It was hard to hear Stephen Mason on the end of the line.

The guitarist for the multi-platinum group Jars of Clay apologized for the background noise.

After a few seconds, he figured out how to mute "The Daily Show," which he DVR-ed.

"We're getting the news," he said with a laugh. The Nashville-based act, which also includes Charlie Lowell, Matt Odmark and Dan Haseltine, embarked on its latest tour March 30 to support its October release "The Shelter."

On Saturday, April 16, they take the stage at Grace Fellowship Church in Shrewsbury Township for a sold-out show.

April 8, they were between tour stops in southern Illinois.

It wasn't too far from Greenville College, a small Christian school in Greenville, Ill., where the band began.

As a freshman, Mason met the other group members, who lived in the dorm next door.

They found a common love for pop and rock artists from Peter Gabriel to ABBA and started playing together.

But they wanted to incorporate their faith into their tunes.

"From an early point, (we) asked provocative questions of the human experience and the spirituality," Mason said.

The band's process of writing and recording music became biographical, he added.

Sharing their lives through songs earned Jars of Clay three Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album Grammys in 1997, 2000 and 2002.

The group's most recent album, "The Shelter," was inspired by an Irish proverb.

"It is in the shelter of each other that people live," Mason said.

It was a simple way to summarize the last few years of the members' lives, he added.

They have been learning that, as Christians, it is counterproductive to live in isolation.

"We were meant to live in a community," Mason said. For the album, they brought together musician friends, including big names like Amy Grant and Leigh Nash and independent artists in Nashville, Tenn.

Part of the shelter theme came about unexpectedly when flash flooding hit Music City in spring 2010.

Jars of Clay was in the middle of recording the album, when they thought they lost everything.

Luckily, an engineer waded through the water to rescue computer modems in the flooded studio. People were helping each other out all over the city, no questions asked, Mason said.

"(It) became an exclamation point to the very subject matter we were trying to sing about," he said. "Alone, life can absolutely consume us and be overwhelming."

The album also highlights the congregational aspect of music. Mason said he tends to feel disconnected to God when singing in church.

"God is out there (but) the actual flesh and blood (are) the people around us in the community," he said.

That mentality led the band to do something unheard of in a time when music sharing is frowned upon by artists. They provided the words, chords and instructional videos on how to play songs from "The Shelter" online.

The band's message reached all the way to Africa thanks to Blood: Water Mission, which provides clean water and AIDS/HIV care on the continent. Mason said someone from the band travels over to check in on the mission every year.

The mission's 1,000 Wells Project recently hit a milestone - It reached its goal to provide 1,000 villages with clean water.

The band is celebrating with a concert May 10 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.

"We're not sure if we'll add a zero to it and make it the 10,000 Wells Project," Mason said. He added that Blood: Water Mission will continue to provide Africans with resources and Americans with a way to share the wealth.

But on April 8, the band was getting ready for another concert.

Mason said life on the road is fun when they bring along friends and fellow musicians like Matt Maher, Derek Webb and Audrey Assad.

"It's like camp," Mason said. - Erin McCracken, FlipSide staff

About Blood: Water Mission

Founded by Jars of Clay, Blood: Water Mission first stepped into funding a late stage AIDS hospice in sub-Saharan Africa. The mission discovered the vital link between living with HIV/AIDS and the need for clean water. As a result, Blood: Water Mission launched the 1,000 Wells Project in 2005. The national effort was designed to raise enough money to provide clean water and sanitation to 1,000 communities. It used the equation that $1 provides one African with clean water for an entire year.

The 1,000 Wells Project reached its goal at the end of 2010. It has provided life-saving water and health care to more than 600,000 people in 13 countries. Moving forward, Blood: Water Mission plans to incorporate HIV/AIDS programs into ongoing water programming.

For details and to donate, visit www.bloodwatermission.com.

Online

For details about Jars of Clay: www.jarsofclay.com

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