Category Archives: Songs

Anatomy of a Song: “If These Walls Could Speak”

I can’t think of very many songwriters whose material runs the gamut from rock-bottom awful to absolutely brilliant, but Jimmy Webb is one of them. His hit “MacArthur Park” is so legendarily bad that Dave Barry’s readers voted it the worst song ever recorded in a 1992 poll. (Of course, this was before Rebecca Black. And if you actually clicked on that link, you’re most welcome.)

But here’s the weird thing: If you keep leafing through Jimmy Webb’s catalogue, you start to come across good songs. Really good songs. Songs that have become standards and been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash to Art Garfunkel. He’s kind of like the mainstream music world’s Rich Mullins: voice too rough for himself to become a pop star, but has an amazing way with a lyric.

One of those songs is “If These Walls Could Speak.” It’s been recorded at least five times: by Glen Campbell, by Webb himself, by Amy Grant, by Nancy Griffith, and by Shawn Colvin. My personal favorite version is Amy Grant’s, recorded for her 1988 album Lead Me On. (Grant also collaborated on Webb’s excellent Christmas musical The Animals’ Christmas with Art Garfunkel.) I love this version because of her vocal and because of the sparsely lovely piano arrangement, which is closest to Webb’s own vision of the song. It makes the lyrics stand out all the more, which is a good thing, because they’re some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard.

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Coming Soon: Vintage Booth Brothers Music

I’ve obtained permission from Michael Booth to post some vintage Booth Brothers music that’s no longer available at any retail outlets. This includes two DVD projects that I was sad to see the Brothers pull from the store, since I think they represent some of the group’s best work with Jim Brady. Over the next week, I will be adding some video performances you may never have seen unless you snapped up a copy of one of the DVDs when you had the chance.

Other Youtubers have posted a few highlights, but some of the very best (in my opinion) haven’t seen the light of the day. What’s especially neat about the project Live in Lakeland is that it includes bonus material that was cut from the accompanying CD. So while you fortunately CAN still buy a digital download of the audio project from the Brothers’ own store (and I recommend that you do), you won’t hear some of these performances at all except on the video.

I have only uploaded one video so far, but it’s a goodie: “Just Beyond the River Jordan,” featuring Jim Brady and co-written by him and his wife. Stay tuned for more treasures from the vault!

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The Enduring Power of Hymns

Much ink has been spilled over the worrying statistical reality that millennials are leaving their parents’ churches, and a lot of them don’t make a return appearance. Mega-church strategists everywhere are no doubt feverishly putting their heads together to figure out how this can still be happening (even after they installed that sick light show and put all their youth pastors in skinny jeans!) Some of these discussions are probably revolving around worship music. Maybe (some of them are still wanly hoping), we can keep tweaking our music formula until it’s so cool our kids will never want to leave, cause they just gotta have their weekly dose of worship band.

Of course, you know and I know that if anything, the mega-church strategists’ fever dreams are part of the problem, not the solution. I propose that this is because with all their bumbling good intentions, they fail to see there’s something fundamentally transient about turning church into a product. They’re hoping to keep kids in church by breathlessly trying to keep up with the latest trends in pop music, culture, etc. But kids don’t need a fad. They need a foundation.

That foundation should take a number of different forms: doctrinal, apologetic, and even musical. One of the most shameful gaps in the foundation for many of our young people is a firm grounding in how to defend their own faith, but that’s a discussion topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about building a musical foundation for our young people. In particular, I want to focus on the enduring power of hymns. 

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Anatomy of a Song: “Ireland,” by Garth Brooks

Last week, I remarked on the pros and cons of Garth Brooks’s stance on digital music (in short, he’s agin it). However, I scraped together a few favorites from Youtube, which happily included the deep album cut “Ireland.” I’m using it to revive my “Anatomy of a Song” series, which was sorely neglected after only one entry.

