Fewer still have displayed the vision, determination and stamina to negotiate personnel changes, record label changes and touring climate changes, while watching the Christian music industry go through numerous stylistic cycles upheavals in the process.
“Petra,” says lead singer John Schlitt, “is a survivor.”
Keeping with its pioneering reputation, Petra released the progenitor of all contemporary worship albums, Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out in 1989; and its sequel, Petra Praise 2: We Need Jesus, in 1997. Both albums remain audience favorites among the band’s 19 studio albums (both have, in fact, sold half-a-million copies). So when it came time to consider the next phase of Petra’s ministry, John says the direction for 2001 was obvious—it was time for Revival.
“In our hearts,” says John, “we’ve always been worshippers. If you look at Petra’s music, even back to the earliest albums, our lyrics have always addressed a very intimate relationship with God and have often been scripture based—two things that are at the core of what people now call ‘modern worship.’ So for us as a band, Revival is both an appropriate title and indicative of our musical approach. Like so many other times in Petra’s history, we’ve been forced to reassess who we are; to combine those elements that distinguish Petra with a desire to constantly evolve and grow as believers and musicians.”
Although sure of Petra’s purpose, group founder Bob Hartman admits he wondered if there was a record company that would believe in Petra’s relevance to a youth dominated musical culture. Bob says as the band considered its options, it was approached by inpop Records. “Peter [Furler] and Wes [Campbell] realized there was a lot of goodwill surrounding the name of Petra and that this band was capable of making a great record and ought to have that chance again.”
Campbell set Revival in motion by contacting Dwayne Larring and Jason Halbert, who both produced and were members of Sonicflood. “I thought Wes was kidding,” admits Dwayne. “Then he laid out the concept of doing a modern worship album, which was appropriate, since Petra was really a groundbreaker in that area; in fact, the first Petra album I heard was Petra Praise One. Jason has been a huge fan of Petra for years—John Schlitt sang at his wedding! And a lot of people don’t realize the main models for Sonicflood were the Petra Praise albums. So when we discussed producing Petra, I think our first response was ‘we’re not worthy!’
Frankly, as relatively new producers, we thought it might be a risk. Would people think we were crazy? But we believe with all our hearts in this project and we wanted to honor this band for helping make a way for the rest of us.”
Both John and Bob affirm that the Revival sessions were bathed in mutual respect. “There was never any feeling of ‘what can these young guys show us?’” Bob insists. “There was a lot of respect from the beginning, not only them having those feelings for us, but us looking at what they’ve accomplished over the past four years in the area of worship.” John adds simply, “The combination of Petra’s experience and their creative production ideas was a very cool one-two punch.”
Dwayne emphasizes that Revival is not so much a reinvention of Petra as it is an integration of all that distinguishes Petra—the vocals of John Schlitt; the drumming of Louie Weaver and the guitar of Bob Hartman—into an entirely new context. “With John, he often sings in a lower register that you’ve never heard before, but then we let him go where you get the payoff of that great voice. Bob experimented with some new guitar sounds and techniques and Louie—he tore it up in the studio! No one could remember him playing with as much drive or passion in a long time.”
Unlike the Petra Praise albums, which feature a mix of hymns, praise choruses and Bob Hartman originals, Revival heavily relies on recently written material, some of it likely unfamiliar to listeners. Matt Redman is responsible for the bold new title track and the explosive “Better is One Day;” while modern worship favorites such as “We Want to See Jesus Lifted High,” “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” and “The Noise We Make” get the trademark Petra treatment, and the band also unveils songs such as “Meet With Me,” “How Long” and “Oasis.”
“We wanted Petra to be on the leading edge of introducing audiences to some great new worship songs,” Dwayne explains, while John adds, “It was such a pleasure to interpret these songs that have started to become worship standards and to introduce some brand new songs. I’m not concerned that they’re not ‘Petra’ songs. The thing that was most important to us on this record is that we create a great worship experience for the listener. I think it’s a blast to worship to rock and roll.”
“I think it’s a blast to worship to rock and roll.” – Jason Halbert
That heartfelt sentiment has been the foundation for Petra’s ministry since its inception nearly 30 years ago. “From the beginning, it felt like there was a need for this band,” recalls Bob. “I had finished college and had plans to get a job after being a poor college student. But I felt a serious call to go to Bible college. While I was attending this school, I started jamming with a couple other students and we began working up some songs I had written, then booking some concerts. That’s really how Petra began.”
Less than two years into its existence, Petra recorded its first album for Christian music visionary Billy Ray Hearn at Myrrh Records. The album was released to a less than enthusiastic welcome. “Kids today in their teens and even twenties can’t appreciate the fact that there was a time when there was no contemporary Christian music,” Bob explains. “And in its infancy, a lot of controversy surrounded the music. You certainly couldn’t purchase it in many of the bookstores that existed. We had people picket and protest our concerts in those days. The people that found out about Petra were mostly people that had street ministries and thought this music was perfect for evangelism.” Adds John, “I’ll be honest, I’m glad I wasn’t there in those early years. I would have been so disappointed in how the band was treated. In many ways, it’s a miracle Petra has lasted beyond its first two records.”
Following Bob’s relocation to Nashville in the late 1970s, Petra began its decade long association with StarSong Records, and released its first song to meet with radio success, “Why Should the Father Bother,” featuring new vocalist Greg Volz. “That was an amazing five years of growth and ministry for the band,” remembers Bob. “We did several major tours—one year we were away from home 300 days. We got credit for pioneering the use of sophisticated production in ccm, but that really belongs to the band Servant, who organized the lights and sound on the Never Say Die tour, and to Kansas, who gave us the light and sound systems we used on the Not of This World tour. While we were on that tour, “The Coloring Song” went to Number One, and that was the first time we felt like an audience outside of die-hard rock fans was accepting us.”
