NewSong and Winter Jam are inseparable. The band that started way back in 1981 also started the tour 21 years ago, and both have been going strong since. Ironically, many know NewSong for their old songs: “Arise My Love,” “The Christmas Shoes,” “Red Letter Day,” and many more. The albums haven’t stopped, though, and it’s clear to see that the group maintains its vibrancy, in part, through what might be their most lasting legacy, Winter Jam. We spoke with band members Billy Goodwin, Matt Butler, and Jack Pumphrey at the tour’s biggest stop for 2015 while a crowd of over 30,000 filled the seats. We learned about the origins of the tour, what life is like behind the scenes, and which artists are the ones to fear during backstage ping pong competitions.
TSO: It’s exciting to be here at Winter Jam with the band that started it all. How long has it been?
Matt: It’s been 21 years. Actually, we played Greenville, South Carolina, last night, which was the birthplace of Winter Jam 21 years ago.
TSO: Did it have the same format then? No tickets, just pay at the door?
Jack: Yes, it did. I believe the first concert was $3 at the door, and a love offering was taken.
TSO: This is a big event for the band, obviously.
Matt: This is almost twice as big as anything we normally do. Eddie and a promoter friend were talking about it. Billy is this silent partner, but he’s the logistical guy, so he’d be the first to tell you there’s no business plan behind this thing, but it’s just grown and grown. When that first show’s concept was repeated, it was called January Jam, and then it grew to fill up January. So they started booking dates in February, and then they decided to call it Winter Jam. Now it’s November through April.
Jack: We might need a Spring Jam.
TSO: Who played at that first show? Was it just NewSong, or other bands too?
Billy: It was just NewSong at the first one. Just four guys and tracks – not even a band. The second year, Bob Carlisle came with us. After that, I think a group called Sierra and a couple of others.
TSO: Now you’re in the Georgia Dome, and the thing that amazes me is that it’s still just $10. How have you been able to maintain that price point?
Matt: Increasing the ticket price has been discussed. They talked about, “Should we go up to $12?” The Jam Nation passes have helped, and the national sponsor, Holt International, has helped; but it’s still pretty ridiculous that it can happen for 10 bucks. People pay more for parking than they do to come in! We still take an offering, and that obviously helps as well. Russ always says, “You’re seeing Skillet for a dollar.” That puts it in perspective.
TSO: What’s it like having all these bands and artists on the road together for so long?
Jack: There are tours out there where it feels like there’s a lot of competition between the artists and the bands, one-upmanship, that sort of thing. Just because of the nature of this tour, it has to become a family. We’re all sharing time on the stage. It has to become “Check your ego at the door.” Everyone out there works together as a team. We do life together; we eat together, three meals a day; we travel. I don’t know when we started Jam Church. We’re out for five months on this tour, and every Sunday besides the Super Bowl we’re gone, so we miss our own churches. Instead, we have Jam Church. We have two pastors on the tour, and every week a different artist takes a turn leading worship. You may have Skillet leading worship and Tony Nolan leading the message, then the next week for KING & COUNTRY and Pastor Bobby. It’s a pretty special time, when in the midst of all this, we find a room in the back of the arena and set up chairs and close the doors and the whole tour has church. It gets everybody’s hearts together.
TSO: As a group, you’ve written yourself into some songs that are vocally challenging, but I suppose you have to do them every night. On a long tour like this, how do you handle that?
Billy: It’s all grace. You can’t talk well; you can’t speak well; you feel terrible; you know that nothing’s going to come out; but then you say, “God, I’m going to give the best that I’ve got, and I realize that my best without You is nothing.” You leave it in His hands. He’s the one we’re really trying to please anyway. We want to feel like we’ve done the best we can do, and especially with what He’s gifted us to do, but also that we haven’t gotten in the way of Him doing something for us. There’ve been nights when I’ve felt great vocally, and I missed the joy, because I had things going on in my heart and mind that kept me from seeing what God was doing. I’d much rather have the nights when I’m struggling vocally and rejoice in seeing God do something.
TSO: The other thing that’s interesting about this tour that stands out to me is the mix of genres and music that will appeal to such a span of ages. That’s part of the reason you look around and see so many people. Is that intentional?
Matt: It’s become more intentional. You look around these rooms, these 20,000 people, and you think, How in the world? It’s all faith-based. There are no tickets. We pull into a city, and we just walk around and say, “Lord, send them in, send them in.”
Billy: It’s just as much faith now as it was when we started. We have to trust God, because we can’t make this thing work.
Matt: Inviting the different bands is definitely strategic to cover a little something for everybody.
Billy: I was downstairs talking to the father and mother of the brothers in Family Force 5. He and I played in a rock band in college, and we realized we knew each other when we were their age. I told him we didn’t do as wild of stuff as a rock band as our kids do. He said it’s in the DNA.
TSO: How do you spend your time backstage?
Matt: Some days the load-in goes perfectly – those guys work 24/7 – so there can be a lot of down time. We started off with corn hole a few years back, and that got really competitive, with tournaments and four or five games going at a time. Then Eddie saw a ping pong table where people started playing backstage, and so he bought one for the tour. Billy and his son have these arcade games, everything from Asteroids and Ms. Pac-Man.
TSO: So, who’s the Winter Jam Ping Pong Champion?
Matt: I would have to take my hat off to Colton Dixon and his band. But a close second is NewSong. This guy (Billy), Eddie, for sure. It’s crazy how many people play ping pong. We do the seeding in the ping pong tournaments, where the person on the top has to play doubles with someone who doesn’t play as much.
The 2015 Winter Jam Tour Spectacular features Skillet, Jeremy Camp, Francesca Battistelli, Building 429, Family Force 5, NewSong, for KING & COUNTRY, speaker Tony Nolan and a Pre-Jam Party with Blanca, About A Mile and VERIDIA. The tour continues through the end of March, with no tickets required, only $10 at the door. Visit www.jamtour.com for more info and a full list of dates and cities.