“Ireland” comes from the 1995 release Fresh Horses, a project that tinkered with a wide palette of sounds. This stirring ode to the Emerald Isle has Garth getting in touch with his inner Irish tenor. It was co-written by Brooks with Stephanie Davis and Jenny Yates in the style of a folk ballad, and it’s one of the best-crafted song lyrics I’ve heard. Aspiring and professional writers alike should take note. Continue reading

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Passion Week Playlist #2: Songs For a Groaning Creation

Tonight I rose up with the moon, and looking down from high above,
I saw a world carved and confused into valleys deep in need of love.
And falling down, all thick with grace, Heaven’s cloud of mystery
Was filling every empty space, down to the depth of human need.

— Bebo Norman, “Deeper Still”

***

In previous years, I’ve posted a hymn or classical piece per day to commemorate Passion week. This year, I decided to do something a little different. So yesterday, I put together a few contemporary songs that, intentionally or not, throw our world’s need for a Savior into sharp relief. In the spirit of my “Questions & Answers” series, I’m sharing six more songs that have been arranged to complement yesterday’s playlist from an explicitly Christian perspective. (Hopefully this will make you do a double take on some of those lyrics!) If you are a Christian and a music fan, I encourage you to try this as an exercise for yourself. It’s good for your musical appreciation and your spiritual health.

The usual suspects are here: Rich Mullins, Steven Curtis Chapman, and a couple of younger upstarts like Audrey Assad and Bebo Norman, whose great lyric for “Deeper Still” is quoted above. I’m particularly moved by how Steven Curtis Chapman’s heart-wrenchingly hopeful song “February 20th” complements Phil Collins’s “Since I Lost You.” (Note that February 20th is not the day Chapman’s daughter died, but the day she accepted Christ. She would die later that same year.)

I am hoping and planning to share more thoughts on some of these, but for now, just be still and enjoy them. And have a blessed Easter.

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The Definitive Hymns: “Old Rugged Cross”

I’ve featured several hymns in this series, but perhaps none more popular (or more definitively American) than this one. It’s been recorded by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Alan Jackson. It’s a testament to a song’s classic appeal that it can sound great and timeless no matter what style you sing it in (okay, except for a style calculated to destroy any piece of music it touches, but we’re excluding things like heavy metal here). George Bennard penned the tune in 1912, after a disheartening night of revival preaching. How many ministers of the gospel have been there? This thought should definitely give a lift to anyone who’s hoeing that row!

As usual, my heart is with rich male harmony. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I name a quartet version of “Old Rugged Cross” as the definitive rendition. For fans of Signature Sound, this will be a blast from the past. Before they became household names with Bill Gaither, they worked with Gold City producer Garry Jones. In my opinion, some of the best music they ever did still dates back to this original lineup. “The Old Rugged Cross” shows them at their absolute best. Timmy Duncan’s young bass is featured in all its glory, while Garry’s golden touch on the piano wrings every bit of harmony from the music. The guys take their time with the arrangement, letting each word have its weight. I may be picky, but even I have to admit when something is pure perfection. For me, this arrangement is just that. In this very rare video, thankfully provided by fellow fan Kyle Boreing, you can see them gathered around and honing it with Garry before performing it on stage.

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My Top 5 Underrated Love Songs

You’ve danced with your spouse to Steven Curtis Chapman’s “I Will Be Here.” You’ve sniffled and reached for the tissues at “Bless the Broken Road.”  You’ve sworn to throw random objects at the radio if they spin “I Will Always Love You” one more time. Now Valentine’s Day has rolled around once more, and you’re in the perfect mood to enjoy a romantic musical something. Or maybe not. Either way, I would like to shine a spotlight on five songs that you won’t see on most any Top 100 lists when people rank their favorite ditties about “luuuv.” In fact, I guarantee that half if not all of them will be new to you. Further, I guarantee that they are much deeper and more thought-provoking than what often passes for a love song in today’s cultural milieu. Think of it as my heart-shaped candy gift box to you, dear readers. Go on. Open it up and savor my Top Five Underrated Love Songs.

