Songs that aren’t your cup of tea, but…

Some time ago, I came across a piece by respected Christian songwriter Joel Lindsey about songwriting. He talked about the experience of teaching a seminar where people brought their ideas for honest feedback. But at the end of the day, only one had really stuck with him:

As I lie here in bed thinking back over all the songs I heard today, I can only really remember one song.  It was a trainwreck of a song that needs probably more work than all of the others combined — it needs a complete overhaul, actually.  It was an overly familiar title, didn’t have any semblance of a structure, the writer used the same rhyming words over and over and over, the lyrical hook didn’t match up with the melodic hook and, worst of all, the grammar was awful.

And yet…I’m in bed almost 12 hours later and it’s still on my mind.  Come to find out the song was written about the writer’s son who is serving in the military in Iraq and this song was written for him and his buddies.  Although the lines were non-sequitar [sic] and seemed to come at you like a machine gun there was emotion dripping in every single word.  There was obvious pain, fear, angst, and sadness woven so beautifully into the melody and into the meat of this song that I felt bad for having to say that I doubted it could get cut in its current form.  But I begged the writer — don’t lose the heart of this song…learn how to structure it in such a way that the emotion is in some kind of manageable form, but don’t lose that.

I for one know exactly what Joel means. What about you? Have you ever heard a song that maybe wasn’t quite as bad as what Joel is describing, maybe it was decently good, but there was so much about it that you just didn’t like? And yet…there was something in the pain it was describing that just tugged at you?

There are two songs I want to discuss today along these lines, and they are both CCM songs. I’ll have to ask my SG fan readers to bear with me here, because it’s part of the point I’m trying to make. The first one is by a group called Sanctus Real. Their music is pretty standard light Christian rock. The lead singer, Matt Hammitt, wrote a song called “Lead Me” about his relationship with his wife and kids and what that meant when combined with his career. He and his wife went through a period of struggle in their marriage, and they had to fight to keep it together. Many Christian singers and their wives could identify with this story: Matt’s sheer absence from home was putting a strain on the entire family. So the song “Lead Me” was birthed out of the pain his family has walked through. The verses are written in his voice as a father, trying to have his career and telling himself that his wife and children will be all right on their own. But then in the chorus, he hears them saying:

Lead me with strong hands

Stand up when I can’t

Don’t leave me hungry for love

Chasing dreams…

But what about us?

Now listen to the song with the accompanying music video. Remember, musically this is typical CCM fare. Don’t expect an inspired melody or stellar vocals. This isn’t about music. It’s about pain.

Pain: You feel it in this song, in the video, and in Matt’s voice. That’s what I’m trying to put my finger on here. Also worth watching is the interview with Matt and his wife that pops up immediately as a related video on the embed.

The next song is by a new artist named Chris August. It’s called “7 x 70.” Chris tells the story behind it here. It was a last-minute addition to his debut album. Producer Ed Cash suggested that he write a song about “what hurt you when you were little.” Reluctantly, Chris went home and wrote the first part of the song, then brought it to Ed the next morning. When he played it for him, Ed told him that it needed to be a song about forgiveness. “Forgiveness?” Chris asked. “You told me to write about something that hurt me.” “Right!” said Ed.

The song and video speak for themselves. Continue to keep in mind, as with the last song, that this is not great music. But again, it’s not about the music. Watch and listen here.

“7 x 70 times. If that’s the cost, I’ll pay the price.” Admit it—that sort of hits you in the gut.

I would be the first to say that these songs are not masterpieces. And yet, the pain that they communicate makes them stand out to me in a way that other songs don’t, even though they may be better crafted. They’re raw and honest. They address the fact that life is not always beautiful and easy. And yet in the midst of it, they find hope in crying out to God.

I’m going to be honest and say that I have trouble finding that in southern gospel music. Part of it has to do with the fact that at least half of the SG repertoire (it seems), is composed of purely upbeat, fun material. But that’s not the only factor, because SG has plenty of ballads as well. And yet even there, I see a prevalence of the big ballad—the grand, sweeping statement of faith with exciting orchestration that ends on a long, high note. There are many great songs that would fall into this category. But they’re not painful. How often do you find a southern gospel song that expresses genuine brokenness? I’m not saying that they’re not out there, I’m just saying you have to go looking to find them underneath the catchy songs about heaven and the power anthems. And I have nothing against catchy songs about heaven or power anthems. It’s just that every once in a while, I’m looking for something real. It doesn’t have to be impeccably delivered or flawlessly written, but it has that something about it that you can’t quite put your finger on, but when you hear it, you feel it.

