Wilburn & Wilburn have been turning heads since they first formed. Jonathan’s name recognition has allowed them to come strong out of the gate, and so far the quality of their music has more than matched the quality of their teeth (sorry, had to to get that in there—no harm meant!) Their first project of covers (as well as some independent work Jordan’s done), point to a variety of stylistic influences that includes contemporary Christian groups like Phillips Craig & Dean. Their version of “When God Ran” remains my favorite. On Family Ties, they explore country, bluegrass, black gospel, and even a little blues. Vocally, of course Jonathan is one of the all-time greats, and his son Jordan is following right along. Both of them are versatile vocalists who can sing pretty much anything you put in front of them. Jordan’s voice is somewhat similar to his dad’s, but lighter in timbre and a bit more adaptable to a pop style—comparable to Joseph Habedank. He caught my attention right away as a young vocalist to watch, and he turns in fantastic work on this project.
Family Ties boasts a great crop of new songs. Southern gospel needs good new material, and there’s plenty to go around here. Combine that with the stellar vocals and production values, and you have a record that belongs in any SG fan’s collection. Here’s a song-by-song breakdown (including links to some live performances):
1. It’s a Shore Thing: This Ronny Hinson tune is a sunny, relaxed opener that moves along at a satisfying mid-tempo clip. As the title implies, it’s full of sailing metaphors. Perfectly workable song, though I confess I prefer “Sail On” along similar lines.
I’ve bailed a lot of water, I have patched the sails
My bow’s been crushed and battered, but faith has stood the gale
2. Jesus Will: Jordan takes the lead on this comforting ballad, a Dianne Wilkinson/Jerry Salley collaboration. He delivers the encouraging lyric with a blue-eyed earnestness that’s touching. The country violin, which figures prominently in nearly all of these songs, is used to sweet effect.
Jesus will still keep his promise
Never to leave us alone.
He still sends His blessings down on us
And Heaven will still be our home.
3. Devil Be Gone: Written by Wilkinson and Kelly Garner, this fast-paced, minor-key country/bluegrass piece is a huge album highlight. The production is absolutely top-notch. David Bruce Murray commented that his favorite moment was the instrumental interlude (which features some brilliant interplay between the fiddle and Gordon Mote’s crisp keys), and he could have used even more. I independently came to exactly the same conclusion. That interlude wasn’t nearly long enough. Not that the lyrics leave anything to complain about either. It’s a rousing tell-off of the Father of Lies.
You’ve tempted and you’ve tried me, it’s gone on long enough.
I’ll put on God’s whole armor now, it’s time to call your bluff.
Ya act like I’m defeated, but I’m saved and sanctified.
Now Jesus fights my battles, you can run but you can’t hide.
4. Mama: Yep, it’s a sappy Mama song. The kind of thing you’re supposed to either love or hate. I like it. Good sappy. :)
Mama, ain’t it just like you to make light of all you’ve done
Make yourself out to be the lucky one.
Oh Mama, this time I’m gonna have to disagree.
You’re the best there is, and God gave you to me.
5. You’ll Still Be There: Another new Dianne cut, and another big fave. This is pure mid-tempo bluegrass, a trio of Jonathan, Jordan and some other singer I can’t identify who sings above them—a female singer, I think. More mouth-watering production, this time a savory blend of mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, and upright bass. Jonathan sings the melody and turns in some delightful singing. It’s a pleasure to hear him discover his inner twang. The song itself is classic and has a timeless, well-worn feeling.
When the last friend I’ve trusted has gone and done me wrong
Oh so wrong, Lord
You’ll still be there when the rest have come and gone.
6. A Cross Became My Saving Grace: Dianne teamed up with her young some-time collaborator Joseph Habedank for this excellent new piano ballad. Jordan carries it beautifully, with harmony support from Dad and a little choir stuff towards the end. There’s a smooth, mellow quality to his voice that makes it very easy to listen to. The song’s melody is gorgeous and manages to flow naturally while also being a little fresh and creative. The chromatic work in the chorus is actually a bit tricky. Lyrics are rock solid, great theology. I think this would make a really good radio single. It’s like very gentle pop—a little bit outside of standard SG, but not drastically so. The production is low-key and spot-on—piano backbone with subtle guitar and upright bass accents. Without a doubt, this is the strongest ballad on the project and perhaps my favorite overall.
