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Wide Awake

Memphis-bred, Ardent-connected Christian rockers Skillet return home.

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Ardent Studios, located at 2000 Madison Avenue, is a busy place these days.

Of course, there's the recent hoopla about the four-disc Big Star box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky, and the deluxe reissue of Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos, both released late last month.

Joseph Davis, rep for the studio's secular music label, Ardent Music, is hard at work pushing recent titles like Jump Back Jake's Brooklyn Hustle, Memphis Muscle and the upcoming Star & Micey eponymous full-length, scheduled to hit the streets on October 20th.

Staffers for the studio's Christian music division, Ardent Records, also are celebrating the success of Awake, the eighth studio album from Skillet, which debuted at #2 on the Soundscan/Billboard 200 charts in early September.

"Skillet was one of our first artists. We put out their first album in '96," says Aislynn Rapp, a label manager for Ardent Records. "Now they're on Atlantic, but we're still connected. Our role is to distribute all their records to the Christian market through INO, a Nashville distribution company."

Next week, Rapp will see the fruits of her labor firsthand, when Skillet rolls into Minglewood Hall midway through their 50-city "Awake & Alive Tour."

While Skillet frontman John Cooper is the only Memphian left in the band, which is currently based in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he says that the October 8th gig at Minglewood is one of the most important dates on the tour.

"We'll be playing for our label, playing where we're from," he says. "But it's always kind of a rule that whenever you play your [hometown], it's gonna be the worst show on the tour. It's like a jinx. You worry about people coming, because you don't want your family to think you're a loser."

It's been five years since Skillet moved on to major-label success, but Cooper says many of his Ardent memories are still fresh.

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"One of the biggest things I learned at Ardent was being steadfast, being committed to what you're doing," he says. "We had great support there from the beginning. Our producer, Paul Ebersold, and Skidd Mills, who engineered a bunch of our records, taught me how to go from being a young songwriter into the big leagues. In the Christian market, Ardent was the underdog, and we were underdogs too. We both learned that we have to always feed our fans and keep making good records."

Now steadfastness has paid off: Awake, produced by Howard Benson (Daughtry, Good Charlotte, Kelly Clarkson), is a crossover success. Within 24 hours of its release, it hit the top spot on iTunes' "Top Albums" and "Top Rock" charts. The album's first single, "Monster," is the official theme song for the ACC College Football season and appears on the soundtrack to the MTV series Bully Beatdown. Another single, "Hero," can be heard in NBC's Sunday Night Football promotional campaign.

"It's been a crazy few months," Cooper says. "I keep asking myself, Why is this thing selling so good? I've been doing this so long that sometimes you put out a great record and it just doesn't matter.

"On the Christian music side of things, we broke some ground 10 years ago," he says. "At the time, we were a little aggressive for that market, but hard rock is more acceptable now. And on the mainstream side, listeners aren't as opposed to listening to Christian rock bands, so we've gotten to tour with acts like Saliva and Three Days Grace. We're very much a word-of-mouth band, and having our fan base grow with us has been important."

Skillet's success serves as an inspiration for other artists on the Ardent Records label.

Contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Todd Agnew has a new album, Need, scheduled for release on October 6th, Rapp says. In November, folksy singer Joy Whitlock will tour with American Idol Season Six contestant Sean Michel.

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