When Phil Stacey was a contestant on American Idol, he was pegged as a little bit country.
So that's where the Harlan County native ended up after the show, on the country label Lyric Street Records. In 2008, he released a self-titled debut.
But anyone who was paying attention and knew a little bit about Stacey could hear something in the twang: a message.
"Even on my country record, every song was based on a Bible verse, to me," Stacey says. "People who knew Christian music would say, 'How could you put a John Waller song on a country CD?'" Stacey adds, referring to a modern rock worship leader and songwriter, "but we managed to pull it off."
Since then, Stacey has made what he calls "a lateral move from Disney's country label to Sony's Christian label."
And what a Christian label.
On Aug. 25, Stacey's Into the Light will be released on Reunion Records. That would be the same label as Michael W. Smith, with whom Stacey also shares a manager. And he recorded the album with legendary Christian music maestro Brown Bannister, who was behind many of Smith's and Amy Grant's big successes.
"It was intimidating going into the studio with someone who's worked with such gifted people," Stacey says, noting other Bannister collaborators such as Russ Taff and Michael English. "But at the end of the day, he started out as a youth pastor, and he has a minister's heart, which set my nerves at ease.
"We talked about the Bible and verses behind songs, and prayed before tracking. I admire Brown more as a person than for his musical background."
This fall, Stacey hits the road with Smith.
"He's been so encouraging," Stacey says. "He'd send me texts like, 'Phil, I really like this record,' which meant the world to me."
So far, the Smith/Stacey tour itinerary does not include Kentucky, though Stacey says he does get back home frequently.
"Most of my family lives in Richmond," Stacey says. "My family has three or four farms out there, so I do consider Richmond home. I'm a diehard UK fan."
He has gotten back to Kentucky to sing, appearing earlier this month at a rally at Man O' War Church of God, where his uncle Mitchell Tolle is the pastor.
This past season on American Idol, there was a lot of discussion about worship leaders being finalists on the show, particularly with winner Kris Allen and second runner-up Danny Gokey coming from church backgrounds.
Several Idol contestants from previous seasons are enjoying Christian music careers now, including Mandisa and Chris Sligh. Still, Stacey is wary of recommending the show as a path to a Christian recording career.
"The word idol is in the title," says Stacey, who blogged about the show for the Herald-Leader and LexGo.com this past season, "so right there, I got messages from pastors who were disappointed I was part of the show."
He also says the pressure-cooker nature of the show, the competition, the nerves and the criticism make the contestants, "incredibly vulnerable" on the show.
"We feel every step is led by the Lord and pray very sincerely about being part of the program," Stacey says of himself and other Christian competitors.
For his own part, Stacey says the show has given him the opportunity he has now, recording with Bannister and hitting the road with Smith.
"At this point, it is almost neutral to me," Stacey says of Idol. "It's not going to help me sell any records, and it won't take any sales away from me."
But he will probably always be always be associated with that launching pad.
One of the worst decisions in the history of contemporary Christian music is being reversed, kind of. CCM Magazine is coming back as a quarterly digital magazine.
In 2008, the print edition of CCM ceased publication just short of three complete decades of publication. The move was tantamount to Rolling Stone closing up shop.
Love them or hate them, both are the publications of record in their respective genres of music — or, in the case of CCM, we must say, "were." The idea was to continue with a Web site, but CCMmagazine.com has been poor and confusing at best.
Earlier this year, CCM launched a prototype of the digital magazine to good reviews, so it is continuing on. The summer issue has Leeland on the cover and its 34 "pages" look much like the old print edition with a dose of Harry Potter's animated newspaper, the Daily Prophet. The Leeland story, for instance, features a video of the band performing tunes from its forthcoming album, and there are similar touches throughout. (To see it, go to CCMmagazine.com and look for the magazine link in the lower right-hand column.)
Does it replace the print edition? No. Will it be a worthy stand-in? Time will tell, and it will be largely dependent on whether editor Lindsay Williams and her staff can put together a publication people eagerly anticipate because it's relevant, useful and compelling, as well as cool. Hopefully they'll pull it off, because Christian pop needs a vital CCM.