Chris Sligh, the “American Idol” contestant who has won fans with his curly mop of hair and soulful voice, is causing a stir with his departure from strictly Christian music.
But for most people in this city of 56,000 about 100 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C., Sligh has become a hometown hero.
Jonathan Pait of fundamentalist Bob Jones University, which Sligh attended for several years, said: “We really are somewhat disappointed with the direction he has gone musically.”
He nonetheless tunes in each week to monitor Sligh’s progress.
Local fans — some wearing fake glasses and curly wigs and calling themselves the “Fro Patro” — gather each week at restaurants and bars to cheer on Sligh. The local newspaper has been tracking his progress on its Web site.
Sligh, a 28-year-old son of missionaries who spent much of his childhood overseas, kept his spot among the 11 remaining finalists last week with a rendition of “Endless Love.” He’ll try to improve on that performance, deemed “unemotional” and “uninspiring” by judge Simon Cowell, this week. The show will announce results Wednesday evening.
People who know Sligh well say that he may be singing rock ’n’ roll on television, but he’s always clear about the faith that motivates his music.
“He’s not going to back away from the fact that he’s a Christian,” said Chris Surratt, pastor of Seacoast Church, where Sligh has been music leader for more than two years. “He’s going to let that shine through in what he does.”
Hundreds of people gather each week to hear Sligh’s music at Seacoast, where his electric guitar and vocals have become an integral part of services, Surratt said.
Support for Sligh also is strong at North Greenville University, the small Baptist school he attended for several years after leaving Bob Jones in the late 1990s.
Cheryl Greene, the professor who helped Sligh hone his vocal talents, said just because Sligh may not be singing strictly Christian-themed songs shouldn’t reflect on the depth of his faith.
“It would be like me being in a jazz band,” Greene said. “You can be a Christian or non-Christian. It’s a style of music.”
But Greene said she still has worries over Sligh’s long-term spiritual journey.
“Is he going to stand strong by his true Christian morals?” Greene said. “Christianity is a lifestyle ... and there are things in your life that you do need to stand for.”
John Jeter, the owner of a Greenville nightclub where Sligh has performed with his band, said Sligh’s wholesome attitude and his faith come through in his music.
“It speaks well to the fact that it’s not all blood, guts and trash,” said Jeter. “Music doesn’t have to be filthy. You can have a good time in a good environment, and Chris is proof of that.”