Am I the only one who feels that way? In closing, here is Joel Lindsey’s conclusion:

Then I found myself saying something that surprised myself even:  if I had to choose between a well-crafted song and a song with this kind of emotion, I’m going to pick the emotion anyday.  Because if a song can’t make you feel something, then why bother?  But what makes a song truly great, in my opinion, is when it has both.

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24 Comments

Filed under Music Commentary, Other Genres, Songwriting

24 responses to “Songs that aren’t your cup of tea, but…

  1. I think two factors are at play here.

    (1) Southern Gospel tends to follow the example of the hymnwriters by giving the end of the story. CCM tends to leave songs of the pain more open-ended, and emphasizing the pain. (As I think you might recall, I expounded more on this line of thought here, and I’m only linking to save myself the trouble of re-writing the whole post again here! http://www.southerngospelblog.com/archives/10053)

    (2) Are you perhaps comparing the best of CCM with the average in SG? SG certainly has its songs which are indisputably real, and tied into real-life events, too. I think of “One Scarred Hand.” I think of “When You Look at Me.” I think of “It Pays to Pray.” Oddly enough, given its different twist, I think of “This Ole House.”

    Many if not most of the great Southern Gospel songwriters have one or two songs like that. (I named two from the great Miss Dianne, for example, just among the first four that came to mind.)

    If you go back to the hymns, it’s the same story as SG and CCM. Many are good but not great lyrically, good but not great musically, and good but not great when it comes to real emotion. But many of the ones that survive are great in all three areas.

    • Well, actually, in these particular cases, the pain is resolved at the end (which you’d hear if you listened to them all the way through). Not that I don’t think there can be good or great songs written that aren’t neatly wrapped up with a bow at the end, but in this case you do have a resolution.

      As for number two, this is far from the best of CCM, so actually I’m not. And I’m not actually comparing it with the “average” in SG either. As I said, some of those grand, sweeping ballads I mentioned are truly glorious—I had in mind the likes of “We Shall See Jesus.” My whole point was that something like “7 x 70″ is not stellar in the way that “We Shall See Jesus” is stellar, and yet it still has something it lacks.

      I don’t know the story behind “This Ole House,” but I would have put it in the “cute and catchy” department. Is there a story behind it? “One Scarred Hand” is a good one. “It Pays to Pray” struck me as unremarkable, so I didn’t really pay attention. However, I did think of “Holy Is Thy Name.”

      As for hymns, there are many, many more great hymns than CCM songs, or even, I would wager, SG songs.

    • Cute? Aargh….

      Trying to get my thoughts back on track…

      OK. Sorry, that was a typo. I meant to type “This Ole Place.” And I hear genuine, real emotion in all four.

      Funny how “It Pays to Pray” struck you as unremarkable – musically, I assume. (a) You haven’t heard it live! (b) Well, that would make it a perfect comparison for the CCM songs you were listing, right? :)

  2. I look at it the same way as I look at a singer. There may be a singer who goes against everything that is proper – they don’t use proper diction, they don’t use proper phrasing or breathing techniques, they don’t place their tones properly – but they are so full of emotion that you can’t help but watch and feel what they’re feeling.

    • Perhaps, although I think there’s a difference between someone who just hasn’t been trained to sing correctly at all and someone who deliberately employs what He Who Shall Not Be Named used to call “Inner Angry Girl Syndrome.” ;-)

  3. Steven

    Great post!

    Im in my late 20’s (wow that’s painful to say haha) and I used to be pretty much SG Only when it comes to my listening of gospel music. The more i’ve grown up somehow I’ve found myself gravitating toward CCM some. Why? I think it is as the troubles of life grow, sometimes you want to be hit with reality based songs. Not saying that SG is anywhere apart from reality but I think the raw emotion of life is sometimes missing.
    Not saying its lacking in SG – we have great writers like Joseph Habedank and Scott Inman who skillfully craft inspiring, real lyrics.
    Take for example on Susan Whisnant’s solo project the song “The Church Across The Street”. There is song about a young girl who has to make the choice to have an abortion or not. She really wants ministering by the church right at her fingertips. While its not the best crafted song in the world, it has that raw emotion and just gets and challenges you. I contrast that with the song Brian Free released years ago about abortion, while I praise the message of anti-abortion, the song was (to me) OVER SATURATED with the sadness and the emotion that the song did FOR ME what a song SHOULD NOT do: Make me not want to listen to it again.(see:shoes, the Christmas) Of course, to each their own.
    Sometimes, and i know its kind of a joke in the southern gospel community, we hear “listen to the words and not the singer”, and while a good majority of the time I brace myself for musical impact, there are the times when you get a wonderful surprise.
    Now back to listening to the Cathedral’s singing “Homeland” …now that’s whats uplifting me today :)

