Christian singer/songwriter Jonny Diaz faced a decision this past fall that could have dramatically altered his career in music. After six years in Christian Contemporary Music, and the 2010 #1 hit song "More Beautiful You," Diaz suddenly was getting offers to sign with Country labels.
The reason was the success of a Country song Diaz had written for fun, but had never expected to record, called "Thank God I Got Her." The song, which talks about how Diaz doesn't "get" his wife's idiosyncrasies, but is glad he "got" her, didn't really fit the usual Christian radio format. So, Diaz intended to pitch the song to a Country musician to record.
But then, he started playing the song for live audiences and "the response was just killer," Diaz said. "People kept coming up after shows and asking what CD the song was on." So, Diaz recorded "Thank God I Got Her" and released it to Christian radio stations – where it bombed, reportedly because it was "too Country."
However, then the song caught the attention of someone at Sirius XM Satellite Radio. It debuted on "On the Horizon," a weekend show for new music and artists on The Highway, a Country Music station on Sirius. Country listeners immediately connected with the song. Soon it made its way into the station's regular rotation and in September, hit #5 on the Highway's Hot 45 Countdown. That's when Country Music executives started courting Diaz. And, the 31-year-old singer began to imagine what it might be like to play on a bigger stage for largely non-Christian audiences.
"I do see that as a great mission field," Diaz said. "I don't intend on tricking anyone into Christianity. I'm not the guy that's saying, 'Oh, because they listened to one of my songs on the radio, I'm going to trick them into listening to the rest and they're going to get saved.' But hopefully, what that's going to do is start a conversation."
Diaz said the potential to make more money was tempting, too, especially since he and his wife had recently discovered that their first child was on the way. Plus, Country Music offered more artistic freedom, something Diaz was beginning to really want. In fact, Diaz said he wrote "Thank God I Got Her" to escape the restrictions of Christian music.
"In Christian music," Diaz said, "everything you write has to be true to the story-teller. If I said, 'I looked into her pretty blue eyes,' and my wife didn't have blue eyes, my fans would freak out. . . . But, in Country music, you don't have those constraints." When writing "Thank God I Got Her," Diaz said he was inspired by his wife, but added that some of the lines are fictional. "Sometimes, I just escape to that kind of story-writing," Diaz said. "I feel boxed in writing only from real life."
Plus, Diaz admitted he became a "Christian artist" more by default than design. "I never set out to be a 'Christian artist,'" he said. "I just tried to write authentic songs . . . and it's impossible for me to do that without saying what God has done in my life." Inevitably, though, his songs generated invitations to play at Christian venues and eventually landed Diaz an offer with INO Records and then Centricity Music, which are both Christian labels.
But now, given Diaz's sudden success in the Country world, he had options. "I felt God was in the whole thing," Diaz said, "so I was willing to explore it." After weeks of deliberating, though, Diaz decided to remain in Christian music. He said his reasons were mainly practical: he had already paid his dues in the Christian market. "But, if I went into Country Music, I'd be starting out again," Diaz said. "I'd be on the road more, and right now I have a wife at home pregnant with our first child."
Diaz also realized the unique benefits that working for a Christian label like Centricity Music affords. "I know what they care most about is making Christ known. And, I know that they care more about me than my sales figures . . . I don't think a lot of people in the music industry get to say that. That's a joy to feel like you're on the same team as your label, fighting for something bigger than music."
Diaz also said he's encouraged by how God is using his music to touch Christian radio listeners. Once, he received an email from a woman with a severe eating disorder, who on three separate occasions, had tried to check herself into rehab, but couldn't due to fear. The woman said she was "at the end of her rope" and realized she was nearing "a life or death situation." So, one more time, she got in the car and started to drive to the rehab center. But on the way there, she began to panic and pulled her car off the road. Just then, Diaz' song, "Beautiful You," came on the radio. The song deeply impacted the woman and gave her the strength to finally check herself in to rehab and get the help she needed.
"It's just a cool example of God's timing and using a mess like me to help somebody, which is really neat in my opinion," Diaz said.
Still, Diaz admitted there are times when writing for Christian radio can be restrictive because the target audience is so narrow. "They're trying to provide music that they call 'safe for the little ears,' which I think is a fantastic goal," Diaz said. "But, at the same time, it's hard to write challenging, thought-provoking lyrics when you know the six-year-old in the backseat of the minivan ultimately is being targeted, as well."
Diaz said one of the strongest songs he's ever written, "Scars," dealt with self-harm and cutting. Live audiences reportedly loved the song. But, when it aired on Christian radio, it bombed because it wasn't 'safe for the little ears.' "It was frustrating," Diaz said, "because I was like, 'I didn't write it for the 6-year-olds. I wrote it for the adults – to challenge them a little bit.'"
Christian radio also places restrictions on the sound and style of the music its artists play. "What happens is the radio stations figure out who their target listeners are. And, in the Christian industry, it's moms. So, they figure out sonically, what the moms want to hear and they have songs that line up with that." Artists realize that unless they write what radio stations want, their music won't get played. "So, into the sausage maker it goes," Diaz said. "Everything's trying to sound like that so it gets played."
Of course, the same thing happens with Rock, Pop and Country stations. Though the target may be different, but the formula is the same. Still, there are ways labels can nurture creativity in their artists. When recording a new CD, for example, Diaz said his label expects him to record only three potential radio hits. But beyond that, there's freedom. "We're not trying to have 10 singles on every CD . . . so you might as well put some funky and creative things on there that are a little out of that realm."
So, for now, Diaz is content to stay in the Christian music industry. He admits he is sometimes tempted to strive for more money, bigger audiences and greater artistic freedom. "But, I also know if God's not in it, there's really not going to be any joy or success for me there," he said. "Wherever I am, if it's what (God) wants me to do . . . I really think He'll take care of that."