It’d be great to uncover a reliable statistic on how many albums are released in a year. Or how many artists make their debut in a given year. We cover most of the major label releases in Christian music—about 250-300 albums with 50-75 from new artists. And that doesn’t include albums from the much wider pool of mainstream releases, nor the seemingly infinite pool of independent releases.The music business is more competitive than ever, and that’s reflected in this latest list of top Christian independent artists. The press kits are better, the packaging is better, and indeed, the music is much better. The quality of these albums is so good in most cases, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish them from signed artists with supposedly bigger recording budgets.So if you’re looking for something new and perhaps different for your music collection—some artful expressions of Christian faith—look no further than these ten independent artists you should know.

Photo by Jeremy Cowart

Randall Goodgame

War and Peace

It almost seems unfair to include Goodgame in a list of virtual unknowns because his work is so familiar and handled with such impressive artistry. Touring with his wife and children, he’s shared the stage with several prominent Christian and mainstream artists. He may be best known for his work with Caedmon’s Call, lending his writing to “Only Hope,” “Hands of the Potter,” and most of Share the Well—a newly recorded version of the title track appears on this disc. His fourth solo album, War and Peace features some amazing musicianship from the likes of guitarist Kenny Meeks, pianist Ben Shive, and Caedmon’s Call’s rhythm section. But the highlight is Goodgame’s inviting vocals and songwriting, which both capture the ’70s folk singer/songwriter vibe better than most, recalling the likes of Jim Croce, Dan Fogelberg, Bill Mallonee, and Andrew Osenga. Like Chris Rice, he’s particularly adept at storytelling, making life observations and then subtly pointing to Christian truths in most cases. There’s simply not enough space here to get into his songwriting highlights about Peanuts, Pope Joan, the troops in Iraq, and Compassion International. Suffice to say that this is a wonderful folk album, with rich and textured songs that can make you think and move you to tears.

The Lee Boys

Say Yes!
Sacred steel gospel and

Much has been made about the new revival in “sacred steel,” a mixture of gospel, funk, and blues revolving around pedal steel guitar solos—but it seems that Robert Randolph and The Family Band are the only ones gaining notoriety for it. Not many can live up to their level of musicianship, but The Lee Boys come close. Comprised of six brothers and nephews from Miami, these are fourth generation musicians in the sacred steel tradition; all of them started playing when they were 7 or 8. Say Yes!, the band’s second album, is a bit more gospel influenced, which might sit better with those who feel that Randolph & Co. rock too hard. Instrumental jams abound between catchy family originals like “Walk with Me” and “Call Him by His Name,” as well as spirited covers of “Amazing Grace,” “You’ve Got to Move,” and even a familiar favorite like “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” rendered with a fun Latin-jazz feel. You’ll find Say Yes! through the band’s independent label.

The Spares

Hand Me Down

Jodee Lewis and Steve Hendershot comprise The Spares, a Chicago duo that has played the Midwest since 2003. Acoustic guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments are at the core of their sound, though they’ve also performed with a bassist and drummer. Their debut Hand Me Down draws on the same folk and alt-country sounds popularized by recent sensations like Mindy Smith, Alison Krauss, and eastmountainsouth. The Spares have a particular love for storytelling songs, particularly evident in the epic plainsong feel of “The Ballad of Columbus Bill” and its Old West tale of oaths, family, and mercy. Not to be confused with Billy Joel’s classic hit, “Allentown” offers a sweetly written illustration of poverty and God’s grace, inspiring the album title. The hopeful “Valley of Vision” finds the Lord’s presence in broken places. The most challenging song is “It’s You or It’s Me,” in which a young woman wrestles over whether to have an abortion or to listen to “the still small voice” inside. This talented pair draws from a broad songwriting palette that sketches the human condition in the places where faith is needed most.

