Category Archives: 3.5 star

CD Review: Still, by the Booth Brothers

From Southern Gospel’s most popular trio comes their first major release in several years. While this album isn’t available at digital outlets like Amazon or iTunes, the balance of original to cover material qualifies it as more than a table project. (Pick up your own copy at their website here.) It also offers listeners a first look at new baritone singer Paul Lancaster since long-time member Jim Brady took his leave. So without further ado, let’s see what I thought of it!

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CD Review: Out On a Limb, by Wes Hampton

Out on a Limb (CD)Out On a Limb is a wide-release re-packaging of Gaither Vocal Band tenor Wes Hampton’s former table project Reality. It is his second solo effort, following 2011’s A Man Like Me, which I first reviewed at Southern Gospel Journal here. Blending Wes’s fresh, confident vocals with a batch of new songs from CCM hit-maker Sam Mizell and friends, it’s sure to satisfy most die-hard Hampton fans. But will it satisfy fans of great music and songwriting? Does it satisfy me as a fan of all of the above? And does anyone else think the cover looks like someone dropped a Land’s End photo shoot in the middle of a Gustav Dore engraving?

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CD Review: The News is Out, by Driven Quartet

Driven Quartet is a young men’s group currently signed to Chapel Records. They’ve been around for a while, even if you may not recognize their name. Their roots run deep in southern gospel, and lead singer Jason Funderburk is the son of legendary Cathedrals tenor Danny Funderburk. In 2009, David Bruce Murray said their self-titled record was the best non-label release he had heard that year. Now they have returned with a new project. Click below the fold for my review. Continue reading

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CD Review: Hymns, by the Gaither Vocal Band

This hymns project is a parting gift from the last Gaither Vocal Band lineup of Michael English, Mark Lowry, David Phelps, and Wes Hampton. Nearly all the tracks are fresh, with a couple exceptions that I’ll detail in the Likes and Dislikes. So, let’s get right to it!


*Although “Amazing Grace” recycles some arrangement ideas from the Amazing Grace Homecoming project (minor modulation on verse three, orchestral rhythm on verse four, etc.), I greatly enjoyed the dramatic Celtic twist they put on it. It led to some very cool harmonic choices, like the perfect fifth on the word “begun” at the end. Also loved the pennywhistle doing a few bars of “Come Thou Fount” as the song drew to a close. Although guys, really, you’re not Irish and we can kinda tell, so lose the fake lilt-warble on verse one if you ever do it live, m’kay?

* “Redeemed” was another successful Celtic-tinged arrangement. The blend of strings, accordion and pipes creates an exciting, toe-tapping rhythm. The familiar hymn tune has been somewhat re-worked for this arrangement, but it works quite well. Vocally, David Phelps’s pure tone particularly shines in this context and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did the arrangement.

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CD Review: Surrender, by Adam Crabb

I put off reviewing this one all last year, but it seems to be perfect timing now that Adam has been hired by the GVB. This solo outing shows him exploring similar progressive ground to his brother Jason Crabb—country/pop with a gospel twist. As usual, I’ll present my thoughts in “Likes/Dislikes” format.


* “I’ve Got a Right to Pray” — Adam is at his best when he’s rocking that swampy gospel sound with his signature harmonica work. I also loved the jazz organ’s contribution. But most of all, I just love the message of the song (originally recorded by the Paynes and then the Crabb Family in 1999). It’s a spirited application of the story of Daniel to contemporary stifling of religion in the public square. “I wonder what old Daniel would say if he were alive today?”

*As worship songs go, the title track isn’t too bad. It has a pleasant Matt Redman vibe. I’d like to hear Chris Tomlin sing it.

* “Why I Am Who I Am” — A heart-felt, well-written ballad about setting an example for our children. “They’re why I do what I do, why I am who I am.”

* “Higher Ground” breathes new life into the familiar hymn, with some help from Gene McDonald! You’ve never heard such a rockin’ version of this one.

* “Hey Now” may sound a little too much like Eric Church’s “Homeboy,” but hey, that song was wicked cool so why complain?

