It doesn't get much more Minnesotan than this: Before his career took off as a contemporary Christian singer and maybe our state's most-played radio star of the moment, Jason Gray worked at a factory, building trolling motors for fishing boats.
"That actually played a big role in shaping my music," said Gray, who still resides in the southern Minnesota town of Janesville, where he grew up.
"I would try out a lot of the songs from my first album on the people I worked with there, real people with real stories. They helped me broaden my message and my language beyond just 'church-speak.'"
A 40-year-old father of three who overcame a speech disorder and troubled childhood to get where he is -- "a truly wonderful place," he happily reports -- Gray has long operated with one foot in the strictly Christian music world and the other in more secular circles. His music career dates back to the late 1990s, when he played gigs at St. Paul's Ginkgo coffeehouse and performed with the New Folk Alliance, modeling himself after David Wilcox and other folkies who occasionally get spiritual.
Since signing a deal in 2007 with Nashville's prominent Christian label Centricity Music, however, Gray's star has mostly risen in the "church-speak" music industry. His newest album, "A Way to See in the Dark," landed a top 10 hit on contemporary Christian radio with the jangly inspirational single "Remind Me Who I Am." It also earned him a slot on the Called to Love Tour alongside No. 1 Christian hitmaker Aaron Shust and divine rockers Downhere, a trek coming Saturday to Edinbrook Church in Brooklyn Park.
"I feel there's something very meaningful about performing in a church nowadays," Gray said last week, talking by phone before a church gig in Waukesha, Wis. "But for many years I was very passionate about trying to play other places. There's a conversation I'm having in my music that reaches beyond the walls of a church, I hope."
Gray's first exposure to music was certainly outside the confines of church. His mother sang cover songs by the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, etc., in bar bands for many years and would drag her son from town to town and gig to gig, he recalled, admitting it was "a very messed-up upbringing."
This went on until Jason was in the fourth grade and attended an anti-drug rally with his mom, who was going through a bad divorce at the time. The rally wound up being more of a tent-revival church service, and his mother converted to a devout Christian life on the spot.
"It was a remarkable experience for me, going from hanging out in bars with truckers to attending church events with my mom every week instead," he said.
Gray wound up working as a youth minister in Mankato for six years before jumping headlong into a music career. That choice seems surprising, given his lifelong struggles with stuttering, which is audible when he talks but not when he sings. He called the disorder his "great weakness."
"I believe God gets his best work out of us from our weaknesses," he said.
"It has informed everything I do. I used to be real anxious about it and fearful of it, but it has become my bridge to other people. It has given me a unique opportunity to discuss my fears and anxieties with everyone else who is suffering from some form of fear and anxiety, too, whatever it might be."
Look no farther than Gray's current hit to see how he finds strength out of his insecurities: "When my heart is like a stone, and I'm running far from home / When I can't receive your love, afraid I'm not enough / Remind me who I am."
At local Christian music station KTIS (98.5 FM), "Remind Me Who I Am" has been No. 1 in online votes for two months, said program director Keith Stevens. "In our format, people are very passionate about the music, and this is one song they feel particularly strong about."
Many of the other songs on his new album, including "The End of Me" and "A Way to See in the Dark," are also about finding and hanging onto one's identity. The messages certainly ring true, coming from a guy who still lives in small-town Minnesota despite moving closer to the big time in his Nashville-based career.
"It's definitely a centering place for me," he said of Janesville.
He can probably get a good deal on a trolling motor, too.
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