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Kenny Bishop returns to his roots

September 30, 2006

FRANKFORT (AP) - Kenny Bishop was living his dream, standing in front of adoring fans in auditoriums across the country, singing gospel songs with his family as part of one of the most popular groups in Christian music.

That ended in 2001 when the group disbanded unexpectedly and without explanation.

Five years later, Bishop is back on the southern gospel charts with an album that sheds light on his departure. All the songs are about grace, including one based on the biblical story of the prodigal son, a young man who left his family for a life of sinful fun that ended with him having lost everything and living with pigs.

That, Bishop said, is also the story of his own life.

"Just like the prodigal son was in the pigpen when he came to himself, I was in the nightclub," Bishop said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. "I knew I was hollow and empty on the inside, and I found out that regardless of how much I poured into that hole that it was not going to be filled until God had a chance to fill it."

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Rebellious turn

Bishop, 40, said he had become rebellious and had strayed from his Christian roots. After leaving his dream job as a star in southern gospel, he became a campaign aide to Ernie Fletcher, helping him to win election first as a congressman and later as governor of Kentucky.

Now working in a $68,000-a-year job as executive director of the Kentucky Governor's Mansion, Bishop has begun touring on weekends, and sharing the story of his own prodigal journey with audiences across the country.

Just how far he strayed, Bishop doesn't say. "To go into any kind of detail would probably cause unnecessary hurt and embarrassment to people who don't deserve that," he said. His wife, Debra, divorced him, citing an "irretrievably broken" marriage. They share joint custody of their two teenage children.

Bishop said he learned firsthand about God's grace and about his willingness to accept wayward Christians back into the fold. That message struck a chord with his fans who made one of his new songs, "The Prodigal's Dad," No. 4 on the Southern Gospel Music Top 50 chart for September.

"We do welcome Kenny Bishop back into the circle of southern gospel music with happy hearts and open arms," said Gil Hammond, owner and president of Kentucky-based Hammond Broadcasting, which operates three Christian radio stations that play Bishop's music. "That is the proper reaction of a Christian, to welcome someone back into Christian fellowship who has strayed, who has played the prodigal. The important thing is that the person has come to their senses, confessed that sin, and has asked forgiveness."

Plenty of questions

Southern gospel, a music genre that's centered in Tennessee, flourishes because it is used as a tool to spread the Christian message, Hammond said. The biblical lyrics, coupled with country-like music, has spread across the nation and is even beginning to reach international audiences, he said.

Tricia Whitehead, spokeswoman for the Gospel Music Association in Nashville, said southern gospel accounted for about 12 percent of the $750 million in gospel record sales last year.

In the world of southern gospel music, Bishop was huge. He had fans just as devoted to him as any country or rock artist would. But as word started to leak out that he had strayed from the faith, fans were crushed.

"There were questions, of course," Hammond said. "And there were various stories that circulated as to why they disbanded."

People heard that Bishop was frequenting nightclubs, a no-no among a large portion of his conservative fan base, and that that was the reason the trio disbanded.

"Something like that doesn't stay a secret," Hammond said. "It was generally known. Maybe not the details, not the specifics. But people knew Kenny was the cause of the breakup."

Bishop, with his boyish looks, was very recognizable, even among nightclub patrons from his lead role with The Bishops, in which he sang with his father and brother, but he continued visiting them anyway.

'A story to tell'

Bertha Daniels, a Bishop fan from eastern Kentucky, said she's happy that the singer has returned to southern gospel and is sharing his own life experience in a way that can help others. She said everyone should accept him.

"He's got a story to tell," she said.

Fletcher said he and his wife have encouraged Bishop to keep singing.

"We know, too, that he has a story to tell, and we're happy that he now has the opportunity to express his faith and tell his story," the governor said.

Ed Leonard, president of Daywind Records in Hendersonville, Tenn., said Bishop and his producer hand-picked the songs for his album to allow him to share with listeners what he had learned about God and his love for fallen man.

"You see where this guy is coming from," Leonard said.

Leonard said Bishop is brave to return to the microphone to share his story in song.

"He's following a tug at his heart to share what has happened to him and what God has done in his life," Leonard said.

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