* “Sometimes He Whispers” starts off slow but builds to a strong chorus:

Sometimes he’s water to the thirsty

Sometimes he’s fire all-consuming

Sometimes his voice is louder than thunder

Oh, but sometimes, sometimes he whispers


*Inserting “Amazing Grace” into “That Whosoever Was Me.” It’s been done, and done, and done. Everyone stop it!

* “Sometimes God Allows” — A promising lyrical hook is wasted by a dull melody that doesn’t allow any lyrical impact to come through.

* “Jehovah Jireh” — Again, very poor melody. Particularly awkward cadencing on the verses and bridge.

*Kids’ choir kicking off “Hey Now” did not work. At all.

*Several songs that I’m struggling to remember and critique by name because… they just weren’t that memorable.

Final thoughts: While Adam has a good voice, he’s not as powerful a soloist as his brother Jason. The good side of this is that he has the ability to blend better with a group, as Bill Gaither has noticed. However, the best thing about Adam is his open heart for God and for people, and that definitely comes through on this project. Anyone who is already a big fan of the Crabbs or of Jason’s solo work will want to pick it up. However, more casual fans who are more interested in really memorable new songs may prefer to download select tracks on iTunes.


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CD Review: He Came (The Gospel of Christmas) by the Boggs Family

Because I have a special treat planned for each of the twelve days of Christmas (!) to come, I wanted to make sure this review went up before the Christmas season was wearing off for everyone. So I’ve decided to bump Monday Morning Humor for the day and give you a look at this worshipful Christmas offering from Davy, Kelly and Odie Boggs. Their live album Havin’ Church received critical praise from both me and Musicscribe. He Came is their first Christmas album.

This CD consists of six vocal tracks, two piano-focused instrumentals by Kelly, and a 17-minute sermon from Davy. In the liner notes, he explains that they included the sermon in the tradition of old-time gospel LPs, which often incorporated spoken tracks with the songs. It’s a classic bit of straight-up, Pentecostal tent-revival preaching that may not be to everyone’s taste but fits very well in the context of the album. Could it have been shorter, thereby saving room for a couple more songs? Perhaps, but then the length of the sermon is part of its charm.

The songs are carefully chosen and arranged with a purpose for a true album experience. For the most part, they are original tunes focused on the theme of expectation. The anticipation builds to a climax with the sermon, which presents the entire salvation story, and then the album closes with the Squire Parsons tune “He Came to Me.” Although not originally a Christmas song, it’s a wonderful choice, movingly sung. The family’s own composition “Until He Came” is a musical and lyrical highlight. I would love to hear a group like the Collingsworth Family pick it up, as it deserves wider exposure.

The production is tasteful and simple, featuring only piano, drums and bass guitar. The tight, jazzy instrumental “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is worth the price of the album alone, at moments recalling bands like the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It should be noted here that Kelly is a rare talent. What she lacks in flash and flair, she amply makes up for in natural ability and an ear for what sounds fresh, yet feels right. Her musicianship is the glue that holds the group together and makes them stand out among other regional artists.

Although the Boggses are not exceptional soloists, they have a pure, country-tinged family blend in the vein of a group like the Isaacs. This may not be coincidental, as Ben Isaacs is both Davy’s cousin and their producer. As with the live project, it’s refreshing to hear a group who doesn’t sound pitch-perfect, yet still has something to offer vocally. Their sound is rough around the edges, but it’s beautiful in its own humble, unspoiled way.

He Came is unlike any Christmas project I’ve ever heard. It’s a concept album with a clear focus that achieves its goals with minimal wasted space while eschewing nearly all standards, both sacred and secular. It does deliver less music than a comparably priced album of the same length, but it’s a breath of originality in an area where many artists phone it in. For that reason alone, it’s worth checking out. You can listen to samples and purchase it here.

Review copy provided. A positive review was not required.


