Within the last few years, the Booth Brothers have sky-rocketed to the top tier of southern gospel music. Though Michael and Ronnie have been at it since they first started out with their dad in 1990 and began steadily building a fan base, the group has enjoyed its greatest popularity in the years since Jim Brady came on board as the third vocalist, bringing his exceptional singing and song-writing talents with him. In the mid-2000s, a string of radio hits like “River Keeps A’Rollin,” “He Saw it All” (their breakthrough hit, penned by Daryl Mosley) and “Welcome to the Family” propelled them forward. And they haven’t looked back.
But recently, Michael Booth decided to take the group in a new direction with the album Declaration. Though their trademark smooth, pleasing harmonies remained constant, the song selection was a dramatic departure from their usual country/gospel fare. Suddenly, they were covering Steve Green, the Gettys, and Sovereign Grace. Michael explained that it was part of his new vision to communicate as much scriptural truth as possible through each song they selected. Of course, the group had plenty of biblical songs in their repertoire already, but doctrinal content hadn’t always been at the top of the priority list. Declaration announced that things were changing, and critics raved over it. Well, some did anyway. Others dissented that the album’s big, almost theatrical sound was over the top. Although I enjoyed it (even giving it a glowing review of my own at the time), I also sympathize with the dissenters, perhaps somewhat more now than then since I’ve had time to reflect. It was an exciting experiment, and some of the arrangements worked beautifully, but from the perspective of where the group naturally fits stylistically, the over-arching sound was too heavy for them. Because at the end of the day, they’re still a country/gospel trio, albeit better than most. And when a country/gospel trio tries to “do” an orchestral Broadway sound, it just doesn’t feel natural, just like it wouldn’t feel natural for Alison Krauss to try to “do” Whitney Houston. Still, many people, including me, applauded Michael for being willing to think outside the box in order to choose the best material possible.
For those of us who hoped Michael would be able to maintain his new standards for lyrical excellence in a more musically accessible form, Let It Be Known is the album we’ve been waiting for. Lari Goss is still at the helm, and some trademark “Gossian” orchestration still finds its way into a few cuts, but overall, the epic sweep has been traded for a more familiar, down-to-earth feel. Gone are the five and six-minute monster ballads, replaced by much shorter tracks (of which half are under three minutes). But don’t be fooled. This is not a fluff project, although the brothers do allow themselves to lighten up here and there. The biblical truth these songs contain may be communicated more quietly than before, but it is no less clear or thought-provoking.
1. First John: This brief acapella intro follows in the same vein as the brothers’ take on “The Gospel Song” from Declaration. It’s a simple, lovely setting of 1 John 3:2-3. Very classy. Guys, I know it’s short, but please add this to your concert repertoire. Thank you.
2. See What a Morning: (Watch a live performance here.) The Booth Brothers are the second southern gospel group to cover this Getty/Townend piece. It was first covered in SG by the Irish trio Revelation. The Gettys themselves have two versions of it, one from their debut In Christ Alone and one from the 2nd installment of New Irish Hymns, a collaborative series Kristyn has done with other female Irish singers. I like the version from New Irish Hymns the best of the two (listen here), and it may still remain my favorite version overall. But Lari Goss puts a creative spin on it here that is very refreshing. On reflection, it really isn’t that hard to come up with the reinvented rhythm, but perhaps that’s what makes it so enjoyable. It makes you wish you had thought of it, except you didn’t. It moves much faster than the original, which removes any trace of tedium from the song’s multiple verses. There’s also a very nice extra bridge with a snippet from “Lo, In the Grave.” All-in-all, a lovely cut which would have fit nicely on Declaration as well. The Brothers have taken to opening their concerts with this. It’s a great way to catch people’s attention from the first note. [Correction: According to Wes Burke's recent concert review, they actually like to use it for closing the first half.]
3. She Still Remembers Jesus’ Name: (Watch a live performance here.) I wouldn’t have placed this number right after “See, What a Morning,” because the two songs sound so different that the immediate transition feels odd. But this is a very tender story-song about a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s, yet, as the title says, still remembers Jesus’ name. Though the faces and names of family and friends are alien to her, she knows every word to “Rock of Ages,” and she can still quote John 3:16. There are people who have actually seen this kind of thing happen to real loved ones with Alzheimer’s, and as Michael Booth says when he sets this up in concert, that truly can only be a gift from God. He speaks from personal experience because his grandmother suffered from it shortly before she passed away. I’d like to quote a little from what Michael said in the video I linked to, because he says this so beautifully and well:
When the Bible speaks of the heart, it is speaking of the core of our being, the substance of who we are. And though the mind may be failing, from the depths of who that person is, Jesus is coming from him and out his mouth, when everything else has failed.
