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Eddie Carswell of NewSong
NewSong is most famous for their song "The Christmas Shoes," which tells the story of a tattered child buying shoes for his dying mother so she'll look good in heaven. Depending on your disposition, it's either a beloved holiday favorite that perfectly encapsulates the Christmas spirit, or it's cloyingly maudlin. Love it or not, though, you cannot argue with the song's success, as it's led to multiple spin-offs, including movies and books.

The song was released in 2000, which was around the time that many of us were just getting used to the Internet. It was a time when "you've got mail" meant that a valid communication from a friend or colleague had arrived in your inbox, and very often it was a forwarded story of indeterminate origin, often reminding us of what is truly important. As Eddie explains, it was one of these missives that sparked the song.

The other big hit in NewSong's repertoire is "When God Made You," which has been sung at countless weddings. The group sings both these popular songs during their long-running Winter Jam festival, which tours the country every year and only charges $10 for 10 bands, which was a great bargain when it first started around 30 years ago, and is an even better deal now.

Eddie Carswell is an original NewSong member, as well as a writer on many of its best and most popular songs.
Eddie Carswell of NewSong
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): This is for Songfacts, and we're all about songs and songwriting. And so I wanted to start with "The Christmas Shoes," which seems like it's more than just a song, it's almost become an industry unto itself. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about your memories of writing that song and what inspired it.

Eddie Carswell: Yeah. Well, sure. I wrote it with a fellow band mate at the time, Leonard Ahlstrom. He's not been in the band for a while, but we'd written a lot of songs for several records in a row. God really blessed us and it had been going really, really well.

Somebody gave us several things they found on the Internet, different things that might be interesting to write a song about. And one of those things I had for a year, year and a half, two years, I forget how long we had it. I liked it when I read about it, but didn't feel like, 'Hey, there might be a song in this.'

But it eventually became a song, and it was inspired by this lady who'd actually been in that situation - not exactly the way the story goes, but a very similar story. So we ended up writing a song from that. And little did we know there would be much to it, actually. Matter of fact, last minute, we had just finished one of our releases for NewSong and we were having a meeting about how to best get it out into the marketplace and all these things with people from our record company and different people who advise us on things. And the question was: Would it make sense to put a Christmas song on it? Because we've got one we're almost done with. And they finally agreed if we could do it really quickly, be done with it in a week, which we had to finish writing it and record it, then they could still put it on there. Because it was real late into the process of getting the new project out.

So we did that and stuck it on there. We were with Benson at the time, and Benson had an affiliate that was on the mainstream side. They played it for their mainstream side, they happened to have a meeting once a month and talked with those people and they played it for them, they liked it, and first thing you know it was out and we're getting these unbelievable reports all over the country about it and about how much everybody liked it and what was going on.

And by the time Christmas had come and gone and the Billboard music chart came out, it was the #1 song that week of Christmas, had been played the most of any song that week of Christmas AC. So it was a pretty amazing story. Quite a bit back, back in that fall, I told my friend Donna VanLiere about the song. She's a writer, she's written a lot of great books, and she started putting together a book around the idea. So when the song out, she finished her book, that came out, and it became a New York Times best seller. I think now she's written 5, 6, 7 books about it, some different ways. And there have been three movies. So it's just been a crazy thing how God's blessed that little song. Just when you think it's all over, something else happens about it. So it's been an amazing song to be a part of.

Songfacts: But you had no idea when you wrote it that it would become what it did, right?

Eddie: No. No idea. I mean, I'm in the recording studio now. We're recording 13 or 14 more songs right now. I like them all, but you never know. You never have any way of knowing anything like that, like, "Guess what, I'm going to write this Christmas song and it's going to be #1, and it's going to do all." That would just be silly.

So God's hand just blessed it and it's been really fun. We started after that doing a Christmas tour every year and of course we went and did a Christmas CD after that that did really, really well, and was nominated for a Grammy [the album The Christmas Shoes was released in 2001 and nominated for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album]. And then we came back a few years ago and did another Christmas CD, kind of based on her third or fourth book, called A Christmas Hope, and I'm sure we'll do another one here pretty soon, maybe next year another Christmas project. So it's really given us a real Christmas life in NewSong, things we do. We're out there doing 15 or 20 Christmas concerts every year.

Songfacts: Tell me about how you go about writing. Do you usually write with somebody else, or do you prefer to write by yourself?

Eddie: It started off writing by myself. Of course, I didn't know anybody else back then to start writing with. I didn't start in Nashville around all the other writers that might say, "Hey, let's get together so we can write a song." I was just a guy that was married, had a couple of little kids, and always liked to write songs. I was in a band, and we lived in Atlanta, so I started writing songs for that. Pretty much all it was by myself through the years.

As the band got a little more diversified and a couple of guys more committed to the band, people like Leonard Ahlstrom came into the group. And he was a songwriter. When he wasn't with us that's what he did for a living - he wrote songs for one of the publishing companies. So we started writing together even more. And then other guys in the band were writers. So it's gotten so at least a couple of us, sometimes three or four of us, get together and write. So it's a lot of fun. We've been doing a lot of that right now as we're finishing the last couple of tracks on our new project.

Songfacts: Well, can you tell me about the new project, do you have a name for it?

Eddie: Yeah. It's called Swallow the Ocean.

Songfacts: And is there a general theme to it that you see developing?