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CD Review: Revival, by Karen Peck and New River

Revival--KPNR cover photoKaren Peck and New River is one of the hottest trios in Southern Gospel today. They typically offer a blend of traditional southern singing, country and pop. This release doesn’t deviate much from that template, but it is a tad more rootsy than usual for them. Let’s go to Likes and Dislikes for a closer look at the project.


*The production may not be bluegrass per se, but I enjoyed the frequent use of bluegrass textures in the production. It balanced out the squeaky clean, sanitized vocals (on which more anon).

*The title track/opener is not the song cut by Brian Free & Assurance on their latest, but rather a Little Big Town-flavored, country/rock tune. I like the edge on this one.

* “Finish Well” is a very well-crafted big ballad. I was especially impressed with the consistently strong lyrics. From start to finish, there’s not a weak link in this one. My only complaint is they should have saved it for the last. Continue reading

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CD Review: Travelin’ Through, by Kevin Mills

Kevin Mills is a Canadian-born country/gospel singer and voiceover artist. (Not to be confused with Kevin Mills the Elvis impersonator, whose stuff I found in related videos on Youtube!) He comes from an evangelistic background, having experience as an opening soloist for his father’s revival meetings. He is currently signed to Nashville’s Song Garden Music Group/Grapevine records. Travelin’ Through is his third project, a mix of originals and country/gospel/bluegrass covers. It features background vocals from Jeremy Easley, former tenor for the Lefevre Quartet, and David Staton, lead singer for Palmetto State Quartet. This review presents some highlights of the album and some ways in which it could be improved.

Song List

Travelin' Through

(1) Til the Answer Comes (2) Dig Another Well  (3)  Believe In the Dream  (4) Walk On the Water  (5) Travelin’ Through  (6) Church Bells  (7) You’re My Best Friend (8) Black and White (9) Bible and a Belt  (10) Three Wooden Crosses  (11) A Living Prayer (12)Til the Answer Comes (Reprise)

Project available from… Amazon, iTunes, Artist Website Continue reading

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CD Review: Together Again, by the Crabb Family

The Crabb family made their mark in the 90s as a passionate young group of vocalists who did Southern Gospel a little differently from everyone else. After achieving massive popularity, the group disbanded in 2007. Since then, each member has pursued his own ministry. Jason has found great success as a solo artist, winning Dove Awards in major categories. Kelly married Mike Bowling, and they started their own family group with Terah. Adam has done solo work, and Aaron sings with Canton Junction and has a worship ministry with his wife Amanda. But last year, all five siblings decided to come together for a new project and a limited set of tour dates. Together Again was released in February of 2012.

The format for this review will be a little different than usual. I’ll take a leaf from Eaton & Murray’s “Must Buy or Not” series and present my thoughts in the form of systematic “Likes” and “Dislikes” instead of going track by track. Let me know what you think.


*The style of this project is more laid-back than typical Crabb fare. More country than soul. Die-hard Crabb fans may find some of it a bit tame, but I enjoy it.

*The production values are very high, resulting in a project that just plain sounds good. It was produced by Jason Crabb and his band—Michael Shade Rowsey, Lorie Sikes, and Blaine Johnson, all of whom played on the album.

*All five singers have good powerful voices, and while not all of them are my cup of tea stylistically, this album lets them work as a vocal team instead of just divvying up the features. This was a great idea, and it pays off everywhere. Again, props to Jason for arranging the vocals.

* “I Love You This Much” — By a margin, this ballad is the best song on the album. The title phrase takes on progressively more powerful significance as it moves from an ordinary father and his son in verse one, to Mary and her Son in verse two, to Jesus himself in verse three.

* “Say a Prayer” — This is pure pop ear candy in the vein of 90s groups like Avalon. Excellent melody and fresh chord progressions married with heartfelt lyrics make for a very solid song. Of course, I’ve always been a sucker for songs with a chorus in a different key from the verse.


*Virtually none of the songs made me jump out of my chair and say, “Wow.” Lyrically, many fall back on well-worn cliches.

