"You are the enemy of eye makeup, Amy Grant!" I tell the Christian pop singer in a phone interview from Nashville before she heads to Clearwater this week on the tail end of her yearlong tour in support of her first studio album in a decade, How Mercy Looks From Here.
"Life will do that won't it? We struggle and we cry but it's what makes the belly laughs even harder," says pop music's most successful Christian artist.
Nashville producer Marshall Altman (Eric Paslay's Friday Night) helmed an album full of sincere songs of love, loss, faith and resilience. And it includes the help of some famous friends, including James Taylor, Carole King, Sheryl Crow, Will Hoge and Paslay, who wrote the only song not penned by Grant on the album, Deep as it is Wide, about love in the afterlife. Grant's husband, country superstar Vince Gill, also makes an appearance.
By the album's end it's clear this songwriter has been put through the ringer.
The singer's mother, Gloria, was gripped with dementia and died in 2011. Her father, Burton, also has advanced-stage dementia, and no longer remembers her or her three sisters. It was her mother who gave the album its focus when Grant came by for a visit before a concert.
"Oh you sing? Sing something for me," her mother asked her. With a lump in her throat Amy Grant sang an old familiar hymn to the woman who taught her to talk. As she was leaving, her mother stopped her in the doorway and asked for a favor.
"She said, 'When you go out on that stage, sing something that matters,' " Grant recalled, adding, "Note to self: Even someone who doesn't have all their faculties can still be quite wise."
Grant, 51, released her first album in 1977 at age 16 and over the next 30-odd years won six Grammys in multiple categories, scored six No. 1 hits including Baby Baby and Every Heartbeat and became the most successful artist to cross over and back again to gospel music. She took some backlash from sections of the Christian community after the breakup of her first marriage to Christian musician Gary Chapman in 1999, followed a year later by her marriage to Gill.
"I think it's so easy to look at someone in the public eye and have a lot of commentary on what they should or shouldn't do," she said when asked about today's young pop stars like Miley Cyrus. "Life is a long journey and we all have things that make us who we are and they come to us in different forms."
Now her blended family of five children with Gill brings a new awareness of life's ebbs and flows, she said, as her "tribe" expands with weddings and babies but also experiences loss. This flow is what gives the album its title song.
How Mercy Looks From Here is dedicated to her mother and is set in the devastating flood that clobbered Nashville in 2010 — in the same week that Grant attended the funeral of a friend and the wedding of Gill's oldest daughter.
Then there's Shovel in Hand, about attending the funeral of her son's friend who was killed in a car accident ("I watch my son shovel in hand / go from bullet-proof boy to a broken man") that had Sheryl Crow, a mother of two boys, sobbing in the recording studio.
See what I mean? Even Sheryl Crow can't take this stuff.