Singing a New Song: A Country Star’s Journey from Suffering to Ministry

Travis Hearne — January 26, 2024

Four years ago, Granger Smith retrieved his boy’s corpse out of their gated swimming pool and administered CPR. First responders revived River Smith’s heartbeat, but the damage was done. Granger’s youngest child had died.

Three weeks later, Granger, or what remained of Granger, returned to the stage. Those early months of grieving and touring nearly killed him. Especially the night the cold barrel of his Glock handgun touched the roof of his mouth.

But God.

Not the pitiful God of self-help. Not the therapeutic deity from the literature he read. And not the blasphemously small god of cultural Christianity whom Granger had (sometimes) prayed to since he was four. It was the true and living God who works all things for his glory who saved him. To Granger’s parched soul, it was the God he heard of from John Piper who vanquished those idols. The supremely holy God of R.C Sproul. The good and knowable God of J.I. Packer. The God of the Bible.

Today, Granger is making his way through coursework and about to finish his fifth term at Southern Seminary. After 24 years of recording and performing country music and writing award-winning songs, Granger exchanged his chord charts for theology books. He likes reading the authors that most other MDiv. students and pastors like: J. Gresham Machen, Alistair Begg, and especially, Southern Seminary’s own, Stephen Wellum. Granger has taken three courses with Wellum, his favorite being the Problem of Evil.

But the journey from his cultural Christianity to a deep theology had to include River’s death. Granger’s new book, Like a River: Finding the Faith and Strength to Move Forward after Loss and Heartache, a New York Times Bestseller, tells the story.

PROVIDENCE, NOT ACCIDENTS

God used the death of River to accomplish the spiritual death and rebirth of Granger.  And that was no accident.

“Losing River was the catalyst to the great breakthrough I had in my life,” Granger said. “When I lived through that and stood with my wife, we promised each other that we would find purpose in this pain. Looking back now, we can see God’s hand of providence. A big-God theology was the only comfort that led to any kind of peace and understanding amidst such a tragedy. God is working all things for his glory and that is the first thing that made sense to me before I was even converted. I never use the word ‘accident’ in the book. I don’t believe in accidents; I believe in providence.”

Granger’s first taste of the sovereignty of God and the first step on the road to ministry came when a friend shared a Desiring God devotional clip from Piper explaining Philippians 4:13.

“Piper flowed with ideas drawn from Scripture and read the Bible as if every word mattered,” Granger said. “He taught like every word was placed there intentionally by the author to understand God better. I loved that. When I was in the gauntlet of suffering, I wanted to hear big-God theology. I wanted to listen and read people who were saying we have a sovereign God who purposes everything according to a plan for his glory.”

Part of Granger’s goal in Like a River was communicating this deep theology in a simple way for readers to understand that the book really wasn’t about River’s death. While initially planning to write to an audience of people suffering, Granger realized the story he retold had a larger scope. “The book sounds like it’s about River, but that is just the first chapter,” Granger said. “The rest of the book is about the death of me and explaining that journey. My main purpose in the book was to articulate the gospel clearly in a few places—knowing that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Most people aren’t reading Spurgeon or Machen, but I could speak those biblical truths from them back to my readers and fans because the ideas haven’t changed.”

The gospel message he came to love was the exact message his culturally Christian audience and platform needed to hear.

“A major part of the book and my ministry is preaching against cultural Christianity,” Granger said. “As long as I can remember, I’ve been associated with Christianity. As I got older, the more I began to trust in my own authority and the less I trusted in Christianity. I naturally started to trust in myself.”

Granger described the failures of cultural Christianity and the self-help books he read in Like a River:

“When your entire life is falling apart, these books—full of witty one-liners, inspirational quotes, and helpful principles for increasing productivity and achieving your goals—don’t help much. When we lost River, I dug as deep as I could into my self-help toolbox. I tried everything at my fingertips to pull myself out of the dark pit I was in and to relieve the pain I felt. Nothing helped.”

