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Disney, Universal host annual Christian-music gatherings this weekend

Dewayne Bevil on Attractions

Theme Park Ranger

9:36 AM EDT, September 5, 2013

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More than three dozen Christian-music acts are descending at two Orlando theme parks this weekend. Night of Joy at Magic Kingdom and Rock the Universe at Universal Studios are after-hours concerts that spotlight singers trying to move masses with musical messages.

I talked with two performers who got their starts in church as children and have carried that mission into their adult occupations.

Matthew West

Matthew West wrote his first songs in the empty church while his pastor father prepared the sermon for the upcoming Sunday. Dad's notes were inspiring.

"I would sit at the piano and write songs based on the messages that he was going to speak," says West, who performs Saturday at Night of Joy. "Those are kind of my roots, and I've never really moved too far from those early days of writing songs in my dad's church."

Making songs inspired by the words of others also surfaced in recent years. Instead of creating music based on the story of his life, he invited listeners to share their memories.

"I just became increasingly aware of the fact that, man, every single person in that audience in front of me has a story to tell as well. I wonder what would happen if I gave them a chance to tell their story to me," West says.

He has received 25,000 submissions from all 50 states and 20 countries. They have resulted in songs for two albums, the latest of which included the song "Hello, My Name Is," which was No. 1 on Billboard's Christian Songs chart for 10 weeks.

West, 36, pledged to read all submissions, although there is a word limit "for the sake of sanity," he says.

"We give people a chance to write about whatever they want to. There are no parameters," West says. "You can share about the good, the bad, the ugly."

For the initial story-driven album, he secluded himself in a cabin to write. For the second one, he was on tour.

"It was fitting that while I was reading stories from people all over the country and all over the world, I, myself, was traveling all over the country and all over the world," West says. "That gave me a global perspective as I was reading and writing the songs."

And now the road leads him to Disney World, where he has visited as a performer and as a child.

"I get to bring my parents," he says. "For years, they were bringing me, and now I get to say 'Hey, you're coming to Disney with me.'"

Kyle Sherman

Kyle Sherman, who performs at Rock the Universe on Friday, describes his childhood as "really sheltered." He grew up in a family that was at church whenever the doors were open, he says.

But his talent blossomed there.

"Most of my early development came from just being a massive dork and having people being really, really kind to me as a youngster and learning to play the guitar — playing the three chords that I knew and leading worship for the youth group."

As a kid, he was only allowed to listen to a Christian radio station.

"I just cut my teeth on the huge names like the Michael W. Smiths and the Steven Curtis Chapmans of the world," Sherman says. "As I got a little older and was exposed to some more music as a teenager, I just loved — and I still love these guys — the David Crowder Band … and Switchfoot, who I know will be at Rock the Universe. … When I discovered those bands, they really did a lot for me."

His sound continues to morph, he says.

"I've really learned a lot about myself over the past year as a songwriter and what style of music I want to make," says Sherman, 32. "For the past year, I would describe myself as a Southern, almost blues kind of singer. Now I'm kind of getting a little bit more in the realm of the pop world."

In the past year, he's also been on two tours. He worked with singer (and University of Central Florida alumna) Francesca Battistelli and The Afters, followed by a Christmas tour with Shane & Shane. He's also had performances from coast to coast.

"Between those things, we're always trying to think of the next record," Sherman says. He was recently recording songs in Nashville.

Touring isn't as glamorous as it seems on TV, he says. Long days and nights, sleeping on a bus and getting up early have drawbacks, he says.

"I think as long as you know that's part of it, it's all fun ... because of the people you get to be around, especially being in the Christian world like we are," he says. "I haven't ever met anyone who hasn't been who they said they were, who they presented themselves as. When you're on a bus traveling down the road with 10 or 12 other people, you find out who they really are quickly."

dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477

Night of Joy

Where: Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World

When: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.-1 a.m.

Cost: One night for $65, two nights for $99

Phone: 407-824-4321

Online: NightofJoy.com

Rock the Universe

Where: Universal Studios

When: Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m.

Cost: One night for $54.99, two nights for $79.99

Phone: 407-363-8000

Online: RocktheUniverse.com