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Questions and Answers: For the Streetlight People

For those of you who are new to the site or can’t remember the last time I wrote an installment in this series, “Questions and Answers” explores the space where the secular touches the sacred in popular songwriting (emphasis on popular–no weird, obscure stuff here!) It is designed to help Christians think deeply about some of the most thoughtful lyrics that writers on both sides of the divide have contributed to the eternal questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What is love? Do we need to be saved? Can we be saved?

My first entry paired up a Journey song with a Steven Curtis Chapman song. Now, it seems I’m coming full circle, with another Journey song (“Don’t Stop Believin’ “) and another SCC song (“More to This Life”).

I know what you’re probably thinking (at least, if you grew up in the 80s). “Journey? Thoughtful and deep? Seriously?” This song in particular might raise such skeptical eyebrows, given its nauseating ubiquity at graduations, class reunions, and such like. It’s a fixture of American pop culture. There is no escape. (Hey, see what I did there? Escape, escape… okay never mind.) But believe it or not, I am serious. A careful listen to the lyrics apart from its fist-pumping tag will make you wonder how it ever became the go-to feel-good song for teenage America:

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin’ just to find emotion
Hidin’ somewhere in the night

Read the rest of it in full here, divorced from the music, and you’ll see that Steve Perry’s intended message was a much more tragic, more human one than the culture realized.

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My Definitive Andrae Crouch Mix

Here’s the post I was going to publish this Monday, before the death of Lari Goss shoved it down in urgency.

Last week, the great gospel music legend Andrae Crouch went on to his reward. Overcoming the handicap of severe dyslexia, Crouch wrote many classic songs and also became a sought-after arranger/producer across genres. Perhaps his best-loved song is “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” which he wrote in a white heat of inspiration at the age of 14. Few of us can hope to write one great song in our lives. Practically none of us can claim to have written our greatest before finishing high school. I was fortunate to stumble across this great home video of Crouch sharing with an old friend a little bit about how the song was written. It was taken a few years ago when his voice had already been ravaged by various illnesses, so you might have to prick your ears up to catch what he’s saying:

I greatly enjoyed spending some time with the music of Andrae Crouch over the last weekend, and I thought it only fitting to make a little playlist of some of my favorite versions of some of his best songs. From Andrae himself to Selah, to the Jessy Dixon Singers, to Gordon Mote, to Kim Collingsworth, to Cece Winans, these artists give some definitive renditions.

Another version of “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” that I also love is this one, from a Gaither Homecoming. Cece Winans is featured again. I think Selah is still my favorite, but this version had both me and Andrae wondering who was cutting onions in the room.

 

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Christmas Top Fives: “Angels We Have Heard On High”

Christmas Top Fives is a series where I take one beloved carol and run down my personal top five versions of it. Read earlier installments here. Today, I’m covering one of my all-time favorites! I will provide links to four favorite renditions, then embed my absolute favorite here (for ease of loading on slow browsers).

VeggieTales (featuring Palmy): What’s that you say? I already reviewed the album this song comes from last week, even spotlighting this particular track on it? Well, obviously it’s time to spotlight it again! “Gloooo…. woah-oh-oh-oh-oh….woah-oh-oh-oh-ohria” to you too!

Michael W. Smith: Remember when Michael W. Smith was still making exciting, inventive pop music? No, think further back. Think way back to his first Christmas album, released in 1989. Okay, so maybe the vocals could be more polished, but as a producer… I mean this is back when the guy was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. And it’s totally epic.

The Piano Guys: When the Piano Guys cover something, you know it’s going to be unique, and it’s going to be awesome. This one is no exception. Even though you know the video is just them demonstrating how it was made and not a real live performance, it’s still mesmerizing.

Gabe Scott (instrumental): This gorgeous hammered dulcimer rendition (with a string quartet in the background), is an instrumental interlude on Bebo Norman’s Christmas album From the Realms of Glory. Gabe Scott does the honors, and his lush, lovely take on the carol would put a tear in Rich Mullins’s eye. I just wish it were three times longer.

Billy Gilman: I’m not here to discuss the rest of Billy’s career, but can we agree that this is possibly the best, purest version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” out there?

 

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