IN recent years, Amy Grant has garnered more record sales, more media exposure, and more concert hall sellouts than music industry watchers would have thought possible for a ``Christian rock'' singer. And this weekend she'll play to her largest audience yet: On Sunday she brings her special brand of music to television in her first network Christmas special, ``Amy Grant: Headin' Home for the Holidays'' (NBC, 10-11 p.m., check local listings), filmed on location in Montana.
One measure of her success is the fact that 15 years ago, the letters CCR meant only one thing in the music industry: Creedence Clearwater Revival. Today those same three letters stand for a new and vital genre in popular music: ``contemporary Christian rock.''
Though a number of performers are involved, Mrs. Grant is generally regarded as the one spearheading this movement. Through her flashy, individualistic appearance, her pulsating, snythesizer-driven music, and her relaxed stage demeanor, the vivacious, sultry-voiced singer has been able to reach out and attract fans in the secular music camp.
Recently, Grant has been showing up on the MTV cable channel in a video with singer Peter Cetera (formerly of the popular group Chicago). She's also a special guest on a new Christmas album by Art Garfunkel, ``The Animals' Christmas,'' which features a cantata composed by Jimmy Webb and accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Audiences are attracted to her sense of abandon - wearing her trademark leopard-print jacket, jeans and bare feet at the Grammy Awards telecast, for instance - and her wholesome good looks and warm smile. In short, she has rock-star charisma.
And, apart from the looks, Amy Grant can sing. She possesses a magnificent instrument, sometimes compared to the late Karen Carpenter or to early Olivia Newton John or Linda Rondstadt. The voice, the look, the playful stage presence add up to a modern day phenomenon known as Amy-mania.
An enthralled crowd at Radio City Music Hall several weeks ago screamed out her name in unison between songs ... ``Amy, Amy, Amy!'' And, though this cavernous hall was full of fans who really didn't have to be convinced, there were plenty of others in attendance who were initially drawn in by her charismatic charms but came away with some food for thought.
``I hope people enjoy my singing,'' Grant says, ``but at the same time I hope their lives are affected by the words. With every song, my goal is to say I believe that God is who He said He is and there's an eternal scheme of things that we've all got to plug into.''
It's an age-old message, but the vehicle is a far cry from what the uninitiated might expect. The songs at the Radio City concert were not sedate hymns sung politely around a piano. This was big-time rock-and-roll, with smoke, lights, and a humongous sound system - everything but the drugs and the groupies.
Grant's latest album, ``Unguarded'' (Myrrh/Word Records, marketed by A&M) - a platinum hit with more than 1 million albums sold - rocks as hard and hot as any secular music on the pop charts. Full of contemporary sounds - drum machines, synthesizers, distortion guitars, and the like - the tunes on this album stand alongside the works of many hit-selling artists today. ``Love of Another Kind'' would appeal to fans of Van Halen's ``Jump.'' The beat, the energy, the excitement are there, though the message is different: ``The love I know/ Is a love so few discover/ They need to know/ Jesus' love is like no other.''
Some tunes like ``Fight,'' ``And a Way,'' and ``Sharayah'' carry an overt Christian message, while others are more amibiguous, using the pronoun ``You'' or ``He'' in a way that might imply Jesus or could stand for some other person, a boyfriend perhaps. But an Amy Grant concert or album will, in no uncertain terms, expose the listener to her Christian faith. As the 25-year-old singer said, ``Ever since I was a kid I've been interested in the idea of God dealing with human beings, and I started writing and singing about what I was going through.
``I felt like saying, `We've talked about sex and ``let's party''; now let's talk about the eternal significance of the fact that we're here!'
``But people aren't going to develop a taste for my music if they don't hear it, and they won't hear it unless we try to reach them on their level, to try and communicate with them. And we've got to reach kids where they are. We've got to get in there with whatever is communicating musically.''
Amy Grant was born in Augusta, Ga., the youngest of four girls. She was raised in Houston, Texas, and later moved to Nashville, Tenn., where she now resides with her husband of six years, Gary Chapman, who co-writes some of her tunes and performs in her touring band.
She signed with Word Records in 1976 at the age of 15, then released her debut album, ``Amy Grant,'' at age 18. Her big breakthrough album, ``Age to Age,'' came in 1982. That album is to the contemporary Christian rock scene what Michael Jackson's ``Thriller'' was to the contemporary secular pop scene. With immediate sales of 500,000, ``Age to Age'' became the first Christian-music record to break into the Top 40. That LP has since gone platinum, igniting interest in the whole Christian music movement in general and Amy Grant in particular.
Somehow in the face of all this attention, Amy Grant remains humble. In fact, she finds it easy to remain humble, since she's only performing a service, as she sees it. No rock star ego-tripping here. She says,``I've never thought that my music was just for Christians. People call me a gospel singer because a lot of my songs talk about God. But I think it's just real life.''
Amy Grant is the beacon in this movement, bringing brand new expression to an enduring message.