Photo by Frank Hunter

Bradley Sowash

For the Beauty of the Earth

Ohio’s Bradley Sowash is familiar to PBS viewers as a regular guest on “The Piano Guy,” as well as NPR listeners who have heard his recordings regularly played on “Morning Edition.” A composer, educator, and acclaimed pianist, Sowash has toured concert halls and churches alike for more than twenty years. He’s recorded six instrumental albums, but this is his third disc of hymns and spirituals for jazz piano in the last four years—and reportedly his final, since it completes a trilogy. Those who enjoyed Chris Rice‘s Living Room Sessions albums will love this. Sowash’s technique incorporates more jazz, which makes it a more lively experience suitable for active or passing listening. Sowash gives a boogie-woogie feel to “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” while gliding through some bluesy runs in the title track and “Go Down Moses.” Other highlights include a breezy, bouncy take on “This Little Light of Mine” and a playfully varied “Doxology.” Sowash goes the extra mile by offering more than a pretty collection of hymn arrangements. He remains true to the familiar melodies, yet infuses them with personality for an artistically refreshing worship experience.

Tara Leigh Cobble

Things You Can’t Stop with Your Hands
Roots pop/

Trying to fill that void left by Jennifer Knapp‘s retirement? Do you wish more people caught on to Jill Paquette? Looking for someone as good as Bethany Dillon? Then rush directly to Tara Leigh Cobble and do not pass go. The one-time culinary student originally hails from eastern Tennessee (not far from Alathea‘s home), and now resides in Nashville. Stylistically, her aggressive roots pop/rock sound is a match to Knapp’s—opening song “White T-Shirt” is enough to convince. But Cobble is certainly strong enough to stand on her own merits. A stunning voice that’s earthy like Natalie Merchant and strong like Pat Benatar, it’s comforting to learn that the album was recorded without “pitch correction.” Cobble also distinguishes herself as an introspective songwriter inspired by faith but passionate about reaching beyond the Christian culture. “Beautiful Drive” and “Damage” could both be Christian radio singles, yet are seeker-friendly enough for mainstream airplay. “Follow” is an arty and poetic expression of discipleship, while “I Wonder” thoughtfully reflects on Christ’s loving death for us. Top it all off with first-rate production, including strong instrumentation from Gabe Scott (Bebo Norman) and members of Caedmon’s Call, and you’ll be wondering why this girl hasn’t been signed.

Farewell June

Acoustic pop/

If Chris Rice fronted a band like Casting Crowns, Big Daddy Weave, or Caedmon’s Call, the results would probably sound a lot like this Missouri sextet. Lead singer/songwriter Rob “Jonas” Woods is a youth pastor who started Farewell June with the vision of creating good Christian music that’s relevant to believers and nonbelievers—and they generally succeed on this debut. The current lineup has only been together since May 2004, but they sound like they’ve been playing together for much longer. And it’s a group full of surprises, interspersing softer AC pop songs like “Servant” and “Shine On” with some aggressive classic rock curveballs like “Take Shelter” or “Leanin’ Heavy.” Woods has a warm voice akin to Rice and James Taylor, yet he’s also capable of sounding bluesy and throaty like Joe Cocker. His younger brother Nick offers some terrific electric guitar solos and wife Becky adds pleasant backing harmonies. James Koppang’s shimmering organ and the versatile rhythm section of Randall Wildman and Mike Thompson round out the band. Farewell June won’t strike listeners as innovative, but as a band that handles its craft as well as—if not better than—other similar acts.

Sara Renner

Elements of the Journey
Soulful pop/jazz/

Sara Renner’s bio says she’s “rooted in the legendary Minneapolis sound.” It’s not so much a reference to Prince’s Paisley Park Studios as recognition of the growing gospel music scene and the respected Christian songwriters from the Twin Cities—like Sara Groves, Joe Rogness, and Jason Gay, and producer Nate Sabin, who has worked with all three. It’s fitting, then, that Sabin would match his skills to yet another local talent, though Renner has already made a name for herself there as a worship leader, a member of vocal trio Three Soul Cry, and most recently as a solo artist. Armed with a soulful and strong voice, her greatest strength is her eclecticism. Remember Basia, or Lisa Stansfield? Renner combines that kind of jazz-pop sensibility (“Simple Things”) with the gospel-pop side of CeCe Winans and Natalie Grant (“Elements of Life”). And she does so convincingly, straddling comfortably between styles without giving the listener sonic whiplash. Also, much like Bryan Duncan, she has a passion for live musicianship over programmed backing tracks, evidenced by her impressive supporting band, The Elements. Check out the killer funk on “Dancin’ in the Light!” This is a soulfully superior Christian pop disc elevated by all the talent involved.

