Welcome!

Welcome! I’m Yankee Gospel Girl (formerly Southern Gospel Yankee), but you can call me Esther O’Reilly. I’m an old soul with many interests, and I promote southern gospel music along with everything else good, true and beautiful.  If you’re a first-time visitor, thanks for reading! Check out my “About” page, follow me on Youtube, and browse around in the filing cabinet for my musings on all genres of music, movies, faith & culture, and old stuff. Whether you’re a fan of gospel music or just another old soul like me, I hope you like what you find! God bless.

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Doug Anderson, Taranda Greene Debut New Trio

Well, this is a nice surprise. Apparently Doug Anderson and Taranda Greene both still feel the group harmony itch, so they’ve teamed up with tenor Jody McBrayer (formerly of Avalon) to do a record with very limited tour dates. While this particular 90s Truth tune isn’t my favorite (“No untold facts, no mysteries, it’s all so cut and dried” *CLUNK* *cringe*), it does show off their ranges once the climax kicks in. All three are powerhouse vocalists in their own right, but when you bring them together, their blend recalls the great CCM harmony groups of yester-year. As critic David Bruce Murray remarked, all this trio has to do is sing old songs and make them sound new. Since they’re not (currently) planning extended tour dates, they likely won’t be searching for a lot of new material. What bait to dangle in front of a songwriter’s nose though! It’s probably safe to say that somebody’s saving them a spot on mainstage at NQC as we speak. I can’t wait to hear them test their chops on some better writing.

One of the nicest things to watch in this video is how sincerely Doug Anderson seems to enjoy standing back and listening to Taranda and Jody take the spotlight. Ever the perfect group gentleman.

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Introducing Tyler Vestal with Signature Sound

Ernie Haase has announced that with Wayne Haun’s ever-growing producer schedule, he will no longer be able to form a regular part of the Signature Sound band in live shows. So, they’re introducing pianist Tyler Vestal to share the load. Here’s a brand new music video with Tyler, set to a studio track of “Redemption Draweth Nigh.” This song, which features new lead singer Dustin Doyle, will be released on the deluxe edition of Happy People later this year. I admit, I find it a bit odd that they chose to introduce Vestal by simply having him “play” for a pre-recorded track which may or may not have had his keyboard work on it. I was expecting a live video performance. But it’s still nice to hear the studio version of Dustin’s take on this classic.

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Farewell to Gus Gaches

One of my favorite tenor singers is coming off the road due to vocal fatigue. Gus Gaches first joined Legacy Five in 2009 and has contributed immeasurably to their music, not only as a singer but as a producer. I’ve always loved the purity of his tone, and I respect the fact that he never pushed his range to the point where it became irritating just for the sake of showing off. He is far and away my favorite Legacy Five tenor and one of the best in the business as a whole. Here is his take on their signature song “I Stand Redeemed,” which I’ve always preferred to the original. I believe this was the first time he performed it live with the group:

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Unpublished Hymns of Fanny Crosby to Be Released, Recorded

It’s probably safe to say that Fanny Crosby was the most prolific American hymn-writer, perhaps the most prolific of all hymn-writers. She wrote so many thousands of hymns that her publishers literally couldn’t read them all. I’ve always wondered whatever happened to all those unpublished hymns.

Just recently, I was pointed to a radio podcast that answers my question. Those unpublished hymns were, quite literally, stuffed into a box and forgotten. That box was eventually donated to Wheaton College, where it continued to collect dust and be forgotten.

Until now.

In that broadcast, which you can stream here Nashville producer Bobby Blazier explains the remarkable process whereby these hymns were discovered and have now been set to music by some of the best artists in the industry. But it almost never happened. As Blazier recalls, “They [Wheaton] didn’t know what to do with it. Who cares about Fanny Crosby?” A friend of Blazier’s found out that the box was there and lobbied for permission to get into it. At first, Wheaton discouraged him, saying on the one hand, “They’re fragile, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to them,” and on the other hand, “Who cares anyway?” which I find amusing.  So his friend undertook the cost of copying every one of the forgotten hymns, then preserving them in print and on a backup drive.