There was a crucified, resurrected Savior and Redeemer
Sent for people just like me, lost and so abased.
I heard about Mount Calvary and the blood that my Jesus shed there,
And that’s the day a cross became my saving grace.
7. I John: This is one of only two covers on the project. It’s sung by a quartet of Jordan, Jonathan, Gene McDonald and Shane McConnell (not 100% sure on that). Jordan sings lead and shows off his upper range. The four voices all blend superbly. My favorite part was the second verse where Jordan and Jonathan trade off vocal licks. They literally recorded a little speaking part for Jonathan when he comes in, “Aw, move over there, son.” Kinda cheesy maybe, but it’s cute.
Well John declared that he saw a man
He held twelve bright stars in his right hand
Well his eyes flashed like the burnin’ sun
Old John got scared and he wanted to run
8. Things I’ve Never Done: Southern gospel rock—which isn’t really all THAT rocky. Not that much to distinguish this song from other SG heaven songs, except that it’s got a little more sizzle to it. It emphasizes the fun side of heaven with images of kicking off our shoes and tearing down the streets of gold, singing at the top of our lungs in the heavenly choir, gabbing with Paul and Silas, and literally forgetting worry and pain. It’s a fun song.
Have you ever wondered what it’s gonna be like
When you get to heaven and see all the beautiful sights?
Some may stand and wonder while takin’ in the view
Let me take just a minute to tell you some things I’m gonna do…
9. Family Ties: Smooth country ballad. Kevin Williams’ acoustic and Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle guide it along. As has been remarked, the song is perfect for the duo. It was co-written by Dianne Wilkinson and Rusty Golden. It’s sung from the perspective of a father hoping to be the best dad he can be as he passes on the passion for Christ that his own parents gave him. Appropriately, Jonathan takes the lead. I hope they single this one.
Sometimes when I think of my past
And how Mom and Dad made the memories last
I can see what I want to be in my family’s sight
Teaching my kids all the things they should know
Living and loving as I watch them grow.
And I hope one day they’ll say
“Daddy did it right.”
10. Let’s All Go Down To the River: The other cover tune. This classic country number gets a foot-stompin’ black gospel-flavored treatment here. Jonathan explores his soulful side with a rich vocal. It starts off with him and the choir doing a slow “Shall We Gather At the River” tag, then it kicks into higher gear. It’s got a great beat, and the fiddle, piano and electric guitar all dance through it with sparkling energy. I really like just about everything about this cut.
Jesus is the man at the river
And He washes all our sins away.
Well, He can save your soul
If you give Him control.
Be ready for that judgment day.
11. I Ain’t Giving Up On Jesus: Haven’t I heard this one somewhere before? Oh that’s right, it’s a blues song, and all blues songs sound the same! All kidding aside, this one really is rather repetitive, even though the down-to-earth lyrics are well-crafted. Musically, it’s just playing on the same short melodic line over and over—a lot like Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Walk”, except with even less variety. I get tired of it pretty quickly, and it’s probably my least favorite on the album even though it’s well done for what it is. Better live than studio.
Hard times can shake your spirit.
Hard times can make a grown man cry.
Some folks wanna cuss their Maker,
I say just give Him time.
Closing thoughts: Family Ties isn’t just “good for a debut.” It’s just plain good. There’s a who’s who of studio musicians involved on this project: Gordon Mote, Kevin Williams, Aubrey Haynie, Greg Ritchie, and more. Producer Ben Isaacs brings it all together with great skill. But the best production values can’t save a poor song. Fortunately this project is full of good songs, even if some are a little more memorable than others. There are a few weaker cuts. I could have used a couple more ballads on the level of “A Cross Became My Saving Grace.” David Bruce Murray has also made a good point that “there’s a surprising scarcity of actual duet arrangements. Most of these songs are mixed as solos with the other chief group member’s vocals buried in the mix with a few other faceless background singers.” This doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers him, but I can see why it might be cooler for the duo to explore what they could do with just their two voices. It would give them a bit more individuality. But as the project stands, there’s not much to complain about from my perspective. There’s something for everyone here.
Radio single picks: “Devil Be Gone,” “A Cross Became My Saving Grace,” “Family Ties”
Rating: 5 stars.