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…It’s Christmas Eve, and these shoes are just her size … And I want her to look beautiful — if Mama meets Jesus tonight….”

Few could have foreseen the widespread and poignant impact of these words — part of the lyrics of the holiday hit “The Christmas Shoes.” The country’s No. 1 song (topping Billboard’s Jan. 6, 2001 Adult Contemporary Singles chart) recorded by Reunion Records artist NewSong brought tears to millions of listeners tuning into their local Christian and mainstream AC, pop and country radio stations.

“Everyone was calling in to their radio stations,” recalls NewSong’s Eddie Carswell. “They told stories of how their mothers had sacrificed their lives and had always made Christmas special with very little. Everyone seemed to make it their own.”

St. Louis-based radio personality DC Chymes remembers the first time his nationally syndicated show, “Steve and DC in the Morning,” played the song: “For six hours after the show, our switchboard was jammed with listeners calling in,” he says. “They were openly weeping on the air telling their own Christmas stories and what this song meant to them.”

While extremely accessible on the radio dial, the song that espoused the true meaning of Christmas to the nation became hard to find in stores as demand for the recording grew. The surprise hit, written by Carswell and former group member Leonard Ahlstrom, and sung by veteran member Billy Goodwin, was a Christmas bonus track on NewSong’s October 2000 non-seasonal album, Sheltering Tree.

“The Christmas Shoes” is now also the title cut of NewSong’s first Christmas album in the group’s 20-year history. The song was inspired by a Christmas story Chymes found on the Internet. For the past few years, he and his on-air partner have read the tale during their show. Repeatedly, the switchboard lights up, and fills with listeners impacted by the story. A NewSong fan, Chymes asked Carswell to write a song based on the narrative. Carswell and Ahlstrom began working on it four years ago.

“We would read this story, and we knew something was there,” Carswell recalls, “so we kept stabbing at it, kept coming back to it..”

When the band was recording Sheltering Tree last year, Carswell pitched the unfinished song, but the producer passed on the cut. With the Sheltering Tree album complete, Carswell played a rough version of “The Christmas Shoes” for Chymes. His enthusiastic response convinced the two writers to finish the song and the record label to add it. In a mere seven days, the second verse and bridge were complete, and “The Christmas Shoes” was on the album.

The song —highly requested at NewSong concerts — gave the five-member group its first No. 1 mainstream radio hit. This year, Zomba Music Group’s Jive Records plans to re-service the song to Adult Contemporary and Country radio outlets in October. No doubt, the moving story will again be front and center on the airwaves this Christmas. Moreover, in October, New York publisher St. Martin’s Press plans to release The Christmas Shoes, a novella by Nashville-based author Donna VanLiere. And a NewSong Christmas tour is also in the works.

Along with the initial recording of “The Christmas Shoes,” NewSong — comprised of Carswell, Goodwin, Michael O’Brien, Matt Butler and Steve Reischl — has piled its first holiday effort with 12 songs, including five originals and seven standards. Mixing jazz, pop and a tinge of big band, the group came together to record the album over a period of three months.

The album gives new life to NewSong’s 1990 hit, “Light Your World.” With the Symphony of London adding lush strings along with O’Brien’s powerful vocals, the result, as Carswell describes it, is a “big sound.”

Also on the album is another stirring story-song written by Carswell. “Christmas Carol” was inspired by both imagination and real life.

“I had an idea last year to write a song about a lady named Carol who lived in a nursing home and was known as ‘Christmas Carol,’ because the thing that kept her alive was singing Christmas songs,” Carswell explains. “While finishing the song, I attended the funeral of a family member. Talking to our family and friends, I discovered she loved to sing. Her nickname at the nursing home was ‘Happy Singing Lady.’” The stories surrounding her life, Carswell says, provided further inspiration for finishing the song.

For the first time in his career, NewSong frontman Michael O’Brien recorded “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — the way the song’s writer Hugh Martin originally wrote it before Judy Garland popularized it. As a young adult pastor in California in 1990, O’Brien met Martin, who explained that the song’s original version said, “… Through the years, we all will be together if the Lord allows ….” But the words were changed to “…if the fates allow…” to avoid any religious language, O’Brien notes.

“Hugh told me, ‘That’s the original way I wrote it, so I want you to sing it this way,’ “ O’Brien recalls. “So one Christmas in that little church, Hugh Martin played piano, and I sang ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ and it was the thrill of my life. It’s pretty incredible for me to get to record it this way on an album.”

Both Butler and Reischl’s favorite on the record is a melodic combination of “Away in a Manger” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” The track, arranged by Butler and produced by O’Brien, features both Butler and Reischl on vocals and Butler on cello. Butler also names “The First Noel” as one of his all-time Christmas favorites — and ironically, he was selected to sing lead on the group’s arrangement of the song.

Goodwin says he was most impacted by O’Brien’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but is most excited about the project as a whole. “What I like is the fact that we’re getting away from ‘Season’s Greetings’ and ‘Happy Holidays’ and back to ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy Birthday Jesus.’ It’s more of a reality of what Christmas is all about.’”

