Christian music visionary dies, leaves behind legacy

By Rachel Davy
Contributing writer

Baylor alumnus and renowned Christian music publisher Billy Ray Hearn died Wednesday at age 85, according to the Tennessean, after a life of paving the way for contemporary Christian music.

Hearn, who graduated from Baylor in 1954 with a degree in church music, founded Sparrow Records and received Baylor’s 2008 Award for Exemplary Leadership in Church Music.

In addition, he was CEO of Capital Christian Music and joined the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1997 and in 1999, according to a gospel music encyclopedia article by Robert Darden. Hearn was also a nine-year member of the Baylor Board of Regents.

Dr. Terry York, professor of Christian ministry and church music at Truett Seminary, said Hearn was instrumental in ushering contemporary music into Christian worship services, including, but not limited to Baptist churches.

Hearn helped produce several musicals designed for youth choirs, which eventually led to the acceptance of contemporary music in the church, York said. This movement helped young Christians have their own music.

Lois Ferguson, who worked with Hearn for several years at Word Records before Hearn started his own recording company, said Hearn reached out to young people who did not connect to traditional church music.

She said he was constantly asking, “How can we share the gospel through Christian music?”

Hearn’s answer to this question involved a balance between new and traditional music.

Hearn’s friend and former coworker Kurt Kaiser, a Waco musician, said Hearn brought freshness to Christian music while still respecting established musical traditions.

“He didn’t throw out the old in favor of the contemporary or vice versa,” Kaiser said.

Hearn was a vision-driven entrepreneur, York said.

“He could both dream up something new and make it happen,” York said.

He said he considered Hearn largely responsible for promoting and publishing contemporary Christian music into the mainstream.

“He was a dynamo, just full of energy,” York said. “I’m taller than he is, but if we would walk down the sidewalk, I’d have to run, almost, to keep up with him.”

Kaiser said Hearn had a special knack for bringing large groups of people together in singing even if they were not especially musically inclined.

Hearn worked with Kaiser to produce the Christian musical “Tell It Like It Is,” which the Baylor Religious Hour choir performed in New York City on NBC. Kaiser said Hearn provided suggestions for the pacing and tempo of the songs and helped Kaiser develop the idea for the closing number “Pass It On.”

“Billy Ray Hearn was right there at that intersection when the youth musical came into being and then when the youth musical started to affect Sunday morning worship,” York said.

This transition changed much Christian music from hymns sung by church choirs to contemporary music with individual artists, he said.

York said Hearn was one of the early contributors to Baylor’s Center for Christian Music Studies and even founded a recording studio on campus.

“He loved Baylor, not only as his alma mater, but as a place that was producing the musicians who could carry forward his vision in this transition that was taking place,” York said.