Blazier then took them to Integrity Music, who agreed to publish a compilation album of the poems set to new music. Artists ranging from Michael W. Smith to Ricky Skaggs to southern gospel’s own Ernie Haase & Signature Sound were invited to participate in the project. The Blind Boys of Alabama, appropriately enough, were also among the artists invited to participate, and Blazier describes how moving it was for them to be involved. You can hear preview snippets of them exclusively on the Public Square interview. At around 47:00, they play a minute-long clip of Ricky Skaggs’s contribution, a haunting minor-key setting of one called “All is Well.” I’m already noticing that her signature of including explicit or implied references to sight runs through these unpublished works, as it did through her well-loved standards:

All is well, for thou art near

Gracious Lord, thy voice I hear

Though the clouds may veil the sky

My steps are led by your sweet light

All is well, all is well

For thy peace within me dwells

In your presence, fears dispelled

Loving Savior, all is well

At the very end of the interview (around 53:00), Blazier mentions another poignant discovery from the box: thank-you notes to her publishers, when they would give her a little extra money over and above what was agreed on for her songs. “I will be able to feed so many people with this ten dollars,” one note reads. She was so broke near the end of her life that she and her husband came close to being evicted. But ten dollars would show up on the doorstep, allowing her to pay the rent.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for some of these like-new hymns to bump some worship pabulum off the music rosters of churches everywhere. The album will be released in October, but you can see a track-listing here. Signature Sound will be featured on one called “I Have Found a Priceless Treasure.”

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Like Summer Snow: On Josh Duggar and Christian Scandals

It’s official: Josh Duggar is a serial adulterer and p*rnography addict. The data unearthed in the recent hack of Ashley Madison, a subscription web service designed to facilitate extra-marital affairs, left no room for speculation. Josh has made public statements confirming his infidelities, liberally laced with appropriately shamed/repentant language. Of course, whether he means a word of it remains for his wife and immediate family to see.

I wrote an article back when the first Duggar scandal broke a couple months ago. I criticized people who praised public school sex ed and said the homeschooling culture cultivated sexual repression, which led directly to Josh’s molesting his sisters. Whatever else you may think about how the Duggars handled the situation, to blame the whole thing on homeschooling and hold up public school sex culture as an enlightened alternative was laughable. However, I did strongly question the wisdom of starting a reality TV show in such a dysfunctional context, and I wasn’t necessarily on board with the particular ATI brand of sex ed curriculum the family used. But I was prepared to forgive them and to forgive a (seemingly) repentant Josh, now nearly twice the age he was then and with a family of his own. And I still firmly believe that it would not have been better for the family to be torn apart and dragged through the mud in the immediate aftermath of Josh’s crimes.

However, while I still have great sympathy for the Duggar family and now for Josh’s own immediate family, I have not one iota of sympathy left for Josh himself. Without going into details, the data from Ashley Madison shows that he was prepared to experiment with the most sleazy kinds of sexual activity, tagging a laundry list of “turn-ons” in a potential sexual partner. In one chat, he said he was “looking to have a steamy affair.” He even paid a perverted kind of “warranty” fee, which guaranteed that if he didn’t get an affair in some set time period, he would get his subscription money back.

This slap in the face to Josh’s wife and family is tragically compounded by the shame Josh has brought to the Church and the name of Christ. As president of the Family Research Council, he has vocally lobbied for genuinely worthy conservative causes, like fighting the re-definition of marriage. All that work is now tainted by his involvement with it.

Tragically, Josh is not alone. In fact, he is only the most recent example of a conservative Christian political activist who has been caught living a double life.  Continue reading

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Youtube Find: “There is a River,” featuring Josh Cobb with Signature Sound

Well, to be clear, former members of Signature Sound. But that would have been too long of a title. We’ve got Josh on tenor, supported by both Doug Anderson and Ryan Seaton plus Roy Webb on piano. Josh, of course, is a former Gold City tenor, and Roy was also employed by Gold City after his tenure with Signature Sound. This is an unusual combination, but it’s a reminder of how talented every one of these guys is.

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My Top Five Robin Williams Movies, Part II (cross-post)

Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings

Robert De Niro (L) and Robin Williams (R) in Awakenings

Here’s the link to the second half of my Robin Williams top five retrospective, guest-posted at Paul Asay’s blog Watching God.  We’re going backwards, so Part II discusses my top two choices. If you missed Part I, click here. I also close out Part II with a video tribute I edited together last year. (Those of you who haven’t seen it already can watch directly on YouTube here.)

In arranging this shortlist, I focused on the films that I thought were best as films, not just Robin Williams performances. To be clear, I don’t recommend all of them for all audiences, and I’m honest about where I think some of them are flawed. Use your own discretion and don’t take this as an unequivocal endorsement of every movie on this list. Still, I chose them because I think they’re all well-made, they all say something true, and they all feature Williams at his best. The final standings, in order, were:

  1. Awakenings
  2. Insomnia
  3. The Fisher King
  4. Good Will Hunting
  5. Dead Poets Society

By chance, both of my top picks feature Williams in supporting roles beside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, two great Hollywood legends. Performances like these prove that Robin Williams the actor was not merely a gimmicky extension of Robin Williams the comic, but a serious talent who could hold his own next to American cinema’s finest.

