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NEWS FEATURE: Christian comic turns from talk to music

(RNS) – Lowry has long used humor to help his fellow Christians lighten up

HOUSTON — Christian comedian Mark Lowry sees himself as a storyteller, not a comic. His recent CD, “But Seriously,” is music, not talk, the kind of album Lowry always wanted to make. And, best of all, his mama loves it.

“She likes it; she really does. She sings on it,” Lowry said during a recent visit to his hometown here. His parents now live in Lynchburg, Va., but his mother made it to Nashville when the new album was made.

Lowry, 40, is best known for his 10-year gig as the wise-cracking Christian comic and sometime baritone voice on the popular CDs and music videos of the Gaither Vocal Band.

He does about 80 live performances a year with the Gaithers, led by gospel great Bill Gaither, and another 20-30 solo dates.

“But Seriously” may be the only solo singing album he ever makes, Lowry predicts. He loves music, but believes his comedy reaches an audience long neglected by secular artists.

“I’m not one for great theologians or Ph.D.s. I’m for the truck drivers, the schoolteachers, the common folk,” Lowry said.”If you’re just doing records, that’s too low a goal.”My goal when I go out there to do a concert is to make people laugh. It’s not humor for humor’s sake. I’m not a comedian; I’m a storyteller. The goal is to tell a story. If they laugh along while I’m telling a story, great.”

Among his favorite fuel for those stories are tales from his childhood, a time that feeds Lowry’s active artistic imagination like no other. He is the second son of Charles and Beverly Davis Lowry, who moved to Virginia from Houston about 20 years ago. While they lived here, his father was an attorney. His mother, now a psychologist, was a homemaker when he was growing up.

It was with his mama that he started singing, Lowry said. Beverly Lowry said she found it was one way to focus her young son’s wayward attention span and expansive energy. The Lowrys were a “Leave It to Beaver” household until he came along, Mark Lowry said.

“My mama and daddy were normal, hard-working Christian people. Then I showed up. I was hyperactive (from Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD) and was sent to see the psychiatrist in the third grade, then put on Ritalin,” Lowry said.”But I didn’t know that I was all that different.”

He still doesn’t. His list of likes and dislikes reads like a Southern Who’s Who shaped by growing up with television. Sweet iced tea is his favorite beverage; Andy Griffith his favorite TV show. Mexican is his favorite food and Bill Cosby his favorite comedian.

Lowry’s own style is a comic blend: as whimsically funny, then as quirkily ridiculous as his imagination will allow.

His performances vary from the irreverent to the soulful. His conversation rarely slows down. He pauses only to be sure his audience is listening.

Being born in Texas “ruins you,” he said.”The Texas superiority complex is not a complex. We are superior.”

His stories of growing up in Houston conjure up an image of an adorable kid belting out old-timey gospel with his mother. She led the way vocally while accompanying him on the piano. On his new CD, they do a duet of the old Rusty Goodman song”Look For Me.”

Lowry began singing in church at age 4. When his mother helped him change clothes after church, she’d find the little old ladies had”stuck nickels in my pockets,”Lowry said. By the third grade, he sang in the school choir. Singing is almost second nature.

“How did you feel when you got your right arm,” he said.”I don’t know what it would be like not to have my right arm and I don’t know how what it would be like to not sing.” Lowry recalls what came next in the same yarn-spinning style in which he tells all stories.

“Tommy Tune wanted me to dance in”The Music Man, “but Mama and Dad wouldn’t let me because Baptists don’t dance. I had to stand there. After he told my parents he wanted to take me to Broadway, Mama started praying.

“Then I got the part (in”Oliver!”) and the theater went bankrupt. That’s when a friend at church took me to the National Quartet Convention. That got me out of theater and into gospel music, so Mama and Daddy were happy.”

What gave him his particular talents? “I’m from those independent Baptist churches where people wouldn’t shout or lift their hands because they were afraid people would think they were Pentecostal,” Lowry said. “They wouldn’t clap because that would be giving glory to men. But they would laugh. When they’d laugh, I knew they were listening. And I knew they’d get the story.

“I put the cookies on the lower shelf. I try to make it so everyone can understand it,” he said.

He moved to comedy from music, but a part of him never forgot that first love. After writing the lyrics for the now-familiar Christmas song,”Mary, Did You Know?”Lowry later produced a children’s book with the same title.

If Lowry had his druthers, evangelicals — including his critics — would loosen up, just a little.

“We’ve portrayed to the world that it’s an us-against-them mentality. It’s not us and them. It’s us and Him. A man who says he has not sinned is a liar, and the truth is not in him. We’ve portrayed to the world that we’re superhuman beings, and we’re not. We’re just sinners in need of a savior,” he said. “Everybody is going to look for some sort of savior, whether it’s going to be a spouse or a habit. Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, said it so good: `There’s a void, a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man and woman. It’s placed there by God,’ I think she said. He wants you to search for it. I believe if you’re searching after truth, you’ll eventually run into the arms of Jesus.”

Lowry said he never expected to be so successful, but his mother isn’t surprised. She can quote chapter-and-verse of expert advice on attention deficit disorder. Many of the kids who have it are smarter than average; they’re just hard to handle, she said.

She is proud her son “is a role model for kids that have a problem.

“I get a lot of e-mail from people,”Beverly Lowry said.”What I tell parents is you have to work together on this. Kids need to see a united family. The father needs to be involved. Kids have to be encouraged. That means to give them courage. Not discourage them.”

DEA END HOLMES

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