Fiberglass horses and neon signs emblazoned with "Budweiser" and "Jose Cuervo" aren't usually part of the backdrop for a Christian music concert. And the patrons at the Wildhorse Saloon don't typically order iced tea and water.
But this is Gospel Music Week, when some of Nashville's most popular bars and nightspots trade lying-and-cheating songs for hymns about prayer and redemption.
Dressed in black and strumming a guitar, Eric Horner looked like any other country music singer as he joined an ear-piercing band onstage at the Wildhorse. But the lyrics of his new album's title cut, "Prayer Warrior," gave him away.
"The army of the Lord must daily take our stand," Horner sang at a talent showcase Tuesday. "He is our rock, our sword, our shield, even on the battlefield."
About 3,000 Christian music artists, promoters, retailers and record executives have gathered in Nashville for events that culminate with the 34th annual Dove Awards on Thursday night. The awards recognize everything from staid gospel quartets and country to rock, rap and teen pop.
Nashville may be the home of country music, but the Christian music industry - with 50 million albums sold and $1 billion in revenue in each of the last two years - is also a force here.
Christian music's three major record labels - Provident Music Group, EMI Christian Music Group and Warner Brothers Christian - are based in Nashville, and at least 250 area companies have ties to the industry, according to the Gospel Music Association.
At no time is the industry's influence more evident than during Gospel Music Week.
"Really, it's our once-in-a-year opportunity to gather together and both celebrate what Christian music is all about and see where it's going," said Tricia Whitehead, Gospel Music Association spokeswoman.
"It's also an opportunity for management companies to introduce their new artists - the people who are going to come in and fill the shoes of Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and Third Day."
Instead of setting up a booth inside the Nashville Convention Center like other stations, New Jersey station WAWZ-FM parked a 31-foot recreational vehicle turned makeshift studio on Nashville's busy Commerce Street and invited artists inside.
"They stop by our RV and we give them some snacks and some fruit and talk about their songs," said Keith Stevens, the station's music director and afternoon drive-time personality.
Elsewhere, Christian music flows nonstop at major venues such as the Ryman Auditorium and the Renaissance Hotel and at nightspots such as Bar Nashville and The Palm.
"At any given time at night, there's probably 10 to 15 shows related to GMA going on in addition to the big ones," Whitehead said. "People use whatever venues are open."
Performing at the Wildhorse, Horner, a 37-year-old Paducah, Ky., native, explained to the crowd that he'd been on the stage before. He moved to Nashville to pursue a country music career, he said, "but God never seemed to open those doors."
Last fall, he recorded his first Christian music CD. And now he, like hundreds of aspiring Christian artists, hoped to generate interest during Gospel Music Week.
The crowd was a bit less rowdy than those he encountered in secular music.
"I like this kind of audience better because the people aren't getting drunk and they care about what you're singing," he said with a smile.
By Albert H. Lee