The gently soothing country setting is typical Booth Brothers, with a warm lead vocal by Ronnie. However, I have to admit that as much as I enjoy this song, it doesn’t seem to possess the same timeless quality as “Ellsworth,” which deals with the same topic. (And by the way, you can see Michael off to the right in that video, nodding very appreciatively at around 4:51 as Jason Crabb finishes.) That song has a haunting, delicate touch that isn’t quite captured in the same way here. I think it’s partly because while “She Still Remembers” is careful to spell everything out in the lyrics, the greatness of “Ellsworth” lies in what it leaves unsaid. “Ellsworth” provides glimpses and snapshots where “She Remembers” provides methodical narrative. That extra heart-tugging feel seems to be lacking musically as well. But it’s sweet, it’s tasteful, and it’s definitely going to hit home for a lot of people. It’s already circulating on SG radio.
4. He’s So Good To Me: This track is practically over before it’s started, clocking in at just under two minutes. At first I just wrote it off as up-tempo filler, but upon re-listening, I’ve decided that it’s an enjoyable little number. They’re doing all kinds of little things with the harmony to keep it fresh and fun. Of course it isn’t a huge standout, and perhaps a more substantial fast song would have been better, but it’s just fun.
5. When You Bow At Jesus’ Feet: Honestly, this is probably my favorite song on the whole thing. Jim Brady simply doesn’t disappoint, and he has turned in one of his finest pieces yet here. Contrary to what the title might imply, this is not a song about heaven. It’s an invitation to the sinner to come and surrender to Christ: “Grace and mercy now are waiting, when you bow at Jesus’ feet.” The melody is gorgeous, although I wonder if anybody has noticed how closely the chorus resembles Gordon Mote’s “Wounded Hands.” Not that I’m complaining, it’s just rather striking. Jim takes the lead and sings it flawlessly (of course), and except for a quiet key change half-way through, there really isn’t much musical drama here. There’s no orchestra, no choir, no Moment with a capital “M” when all the stops are being pulled out and everything is ending on a huge note. And I love it. It works, mate. It works.
6. Since Jesus Came: A very cute up-tempo number with a classic jazz feel that strongly recalls a group like the Andrews Sisters. The tongue-twisting lyric combined with the music and the style of the vocals (right down to the “Doo-doo-doo- doos”) all contribute to the resemblance. Compare with a number like “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
7. Masterpiece of Mercy: (Watch a live performance here.) Jim Brady and Rodney Griffin teamed up to pen this lovely meditation on grace (first cut by the regrettably short-lived trio Statement of Faith), which uses the common metaphor of God as the artist and the sinner as His masterpiece. I love the progression of key changes in the first verse—one change for each stanza. It goes together with the step-by-step description of the Artist’s work: First, He starts with the “dirty canvas” of a sin-blackened heart. Then, He “turns His light” upon it and begins to wash it clean. And then…
When all the stains were gone, He started painting
With colors that I’d never seen before.
Then with joy He was ready to display me
To show the world what the cross was for.
The chorus describes the canvas as “a holy place” once the Artist has redeemed it, which is a beautiful way to express the imputation of God’s righteousness to a saved sinner. The second verse continues by saying that the Artist is not finished with his masterpiece yet: God will continue to shape and perfect us until He’s ready to take us home. This is a perfect example of a very low-key song that communicates the gospel beautifully and effectively.
8. Let It Be Known: The title track is a solid piece of writing. The 6/8 feel recalls “I See Grace” from Declaration. However, the instrumentation doesn’t have as much of a cinematic sweep. But it’s sure to carry you along just the same. It was crafted by the team of Jim Brady, Barry Weeks and the prolific Sue Smith. No complaints with lyrics or music here. It’s a stirring call for Christians to proclaim the good news of Jesus, set to a great melody, with a great vocal arrangement. One of the best songs on the album. This should go to radio and become a live concert staple.
9. The Master’s Table: This haunting ballad by Rebecca Peck has a bit of a minor feel. I like the gentle use of the electric guitar—it brings an 80s flavor to the mix. Smooth, smooth production and delivery, leaves the listener wanting to come back for more. The one weakness is the line, “We fellowship together” (referring to a person’s meeting with God while studying Scripture). I know, I know, it’s a common bit of “Christian-ese,” but still… Anyway, this really is a very impressive track, definitely a standout.
