If we can agree with the fashion industry that “pink is the new black,” and “orange is the new pink,” then maybe it’s not such a stretch to suggest that “pop is the new punk.” At least the label seems to fit when you’re referencing an artist like Jason Gray.
The real difference being that while punk outspokenly aligned itself against the establishment’s power, Jason’s rebellion plays out more quietly as a disarming ability to utterly disregard the power that shame holds over most of us, in light of the grace that’s offered to those who acknowledge their brokenness. At its core, Jason’s understated songwriting seems to be about redefining what true strength really is, and if the thoughtful collection of songs on Gray’s Centricity Records debut has anything to tell us, it’s probably that ‘Weakness is the new strength.’
While the veteran indie-artist’s first three organic, folk-laced projects garnered gushing critical accolades, landed him an opening slot on Sarah Groves’ 2002 tour, and stage time with BarlowGirl, Shaun Groves and other notables, it wasn’t primarily the literate craftsmanship of his songs that drew the immediate respect of his peers and a solid fanbase to him. It was, rather, Jason’s candor, his transparency, his willingness to expose his own weaknesses night after night that created an inexplicable bond with audiences and prompted Centricity Records to sign him in 2006. When a guy who grew up as a chronic stutterer in an abusive home takes the mic and obviously cares more about loving you than about what you think of him, you know something’s up.
Gray’s debut major label release, All The Lovely Losers, is a logical progression from his earlier indie efforts. The new project skillfully marries his trademark deft lyrical expressions to smooth pop melodies with a disarming passion, that in a way places him somehow simultaneously in multiple camps. The new CD instantly begs comparisons to a Steven Curtis Chapman on the one hand, and a Mark Heard or a David Wilcox or a Rich Mullins on the other. For his part, Jason is content to leave the genre-parsing to others, in favor of his more pressing agendas.
“There is constant pressure in our entertainment-oriented culture to be amazing and impressive, to wow audiences” Jason says. “I wrestle against that because it’s a heart killer and completely irrelevant to God’s calling in my life. I’d rather be real than impressive.”
From beginning to end, All the Lovely Losers chimes with a sense of exuberance and surrender, with a hard-won joy that can’t be easily shaken since it rises inexplicably from every point of defeat. Collaborations with longtime friends and peer-fans like PFR’s Joel Hanson, Sarah Groves, Andrew Peterson, and Waterdeep’s Lori Chafer, add additional sparkle to the disc. The theme of the album drives home one of the project’s fundamental assumptions: that none of us are in this thing alone. We might be broken, but we’re a community of the broken, bearing one another’s burdens. Or, as Henri Nouwen puts it, we’re all “wounded healers.”
“To the dismay of some people I operate with pretty much full-disclosure,” Jason explains. “If I’m struggling with something, you’re probably going to hear about it whether you want to or not! Perfect people don’t need grace, only broken people do. When I come clean about my brokenness, others catch glimpses of how the real grace of a real God works in the messy life of a real person. So I share a lot of stories about where I’ve encountered God’s grace – where He meets me at my deepest points of need. It’s my hope that seeing God’s grace in my life will help others see it as a possibility for their own lives.”
From the slow build of the stark, anthemic, confessional, “You Are Mercy,” to the 80’s influenced homage to God’s ongoing faithfulness, “This Far,” to the upbeat Brit-rock opener, “Blessed Be,” All the Lovely Losers is an emotionally compelling 13-cut collection of radio-ready songs. All of the tunes revolve around the idea of unmasking pretense so that the grace of God becomes visible in our lives.
“I’m actually grateful now,” Jason says, “that my speech handicap never afforded me the option of masking my weakness behind an illusion of competency. Whenever I opened my mouth, there it was for all to see… I couldn’t fool others or myself. I think the best thing that can happen to us is to be ‘found out’ for all that we are, our religious and human pretenses stripped away to reveal our sin, pettiness, and weakness. Then we can devote our energies to better endeavors than the constant masquerade of sufficiency. The added benefit is that people are able to see how God’s grace works in a real person’s life. When we come clean about our brokenness, Christ becomes the star of our testimony and not us.”
The combination of Jason Gray’s onstage humor, self-disclosure, and genuine compassion, coupled with his technical artistry, has proved to have a highly magnetic effect. But his underlying secret lies in the fact that it’s not a calculated act drummed up for the stage. The integrity and openness that transform his performances into something like large, personal conversations are really the logical outgrowth of his desire to live all of life under the jurisdiction of a gracious God. The gospel, the relationships, the art, and the acts of service, are all part of an inseparable whole that communicates God’s heart to the world.
Jason’s ongoing work on behalf of AIDS orphans as a World Vision artist has for years been a vital, shaping influence in his life and his art, affording him the opportunity to travel to impoverished areas of Africa. His work on behalf of World Vision has recently brought him recognition as one of ten outstanding Minnesotans in 2003.
“We hear a lot of talk about ‘authenticity’ and ‘worship’ in western Christianity,” Jason explains. “More and more I’m convinced that if our worship doesn’t include serving Jesus in ‘the least of these’, then it falls short of the authentic ideal that we talk so much about. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to partner with World Vision. The chance to actively serve the poorest of the poor has infused my life and work with meaning, purpose, and a better understanding of who Jesus is and who He asks me to be.”
While the national release of, All the Lovely Losers, is likely to pack Jason’s already active touring schedule with even more live dates, the expansion of his platform through his deal with Centricity isn’t likely to alter his core message. Gray seems to have set up a more-or-less permanent base camp somewhere between Christ’s sermon on the mount and Paul’s statement about boasting in our weaknesses.
“I'm afraid most of us would prefer to be strong and impressive over being the kind of person that Jesus calls blessed,” Jason offers in summation. “But for those of us who don't have it in us to be impressive or strong, who couldn't get our act together if our lives depended on it, the good news is that there is a preferred place as honored guests in God's Kingdom for us and that all the losers are made lovely by His grace.”
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