GRAND SALINE - When Chris Tomlin was 11 years old, he was beset by a case of mono. Bedridden, he couldn't play basketball or baseball, or ride his four wheeler into the family pond. He couldn't do any of the things a preteen from Grand Saline would normally do for fun. So his dad, Connie, gave him his first guitar.
"I grew up loving music," Tomlin said Wednesday afternoon at his parent's house. He was spending a few moments with his family before he left for a sound check at the rudimentary stage set up on a Brookshire's parking lot in downtown Grand Saline. Tomlin had come home for one day to play a concert for his hometown folks as a way to say thank you for their help in launching his international music career.
Grand Saline numbers only 2,600 in population. Tomlin moved there with his family as an infant, and he lived there until the early 1990s when he left to attend Texas A&M University. He lived a nondescript childhood and worked in his father's pharmacy as a teenager. He likes to tell people that his first job was delivering drugs - long pause - to all of the nursing homes in the area.
"When he was just a little kid, he was a fantastic basketball player. That's what a lot of people don't realize," said Emile Clifford, who used to drive Tomlin with her sons to games. "I tell you what, when he walked out on the court in high school, he might have been the smallest kid out there, but he could hit the 3-pointers. And those big guys would knock him down, and he would always get up with a smile on his face."
Tomlin was an eighth-grader at Grand Saline Middle School when he felt God calling him to ministry.
"I didn't know what it was; I didn't know I would be a singer or a songwriter. I had no idea," he said. "I simply prayed this: 'God, whatever you want for the rest of my life, that's what I want. Whatever you want to do for the rest of my life, that's what I want to do.'"
What the presence of God did in Tomlin's life is nothing short of phenomenal. The 14-year-old in braces and a chili-bowl haircut put his life in God's hands, and has used that life to touch millions of others. Christian Copyright Licensing International, a firm that licenses music to churches, says Tomlin is the most-often sung Christian artist on Sunday mornings. TIME Magazine said in a recent article, titled "Hip Hymns are Him," that Tomlin may very well be the most-sung artist anywhere. He's earned 13 Dove Awards (the Gospel Music Association's version of the Grammy's) and been named the GMA's Artist of the Year two years in a row.
Tomlin takes none of the credit for himself.
"People are always like, 'What keeps you humble?'" he said. "I think I have a particular perspective on life, because I know all this can come and go. You might be cool one minute and not the next. I understand where I come from - from here. I have really good roots. Really deep roots. I think it's allowed me to say, 'That's exactly who I've been all my life.'"
Tomlin said God put the dream of being a musician in his heart and guided each step of his career.
"I was a real normal kid in school, but I just had these dreams deep down inside. I knew it was from God. I didn't even know how," he said.
The members of Main Street Baptist Church in Grand Saline provided his first audience. As a student in the youth group, Tomlin learned to lead a worship service.
"Even though I was terrible, they would still always let me come up and sing at church. They were always so welcoming, really encouraging," he said. "I had people who believed in me from the start, and great friends who've been lifelong friends."
One friend, a local musician named David Kane, allowed a high school-aged Tomlin to accompany him on a concert at a nearby church.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is my big chance in the music business,'" Tomlin said. "I was supposed to set up the keyboard and the guitars and sell tapes in the back. ... I just remember looking up to him, and being inspired by him, and thinking, 'Maybe I could do that someday.' I didn't know how."
There's a theme in Tomlin's story as he tells about driving from venue to venue each weekend at A&M with just his acoustic guitar and a drum machine. The theme: follow God's will with simple faith.
"When I was a junior, I started getting all these calls at my apartment from people wanting me to play," he said. "I didn't know how they were getting my number. I didn't have a Web site, I didn't have a CD, I didn't have a flier - I didn't have anything. Every weekend I was traveling and doing something. I knew it was God, because I wasn't even trying to do it."
At the concert Wednesday night, Tomlin encouraged the audience to follow God faithfully, the same as he has done.
"I have the testimony that God can use you in amazing ways you're never gonna ever imagine, if you just trust Him," he told the gathering of his former classmates, neighbors, babysitters, church members and brothers and sisters in Christ who came to hear him sing. "I mean, it's not like I came from New York City. I came from Grand Saline for crying out loud."
Tomlin's mother and father, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews, niece, aunts, uncles and grandparents were also in attendance.
"It means the world that my family's here. This is just amazing, to stand here and be with you tonight. It's quite humbling. I wish you can stand here and see what I'm seeing, just the faces of people singing their hearts out to God," he said.
Tomlin talked earlier about how playing for people who know him more intimately than any other audience would be a nerve-wracking experience.
"I'm kind of more nervous about that then most concerts. It's all the people you know. It's just different," he said. "There's so many different emotions that come up being here than it would be anywhere else."
The homecoming concert was a gift in many ways. Tomlin's concerts usually sell out, but this one was organized gratis. And when a son has been away for as long as Tomlin - a decade this year - mothers and fathers naturally want to spend as much time as possible with their child. But Donna and Connie Tomlin gave a gift to the townspeople as well: time with their son.
"Usually, if we want to see Chris, we go to him," Donna Tomlin said the day before his arrival. She added that her family was thrilled to have him home, but knew his schedule was tight and quality time would be brief.
Tomlin arrived in Grand Saline at noon and immediately went to the downtown Austin Bank to sign autographs.
Rebecca Bain, a former member of Tomlin's youth group, brought her sons to meet the artist.
"We're really excited because he hasn't been back in a long time," she said. "I think it's such a good witness to the people that he grew up with."
After a lengthy sound check (an extra electricity pole had to be installed to provide enough power for the concert), Tomlin opened the homecoming show with one of his most famous songs.
"If you know my music at all, I hope you know this: that we didn't come to make much about us, but we came here to make much about God," he told the crowd of thousands. "All of this is because of the favor of God, the hand of God. Scripture says, 'Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,' and that's what we're going to do on this Brookshire's parking lot."
The evening sounded like any regular mega-church worship service. Thousands sang along to "Holy is the Lord" and harmonized with "How Great is Our God." At the end of the eight-song set, Tomlin spoke these words of encouragement:
"There's no marketing plan, there's no publishing company, there's no Web site, there's no CD good enough to put the songs all over the world like God does. So, whatever God gives to you, He will do it. He is faithful to you. You can trust him, and you can trust him with your life."