Other holiday favorites chosen for The Christmas Shoes recording include “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “What Child Is This” and even a whimsical “The Grinch.” NewSong utilized a number of producers to bring the project together, including O’Brien, Don Koch (4HIM, Greg Long), Bill Baumgart (True Vibe, Crystal Lewis, 4HIM) and David T. Clydesdale (Placido Domingo, Kenny Rogers, Glenn Close).

While the success of “The Christmas Shoes” is somewhat unfathomable to NewSong, group co-founders Carswell and Goodwin are even more amazed that the troupe they formed 20 years ago is still making relevant music, traveling the country hosting their long-running, multi-artist “Jam” concerts and ushering in child sponsorships for Seattle-based hunger relief organization, World Vision.

Always apparent during a NewSong concert is their devotion and commitment to their World Vision affiliation. Since signing on with the organization in ‘94, NewSong has motivated more than 20,000 people to sponsor a needy child. Each night, the group chronicles its own personal experience, urging concert attendees to follow suit.

The group that started out as a nine-man band singing in the members’ Morningside Baptist Church in Valdosta, Ga., gradually branched out to other churches. In 1981, four of the nine —Carswell, Goodwin, Eddie Middleton and the late Bobby Apon —made the life-changing decision to pursue music and ministry full-time.

“I don’t think we ever thought we’d be doing this for 20 years,” Goodwin comments on the group’s longevity. “The commitment that we made was, ‘God, we’ll do this as long as Your hand is on it, as long as we see You working.’ One of the joys in my walk has been learning that God is faithful even when things look impossible.”

It was at a high school assembly, Goodwin says, when the four sensed the turning point. “In a real way, God sort of just showed up there,” he recalls. “We just gave a concert and at the end, by a show of hands, virtually every student in the place had made a decision for Christ. We asked a coach if we could ask students to come forward, and suddenly there were 700 kids walking toward us. The whole community was changed. We knew it wasn’t a question of ‘if,’ but rather ‘when.’” The “when” came sooner than they thought, as the fledgling group resigned their jobs May 1, 1981, loaded up Goodwin’s ’73 Dodge Aspen station wagon and set out to carry the Gospel nationwide.

Overall, NewSong has released 12 albums and scored 17 #1 songs, including ‘97’s record-setting “Miracles,” which stayed at the top of The CCM Update’s Adult Contemporary chart for five weeks. The song was named American Songwriter magazine’s ‘97 Christian Song of the Year. That same year, NewSong was voted ‘Group of the Year’ by industry trade journal Christian Research Report. Among numerous other accolades for the band, NewSong has garnered six Gospel Music Association Dove Award nominations throughout their tenure.

Not surprisingly, the past 20 years have brought several changes for the group. The transitions have given way to mentoring relationships as the veterans walk face to face with their younger counterparts. With a strong foundation beneath them, former NewSong members Russ Lee (‘94-‘99) and Charles Billingsley (‘94) have moved on to successful solo careers.

Matt Butler, one of the newest additions to the group, reflects on his NewSong experience: “I have grown a lot in the last year and in my walk with the Lord as I’ve watched these guys,” he says. “I’m the only single guy on the road, and I’ve seen how they live their lives as they’re away from their wives and kids. I see the integrity. That’s been the biggest influence on my life.”

Always at the forefront, echo all five members, is the ministry of expressing their faith through the music.

NewSong accomplishes that exceedingly well via its live shows. For the past six years, the group has organized and pioneered the Summer Jam and Winter Jam Tours. Featuring a multi-artist bill and an unusually low-ticket price in the range of $5 to $7, the events could be called NewSong’s signature effort. The Jam events have galvanized the Christian music industry, as a diverse lineup of artists such as Rebecca St. James, Audio Adrenaline, Margaret Becker, Anointed, Clay Crosse and Big Tent Revival, has realized the benefits of a multi-artist bill. The events consistently draw large crowds, some as big as 15,000, to major venues like 1999’s record-setting concert in Greenville, S.C.’s Bi-Lo Center. Last year’s Winter and Summer Jams drew a collective total of 116,00 people, catching the attention of corporate sponsors like Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

No doubt, the group that has logged more than one million road miles has a passion for reaching youth. In addition to the Jams, NewSong has hosted winter and summer Xtreme Youth Conferences since 1995. Each year, they sing in the New Year with a three-day Xtreme event in Gatlinburg, Tenn., as well as other winter Xtreme events in Branson, Missouri, and Columbus, Ohio. The summer always includes Xtreme Youth Conferences in Panama City Beach, among other locations.

The goal of NewSong’s Jam and Xtreme events, says Carswell, is “to fill audiences with the message of Jesus Christ.” And by the end of each night, that goal is reached, evidenced in the number of people who come forward to pray or profess their belief in Jesus Christ during an altar call.

“That moment, you see it all come together,” says Reischl. “There’s no way to describe it. It’s just amazing to be on stage and look out and watch a sea of people stream forward, people who are responding because God has used us. All the hard work, the nights on the road away from our families — it’s all worth it, then.”

“It seems like God just continues to expand our ministry,” Carswell concludes. “We’re still doing this for the right reasons and carrying the Message we started out with. We’ll continue making music and traveling the world until He decides to do something different with our lives.”

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