Paul told me that these would actually be his personal top five as well, but he would rank them this way (though he was then seized with sudden worry about where to put Hook, a worry I confess I didn’t share):

  1. The Fisher King
  2. Dead Poets Society
  3. Insomnia
  4. Good Will Hunting
  5. Awakenings

I’m pleased to say my review of the detective thriller Insomnia impressed him so much that he bumped it up a full notch after previously having it in 4th place. Sadly, I can’t convince him to dislodge Dead Poets Society from second place, but all was made clear when I learned that he was a college literature major when it first came out. Figures. (Just giving you a hard time, Paul!) I also convinced him to give Awakenings another watch, and I hope I can convince you to do the same, because it is a truly great film which is sadly underrated in the Williams canon. Williams gives perhaps his most poignant, self-effacing performance here, in a true story that makes a powerful statement about the human condition and the sanctity of life. The film is devastating and sad, but as I say in my review, it will change you. It changed me. To learn more about the work of Oliver Sacks, who wrote the book on which it’s based, watch this 7 minute video. Be warned: It’s not easy watching, but it is unbearably beautiful:

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CD Review: The Inspiration of Broadway, by Signature Sound (with J. Mark McVey)

The Inspiration of Broadway

This project finds southern gospel’s most inventive quartet trying on yet another hat: Broadway. They are aided in their efforts by acclaimed tenor singer J. Mark McVey, who is best known for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. It’s been available from their site for a while, but it was only recently released to retail. I’m choosing to feature the album cover they designed while Doug Anderson was still with the group, because (thankfully!) his vocals have been preserved even though the cover has been re-done for retail with his replacement, Dustin Doyle.

It’s been interesting to watch Ernie Haase market this album to Signature Sound’s fan-base. On the one hand, I think a number of these classics will find an audience among the same folks who like their brand of gospel music, which has already borrowed from a show tunes tradition. On the other hand, the group has stressed in advertising the accompanying tours that these are not gospel songs, just to make sure that nobody who’s out of the loop will be surprised or confused.  This seems like a smart way to ensure that everyone is happy and gets their money’s worth. Myself, I’m always up for a collection of good music, and I’m always up for Wayne Haun’s producing ideas. If anybody can meet the challenge of selecting and arranging Broadway tunes that are recognizable, accessible, and adaptable for an all-male ensemble, it’s Wayne. And if anybody can meet the challenge of singing those arrangements, it’s Signature Sound.  But did I agree with every selection? Read on to find out. Continue reading

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My Top Five Robin Williams Movies, Part I (cross-post)

31 Mar 2011, New York City, New York State, USA --- Robin Williams attending the Broadway Opening Night After Party for 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' at espace in New York City --- Image by © Walter McBride/Corbis

Image by © Walter McBride/Corbis

Focus on the Family’s Paul Asay has once again very kindly lent me his personal blogspot for some reflections on the best films of Robin Williams, who committed suicide a year ago this week. I asked Paul if he’d be interested in hosting a top five list, and he was. Anyone who’s interested can read Part I here right now. Paul and I will publish Part II next week. Please note that these are not comprehensive reviews, although I do try to note some content concerns in a few of my picks. Some of my favorite Williams films are sadder, darker, and aimed at a more mature audience than popular favorites like Aladdin or Hook. However, all five of my picks do have something in common: They all grapple with life’s toughest questions. What is our purpose? What is integrity? What is truth? How do we deal with loss? How do we deal with ourselves? How do we love the unlovable? Where do we look for love? For redemption? And all of them have endings that, while sometimes bittersweet, leave the viewer with the sense that at least some of these questions have been answered in a satisfying way.

As I explain at the beginning of my piece, I personally was not a Williams fan until last year, so unlike Paul, I took little notice of his death. I eventually came to appreciate his work not because of celebrity infatuation, but because I thought that much of it was actually worth something. The mark of any good film is that it speaks to something true about human nature beyond the confines of individual characters and plots. I hope I have brought that out successfully. And whatever your own level of Williams fan-hood, I hope that you, too, will gain something from my insights on these films.

