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By CRYSTAL CAVINESS, United Press International  |  Aug. 12, 2002 at 6:57 PM
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NASHVILLE, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- "I've fallen off the mountain ... It makes your soul deeper and stronger."

Andy Griggs, who may appear as a carefree and fun-loving 28-year-old on the brink of mega-success, grows somber when talking about why the music he writes is steeped in worldly wisdom.

"It's not a tongue-in-cheek world to me ... I feel like I have a lot to say," he said recently while on the road, traveling from California to Texas to promote his new project.

One listen to Griggs' music on his new RCA album, "Freedom," affirms that his soul is indeed "deeper and stronger" than most. "Practice Life," "Where's a Train" and "I've Learned" are samplings of the messages that Griggs shares in his music.

While Griggs is careful to keep his private life that way as his celebrity grows, the fact that he lost half of his close-knit family in sudden deaths is well known.

Griggs' father died when the little boy was 10, leaving Griggs, his mother and older brother, Mason, 14. Griggs admits to idolizing his older brother and credits Mason with "straightening me out when I was a teenager running wild."

Tragically, Mason died of a heart attack at Northeast Louisiana University when he was a senior at the college and Andy was a freshman.

Devastated, Griggs turned to the music that his brother had been writing and performing to help with his grieving.

"My vice became staying up all night playing and singing where nobody could hear me," he said. "My mission was to learn a couple of his songs. It was just so his music wouldn't die."

Within eight months, Griggs had learned all of his brother's songs and put Mason's band back together. One of his gigs paired him with famed bluegrass gospel duo The Sullivans. There, Griggs met Jerry Sullivan's youngest daughter, Stephanie. The couple married one year after meeting, on Feb. 25, 1995.

After moving to Nashville after their wedding, producers David Malloy and J. Gary Smith hooked Griggs up with a female duet partner, Mindy McCready. When McCready landed her recording contract with RCA, she encouraged the label executives to audition Griggs, which resulted in Griggs' deal with RCA in 1997.

Griggs quickly realized he needed to write the songs for his albums himself in order to say what he wanted with his music. Much of that message revolves around his strong Christian faith.

"I'm not a preacher and I don't play gospel music for a living. I play country music," he said. "But I somehow want to send a message of hope, of God, to shine a light."

To date, he's been successful at getting his feelings and thoughts out.

His current single, "Tonight I Wanna Be Your Man" is in the Top 10 on the Billboard country singles chart. The new album debuted July 17 at No. 7 on the Billboard country albums chart.

The current success follows Griggs' impressive debut in 1999 with "You Won't Ever Be Lonely," the gold-certified album (more than 500,000 units sold) that provided the No. 1 title track.

Griggs was the only artist in 1999 to have his debut single reach No. 1 and was voted top new male country artist by trade publications Monitor and Radio & Records.

Subsequent singles from his debut, "She's More" and "I'll Go Crazy," also charted in the Top 10.

While much of Griggs' success can be attributed to his talent, no one can overlook his work ethic. The ruggedly handsome singer frequently is seen at industry gatherings in support of songwriters and artists other than himself while he's in Nashville, which isn't often. His 2002 schedule keeps him on the road into the fall, doing shows and coast-to-coast radio stations to promote the new album.

"My whole world has been wrapped around the release of this album," Griggs said, then quickly adds: "I love my job."

He is, however, looking forward to a change of pace.

"This fall," he said, "I hope to slow down and then I'll stop and smell the roses."

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