By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
Three decades ago-before the awards, the accolades and the platinum albums that would come with discovering a young singer named Amy-the man who would eventually stand tall as one of Nashville’s biggest producers was kneeling.
His college career in Abilene was on hold. His dreams of being a doctor all but finished. West Texas was in the rear-view mirror. Missoula, Mont., was in front.
“I wanted to get away from college and the group of people I had gotten involved with there,” says Brown Bannister, class of 1974, of his senior year struggle at his parent’s Fort Worth home. “I prayed that night, ‘If you want me to go somewhere else, Lord, change my dad’s mind. I’m ready to go to Missoula.’ The next day, my dad got home from work and said, ‘I think you should go to Nashville.”
So he went, and Christian music was never the same.
Bannister made his name in Nashville by helping discover Amy Grant and producing her albums, thereby becoming one of the most-sought producers in Christian music-having worked with Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, Twila Paris, Petra and others.
Such success seems misplaced to Bannister, who didn’t like singing as a child and had no musical aspirations when he enrolled as a pre-med major at Abilene Christian College. His musical direction, he said, was influenced by Michael Blanton, a fellow freshman in Mabee Hall who also produces in Nashville.
“Really, Michael Blanton was responsible for getting me involved in music at all,” Bannister said.
Blanton met Bannister during their first week at Mabee in unusual circumstances.
Walking down the hall, Blanton heard “horrible” vomiting noises from Bannister’s room and rushed to help, only to find the freshman practicing the sounds for fun. With that connection, the two talked all night and became close friends.
“We were both a bit nerdy,” Blanton said. “We were not the cool men on campus.”
Blanton pushed Bannister to try out for the Hilltoppers, a campus singing group that lasted from 1969-81. While with the Hilltoppers, Bannister spent many nights with Jeannette Lipford, who worked with several of the singing groups on campus.
“He spent so much time with us,” said Lipford, assistant professor emerita of voice. “He had a great sense of humor.”
Once Bannister was in the Hilltoppers, a position he said then-director Ed George gave him out of pity, he urged George to let Blanton in. The pattern would repeat several years later when Bannister helped Blanton get a music industry job in Nashville.
“In one sense, I’m pushing Brown up this ladder,” Blanton said, “while I’m making sure I get in the door later.”
But midway through his senior year, Bannister struggled, leaving school after “getting involved in some things I probably shouldn’t have.” His father knew people in Missoula and suggested Bannister travel there before he changed his mind.
“My dad had a friend I was supposed to meet in Nashville,” Bannister said, “but for whatever reason I couldn’t get a hold of him.”
Instead, Bannister ran into another friend when the two passed in their cars at the entrance to David Lipscomb College. The friend invited him to Belmont Church of Christ that Sunday.
Brown went to Belmont, at the time known as a radical Church of Christ.
“I walked into that church, and it was like walking into heaven,” Bannister said, citing the diversity-ethnic and religious-apparent in the church.
Bannister spent nine months in Nashville, working at an inner-city camp. While there, he met Chris Christian, who worked for the fledgling Word Records.
Christian remembered Bannister several months later when a position at Opryland opened soon after Bannister graduated from ACC with a mass communication degree.
“We moved out to Nashville largely to try to get into the music business,” Blanton said. “I couldn’t play anything, and neither could he, but we tried.”
Bannister wrote and sold jingles and played a variety of instruments he hadn’t known how to play at Opryland before landing an engineering gig with only a weeklong course as experience.
Sitting at the controls, Bannister had no idea what to do when the drummer turned and said: “Brown, this snare drum sounds like [expletive]. Can you put some 10 k on it?”
“I looked at him, leaned down and prayed,” Bannister said.
Meanwhile, Bannister and Blanton took charge of the Belmont Church’s youth group. At a retreat, 15-year-old Amy Grant asked the 21-year-old Bannister to listen “to songs I want to play in school.”
“I was struck by her charisma, by the engaging aspect of her personality,” Bannister said. When he gave the tape to Chris Christian, Christian convinced Word to sign Grant, then suggested Bannister-who had no producing experience-produce her first album.
In 1977, the 17-year-old Grant’s self-titled album was released, and four years later, Age to Age became the first Christian album to sell 1 million copies.
“Nobody expected that,” Bannister said. “We didn’t expect it.”
Blanton had returned to Texas before Christian called him to ask that he also work with Grant, reuniting Bannister with his best friend for good.
In the 28 years following, Nashville became Christian music’s capital, the focus shifting from the West Coast. Christian music itself became a full-fledged industry-in which Bannister has been named Producer of the Year four of the last six years.
Such success seems strange to Bannister, who in college had thought an aptitude test telling him to go into musical production was “a waste of money.” He traveled to Nashville with no connections and no mentors but became the city’s top producer of Christian music.
“The challenge for me has been I never really knew how to do what I was doing,” he said. “It’s just by the grace of God.”
Blanton also expresses disbelief, especially listening back at Grant’s first albums, which contained such songs as “Grape, Grape Joy.”
The two recently had a chance to look back at the shared beginning of their respective careers as they considered releasing a collection of Grant’s faith-based songs.
“We were both kind of laughing,” Blanton said. “For he and I, we just consider it a rich blessing after 25 years to still be working and doing this stuff.”