(RNS) — Seven years before Colton Dixon awed American Idol audiences with his emotional rendition of “Everything,” a Christian rock anthem from the band Lighthouse, he was a 13-year-old piano student who had never sung in public. But after arriving at his piano recital to play MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” his teacher set up a microphone and encouraged Dixon to sing along.
“That was the first time I felt the Holy Spirit just kind of show me what the future could look like. And I knew that that’s what I wanted to be a part of,” Dixon told RNS in a recent phone call.
Now 31, the Idol alum has several Dove Awards under his belt and boasts over 100 million streams across all platforms. His manager, Zachary Kelm, told RNS he believes Dixon’s latest hit, “Build a Boat,” could be his “career song.”
The song, with lyrics inspired by the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, just celebrated its fourth week at No. 1 on the Christian Adult Contemporary charts, the first time that’s happened in Dixon’s decade-long career. And on Friday, Dixon will perform the hit at the Grand Ole Opry as part of his debut at the historic Nashville venue.
“Grateful is like the understatement of the year,” said Dixon. “I’m so glad that people are taking this song as their song for this season, saying, ‘I’m believing in something. I don’t see it yet, but I’m gonna build the boat anyway.’”
Dixon was raised in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a historic town roughly 40 minutes from Nashville, and grew up attending a Southern Baptist church with his parents and sister. Dixon told RNS that his sheltered, faith-filled upbringing made for a sharp contrast with his experience on Idol.
“This was my first taste of what the real world was and seeing and hearing, firsthand, people’s religious and political views that quite often were different from mine,” Dixon said.
When he made it onto the show’s 11th season in 2012, Dixon said he felt God calling him to “be a light in a dark place,” by resisting peer pressure and party culture. He was eventually eliminated after reaching the top 7 and chose to sing a reprise of “Everything” as his last song on the show.
“The crazy thing about Colton is, because he stood for his faith on a national television show, people remember him to this day,” said Kelm. “Colton’s brand is larger than just the Christian market.”
Colton had early success after leaving Idol, quickly securing a record deal and releasing his first album, “A Messenger,” which earned him his first Dove Award in 2013. More hits followed, but in December 2017 Dixon was rattled when he suddenly learned he’d been dropped by his record label, Capitol Christian Music Group, due to budget constraints. Dixon says he has no hard feelings toward his former label, but at the time, he was shell-shocked.
“I had a lot of soul searching to do,” he told RNS. “I knew my security and my identity was too wrapped up in it.”
His perspective shifted after a conversation with his wife, Annie, who suggested the change might be God setting them up for what was next. According to Dixon, she proved to be exactly right. In May 2018, Dixon signed with the mainstream record label Atlantic Records — which retains artists like Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson and Coldplay in its impressive roster — and has since had two of his biggest hits yet. Kelm said Dixon’s grace-filled attitude during that time of instability is “one of the things I’m most proud of him for, after managing him now for eight years.”
Kelm added that Colton’s success is especially remarkable given how the Christian music market has shifted. A decade ago, according to Kelm, it was typical to have a range of genres within the Christian music industry, including everything from punk to pop rock. Today, he said, there’s been a hard turn toward worship music. Dixon has always had more of a rock sound — he cites bands like Skillet and Switchfoot as his influences — but while he has evolved over the years, he’s still true to himself. “He just continued to be who he was. He didn’t suddenly switch and become a worship artist,” said Kelm.
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In early 2020, Dixon released “Miracles,” a single about the little miracles in life we often take for granted. Months later, the song found new meaning for Dixon after his wife gave birth to twin girls — one of them without a pulse. The new parents prayed as the doctors resuscitated their daughter, who is now a healthy 2-year-old.
“I will say this as a songwriter. It’s comical the amount of times I’ve written a song and then I’ve needed the meaning of that song or the lyric of that song in my own life after the fact.”
Dixon told RNS that being a father has also taught him more about the kind of love God has for him. The night his daughters were born, he went to the NICU to monitor them and was struck by an overwhelming feeling of unconditional love. “I just met them, and I felt like I’ve known them my whole life. And I felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit saying, ‘I feel the same way about you.’”
With his latest song, “Build a Boat,” Dixon says he’s been able to write about the kind of bold faith God has required of him in his own life. Though the tune started out as a love song written by Swedish songwriters, Dixon and his team gave the song new life by re-imagining it as an allusion to the story of Noah. After revisiting the story in the book of Genesis, Dixon was struck by how Noah had the courage to build an ark before there was any rain, despite what onlookers may have said.
“When Noah was telling people, ‘Hey, God spoke to me and said that a flood was coming,’ there’s no way people in their right mind took him seriously,” observed Dixon. “How often do we let other people dictate our future? We believe what they say more than what God says.”
For the song’s music video, Dixon and his team collaborated with a faith-based organization called Mercy Ships, which sends hospital ships equipped with high-tech facilities and volunteer professionals to provide surgeries for those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. Dixon said he hopes to continue teaming up with the group, perhaps on his next tour, which is set for the spring. Kelm said Dixon also has new music in the works that will likely drop early next year.
Despite his recent success, Dixon says his goals haven’t changed. As he plans for the future, he says he needs to keep his “head down” and “keep doing what God has called me to do.” Ultimately, Dixon hopes his music is both entertaining and deeply impactful.
“My goal as an artist is to leave people better than they were before they pressed play.”
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