    • I’ve heard “The Church Across the Street.” Buddy Mullins did a really nice music video for it a while back. I appreciate the message of that song too, although I’ve said before that the subtle jab at the Church doesn’t quite sit well with me. The implication is that the Church is inactive when it comes to helping girls like the main character. “And at the church across the street, the band played on. The choir sang another verse of another lovely song.” What about the crisis pregnancy center across the street? There’s one in my town, and the Church is doing great work there.

      • Steven

        I agree with your point about the jab at the church. Of course on some points people could say well the girl could have went to the church to see if they are really cold :)

      • quartet-man

        I agree too. Although the song was good and tackled a topic that is needed (abortion), I’m thinking “the church is across the street from you, why don’t you go and check it out?” The church might not know she exists, but they have a place for her to go right across the street. I think sometimes people use that as an excuse. It would be another thing if the church shunned her or willfully ignored her. Granted, a church should have outreach, but who is to say that she wasn’t home when they went knocking, she refused to answer the door, or she were in an apartment building. So, I have mixed feelings. I think the people have some stake and accountability in things besides the church. Maybe that makes me sound like a heathen, and I am certainly not saying we shouldn’t go outside the walls, but still.

      • My thoughts exactly. We never see her giving the Church a fair shake. She keeps hoping she’ll meet someone from the Church, but in that case why doesn’t she drop in of a Sunday?

        This song is a very mild example, but it seems to me that there has been altogether too much church-bashing of late in even the Christian media world. Has anyone else observed this trend? Suddenly it’s like the Church can do no right…unless it’s liberal and emergent of course. Then it’s progressive.

  4. By the way, if there are any songwriters out there who should happen to read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  5. quartet-man

    My thoughts on this are that SG typically doesn’t like the songs about real-life struggles. They feel we need to give the answer. Although that is true, Christians do not live perfect, trouble-free lives. I understand not wanting to focus on the problems, but on the solution, but Christians know pain too and I think having songs that work through that are voice what we are feeling are good.

    I read once that Gaither got into songwriting because there was such a deficit of songs that talked about point A and B. They said most songs back then were about Heaven. Basically, they said something to the effect of “there is a lot of living to do before we get to Heaven”.

    • quartet-man

      Okay, here is one of the sources I read from. It is the book “I Almost Missed the Sunset.”

      “After a couple of years directing the choir, I started to notice what I considered a hole in Christian music. There seemed to be a gap in the area of personal expression: Ideas that needed to be communicated, but no songs existed to express them. Many of the songs of that time were good, and some were just okay.”
      After talking about some songs leaning toward sentimentality or lacking in solid doctrine or theology he says:

      “A lot of songs were about either being saved or going to heaven, which are of course, things I believe in. But between those two realities we have a lot of living to do in this old world.”

  6. here4areason

    Interesting perspective. This is why I enjoy your blog – A Southern Gospel fan who also likes some CCm.:) I personally listen to more CCM than Southern Gospel music, though I did grow up with hymns.

    So many times, a song may be great in every aspect, but the emotion is missing.

  7. JJ

    Perhaps the artists have not yet recorded the “raw and honest” songs that have been pitched to them by songwriters.

    If artists don’t choose to cut them, the songs just sit in a songwriter’s catalog — known only to God. :-)

    • …which leads to another interesting point, namely the general lack of prominent singer-songwriters in SG—singers who also write their own stuff.

      • JJ

        The ones that are active (Rodney Griffin, Jim Brady, and more recently Joseph Habedank) do receive quite a bit of attention — especially in Singing News songwriter nominations.

        Sometimes they even receive credit for writing the entire song when they have co-writers. It’s kinda funny.

    • quartet-man

      JJ, one never knows which “dynomite” songs writers have in their catalogs. ;-)

  8. Great blog!!

    From a passionate Songwriter.

  9. pianoman

    I just stumbled across this blog today. I love it. In regards to a simple, “real story” song, may I invite you to check out this Youtube video. This one is about a lyrically simple as you can get.

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