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Remember When the Dove Awards Had a ‘Best Album By a Secular Artist’ Category?

The Dove Awards — or the “Christian Grammys,” as you may know them — are handed out by the Gospel Music Association to recognize excellence in Contemporary Christian Music. It’s not the glitziest affair in Nashville (which, in addition to being the home of country music, is also the home of CCM — kind of like Silicon Valley is home to both Facebook and Friendster) but it’s a place for established artists to mingle with up-and-comers and for musicians to see their work get a little love. But there was a time when it was not just Christian music that was awarded. Or, at least, that was the idea. The Doves used to hand out an award for “Best Album by a Secular Artist,” too.

Yes, from 1975 to 1986, the Doves had one category to recognize the achievements of those wayward sheep in the mainstream music.  Call it a gift to the masses — in the same way that grace itself is a gift to the undeserving — or call it coy reminder to Secular Radio that the Gospel Music Association had its eye on them. Whatever it was, it was a wild time.

The winners were an eclectic bunch, made of several artists you may not be familiar with and a couple you definitely are. The very first winner was Charley Pride, the popular country singer credited as being the first Black artist to achieve wide success in country music. Pride’s Sunday Morning With Charley Pride claimed the award and while it remains a terrific listen for country fans, it’s not clear that it’s “secular” in any meaningful way. (Pride sadly passed away last year do to complications from COVID-19.)

The same could be said for B.J. Thomas, the country rock artist who won the award in 1977 and 1982. Sister quartet the Boones won in 1978 and their breakout star Debby Boone (of “You Light Up My Life” fame) took it in 1981 and 1984.

The most notable win, by far, took place in 1980, when Bob Dylan won for one of his forays into Christian music with Slow Train Coming. Dylan can add the Dove to his avalanche of other awards (which includes a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer and the Presidential Medal of Freedom). And the final Best Album by a Secular Artist was awarded to Glen Campbell in 1986 for No More Night.

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While all these albums may be “secular” in the sense that they were written by artists who’d found the sort of mainstream success that often eludes Christian artists, these albums are all unmistakably Christian in terms of tone and subject matter. You can take the Doves out of CCM, but you can’t take CCM out of the Doves.

The Doves may have just been ripping a page out of the book from the Grammys themselves, which awarded Best Gospel Rock, R&B and Rap albums up until 2012, when they started handing out an award for best Gospel and another for best Contemporary Christian.

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