From its humble beginnings in Southern gospel and inspirational music 31 years ago, the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards have grown up to represent the multifaceted, multigenre, multimillion-dollar business that is gospel music. For gospel-music industry insiders, the Dove Award is the equivalent to the Grammy: a party and ceremony recognizing hard work and excellence for a community of artists, songwriters, producers, music retailers, publishers, and other music professionals. For gospel-music fans, the Dove Awards are simply another opportunity to see great artists perform live.

But the Dove Awards are distinctively different from other award shows. Whereas Americans tune into the MTV music awards or the Grammys to see Jennifer Lopez half dressed or Diana Ross appraise L'il Kim's bon-bons, the Dove Awards are a squeaky clean event. You'll hear no swearing, no pouting, no Soy Bomb Guy tearing across the stage. References to God aren't reserved for thank-you speeches. The Dove Awards are more like attending church with a big, loud, diverse crowd, whose music spans almost every musical style and whose lyrics speak of life, love, and God as the author of both.

The Dove Awards have long been dominated by traditional or inspirational artists: Bill Gaither, The Speer Family, and Dallas Holm were big winners throughout the '70s. In the '80s, The Imperials, Shirley Caesar, and rocker singer Russ Taff carried the shows. The '90s belonged, single-handedly, to a blue-eyed pop singer from Paducah, Kentucky: Steven Curtis Chapman.

But by 1992, there were signs that tradition was beginning to bend. The Rap/Hip Hop category was added, with a fresh-faced threesome, dc Talk, taking home the first prize. Then in 1996, dc Talk's "Jesus Freak," a song expressing the plight of being Christian in America, won Song of the Year. It was the first non-inspirational song to win the honor.

As the music continued to evolve, the industry suffered growing pains. Inspirational music, displaced by contemporary music as the chief draw, began to take over the Southern gospel core. Confusion grew over how to categorize the expanding black-gospel genre. In 1978, Mahalia Jackson was finally inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, six years after her death. Larnelle Harris became the first African-American to win Male Vocalist of the Year, in 1986.

Meanwhile, the GMA scrambled to accommodate new musical styles. The wild exhortions of Kirk Franklin's albums gave Franklin his first Dove in 1994 "traditional gospel"--though he was anything but traditional. In 1997, for the first time ever, gospel rap artists opened the Dove Awards ceremony. And gospel music continues to evolve--dance, ska, hard rock, praise and worship, and more--constantly challenging those who would limit the medium and message of the music.

In 1996, the Modern/Alternative Rock category was added, and won by a group called Sixpence None the Richer, who have produced, with their crossover success, more classification woes for the GMA. As Christian artists have expanded their lyrical range, the association has struggled to define what constitutes a Dove-eligible song, finally banning songs not "prompted or informed by a Christian worldview" after a song called "Butterfly Kisses" won song of the year in 1998.

But those same criteria disqualified Sixpence's huge mainstream radio hit "Kiss Me" last year. The criteria have since been relaxed. This year Sixpence was nominated in four categories, including Artist of the Year, Group of the Year, and Female Vocalist of the Year for lead singer Leigh Nash. (Click here to buy the album.)

This year's Dove nominees included the usual suspects: Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, and dc Talk's Toby McKeehan, who topped this year's list with 10 nominations. McKeehan's nominations include songwriter mentions for Song of the Year ("Consume Me") and Rock Recorded Song of the Year ("Supernatural"), as well as two nods for producing.

Chapman and Smith came up big. Chapman won the Pop/Contemporary Album category this week for "Speechless," the fastest-selling album of his long, stellar career. He also won for Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and took the Dove for best pop/contemporary song for his hit "Dive."

After taking last year's Artist of the Year award, Smith was back with nominations for Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist, and while "Dive" beat out "This Is Your Time," a song Smith penned with Wes King in honor of Columbine victim Cassie Bernall, the tune earned Smith songwriter of the year.

Among the nominations, if not the winners, were some pleasant surprises. Predictably, contemporary pop groups like Avalon and Point of Grace earned a respectable four nominations each. But urban-gospel singer Fred Hammond was nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year in a category usually dominated by contemporary Christian pop singers. And Fernando Ortega, an immensely talented but hard-to-categorize singer-songwriter, garnered four nominations, including Male Vocalist of the Year.

And continuing a recent and welcome trend, new acts were well represented: singer-songwriter Ginny Owens took Best New Artist, but nominations went to Burlap to Cashmere, Sonicflood, Knowdaverbs, FFH, Raze, Chasing Furies, Winans Phase 2, and Polarboy, all first-timers. Industry insiders and music fans alike can take this as a positive sign of even more diversity and artistry to come.

The Dove Awards, hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford, held at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House on April 20 at 8 p.m. CST, will air in syndication nationwide on Easter weekend and beyond.

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