Eddie: Well, I was just talking to the guys a few minutes ago before starting this interview. We've overcut. We've cut 16, 17 songs, we'll probably put 12 or 13 on there. We'll sit down and see if there is a way to push the themes more or less. I think it's a worshipful project. It's not a worship record, but it's a worshipful project. And "Swallow the Ocean" is a wonderful song that we're excited about. It will be the first radio single going out here in the next month or so. So I'm excited. We realized later as we started standing back and looking at the album, there was a real theme in what we've done. Not necessarily every song being about one particular aspect, but overall as a theme here, God has worked through us to write these songs. So I don't know exactly, but I say it's worshipful. And I think it's going to be really, really good. Three different producers have worked on it and they're all super talented guys. They're working with the best people, as well. So we're excited to see what it will be.

Songfacts: Now, was it your idea, or were you involved in the whole idea behind the Winter Jam tour?

Eddie: Yeah, I guess it was sort of my idea. You know, NewSong's been doing this for over 30 years now. It's unbelievable. We quit our jobs thinking we could do it for a year or two, and had some crazy thoughts that maybe we could do it five years. And then first thing you look around and somebody says, "Hey, you just celebrated your 30th year." Wow, are you serious? And so we've been doing it a while.

But back 17, 18 years ago, I called a promoter in Greenville, South Carolina. We played around town in some different churches and things like that. And they have a really good radio station there that played this a lot. And so I called to say, "Hey, we're playing all the churches around." "Yeah, I know who you are." We didn't really work with this guy. He said, "I'd love to do something in a neutral venue." It was about October when I called him. By this time 17, 18 years ago, he said, "Well, I'd love to do something with you. If you want to try, I'm willing to try. Except I don't have any time to do it next year, I've already got all my ticketed concerts lined up and I wouldn't have time." I said, "Well, we don't want to sell a ticket. We just want to maybe take some donation at the door, you wouldn't have to sell tickets." He said, "Well, my first show's like February 20th. If you want to try it in January and just charge something at the door, I'm willing to give it a shot if you are." I said, "Yeah." We rented the local arena which seated about 6500, I think." He said, "I'm going to warn you before we do this, we've never filled it up for any kind of a Christian thing. Gaither or anybody, we've never filled it up. But I'm willing to try it if you want to do it." I said, "Yeah, let's just try it. We'll do it."

So we turned away 2,000 people that night. I thought, What was this? We had 6,500 people, 2,000 couldn't get in. I think it was $3 at the door back then. And then we added Chattanooga, Tennessee the next year, and then we added another city the next year, and did it for a few years. It was just NewSong in the beginning. And then we started inviting a friend, because we didn't put out new music enough to keep it that current back then. And then we invited two or three friends.

We called it January Jam, because it looked like January was a void month, and we could fill it in with these kind of shows. But then it was going so well we were playing January Jam in February, so we changed it to Winter Jam and in the last few years started making it 10 bands for 10 bucks. And it's just growing and growing and growing and growing from what it was to what we've been doing here on the East Coast. And now last year we went for the first time on the West Coast. Kind of doubled back to what it used to be in the East Coast a little bit. Most of the cities aren't near as big attendance-wise for the first year, which we understand that, because people don't know what it is. But we're going back again this year and doing it a couple more weeks and hoping to grow the cities and get them to understand what we're trying to do and get them out and maybe expand to some more cities as time goes on that way.

We have a great crowd and we've got a huge lineup coming out again. Someone asked, "Who's your headliner this year?" We say, "Ten dollars." That's our headliner. And then after that it's TobyMac and those other people. But the big event headliner is it costs 10 bucks to get in.

Songfacts: Well, I want to wind things up by talking about a few more songs. Tell me about the song "When God Made You." How did you come about that song?

Eddie: Well, I have two daughters, and my daughter Jennifer is the first daughter getting married. I have four kids and all my kids have decided that, Dad, one thing you can do for us is to write a song for our wedding. I'll do it, I can do that. So I'd written one - my oldest son got married first, and then my daughter was next. And so she asked me. They gave me some different letters they'd written, letters they'd written to each other and other stuff they let me read.

I read through them and said, Okay, I think I've got an idea. So I had that song pretty much written, and I got with Michael O'Brien, who was in the band with us at the time. And I said, "Mike, sit down with me at the piano, I need to finish this song. Help me finish this song, because I've got to sing it next week in the wedding." That's not really bizarre for songwriter type people to be working on something last minute.

So we sat down and finished it out. And actually, he was going to come sing it, and then something happened last minute and he couldn't come. So I ended up singing it there just by myself for the wedding for my daughter. And everybody just loved it, "Oh, I love that song you wrote for your daughter." I said, "Well, that's good. I like it, too."

We got so much comment about it. I said, "Let's just put it on our next project we do." Natalie Grant is a friend of ours, so we got Natalie to come in and sing it with Michael, and she did a fantastic job. It's become one of our very most popular songs. Of all the crazy things, we've never done it with Natalie one time. She's never been involved with one of our concerts since we did it in the studio together. But it's been a really, really big song for us. I mean, it's wedding after wedding, person after person. Matter of fact, just two or three weeks ago I was in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which is kind of a resort area, doing an event. And one of the guys there's son was about to get married and he said, "Yeah, I'm getting married in a week." And I was congratulating him. I said, "Man, I got a couple of really good songs you can use for weddings if you'd be interested." He said, "Oh, I got my song picked. We just love it, my wife sings and we're going to do it together." I said, "Okay, cool. I won't play them for you. I was just going to let you know." He kept talking about the wedding. "What song are you doing for your wedding?," I asked. He said, "When God Made You." I said, "Did you know I wrote that?" He said, "No, are you serious?" Yeah, so it's just that contagious, the whole song.

So anyway, it's been real fun. And anytime we do any events, we always throw in "When God Made You." We don't have a girl in the band, so it's kind of hard to do it normally, but I always try to make sure there's somebody with us that can do it. We've done it quite a few times. But not as much as we do most of the songs we get to do, because there's no girl to sing it with us.

December 28, 2012. Get more at newsongonline.com.

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