Memphis-based Ardent Records was founded in 1959, but it wasn't until the mid-1990s that the organization delved into the fast-growing Christian music industry. A CCM division formed, which introduced the world to bands such as Big Tent Revival, Skillet and Smalltown Poets.
Satellite Soul, Justifide, All Together Separate and Jonah 33 all released projects through Ardent, too. Perhaps its longest tenured artist is Todd Agnew, who has been with the label since the days of his smash-hit song "Grace Like Rain," and just recently unveiled a compilation album, titled From Grace to Glory: The Songs of Todd Agnew.
The release of Agnew's new project perked up some ears in the Christian music world, curious as to what Ardent has been up to as well as the future of the landmark record label.
NRT's Micah Garnett talked with both Ardent Chairman Patrick Scholes and Head of Label Operations Ken Steorts.
Ardent has a long storied history with the city of Memphis; is this home forever for the label?
Ardent Chairman Patrick Scholes: Ardent and Memphis are pretty joined at the hip. John Fry started the place 50 years ago. Last year was our 50th anniversary, and this year we're launching our next 50 years. It's always been about Memphis.
The word that always comes to mind when describing Ardent and the Memphis music scene is authentic. Memphis doesn't try to be a music town; it just is a music town. Ardent doesn't try to be edgy; it just is Memphis music. Back in the day when folks like Billy Gibbons were working there, they'd say stuff like, "You guys just don't even know what you have in this city." You go into a bar or restaurant, and people are always talking about music. It's just sort of in the water here, as the old phrase goes. There are not many places in the world that are like that.
Our relationship with Memphis and Memphis music has been symbiotic. It is a very non-forced, gritty kind of real-world music that's very bizarre, because it's not wildly sophisticated, it just sort of "is." When John started the studio back in the sixties, he had no idea what he was getting himself into, that he was becoming a legend just capturing a sound. All the stuff that we did back then still lives on timelessly today, and that's kind of what we hope we're doing with Christian music too is creating a timeless sound. I think Memphis and Ardent are stuck together for good.
What about the tie to Visible Music College, which is also in town?
Head of Label Operations Ken Steorts: My experience with Ardent Records began in 1996 as the band I was in, Skillet, recorded a live demo for a potential album on the label [which later became Ardent Worship: Skillet] for Dana Key and the production team of Skidd Mills and Paul Ebersold. When I was part of the band, we recorded there for five more years and continued to make great music after I left the band to start Visible Music College.
The college was excited to relate closely to Ardent Records and Ardent Studios form early on in 2000, but our location made it seldom happen. Since 2005, Visible Music College has had some relationship with Ardent Studios in teaching audio production coursework there regularly and interning audio production students through the studios of Ardent. Our relationship has blossomed in the past two years with more closely related activities and music business projects, leading to a partnership on the Todd Agnew From Grace to Glory record.
Visible Music College leads a number of students in a team supporting the record through management tasks, social media, fan development, and back office detail for Ardent Records. While recording the next new Memphis music in the onsite studios, Madison Line Records, Visible Music College's non-profit record label, helps development strategies and execution of items with our methodology, training the next generation of music business professionals at Ardent.
So what about Ardent's artists? Todd has released new tunes; what about the rest of the alumni? They doing anything?
Scholes:Really, with a band, the people are still involved in ministry, whether they're releasing music or not. Some of them are music ministers, some of them are pastors. Smalltown Poets came in and did several songs in celebration of their 20th anniversary--some new material there, similar to what Todd did. We looked at some new material and material that's in the vault. And I believe, humbly, that all the artists we've worked with, their music is pretty timeless; the Gospel is pretty timeless. But even the quality of music that they do is not so much following a popular genre. It's just roots, real rock stuff.
Smalltown's been talking about doing some recording, and Big Tent Revival's been talking about doing some recording. That's early stages stuff--I'm not here to announce anything--but that's another thing we're doing here at Ardent. That's another facet of what we're looking at. Not only leveraging not only the catalogues of those people, but also some of their new writing.
Talk a little bit about how you and Todd Agnew reconnected.
Scholes:Todd Agnew had sent us some other demos and some of his new material. He had been going through some of his own personal changes, got married, had kids, going to seminary, and now teaching at Visible Music College in Dallas.
So, playing selective dates and doing more of these seminar-type dates is more of what he does, and so we said, "Let's come alongside that and put out a product that supports the breadth of what you're doing while you're writing even another album--that's the next step." And we renewed some relationships to get a product out there and market in the new millennium.
That's what we're doing. We're going to continue to look for artists that still fit those criteria that I talked about [in your first question]. Musically, outstanding people that are great at what they do, of course, and the Gospel is paramount in what they are using their talents for. We're expanding that.
There are some changes that we're making that will be announced pretty soon that underscore our commitment to that. It's a big part of what we do--producing and releasing Christian music that checks all those boxes.
So what's your focus nowadays? What else is on the horizon?
Scholes:From a release standpoint, Todd Agnew's release is our main focus right now for sure. We have an artist that we were introduced to from Memphis that we did a single on that we haven't released yet, a guy named Alan Goodwin.
Alan plays every instrument, so it's kind of amazing to watch him do it. When we recorded him, we brought in some people and played around, but he ended playing everything on the songs. It's just crazy. And he really kind of makes me upset because he writes all of his own stuff and arranges it all and plays it all, and can actually engineer and produce it too. Why did one guy get all that stuff? He's one artist/producer that we're working with currently.
We're talking to a couple other folks, more or less starting in our own backyard. We'd love to meet people from around the country. We've got a fellow that's going to Creation Fest this summer who's talking to some bands.
But Todd's our focus at present. This Alan Goodwin project will come out in single form sometime soon, as we're also seeking to get him behind the console. He's a senior at Middle Tennessee State in their music program up there. He should be teaching it rather than taking it, but he's smart to get a degree. And then there's some of these other bands that we're talking to presently.
What makes Ardent stand out among other record labels, and why should people pay attention to them?
Steorts:Ardent has a history of innovation, from the 1960s to today. Ardent is that energetic and ambitious independent Memphis label that finds and supports new music before others do. Ardent is active and eager to produce meaningful and excellent worship music, rock from a Christian perspective, rootsy Memphis indie sounds, and fresh pop and hip-hop before others know it is happening. With in-house producers, a history of some of the best music ever recorded, and vital partnerships on site, Ardent and Visible Music College make Memphis music happen for everyone.
Marcus Hathcock is the Executive Editor of NewReleaseToday.com, a husband to Savannah, father of three and a worship leader living in Boise. He has released an EP, Songs For Tomorrow, and occasionally blogs at mheternal.com.