Volz’s departure in 1985 caused Petra to wonder if it should even continue, a fact not lost on Volz’s replacement, John Schlitt, whose previous experience was as vocalist for the popular mainstream rock band, Head East. “When I first came into Christian music, I had not been a part of any music scene for five years. So when I joined Petra, my attitude and enthusiasm for ccm was overwhelming. But there was a lot of turmoil when I came into the band. Finally, maybe seven months into things, we got together to pray about whether the band should go on. And I said, ‘Go on? I just got here!’ But we realized it was just a temporary set back.”
Shortly after John joined the band, Christian rock music was assaulted by a number of prominent evangelicals, who held up the albums of Petra and other rockers on television and alleged that the music was satanic. Bob admits that was another demoralizing blow for the band. “We were at a very low point when we released This Means War! in 1987. But then, Josh McDowell joined us on that tour and things started to turn around. A lot of people don’t realize what a gutsy move it was for Josh to tour with Petra. That man deserves credit for his foresight and discernment and independent thinking in the body of Christ. Every day when we went to a city we did a pastor’s lunch. Josh would introduce me, I would say a few words then Josh would give an apologetic for Christian music, and he said some bold things. That probably did more to change the minds of the gatekeepers than anything I saw in my history of touring with Petra.”
Petra again reached out to those gatekeepers—specifically, youth pastors and music leaders—in 1989, with the release of Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out. John remembers, “Bob and I went to a youth pastor’s retreat in California just to say, ‘you guys have been very supportive. How can Petra’s ministry be an aid to the church in a deeper way?’ And they said, ‘well, the kids go to your concerts; they have a great time; they love the music. Then they come to church and the music that we choose doesn’t reach them. In some cases, we can’t sing, we can’t play instruments.’ So we thought, ‘what if we do a CD with worship songs that we think are cool, but do it Petra style and then provide an accompaniment track for the youth groups?’” But when the group tried to explain to Word what they wanted to do, the record label didn’t quite understand what praise and worship songs “Petra style” meant.
“It wasn’t until they heard the first rough cuts that they caught on to what we were trying to do,” says Bob. John adds, “There was no precedent for a rock-based worship album but the record caught on anyway and became Petra’s first gold album. It was a complete surprise to everyone including us.”
Petra has always placed the importance of its ministry above the personality of any one individual and has weathered numerous personnel changes over the years, including, in 1994, the retirement of founder Bob Hartman from touring. “Wake Up Call was my last tour,” Bob recalls. “I was tired, I missed my family, they missed me—it was a combination of a lot of things. I don’t regret it a bit. I have wonderful memories and feelings about those years of ministry. But it was time for a change in my life. I’ve never looked back; I’ve never missed traveling. I have missed being on stage from time to time. But as anyone who’s ever done this knows, that 90 minutes or two hours is the reward for all the other junk you have to go through to get a band from one town to the next. Also I felt like it was a time in the existence of Petra where if I didn’t tour, someone else could pla y guitar and I could utilize my talent for songwriting which I think has been my greatest contribution to the band. John was at a place where he wanted to be more involved and this was a way for him to be. Basically, he took over the live aspects of the band and I remained responsible for coordinating everything else—the business organization, making records, and songwriting.”
Petra soldiered on through the 1990s with John at the helm, releasing two albums of original material and Petra Praise 2: We Need Jesus, as well logging countless thousands of miles on the road. All the while, John admits, Petra was constantly assessing its viability in both the recording and touring markets. “I see the band still having a lot of fans and them appreciating what we are now as well as what we’ve been in the past. Frankly, we’re not trendsetters anymore, but we did lay the groundwork for a lot of other artists. Now we just try to make good music and go out and continue to minister. From all the feedback we get, that’s still happening."
RECENT PAST TO PRESENT
Although the 2000 release of Double Take, a semi-unplugged revisiting of Petra classics, marked the end of the band’s association with Word Records, the year climaxed with what is perhaps the defining moment of the band’s career—induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
“I was completely taken by surprise—never dreamed it would happen. It was quite an honor and it definitely felt like our peers had finally recognized us,” says Bob, the emotion in his voice still palpable. Adds John, “They had these video histories, and the announcers were talking about ‘back in 1948, back in 1955’ referring to when these other artists got started. And I’m looking at Louie and Bob, going ‘we’re just babies, we shouldn’t be here!’ And Bob looked at me and laughed and said ‘well, somebody must have thought we should be here.’ Petra’s ministry and vision certainly influenced things and I think helped open doors and shape the direction that Christian music has taken. But I was shocked when I heard the announcement and even more shocked when I was sitting there during the ceremony. You stick around long enough and people say, ‘wow, these guys did do something good!’”
As this new season in Petra’s ministry unfolds, John Schlitt, with his customary candor, looks to the release of Revival and the future of Petra with the same optimism that has marked his 15-years with the group. When it’s suggested that Petra’s tenure in Christian music bears a resemblance to those of mainstream music stalwarts such as the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, masters of career rejuvenation Schlitt is quite candid. “We’ve always fought this marketing and promotional image about young versus old, but the fact is, this band has been around a long time. And we plan on being around a lot longer. Five years ago, it was ‘the rebuilt Petra’ and the ‘retooled Petra.’ I’ve been able to stand back as we’ve changed personnel and be a little detached, and you know what? We rock, and we rock hard! Anybody that doesn’t believe that is welcome to come and watch us. It’s flattering to be compared to artists like Santana and Aerosmith, because they’ve continued to grow and challenge their audiences, finding the balance of playing the material that the fans expect you to play but breathing new life into it, and finding great new songs or writing great new songs that embrace the legacy without being nostalgic. I think Revival succeeds on both counts.”