* “If There Ever Was a Time” has a lot of good ideas, lyrically and musically, but it just didn’t keep my attention to the end. I kept wanting it to go somewhere, and it never really did. Although I do enjoy it more than some of the other songs, I’m being a little harder on it because it had the potential to be so much better. (I realize I’m in the minority here.)

* “You Can’t Do That Anymore” is a really nice song to listen to, but the take-home message is ambiguous. The verses are structured as a series of “remember whens” — when young kids could ride their bikes around town safely, when it wasn’t so imperative that you lock your door at night, and when a boy could carry his pocket-knife on an airplane with him. Judging by the chorus, it seems like it wants to be more than purely a lament for those “good ole days,” implying that we should try to live less fearfully or cautiously in the future. But it’s not made clear what that would look like, or how we could do so without compromising our safety (plus, it seems odd to lump legitimate safety precautions together with the ridiculous regulations that are imposed on us by our burgeoning police-state government). The chorus says it all started when “We started believing this world is a scary place,” but the world is a scary place. It’s called original sin. Then, to make it more confusing, the final verse protests the ban on prayer in schools. I agree it’s a shame that we “can’t do that anymore,” but now we’ve completely changed the subject! That’s a topic for a whole different song.  So the whole thing isn’t very well thought-out.

*Maybe this is a naive dislike, but…I could hear Autotune in several places. I’m sorry, I know everyone does it, but it makes me feel at least a little better if I can’t tell!

Bottom line: I enjoy how this project sounds, but some stronger songwriting would have made it appeal to me even more. Overall though, it’s a quality product. Some Southern Gospel fans might be disappointed that a few of the songs are more generic country than southern gospel in terms of their message, but I don’t think this is an issue. In fact, as I mentioned before, I thought those songs were a nice change of pace for the Crabbs from a vocal and stylistic perspective. I think ultimately, this album offers something for everyone, diehard and casual fans of the group alike.

Recommended? Yes

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review copy provided.

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CD Review: From the Heart of Nashville, by Mark209

Mark209 is Nathaniel Justice (tenor), Jym Howe (lead), Jimmy Reno (baritone), and Joe Armstrong (bass). For some of you, Mark 209 may be familiar as 3/4 of the Mystery Men Quartet (Jimmy Reno being the exception). Most of the songs on From the Heart of Nashville can be found on the Mystery Men’s Blue Collar Gospel project. I have not heard that project, but according to Aaron Swain, who has, most if not all the vocals have been re-recorded and re-mixed. Also, two new songs have been added: Christmas southern standard “Down in Bethlehem” and patriotic Diamond Rio favorite “In God We Still Trust.”

Mark209 has described their sound as a hybrid of country and gospel. Baritone Jimmy Reno and tenor Nathaniel Justice are the more countrified half, while Jym Howe and Joe Armstrong anchor the group in their southern gospel roots. The result doesn’t end up straying too far from the typical SG quartet sound (despite comparisons to Diamond Rio), but there’s somewhat more twang in the mix than usual. Jim Howe’s expansive, resonant tones recall the classic southern gospel lead sound. He’s like a somewhat subdued McCray Dove (personality-wise as well as vocally ;-) ). On the flip side, Justice’s charming “squeak” reminds the listener that this is a country gospel quartet. When all the voices come together, it’s a hearty, well-rounded blend that goes down easy.

All the songs fall squarely in the country/gospel genre, with a nice mix of up-tempos , mid-tempos and ballads. None of the members of Mark209 write, but they’ve chosen songs from various sources that fit their style well. The production quality is good, featuring studio musician extraordinaire David Johnson on pretty much every instrument except piano. Some of the tracks that stood out to me were:

“Get Up In Jesus’ Name” — This is a country favorite that’s been covered by Gordon Mote. Mark209 raises the key and puts a full quartet spin on it. Nathaniel Justice gets a chance to cut loose, and he really shines with some power notes, especially towards the end. Possibly my favorite up-tempo cut.