Ben Thomas

The Recovery
Alt folk/

A youth ministry coordinator from Naperville, Illinois, 26-year-old Ben Thomas has been writing and performing in Chicagoland’s coffeehouses and clubs as an independent since the mid-’90s. But The Recovery marks his first full-length studio effort, and it’s a good one. Self-written, produced, and mostly performed by Thomas, it’s an album filled with dichotomies. The sound is melodic and approachable, yet the instrumentation is often quite progressive, mixing acoustic guitars with atmospheric effects and aggressive drum fills. The song style is structured, but the production is sometimes unconventional—there’s an intense indie rawness reminiscent of Damien Rice’s O album that can sound a tad muddy in some speakers, but it can also sound terrific in the right system. And it all plays off themes that candidly express sadness and brokenness while ultimately finding hope and peace in the Lord. Thomas appropriately cites alt-folk/pop influences like Wilco, Over the Rhine, Bob Dylan, and Pedro the Lion; you’ll likely dig this if you’ve enjoyed recent albums by Derek Webb and Taylor Sorensen. This solo debut lends credence to that belief that indie artists are the last bastion for creative songwriting and production.


Episode 5

Frustrated with the increasingly formulaic modern worship sound of the last five years, guitarist Shane Ries responded by starting Rebirth with lead vocalist Sandra Stevens and a team of musicians that have toured with Christafari, dc Talk, and All Together Separate. Their debut album, Episode 4, was a well-received collection of worship covers recorded with a funky neo-soul and hip-hop style. Episode 5 is an album two years in the making, intended to take Rebirth’s vision to the next level with all original material. Expect relaxed and mellow grooves that bend stylistic barriers, with Stevens’ soulful vocals delivering vertically focused lyrics that are reflective without drawing from the overused worship lexicon. “Be My Light” is smooth like Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” asking the Lord for guidance, while “Save Me” offers a passionate prayer for change. In contrast, the quiet “You Are Loved” is only accompanied by acoustic guitar and sound effects, while the funky “Give It to Me” is written from God’s perspective to lay our burdens down and keep faith. Fans of Lauryn Hill, The Roots, and Lisa McClendon will enjoy this one—there’s certainly not much like it in Christian music.

Lizza Connor


Lizza Connor is already making a name for herself in the Christian music industry, but it’s not what you might think. She’s been a featured writer in CCM magazine, and today she’s the publicist for Inpop Records. But what this Floridian really loves is performing, and after years of opportunities and travels, she finally released Runaway, her 2004 studio debut. The time spent in preparation was well worth it. Co-produced and performed with Andrew Osenga (Caedmon’s Call, The Normals), each song paints its own picture, textured with superb instrumentation and sparkling production throughout. Connor doesn’t always sing of the spiritual, often delving into stock country themes like broken hearts (“Can’t Call It Home,” “Bella Serra [Beautiful Evening]”) and sons lost to war (“Arlington”). But there’s still faith and hope to be found, most clearly in the gorgeous “There Is a Place,” a gospel-styled expression of looking forward to heaven. Runaway reveals Connor to be a gifted storyteller with a beautiful and expressive voice perfect for the genre. Perhaps someday the tables will turn and a publicist will be promoting her work.

Check out our past lists of independent artists:
Spring 2005, Fall 2004, Spring 2004, Fall 2003, Spring 2003, Fall 2002, Spring 2002

If you are an independent artist who would like to be considered for review
on our site, please send your CD(s) and any related press materials to editor of independent artist coverage:

Christa Banister
Attn: Independent Christian Artists
300 E. 4th St. Suite 406
St. Paul, MN 55101

Due to the number of projects we receive, we are unable to cover or correspond with every artist that contributes. But we do give all submissions a fair listen for coverage consideration.

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