular features and a ragged goatee. "Plus I figured he would be pretty cheap; I couldn't afford to spend a lot of dough."

Wyrick produced Nailed's first demo, a four-song tape they would distribute to several labels. It found an appreciative audience at Nashville Christian rock stable Rugged Records, and in 1995 the label offered the band a contract. Their deal set off a chain reaction, as a wave of signings and subsequent chart-topping successes rippled through the small community of Knoxville-area Christian rockers.

Rugged reps were smitten by Wyrick's considerable engineering skills and began employing the guitar-hero-cum-producer on a string of projects when his new West Knoxville suburban home, its basement custom-built to accommodate a full-scale 24-track digital studio, was completed in 1996.

In the meantime, Hoaglan had begun mentoring an aspiring local "alternative rock chick" named Deborah Fatow, a pretty brunette with a songbird's otherworldly soprano. His collaboration eventually helped her earn a spot on the Rugged roster, resulting in a full-length CD (Submerged) on which Hoaglan produces, plays, and co-writes most of the songs.

More recently, a ska compilation Wyrick produced for Rugged's special Audio X imprint garnered notice for 26-year-old local singer/horn player Mickey Rievley, a Hoaglan acquaintance tapped to add vocals to several tracks. At Rugged's behest, Rievley and his brother Chad founded the message-driven ska-punk unit Microskapic with bassist Burt Elmore and drummer Josh Wolter; their inaugural Rugged platter is forthcoming.

And Wyrick's work with yet another group of Hoaglan's friends, a fierce grunge-metal trio from Maryville playing under the moniker Disciple, eventually landed the Blount County foursome a deal with Resound, a Christian subsidiary of Warner Brothers. Disciple's grassroots success practically demanded label attention; their alternately savage and soothing 1996 release What Was I Thinking, produced and engineered by Wyrick, had sold several thousand copies by the time Resound reps offered the band a contract last year.

Nowadays the Christian pop charts, tracked by the magazine Pure Rock Report (the Billboard of Bible rock), are rife with the names of Knoxville groups; Wyrick, Disciple, and Nailed have all scored number-one hits on Pure Rock's "Loud" chart ("the chart for obnoxiously loud, heavy music," Wyrick laughs), with Disciple's fall '97 My Daddy Can Whip Your Daddy CD having racked up a pair of chart-toppers. And Fatow's March release Submerged has seen its ethereal first single "Trusting" steadily climbing the "Rock" chart's top 30.

"I think we've developed a strong Christian music scene here because Nailed and Disciple have been playing around for a while now and influencing a lot of people," Wyrick speculates. "I get so many musicians coming to me who are just in awe of these guys. They're really moved by the power of their live shows and the power of their message."

But the life of a Christian pop artist is far removed from that of a successful secular rocker—and not just for wont of wild groupies and ribald antics. Money is much tighter; in terms of sales figures, a popular Christian rock release is usually more comparable to a moderately successful indie record than a platinum Billboard smash.

Venues are generally far scarcer, depending on whether a particular act chooses to relegate its performances to churches and Christian festivals or venture into the secular realm. And the music itself is distributed primarily through Christian specialty shops rather than indie record hovels and mammoth department stores.

"It [album sales] can be hard, because different Christian stores target different kinds of people," Fatow says. "Some of the smaller ones don't target the younger crowd."

"We sell a lot of records when we tour," says Disciple singer and bassist Kevin Young. "But after that, we have to depend on Christian stores. Only about one or two percent of our sales come from secular outlets."

The choice of which venues to play often presents a weighty moral dilemma for conscientious Christian artists; on one hand, keeping late hours in seedy saloons hardly seems conducive to preserving one's virtue, and those bands who do choose to play bars are often criticized by older, more conservative Christians.

Yet playing churches and community centers arguably presents few opportunities to reach the unconverted. "When we start playing a lot, after our record comes out, we'd like to play in bars," Rievley declares. "I want to play in front of people who don't necessarily believe. I want to be accessible to non-Christians."

"Christ spent a lot of his time befriending sinners, people the rest of the world looked down on," notes Young, whose hard-touring outfit has over the years moved dozens of concert-goers to seek salvation in the middle of a set. "We've caught heat from other Christians over some of the places we've played. But if we play in church, who have we helped?"

Too often, contemporary Christian music lacks the passion and power that makes pop worth listening to, and the resulting product is little more than lifeless mimicry—limp, neutered, spiritless, bereft of the primal energy that animates truly great rock.

What's perhaps most striking about this particular contingent of divinely-inspired rock 'n' rollers is the palpable range of emotion conveyed by their work: the sheer visceral authority of Disciple's grungy metallic roar, Fatow's stirring vocal modulations, Wyrick's gnashing cyborg rhythms and brooding whisper-to-a-scream dynamics.

The apparent contradiction of imparting a divine message through a very worldly medium begs the question of whether the term "Christian rock" is really an oxymoron. And Rievley, for his part, admits to having occasionally wrestled with that theological conundrum.

"Yeah, it's kind of strange sometimes, especially since there are lots of Christian bands who imitate secular bands," he says. "It can be hard to find your place in a secular medium. It's possible for the music to lose sight of its connection to God, and that's when it stops being Christian."

Wyrick, however, still possessed of that rock 'n' roll animal instinct, believes that pop is just as viable as any musical medium and no less a product of the Master's hand. "As long as you're in touch spiritually, you can be as aggressive and free as you want," he grins. "Music is a gift from God."