History shows a bit of stormy weather or unexpected obstacles can sink the strongest of ships. Even a beautifully grand vessel with its sparkling exterior can float along effortlessly one moment, and be blindly struck with a fatal blow the next.
Sound a bit dramatic? Perhaps. But it’s a life-like scenario that’s all too familiar to the members of Avalon, who have had to navigate through their own stormy weather and jagged obstacles to reach a more peaceful calm on the other side.
Avalon has enjoyed a career of Titanic proportions with now six full studio recordings that have generated 19 No. 1 singles, three Dove Awards, 20 Dove nominations, two GRAMMY nominations and an American Music Award in 2002. The group’s current lineup includes original members Jody McBrayer and Janna Long, along with Melissa Greene (who replaced Cherie Paliotta Adams in late 2002) and newcomer Greg Long (Janna’s husband and an established solo artist in his own right), who officially joined the group last fall.
These changes rocked the group, yet Avalon continued generating chart-topping songs and sell-out performances in the midst of some very difficult times. Adams’ departure in 2002 was certainly a period of transition, but it was compounded by the unexpected death of close friend and musical mentor Grant Cunningham. It was a devastating blow to the group members, who then had to weather yet another trying time in the summer of 2003 when founding member Michael Passons resigned to pursue other interests.
“For Janna and me, Michael’s departure was like a death,” McBrayer explains. “I think we felt like our vision was gone. After everything that we had been through, we stuck together. And then for a founding member to leave, both of us were like, ‘It’s over. Everything we worked for in the last nine years is over.’ It was like something had been taken away from us.”
This chapter in Avalon’s history was a time of questioning and tears for Janna Long, who shares her thoughts during that time: “When you get punched once or twice, you can get back up,” she says. “But when it’s every other month that something’s happening, and you’re constantly being knocked down, it definitely takes its toll. Jody and I had been here the longest, and we were at a point where we were just kind of saying, ‘You know what, God? I don’t think I want to do this anymore. It’s been great, but maybe it’s just time to go.'”
But that summer became a turning point. The difficulties produced introspection and a re-evaluation of what Avalon’s ministry was all about. Looking at the group’s successes and strengths, it was obvious God had directed its path. Where would that path lead now?
“Despite what people have said or what they have projected for us, it has been nine years and a lot of great things have happened for us,” Janna Long says. “It has certainly been easy at times — we have a great record label, we have sold a lot of records, we’re making decent money and we were just getting in a very comfortable place. So I think when all of this began to happen, it was a test of obedience with God asking, ‘Are you going to go where I’m leading and do this my way, or are you going to keep trying to make it happen in your way?'”
Janna Long’s strong emotions bring tears. “I just felt like the rug was pulled out from under us,” she remembers. “I remember driving around Nashville one day listening to the song ‘You Were There’ that Jody sings on the new album (The Creed). There’s a line that talks about when obedience doesn’t make sense. There were so many times last summer when nothing seemed to make sense and I just wanted to quit. Even in the midst of those things people would say about us, ‘Oh, they’ll never make it; they’re just a put-together group.’ It just seemed like life was crumbling within the group, but I just felt God saying, ‘You’ve got to trust me. If you’ll do this, then just watch what I’ll do.’ And it’s amazing to see after all this that we’re still here. It was a huge lesson and not one that was easily learned. God sometimes teaches us all obedience in different ways. It’s so hard, so hard.”
“I think there was a major change in the attitudes of this group,” Greg Long says. “Jody would begin to say things like, ‘I don’t care whether we have a record deal or not — if God wants us to do this, we’re going to do it.'”
Greene adds, “I think God was sifting us as a group. It comes down to the fact that we’re here for the ministry, not for anything else.”
As the newly-transitioned Avalon headed into the studio late last year to begin working on the group’s new album, The Creed, a new foundation had been built and the songs they chose to record became almost autobiographical. The anthemic title cut is a no-holds-barred declaration of what Avalon believes their mission to be. It’s a mission that has always been there, but one that they now understand and embrace more than ever.
“I think that song, for us, is a line drawn in the sand,” McBrayer says. “When you experience true-life situations like we did, that’s when the rubber hits the road. The rhetorical nonsense of the industry becomes pointless and we’re forced to ask, ‘Why are we in ministry? Why are we doing this?’ It’s because of the foundational belief that Jesus Christ is Lord, because of the price He paid, and because we are called, as believers, to tell the world about that.”
With a renewed focus, Avalon has worked itself through a few growing pains, only to come out a little wiser and more passionate about doing what God has called them to do.
“We’ve had a lot of great things happen and a lot of success,” Janna Long says. “But as of late we’ve been shaken up a little bit, and I feel like we’ve done some growing through it all. I don’t think the picture is quite as glossy anymore, but that’s okay. It’s like when you see photographs of people and then you meet them in person and realize there are a few more wrinkles there than you thought. I feel like we’re not as airbrushed anymore. And we’re better people because of it.”
Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.
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