Few artists have been as successful as Amy Grant at escaping the creative straitjacket that is standard issue in the music industry. Moving seamlessly among pop, contemporary Christian, even country circles, the singer -- as fresh-faced today at 52 as when she burst onto the charts decades ago -- avoids labels by ignoring them herself. Consciously or not, Grant has built her career on the best piece of advice her mother ever gave her:
"Sing something that matters."
That credo was the guiding principle on "How Mercy Looks from Here," Grant's first full-length studio album in 10 years. She'll be playing selections from her return to praise and worship music in a career-spanning concert at the Fox Theater on Sunday.
"I still love everything about music and am happy being in the audience as much as I am onstage," said Grant during a recent phone interview. "I also love being inspired by people who are much better than I am. That's why it's always fun to be in different circles."
Grant enlisted some of her favorite singers and songwriters in what critics have hailed as the singer's most impactful release to date. The impressive roster of talent includes singers Sheryl Crow, Carole King, James Taylor and her husband, Vince Gill.
For most of her early career, Grant stood alone as the Queen of Christian Pop, a title she jokes about but humbly accepts. No other artist has risen to the heights of Grant's success in the Christian music world since. In fact, it's hard to imagine contemporary Christian music before Grant, who has sold millions of records that have since become standards of praise and worship.
From the serene melodies of "El Shaddai," and "Father's Eyes" to the sugary pop of "The Next Time I Fall" and "Baby Baby," Grant's pioneering crossover career into secular music provided a road map for today's biggest contemporary Christian artists, who've made similar leaps to the mainstream.
"I've gotten a lot of hugs from a lot young artists who say, 'I grew up on your music.' That happened the first time I met Katy Perry. I went to see her movie with my daughter and later told Katy, 'I'm so sorry your parents never let you listen to anything else.' There was so much good stuff happening."
At home in Nashville, Grant said she continues to be inspired by the vibrant state of the city's music and arts scene, whose diversity offered the perfect backdrop for her beliefs.
"I think it's great. There are so many unsung treasures. When I look at the Nashville music, theater and literary scenes, it's amazing. We have so many great universities that we have all these students who come here and want to stay after they graduate and be part of and contribute to the scene."
One of those artists contributing to the fabric of Nashville is Grant's husband, country singer and guitarist Vince Gill.
"Vince is working on something almost every day. He has an amazing guitar collection and I love having him play those guitars. We have a studio at the house, and something is always going on. Everything is based on who you know in both the songwriting community and musician community in Nashville. I get to make coffee for everyone."
While most people assume the busy couple spends free time singing in the kitchen, Grant describes their home life as that of a typical American household.
"I'll have the few things that have to be done, I know what they are, but then I try to be available to whatever the day holds. That removes so much stress. The one thing about being creative is you have to have time to be alone, but not I'm not an introvert and we don't book time by the hour.
"A lot of important things in my life happen spontaneously like putting this record together."
Grant hopes the Christian market will embrace her decision to include mainstream pop and country artists on her album.
"Now that I'm back on the promotion trail, I'm meeting young artists. What I see is such a compassionate, informed faith and spirituality. It's not the kind of weird judgment that I grew up under."
But don't think Grant's role as big sister to those young artists has changed her outlook on keeping her music catchy and appealing.
"I feel their energy. They grew up listening to me, but it's their game now, and I get it. You still have to have a certain amount of competitiveness to go, 'Oh yeah, well I'm gonna go home and write a good song too.' It's a great thing, because you just have the thrill of somebody else loving and doing the same thing that you love. That's exciting."
Looking ahead, Grant plans to continue working with the man upstairs as her guide and a loving family as her earthly foundation.
"Vince and I are going to drive six hours to drop off our daughter at camp, six hours back, then I leave at the crack of dawn to promote the record and tour. My husband and I love what we do. I don't know anybody else that I could be a partner with that would understand the craziness. But because he understands, you just love what you love."
Opening Sunday's show is singer Brandon Heath.