“You Even Made the Tree” — This new song, which recalls the Cathedrals’ “I Thirst,” is the best ballad on the album. It showcases Jimmy Reno’s soothing country baritone. There’s nothing flashy about the song or the performance. It’s just tender, sweet, and understated. Listen to the studio cut here.

“My Home in Heaven” — This is their current single, a catchy mid-tempo number by Woody Wright which allows each member to show off vocally. “You can take away x, y and z… but you can’t take away my home in heaven.” It’s a good piece of music, and the lyrics are meaningful. The only thing is, they’re almost too depressing in places, which sits oddly with the upbeat sound. Among other things, the singer says, “You can ruin what’s left of my reputation/And you can kick me, kick me, kick me when I’m down/You can say bad things about me to my family and friends and make them cry … all cry …” Those lines are such a downer that they really need some sad, worn-out music to accompany them. However, it ultimately emerges as a hopeful song. Watch a live performance here.

“Down in Bethlehem” — Even though a Christmas tune always feels a little awkward on a non-Christmas project, I can’t find much to complain about since it’s one of the best tracks on the album. There’s some great kickin’ production, and they sound very comfortable singing it.

“Who Prayed For Me?” — This mid-tempo story-song along the lines of “Somebody’s Prayin” pays tribute to the people who often pray for us without our ever knowing it. It’s touching and heartfelt. My only quibble is that there’s a piece of melody in the verses that directly rips off the hook from the Statler Brothers hit “Flowers On the Wall,” note for note. So that bugged me just a tad (particularly since “Flowers On the Wall” is a much less uplifting song!) but otherwise it’s a definite keeper. Watch the original Mystery Men’s music video here.

“Wine Into Water” — Joe Armstrong has a conversational tone to his voice that lends itself to carrying this moving T. Graham Brown cover, a prayer from a struggling alcoholic who wants to break his addiction. Very country in the best way.

This project contains quite a few story-song ballads. They are all sweet and contain great messages. Though I’m not sure I agree with “Tougher Than Nails,” which is about a little boy who regularly gets beat up on his way home from school and is talked out of planning to defend himself with a baseball bat by his father, because after all Jesus let himself be nailed to a cross, etc. As a student of philosophy, I question the strength of the parallel, and as a future mother in training, I question the wisdom of the advice. (Though I suppose these days the little boy would get in trouble even if he was in the right. But if nothing else, at least take the kid out of school so he won’t get beat up anymore!) Production-wise, a couple of the quiet songs (“That’s How Jesus Sees Me” and “Daddy”) suffer from an overly heavy drum track that would be more appropriate on a big ballad. The quick insertion of a child singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the end of “That’s How Jesus Sees Me” would also have worked much better if it had been in the same key and tempo as the song itself.

Other solid up-tempo cuts include “The Blood of One Man,” “Count Me In,” and “The Book Of Life.” Their cover of Ronnie Hinson ditty “He’s Already On the Phone” definitely falls into the “guilty pleasure” department. Yes, it’s cliched and hokey, but the guys have so much fun with it it’s hard not to groove along in spite of yourself.

I was prepared to love their cover of “In God We Still Trust,” since it has a terrific message that makes it one of my favorite country songs. However, Nathaniel Justice re-worked the melody and rhythm on the first verse too much, singing it with less variety than the original, and the vocals just generally left me wanting a bit more. (They also change one of the lyrics in the first verse, singing it as, “This is one great nation, but we’re one nation under Him” instead of “There’s no separation, we’re one nation under Him.”) It may work better for them live, but in the studio it came off somewhat stilted. Diamond Rio’s arrangement is simply richer. However, song-wise, it’s a great pick.

I encourage anyone who likes country/gospel in the vein of the Dove Brothers or the Oak Ridge Boys to check out Mark209. They’re easy to like in every way. Besides being very capable singers, they’re great guys with a truly wacky sense of humor (if you don’t believe me, check out the “Back of the Bus” videos on their Youtube channel). I have every confidence that their popularity will only grow as they continue to hone their sound and build a repertoire of songs to call their own. From the Heart of Nashville is a solid debut to send them on their way.

(Review copy provided.)

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