The Welcome Wagon made a pretty big splash in 2008 when they released their first album under the wing of Sufjan Stevens. The album came out on Sufjan’s label, and Sufjan himself produced and even arranged much of the album. This was enough to gain the band attention, but not enough to account for their talent and success.
The Welcome Wagon’s story is as fascinating as it is simple. The band consists of an ordained Presbyterian minister, Thomas Vito Aiuto, and his wife, Monique. They are joined in performances and recordings by a talented circle of friends. Vito and Monique don’t appear to have any aspiration to be rock stars or career musicians. They enjoy their life as pastors and parents. Their musical career started in their living room, singing hymns in a family setting. And at some point, they decided to share their love for singing with the rest of us.
A pastor and his wife singing hymns. Could that really be noteworthy? Well, yes. Two things demonstrate this. First is their music itself. If you haven’t listened to the Welcome Wagon, I highly recommend it. Their music is fairly straightforward, yet well-crafted and engaging. Christian listeners will recognize a number of familiar hymns alongside clever and sometimes whimsical songs, most of which focus heavily on Christian themes. Musically, the Welcome Wagon has earned the attention it has received.
But what might surprise you is that this pastoral duo, singing old hymns and new songs about Jesus’ blood, has gained a pretty popular fan base in the “secular” music world. Christian bands often go to great lengths to make their music relevant to secular crowds, typically with limited success. But the Welcome Wagon does not apologize for their Christian content. Their music and their message is simple, and Jesus is mentioned and worshiped in song after song. Yet somehow non-Christians are finding it compelling.
I was able to ask Vito a couple of questions about this dynamic. His response reveals that there is more to Christian music than niche marketing:
*Your music features strong Christian subject matter and perspective, yet a lot of people who want nothing to do with Christianity love your music. Why do you think non-Christians are drawn to your music?
I guess I do not really know why people who are not Christians are drawn to our music. I suppose that the answer to that question would vary from person to person. It could be that what people are hearing in our music is a sincerity and earnestness about love and life that is compelling. We believe that Jesus Christ is love, and that he is life: he defines those things and they come from him as a gift to the world. So while someone might not believe that, they might still recognize that we are trying to say something real about life and love, and I think that can be intriguing and even attractive.
*What type of response have you gotten from the Christian Music community?
If by Christian music community you mean the industry that creates and promotes music within a particular market context (Christian music radio, magazines, websites, etc.) I would say that the response has been warm, yet very small, especially for the first record. For our second record, we were a bit more on the radar, but for the first record, because our label isn’t part of the Christian music industry, it was mostly ignored. I don’t necessarily resent that. It’s how the business works, and that’s OK, I guess.
But we have gotten so many really warm and lovely responses from Christians and churches around the world, and that is so gratifying. And that’s what matters. What means so much to us is that even one person is bopping around the house, cleaning or cooking to our record. What means so much to us is to know that even one church is singing our songs and that those songs are helping them to love God. That’s what matters.
You probably won’t find the Welcome Wagon in your local Christian bookstore. (It’s not listed for either Family Christian or Berean Christian stores). That’s understandable; it just shows that what is typically considered “Christian music” is more about the record label than a discerning analysis of the music itself.
What I find fascinating about the Welcome Wagon, however, is the reality that Christians are making music about life as they experience it, that they are making this music for anyone who is interested in listening, and that Christians as well as non-Christians find this music compelling.
As Madeleine L’Engle said about writing fiction for secular audiences:
“If I understand the Gospel, it tells us that we are to spread the Good News to all four corners of the world, not limiting the giving of light to people who already have seen the light. If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer.”
Wow, Mark, what a fascinating post! I’m not sure I have categories for this–at least I haven’t been provided them by our Christian culture. A Christian band with an explicit Christian message that’s not part of a Christian label and is appreciated by unbelievers. Their qualification to your question says it all: “If by Christian music community you mean the industry that creates and promotes music within a particular market context (Christian music radio, magazines, websites, etc.)…”
Could our “Christian music community” be much smaller and controlled than what’s actually out there?
Great stuff, Mark!
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