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If there was one place where the Underground Christian Rock scene called home it was Cornerstone. On a large farm near Macomb, IL I spent a few 4th of July weeks of my youth listening to hundreds of bands. The last time I went to the festival was nearly 9 years ago.
As a kid whose parents were saved as part of the Jesus Movement, I went to Cornerstone in Grayslake, IL at the fairgrounds sometime around 1990. I was too young to have enjoyed any of the bands though. Before I went to Cornerstone I went to Jesus Midwest a few times. It was another festival with Jesus Movement era CCM artists such as Matthew Ward.
Around 1995 I started to get into bands like The Prayer Chain, Steve Taylor, MxPx and Poor Old Lu. In 1996 in the summer before high school I got a youth leader and three friends together and organized a trip to Cornerstone. Our youth leader had drummed for a few different Christian alternative bands, so he was happy to take us back to his old stomping grounds.
It was a blast seeing a ton of bands you would never see anywhere else like Saviour Machine. I bought a Crux T-shirt that I ended up losing. I also saw Joy Electric have a terrible time with their live show. I also got autographs from Value Pac, whose singer wrote about not having a girlfriend, when he didn’t seem to have any problem having girl fans. Around that time Christian ska or skacore was also starting to take off. It was a very different time because they had moshpits and stage diving and a girl I knew broke her ankle in the MxPx moshpit on the main stage.
Every year since my last visit I have the habit of looking at the Cornerstone lineup and guessing how many bands I know of. Usually I only know maybe a third of the bands and a lot of them are hardcore. What is different now is they didn’t used to allow heavy bands on the main stage. It was more for CCM mainstream acts such as Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, PFR, DC Talk, etc. What you find know is Underoath on the main stage with a band not considered to be a Christian act such as Shiny Toy Guns. So somewhere in the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a shift in which type of bands they allow.
The best thing about Cornerstone in those days was the community. You could go there with a group of friends and it was such a blast to hang out. What separates Cornerstone from a Warped Tour or Woodstock is that I wouldn’t want to camp out with those people. Could I even trust my stuff would be there if I walked away from my tent? Most of the Cornerstone people are church kids and so there is a sense of family with other Christians. A lot of the people there can be really polite. And what a lot of the punk and hardcore kids would find there is a place to belong if only for one week out of the year. It was also great to meet the musicians who seem more like regular people sitting at the tables in the merch tents.
The festival has always been about high school kids. In fact so much so that they sent out surveys asking about when the high schools went on summer break in my area. The date has remained around the 4th of July for some time despite the heat every year. Although the ticket prices have jumped up significantly in that time. I think it was around $60 or $70 the first time I went and it’s at least $130 at the gate. Unfortunately, it seems like no matter how high they raise the prices they say they never make any money. With bands charging a fortune for their appearance I can believe that.
I avoided going back to the festival because I don’t want to feel sad about leaving all those memories behind. Honestly, the thought of camping out in the heat to see bands I’m not crazy about doesn’t get me motivated to drive down there. If you think about gas being $4.50 a gallon this summer the cost of the trip with admission for someone from my area is $250 and that does not include any food. With the increase in gas and ticket prices it makes me wonder how long the festival can go on.
I’m sure there will always be some form of a Christian Rock scene as long as there are Christians. Cornerstone and the friends from those days have gone and passed me by. But the one thing I still hold dear is the memories of praying for a guy who got hurt in a Living Sacrifice most pit or taking a dry shower at the Macomb Wal-Mart. Warped Tour or any other secular music festival can never compare to the glory days of Cornerstone Festival because those festivals don’t have any sense of Christian community.
In honor of the Chicago Cubs commericials with Relient K I decided to make a video of my own. The video was taken at Miller Park in Milwaukee and the Cubs won the game 7-2. I also posted it on Vimeo.com, but that site doesn’t get as much traffic as YouTube.
I went to an MxPx show on Tuesday night and I posted some videos from the show. You can find one of the videos below or on one of my YouTube channels.
Dogwood is one of the Christian punk bands I grew up listening to and the song “1983” is one of my favorites. It says:
When we were young, our whole lives ahead of us,
And it was well understood we’d all become astronauts,
Let’s not pretend, we all become famous,
Let’s not pretend, there’s more to this then we hoped for,
When you reach a certain point in life you realize that you’re probably not going to be famous and you have to accept that. A person’s occupation is a big part of what typically defines him/her. In the midst of all the people moving to California and trying to get on TV to become famous, we have to accept that we’re regular people and we need to be content with that regardless of our jobs. Sure it’s cool to have goals and want to make money, but the things that bring fulfillment in life have little to do with fame and fortune.
Your parents are proud,
You’ve got everything,
No passion at hand,
You’ll be Ivy League,
It’s more probable,
We all become salesmen,
You know it,
You fear it,
It’s well on it’s way, well understood,
And this is your life,
Don’t apologize for what you are,
Because you’re a star.
