She might not have realized it at the time, but a specific muse guided Amy Grant as she set to work on her newest album, How Mercy Looks From Here.
Listen to the songs as unrelated works, and you might think several were by her side — spirits depicting her faith and family through stories of love, life and loss. The literal-minded might even suggest the high-profile guests helping her ignite these songs — talents including James Taylor, Carole King, Sheryl Crow, Will Hoge and, of course, her husband of 13 years, Vince Gill — could be collectively viewed as the muse at work.
But it wasn't until How Mercy Looks From Here was completed that the primary inspiration, one Grant has known all her life, was revealed.
"I remembered a conversation I had with my mom a couple of months before she died," said Grant, 52, who will perform Monday in Lexington as the lone guest of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "She was not quite in her right mind. She didn't remember that I sang. But we really had this lovely visit. When I told her I had to go pack for a couple of shows that weekend, she was so enthusiastic, as though this was all new information. It was like, 'You sing? Will you sing something for me now?' So I chose an old hymn, because those old songs tend to be logged way deep in the memory. At the end of the conversation, she called out in a really upbeat manner, 'When you walk out on that stage, sing something that matters.'
"So after all these songs came together, when the sort of fluffier ones had been left on the chopping blocks, I looked at what was there and went, 'Oh, my gosh.' Without even knowing it, I really kept a promise made to her."
The songs on How Mercy Looks From Here were not exclusively written with Grant's mother in mind. She said all songs are as specific in the inspirations that spark them as the audiences are that eventually receive the music.
"Every song has its own story. Every song stands alone. I've always believed that every song also finds its own audience, but that just happens one person at a time. So when you write a song, you have to determine what best communicates that song — instrumentally, vocally, everything.
"I'm a very average guitar player. So when I sat down and played these songs for the producer (Marshall Altman), I said, 'This is going to sound like we're sitting around a campfire.' But every song sounds like a campfire song when you just play it with a guitar. That's when you bring in the brilliance of all the other players."
Leading the guest list on How Mercy Looks From Here was Taylor, a lifelong favorite of Grant. But finding the right song to share with the veteran songwriter — in this case, the album's first single, Don't Try So Hard — took some time.
"I had asked James to sing with me for a record in the '90s, and he was so quick to say yes. So I sent him a copy of this song that I had written. Then I didn't hear anything and didn't hear anything and then when he finally contacted me, he said, 'You know, this is not a very special song.' And I appreciated that. Of course, that song got pulled from the record. So I was a little nervous when I sent him this newer song. But I couldn't think of a voice I trusted more. His voice is the wallpaper of my entire life."
Having Gill singing beside her on Better Not to Know and playing guitar on several other songs on the new album was an affirmation of the music that is a vital, everyday part of Grant's home life in Nashville.
"Just to have Vince always making music somewhere within earshot is one of the greatest gifts and experiences of my life. It's hard to explain how grateful I am for that.
"We have a long hallway in our house. The laundry room is at one end of the hallway, and our bedroom is at the other. All of the living space is in between. So one day Vince had Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson over to write songs," she said, referring to two Nashville guitarists and songsmiths. "I was carrying a basket of laundry down the hall and I was just about to pass this little step-down den where they were working. All three of them were chugging away on their guitars and wailing. I put my laundry basket down and took a deep breath. I don't remember if I laughed or if I cried. But I thought, 'I am so thankful to be surrounded by music like this every day.' So to have Vince on my record, that's me getting to share the amazing gift that I get to enjoy all the time."
Best of all, How Mercy Looks From Here, perhaps more than any record Grant has made, blurs the once disparate genres that, at times, seemed to have been at odds in her music. You find yourself not listening for Grant, the top-selling contemporary Christian artist who earned her first platinum album 30 years ago any more than you would for Grant the pop star who became one of the most commercially recognized crossover artists of the '80s and '90s.
What you hear is simply a singer of her own songs, a storyteller of lessons learned throughout a rewarding life and told, quite happily, with friends in her corner.
"You know, if I'm sitting on a plane, making conversation with a person sitting next to me and they ask me what I do, I just say that I'm a songwriter. And the great thing about being a songwriter is your skill set improves with time. Hopefully, that's what's reflected on this record: a maturing ability."
IF YOU GO
'WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour': Amy Grant
When: 6:45 p.m. July 8
Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.
Tickets: $20. Available at (859) 252-8888.
Learn more: Woodsongs.com
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.