10. Bread Upon the Water: (Watch a live performance here, together with an acapella hymn medley, which comes first.) This brings back childhood memories of wearing out Mom and Dad’s vinyl Imperials records. I would run around and sing along with all my favorites— “Trumpet of Jesus,” “Old Man’s Rubble,” “First Morning in Heaven,” and many more. This is one such favorite, a classic which never really gets old. The Gaither Vocal Band’s 2006 cover quite honestly didn’t even touch the original, but fortunately this comes closer. It captures much more of the original’s energy and spirit. This is particularly felt in the preservation of the backup echoes on the first verse: “Now don’t you waver (don’t you waver). Keep on living (keep on living),” etc. It may seem like a small detail, but you really miss it on the GVB version. There was no attempt in either cover to duplicate the shredding electric guitar solo we all remember from the original’s musical bridge, but its absence is handled much better on the Booth Brothers’ version. The bit of electric guitar that the GVB did include in the middle was so pathetic that it only served to remind us just how far superior the original was. The Booth Brothers do away with a musical bridge altogether, opting for an immediate key change instead. Smart move. Either do it right, or don’t do it at all. Of course, the Booth Brothers have no Armond Morales, but Jim Brady sings the second verse very well anyway (and showcases an impressive upper range—he actually hits some of the same notes Wes Hampton hits on the GVB cover, bar the very highest, of course). Obviously no cover is ever going to surpass the original, but this is a fun spin on it which should go over well live.
11. What About Now?: This track’s intro alone is about a minute long. It’s a tastefully executed guitar duet, with a folk/classical sound that almost brings to mind Angelo Badalamanti’s haunting soundtrack for The Straight Story (compare with “Rose’s Theme”). In fact, it has such an other-worldly air that when the song itself kicks in, it feels a little awkward. But I like the creativity, and they try to keep the guitar in the forefront for the first part of the song to maintain continuity.
This song was written by Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, and Tony Wood. Past experience has shown that it’s virtually impossible for any two of those writers to put their heads together and not come up with something good, to say nothing of all three working in tandem. It’s pretty clear that Michael specifically requested this one, because it’s basically a Paul Washer sermon condensed and set to music. It challenges the listener to examine his walk with Christ and ask himself what kind of fruit he is bearing here and now, rather than assuming he is saved because he prayed a prayer long ago. I think the message is powerful and convicting. At the same time, this track feels a little off to me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. I applaud Michael for wanting to convey this message in a song, but lyrically and musically, it comes off a little slow, a little cumbersome. But I’ve got to hand it to the authors: This was probably a doozy to write, so the fact that they pulled it off successfully at all is impressive.
It’s no surprise that Michael takes the feature. What is surprising is that it’s the only full one he gets on the whole album (though he does step-outs on a couple others, most notably “See, What a Morning”). Perhaps in his humility he thought the project would be better if listeners heard more of Jim and Ronnie and less of him, but he turns in a fine, controlled performance here. As for the production, I really like the restrained approach, right up until the surprise key change where the orchestra kicks in. To be honest, I don’t think I really want the orchestra at that point, even though I understand that it’s meant to provide a climax. I thought the song was getting along just fine without it and would have liked to see if they could create a musical high point without falling back on the big drums and strings.
Having said all that, I think this will make for an impressive concert moment. I look forward to watching Michael set it up. Even though it’s not my favorite on the project, it may be the most important, and it could well be the one that impacts the most people.
Outro: The melody of “First John” is simply reprised with “ooooooos” in place of the lyrics, and as others have noted, it’s a neat way to tie the project together and create a unified feel.
Closing thoughts: While grand orchestration can be effective, it doesn’t necessarily do lyrics a service to cover them in layers of production gloss. This project gives its songs room to breathe, and the results are balanced, simple and satisfying. Listeners looking for spiritual nourishment will walk away from this project well filled. My hat is off to Michael for pushing the group to the next level like this, and to Jim Brady and the writers he’s working with. If the Booth Brothers continue to put out projects this strong, they could well become my very favorite artist in the field.
Prime Cuts: “First John,” “See, What a Morning,” “When You Bow at Jesus’ Feet,” “Let it Be Known,” “Masterpiece of Mercy”
Review copy provided.