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Long road back

Entertainment | After years of false starts, Christian vocalist Michael English is back with a message of redemption

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

On the small stage at Foothills United Methodist in La Mesa, Calif., Michael English croons through a bluesy take on the hymnal standard "Blessed Assurance," the audience swaying and clapping like honky-tonk patrons on Route 66.

"Not everybody appreciates me fiddling with the hymns," English says, pausing to tell a story in his Carolina drawl. Once, after he sang the same guitar-twanged rendition of Fanny Crosby's 19th-century classic at a North Carolina concert, an elderly lady marched up to English and got right in his face.

"I thought she was going to tell me how much she enjoyed it," he says. "Instead, she poked her finger right in my chest and said, 'Don't you ever do that again!'"

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The audience of about 250 howls with laughter. English once routinely drew thousands. But these days, a couple hundred represents a pretty good turnout.

"How many of y'all have never heard of me?" English asks the crowd. About half the people raise their hands. "Well, I want to thank you for coming. There was a time in my life when I thought no one would ever come to hear me sing again."

In 1991 after a successful run with the Gaither Vocal Band, English rocketed to the top of Christian contemporary music (CCM) as a solo artist with songs like "In Christ Alone." In December 1992, he joined the cast of Young Messiah, the most successful Christian music production of all time, touring with artists like Twila Paris, Steven Curtis Chapman, and a young singer named Marabeth Jordan.

In 1993 English released his second solo album, Hope. By then, his lean good looks and powerful delivery had ignited a fan frenzy new to Christian music. At one venue, an over-eager young girl actually ripped out a chunk of his hair. It was the kind of mania reserved for boy bands, not a married man of nearly 30 with a daughter of his own.

The following spring, English nearly swept the Gospel Music Association (GMA) Dove awards, including the prestigious Artist of the Year honor. By then it was an award he was ashamed to receive. During the Hope tour, he and Marabeth Jordan had had a brief affair. Like English, Jordan was married. One week before the Doves, English learned she was pregnant with his child.

"I desperately, desperately did not want to win" Artist of the Year, English writes in his memoir, The Prodigal Comes Home, released last year. Steven Curtis Chapman had taken the honor several times and "is one of the finest Christians I have ever known. I did not want to be in the same category as Steven Curtis-didn't deserve to be."

A few days after trudging across the stage to accept the award, he wrapped his six Doves in newspaper and returned them to the GMA. He confessed his sin to his manager, Norman Miller, who recommended a year off and marriage counseling. But English, looking for a way out of his troubled marriage, refused. Miller quit. English's record label, Warner Alliance, froze his contract. Then, after issuing a public statement, English walked away from Christian music.

That, for most fans, was the end of the story. But for English and those close to him, the affair was only the beginning of family breakup and a nightmare of prescription drug addiction that nearly cost English his life.

It is a story he sings about on his first studio album in nearly eight years, also titled The Prodigal Comes Home, which hit stores last week. Today English hopes his story will bring encouragement to a wider audience-Christians for whom healing is a long, painful struggle.

Christian radio, which immediately and completely blacked out English's music in the wake of his 1994 fall, seems receptive to his comeback. In early February, the new album's first single, "The Only Good Thing in Me," debuted at No. 29 on the CCM charts.

"I've had some people be honest enough to ask questions like, 'Is this guy going to fall again? Can we really be sure he's all together?'" said promoter John Butler of Curb Records, the singer's label. "Because of the platform he's on, people managing radio stations have a responsibility to their audiences as to what they put on their radio station. I understand and respect where they're coming from."

But one radio executive who saw English on television told Butler, "I wish more artists would be open and honest. . . . I can't think of any other Christian artist that would go on TV and be that real."

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