Since the Christian music industry began there have been discussions of bands and how Christian they are or aren’t based on their lyrics and things they say from the stage. Growing up I knew of bands that talked about knowing the Lord on stage and gave altar calls for people to get saved regularly at concerts. Being a Christian band was not necessarily a big money-making profession. It was about the message and the music–in that order.
Flash forward to more than 20 years later and we have a number of artists that cross over from the Christian industry to the mainstream: groups such as POD, Switchfoot, Relient K and others. Some of these crossover groups don’t like to be called “Christian” artists because of the stigma that goes with the labeling of the music. Yet these artists started in the Christian scene and worked their way into mainstream success.
It’s always easy to badmouth your old job after you quit working there and so it is when bands leave Christian labels. I think sometimes it is a little dishonest for bands to deny their Christian roots. Maybe being in a mainstream band was their goal from the beginning, but if that was the case they should never have gotten involved with the Christian industry.
Christian rock music is a subculture and there are different circles of it. Christian Contemporary Music or CCM is often associated with Nashville, Christian radio and Christian music festivals with bands like the Newsboys or Jars of Clay. The Tooth and Nail segment of Christian music is associated with Cornerstone Music Festival and is an edgy less overtly Christian scene. Many bands that play Cornerstone don’t want to be associated with the Christian scene because Cornerstone is the only Christian concert they play the whole year.
So we have CCM bands that make big money playing music to only Christians and we have edgy bands that focus on the secular scene yet have ties to Christian rock. Both groups are considered Christian, but they feel differently about the association. The CCM industry was birthed out of the Jesus Movement in the 70s and the underground scene became known to mass audiences with the emergence of Tooth and Nail Records.
Not every band is going to be evangelistic like those bands I grew up with, but that doesn’t mean songs have to be intentionally vague where it could be about God or a girl. I think bands ought to be more honest with themselves about whether they’re in it first and foremost for the money or for God. Bands shouldn’t be ashamed to be Christians and fans shouldn’t disown a band because they’re Christians or not making music only for Christians.
Below is a video with an interview with Ronnie Martin:
How do you view your records? Do you set out to do a concept record?
Jason Martin: It’s whatever 10 or 12 songs we come up with. We just want to make it different than the last one. We try not to put out the same record.
Which record is your favorite?
Jason: The Fashion Focus.
Does that mean you’re not happy with the latest one?
Jason: I don’t think any of them are perfect. I don’t think we’ve ever put out a perfect record by any means.
What comes first the music or the lyrics?
Jason: The music.
How do you come up with the music?
Jason: I play a guitar riff over the chords and that’s the melody. I try to find words that will fit into that. Sometimes the words mean something sometimes they don’t.
What are the songs about?
Jason: Songs are basically me having a conversation with myself like if struggling in this area of my life or my job is bumming me out. It means something to me like if I had a diary.
Will Starflyer put out an instrumental record?
Jason: No, Starflyer is bordering on instrumental. Nobody’s going to buy an instrumental record.
Was there anything to the hushed vocal sound of the early records?
Jason: That’s just how the guy mixed it. I sing kinda better now than I did then, but I’m not like a singer.
Is the reaction of the fans to the sadness of the songs accurate to how the songs were written?
Jason: I’m not trying to be like this bummed out artist… It’s cool people can relate to it.
Do you listen to music in the truck?
Jason: I don’t listen to anything. (He later admits to listening to Starflyer demos in the truck.)
Will there be a reunion with Ronnie?
Jason: He’s played on stuff before. (Jason doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen anytime soon.)
About the strings on Leave Here A Stranger?
Jason: I wanted to give it an old fashioned sound. I was sick of guitars.
Do you view your band as a ministry?
I view it as anything you do should be to the glory of God… No, we don’t give altar calls or anything like that. We’re at a Christian festival and we’re a Christian band–it’s entertainment.
Check out the Starflyer 59 message board at sf59fans.com.
Cornerstone Festival is one of the most popular Christian music festivals in the United States. The fest is put on by the Jesus People USA (JPUSA) and features edgy underground bands, a couple CCM bands and some older Christian acts that reunite for a show at the festival.
I went to Cornerstone about five or six times in the past and have seen my share of bands. Looking at the lineup I no longer get excited about who’s playing this year. Most of the bands I grew up on don’t play the fest anymore. You know like Five Iron Frenzy, the Supertones, Squad Five-O, Ace Troubleshooter, MxPx, POD, Pedro the Lion and Switchfoot. I think something’s wrong with your festival when Hawk Nelson is on the main stage. Whatever happened to PFR, Jars of Clay or Relient K?
My last Cornerstone was six years ago, but it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Bands come and bands go all the time because it’s hard to keep a band together. But some days I wish my favorite bands would stay together and I wish I was still at the age when all my friends were at Cornerstone. But the truth is that most of the bands I love have all gone the way of the dinosaur and the golden era of Tooth and Nail and Christian rock is slowly winding down.