Since 2003, Franklin, Tenn.’s Casting Crowns, who will play at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena next Thursday, has been creating wide-screen contemporary Christian music, with surging vocal harmonies, uplifting choruses, and messages of faith and devotion. Led by Mark Hall, the band has been steadily on the rise commercially, selling over 10 million albums over the last decade and becoming one of the most popular Christian bands in the country.
They’ve won a Grammy and a Dove award, and they hold the record for the longest-reigning No. 1 song on the Contemporary Christian charts, staying on top for 16 consecutive weeks with “East to West.” The band’s career had essentially gone from one high point to the next until 2015.
That’s when Mark Hall was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
On the day he was diagnosed, Hall, stunned and overwhelmed, wrote “Oh My Soul,” the centerpiece track on Casting Crowns’ new album, “The Very Next Thing.”
“Oh my soul, you are not alone,” Hall sings with palpable emotion on that track. “There’s a place where fear has to face the God you know.”
Miraculously, the cancer had not spread outside of Hall’s kidney, and he’s been cancer-free since having it removed that same year. “I’m good,” Hall says, still sounding a bit surprised. “I go back for scans every once in a while, but they’re all good news. I’m glad to be done with that chapter of life.”
It would be understandable if that experience dominated the rest of “The Very Next Thing,” but Hall tries to think of others before himself. He’s been a youth pastor for more than 25 years, and when it comes time to write songs for Casting Crowns, that’s where he draws inspiration.
“The songs come from what I’m teaching in student ministry,” he says. “All the songs for Casting Crowns started out as Bible studies for teenagers. The themes that rise to the top over time end up being songs.”
In fact, the album’s title comes from conversations Hall had with his students about the day-to-day meaning of faith. “How do we follow Jesus?” he says. “What does that really mean? Because so many times you have these giant declarations. ‘We’re going to give it all to you,’ and all those kind of moments. But when church is over, we’re not really sure what that’s supposed to look like. But following Jesus just means doing the very next thing he says. God’s will for you isn’t 10 years from now — it’s right now.”
When it comes to putting music to those thoughts, Hall is conscious of creating stirring, emotional anthems that carry the weight of the band’s message. “I like for the music to agree with the lyrics, but I don’t want the music to run away with the songs,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll hear a really cool song, but I’ll have to listen to it five or six times before I can figure out what the song is about. There’s a sense of urgency in what we sing; I don’t want there to be any mystery as to what our songs are about.”
Hall says the music has to match perfectly with the lyrics. “I want the music to say what we’re saying, too. There’s a lift in those choruses, and there’s a tension when there’s a question in the lyrics. It’s called ‘text painting.’ I want to paint the picture with the music.”
Despite the band’s successful career, all of them still work in the church, and Hall says that’s what has allowed them to keep coming up with new songs to sing. “To me, there’s a person in my mind whenever I sing a song, because that song happened. It’s always fresh,” he says. “I’ve never gone to write a record and not known what we were going to say.”
Casting Crowns, w/ Danny Gokey & Unspoken
Bon Secours Wellness Arena, 650 N. Academy St., Greenville
Thursday, March 9, 7 p.m.