Until that night God met Granger on a Texas backroad and replaced his suicidal heart of stone with a heart of flesh that thirsted for God’s glory.

“A SEASON OF EQUIPPING”

As his faith grew and the story of a newfound hope after River’s death spread, Granger found himself with more opportunities to spread the message of salvation that he had experienced. Recounting the graphic details of losing River remains difficult, but every opportunity to talk about River invites an opportunity to talk about the gospel. After conversations with friends, Granger realized that the new opportunities brought a greater responsibility to speak and write accurately about God. He needed training.

“Seminary had crossed my mind many times,” Granger said. “Since I was talking about God and starting to write more, I decided seminary would be a good decision. I called up one of my pastor friends and asked him for a list of seminaries. He responded by saying ‘Well, you listen to Al Mohler every day.’ It seemed totally obvious that Southern Seminary was where I wanted to go. We have nine online students at my church and my pastor is a Southern graduate. I also talk with Mark Dever regularly. I have a lot of voices from Southern Seminary pouring into me.”

Granger enrolled at Southern Seminary in 2022 and it did not take long before he realized his career of touring and recording music needed to take a backseat to his ministry aspirations. “Over the years, as I’ve learned more of who God is, I’ve recognized the tension of trying to reconcile any kind of self-promotion with the gospel,” Granger said. “I was reading, studying, and doing interviews about what God was doing, and then going back out on stage singing and needing people to buy tickets. It was hurting my well-being. I told my wife Amber I was going to quit, but she said I should do a final tour and let all of the fans know personally that I was saying goodbye.”

Granger played his farewell tour this past summer, announcing to the world that he would focus on training for ministry. But he’s not sure what ministry roles lay in his future.

“I don’t know if I want to serve as a lead pastor,” Granger said. “I love to write and I love to preach, but I know I need to be in a season of equipping, then I can have a better idea of what will happen next.”

Many ask if he still plans to serve the church through music, but he currently has no aspirations to record music or lead worship.

“I love hymns and I love singing in congregations,” Granger said. “But a sin of mine is needing to exalt myself and music is directly connected to that. Until God redeems that part of me, I’ll hold off on making music for the church.”

THERE IS ONE GOSPEL

The decision to leave music made headlines across the nation, but the outlets most interested in his story were often surprised when Granger espoused a biblical gospel.

“So many people assume a liberal version of Christianity when they interview me or ask me to come speak,” Granger said. “I don’t feel at home in many of the places and outlets that invite me. Recently I was asked to provide a word of hope for everyone on one outlet, so I explained the gospel. Then I said that that hope isn’t for you unless you believe these things about Jesus. I don’t need to be invited back, I don’t need to be booked at a certain conference, I just want to speak the truth.”

Now, as a church member and seminary student, Granger continues to pray that God can use his book and story to proclaim the glory of God. Until the next chapter, Granger is doing what all seminarians do—reading.

“Reading never ends and that’s a good thing,” Granger said. “It’s always immediately applicable to what I am doing. I love being interviewed and talking about what God is doing in my life rather than music. And that is always directly related to what I am learning in seminary. There are weeks when I look at my reading list and wonder how I am going to read all of those pages, but it always works out.”

More than anything, however, Granger wants to make much of Jesus Christ.

“I don’t want the Granger Smith name to be famous, instead I want to proclaim the name of Christ! The one that has washed me clean, the one that has freed me from my shame and my guilt. The one that gave me a new heart. I want Him to be known! And I want to know Him more. That is the real reason I’m leaving music touring.

From now on when you hear the name Granger Smith, my goal is NOT for you to say: He was a great singer, or a great speaker, or author, or not even what a great loss he suffered.

Instead, when you hear my name, I want you to think, “Granger Smith? Oh, I’ve heard of him. What a great Savior we have in Jesus!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Travis Hearne

SBTS News Writer

Travis Hearne (M.Div., SBTS) is a PhD Student at SBTS and Pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Campbellsburg, Ky. He has been married to Jordan since December 2018 and they have two sons, Dawson and Lewis.

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