Every now and then, I peek through the fingers covering my eyes long enough to see if there’s any music the kids like today that isn’t completely awful. Recently, I was moderately surprised and pleased to discover the band OneRepublic, and even more interested to learn that front-man and producer Ryan Tedder professes Christianity. Granted, it’s a “Bono Christianity” that gives him no qualms about also producing work for other pop artists who are decidedly opposed to all Christian morality. Still, it’s not every day you see an Oral Roberts grad, raised by Pentecostal missionaries, making mainstream pop music. There’s enough interesting material in Tedder’s career choices and philosophy for his very own Christians in Entertainment post, but that’s for another time.
At any rate, it’s clear that gospel music has influenced OneRepublic’s music. Explaining one of his signature production motifs, Tedder says, “Handclaps, always. Why? Church.” Maddy Easter told me that he and his wife are even thinking of covering one of the band’s recent hits for an upcoming project. Today, I’d like to present their most heavily gospel-infused tune as a “borrowing” candidate for another one of our own more progressive artists. While I don’t care for a whole lot of the band’s work, darned if I can’t stop hitting “replay” on this one. It’s titled “Preacher,” and it’s dedicated to Tedder’s grandfather, whose tough love and wisdom inspired him through his youth.
The meaning of the poignant first verse became clear to me in an interview that mentioned Tedder’s parents had divorced when he was a five-year-old boy. Interestingly, Tedder never talks about this in connection with the song, but once you have that bit of knowledge, the whole lyric clicks into place:
When I was a kid, I used to buy and sell gravity.
I knew how to fly, and I would teach you for a fee.
Broke every window in my hotel heart
When I was only five years old, a twelve-year scar.
But I’d hear the same voice echo in my mind:
“See son, you got an angel to chase the devil at night…”
This is the grandfather’s voice coming in, providing assurance and stability as young Ryan works through his hurt confusion. The second verse is about embarking on his dream to enter the music business as a very young man (“I drove to a strange town full of have and have-nots”), yet the preacher’s words still remain with him: “And as I walk through that storybook life, I be lookin’ for an angel to chase the devil at night.” Interestingly, he takes inspiration from what might sound like harsh words from his grandfather in the chorus: “God only helps those who learn to help themselves.” It spurs him on to seize the moment with all its challenges. The uplifting musical backdrop then builds to a soaring, power-packed crescendo, full of gospel heart and soul. [Note: That should be "hands up, heads down" in the bridge]:
Despite the song’s personal, story-song nature, I think anybody with a father or grandfather in the ministry can relate to it. For that matter, anybody who shares that wonderfully close bond with a father figure can relate to it. I like how Tedder introduces the song in concert: “The way I figured it is if you’re 85 years old, and you still got your principles, and you’re still kicking… somebody should write a song for you.” It also carries universal appeal for any young person who’s had to take his faith in his hands, pack it into a car and drive to a strange town—through the risk and the loneliness, there remains the echo of a well-remembered voice, the image of a well-beloved face.
Admittedly, the spectrum of vocalists who could cover the song is limited. The chorus requires a tenor with a very strong, clear upper range. But I think Wes Hampton, whom Tedder resembles a little bit on his high notes, could do an excellent job with it, solo or with the Vocal Band. David Phelps would also be a strong candidate. If the Vocal Band covered it, I could actually hear David on the verses and Wes on the chorus. I could also see Ernie Haase & Signature Sound doing it. Devin McGlamery is very comfortable with pop music, and his baritone would fit naturally on the verses. Then Ernie could pick up the chorus. Brian Free & Assurance also comes to mind. All the guys could share vocal duties, with Jeremy Lile handling the low notes in the verses, and then really either Brian or Bill could do the chorus. I’m actually leaning towards Bill over Brian, because he combines a scarily high range of his own with more substance to his tone.
Fun bonus video: The background vocals being recorded in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I always like these rough around the edges, in the studio type things. Then when the finished version kicks in at 1:50, it’s kind of awesome. Only annoying thing: Ryan’s bright orange, tight-tight pants. Apparently this is what the guys are wearing these days. *facepalm*