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CD Review: Just Sing, by Amber Nelon Thompson

Amber Nelon Thompson Just Sing

Amber Nelon Thompson is one of gospel music’s most talented, consistent, and consistently pleasing singers.  Her versatile voice can evoke female greats from Sandi Patti to Alison Krauss to Carrie Underwood as needed. Just Sing is her first full-length non-independent ADULT solo album. (Thanks to David for catching my forgotten first-draft error that it was her first, then informing me that another album from 2000 actually was put out by Daywind as well.) A 4-song EP was released ahead of time and previewed four tracks for this project, which have now been combined with six more. I did not listen to the 4-song EP, so these are my first impressions of all ten songs.

  1. Just Sing: I suppose I’ve heard worse icebreakers. This one is relatively cute, although Bill Gaither’s stuttering cameo and the heavily computerized spoken-word exhortations to “Sing along” were a tad annoying.
  2. He’s Making Me: I like this lyric’s play on the phrase “making me.” The word “making” means pushing or demanding, but it also means forming, creating. This song explores where those two meanings find their union in God’s firm, yet formative work in us.
  3. Another Time, Another Place:  A classic old CCM duet. Amber nailed her Sandi Patti impression. As for Michael English on the Wayne Watson part… I’m trying really hard not to be snarky here, but suffice it to say Amber is so much clearer and more listenable that it just becomes distracting at a certain point. While Michael is breathing his way around the melody, Amber is just, well, singing it. I have to wonder what this would have sounded like with Riley Clark, Andrew Goldman, Wes Hampton, or any number of other talented young singers. For that matter, Wayne Watson himself is still sounding good pretty good these days by comparison.
  4. Be Thou My Vision: Amber is joined by her family here, so it’s been suggested that this should have been reserved for another Nelons hymns album. But I can’t complain about its inclusion on this project. The arrangement is tasteful, richly layered and haunting.
  5. What Do You Say?: This song has a weak melody, and the bridge doesn’t show off the most pleasing aspects of Amber’s voice. She leaps up an octave and begins belting out the lyrics, but the high range combined with the choppy tune gives her voice a strained, shouty sound. This distracts from the meaning. Bluntly put, heart-tugging stories about cancer patients need to be complemented by melodies that keep you listening long enough to get invested in them.
  6. Without Your Love: Ah, now this is a duet I can get into: Amber plus Joseph Habedank. Joel Lindsey’s golden songwriting touch is apparent on this tune. He can write a perfect inspirational pop ballad. He’s the king of “Good Schmaltz”: songs like a chocolate cheesecake, on the sweet side, but melodies so rich you want to sink your teeth into them again and again.
  7. Grateful: This is the Keith Urban-ish single. Country instruments, pop vocals. Nothing too deep here.
  8. God is Always Good: Really nice MOR with a classy 90s feel. Sort of like something Scott Krippayne might have written and recorded back in the day. One thing I like about it is that the arrangement isn’t pushed to overblown heights. It reaches a nice little peak, then quietly draws to its conclusion without muscling its way through a bridge and two key changes to get there.
  9. Give it to Jesus: A power ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place on American Idol, but in a nice way. While Amber does get to show off her chops and her range on this one, the melody actually goes somewhere, and she stays in vocal control the whole way. This track gives us a sense of what Amber might have gone on to do had she capitalized on that golden ticket. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of what happened there, click here.)
  10. Falling: A lengthy string quartet intro gives way to a series of single piano notes. The complex arrangement and carefully crafted lyrics actually reminded me of some of David Phelps’s solo work. The lyrical theme is the juxtaposition of our perspective with God’s: “We see… you see…” The “falling” hook concludes the chorus: “But even when we see life falling apart, you see life falling in place.” The strongest  line is “We see our Savior forsaken, you see Easter’s dawn.” The force of this line is accompanied by an unexpected twist and lift in the melody. There was only one bit that needed work, and it actually comes right before that last line: “We read a story so tragic, seem too far gone.” The phrase “seem too far gone” doesn’t really make sense. The only possible antecedent is “we,” yet the lyric has shifted from talking about our story to our reading Jesus’ story.

Final thoughts: This album could be divided into radio-friendly contemporary country on the one hand and nostalgic MOR material on the other. The country tunes include some of the album’s biggest highlights, packing a good Carrie Underwood-like punch. At the same time, they include the album’s weakest moments. The MOR material makes up the solid, consistent center. Throw in “Be Thou My Vision,” which is neither but stands out on its own, and the album as a whole tips toward my good side. I want to hear Amber wrap her voice around more good songs some time soon.

Prime cuts: “Be Thou My Vision,” “Give it to Jesus,” “Falling”

Rating: 4 stars

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