Category Archives: Songs

Fanny Crosby Meets Ricky Skaggs

I’ve been rotating Blessed Assurance: The New Hymns of Fanny Crosby in the car for a few days, hopefully preparing for a review (one of these days!) But, in case it takes me a little while to get around to that review, here’s the crown jewel of the project: Ricky Skaggs’s haunting folk waltz treatment of a lyric called “All is Well.” Note the subtle metaphor in verse one to Crosby’s blindness: “Though the clouds may veil the sky, my steps are led by your sweet light.” Also, the repeated references to HEARING God’s voice.

To be honest, the rest of the album is just okay by comparison with this, although I did like Ernie Haase & Signature Sound’s “I Have Found a Priceless Treasure.” Part of my problem with some of the other tunes is that they’re very tied to a particular worship sound that’s not going to be current forever. But what Skaggs has done with “All is Well” is timeless. It won’t age. This right here is one of the best new (new/old?) songs of the year, if not the past decade. I’d like to think Fanny would appreciate it:


Filed under Hymns, Songs

The Definitive Hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

I love reading about how the great hymns came to be. For some hymns, one writer sat down and composed lyrics and music. Others were collaborative, like the work of Fanny Crosby and Philip Bliss (wouldn’t it have been something to sit in on one of their songwriting sessions?) But some, like today’s hymn, came together more slowly. Originally, it was written as a poem by a young Methodist preacher named Robert Robinson, in the year 1757. But it wasn’t set to music until roughly 1813, when the tune is commonly attributed to John Wyeth. It also appears that he tweaked a couple of the lyrics to make them flow more smoothly with the music. Even today, you can encounter several lyrical variants depending on which hymnal you’re using.

The story of the hymn is fascinating, and I hadn’t heard it before looking up its provenance. Robinson was apparently a rather delinquent lad, but he was much struck by a George Whitefield sermon at the age of 17. Three years later, he sobered up and set out to become a Methodist preacher. A couple years after that, at 22, he penned “Come Thou Fount.” A helpful hymn collector has created sheet music with the closest thing to the original lyrics he could find.

Sadly, it appears that Robinson “wandered” from orthodoxy in later years, ultimately straying into Unitarianism. It was said that towards the end of his life, a lady riding with him in a stagecoach starting humming it and asked him what he thought of the hymn. He answered that he had written it, but he no longer felt the passion in his own words, though he “would give a thousand worlds” to feel as he did then. The obvious problem with this story is that there wouldn’t have been a tune for the lady to “hum,” since the melody wasn’t written until after Robinson’s death. So, there is good reason to believe that it’s apocryphal. Certainly, it would be a tragic ending indeed to the story of one of hymnody’s finest.

The version I’ve selected comes from Fernando Ortega, who can always be counted on to deliver a classy take on an old hymn. The way he starts quietly and builds the dynamics with the cello is excellent. Take a listen:


Filed under Songs, The Definitive Hymns

Unpublished Hymns of Fanny Crosby to Be Released, Recorded

It’s probably safe to say that Fanny Crosby was the most prolific American hymn-writer, perhaps the most prolific of all hymn-writers. She wrote so many thousands of hymns that her publishers literally couldn’t read them all. I’ve always wondered whatever happened to all those unpublished hymns.

Just recently, I was pointed to a radio podcast that answers my question. Those unpublished hymns were, quite literally, stuffed into a box and forgotten. That box was eventually donated to Wheaton College, where it continued to collect dust and be forgotten.

Until now.

In that broadcast, which you can stream here Nashville producer Bobby Blazier explains the remarkable process whereby these hymns were discovered and have now been set to music by some of the best artists in the industry. But it almost never happened. As Blazier recalls, “They [Wheaton] didn’t know what to do with it. Who cares about Fanny Crosby?” A friend of Blazier’s found out that the box was there and lobbied for permission to get into it. At first, Wheaton discouraged him, saying on the one hand, “They’re fragile, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to them,” and on the other hand, “Who cares anyway?” which I find amusing.  So his friend undertook the cost of copying every one of the forgotten hymns, then preserving them in print and on a backup drive.

Blazier then took them to Integrity Music, who agreed to publish a compilation album of the poems set to new music. Artists ranging from Michael W. Smith to Ricky Skaggs to southern gospel’s own Ernie Haase & Signature Sound were invited to participate in the project. The Blind Boys of Alabama, appropriately enough, were also among the artists invited to participate, and Blazier describes how moving it was for them to be involved. You can hear preview snippets of them exclusively on the Public Square interview. At around 47:00, they play a minute-long clip of Ricky Skaggs’s contribution, a haunting minor-key setting of one called “All is Well.” I’m already noticing that her signature of including explicit or implied references to sight runs through these unpublished works, as it did through her well-loved standards:

All is well, for thou art near

Gracious Lord, thy voice I hear

Though the clouds may veil the sky

My steps are led by your sweet light

All is well, all is well

For thy peace within me dwells

In your presence, fears dispelled

Loving Savior, all is well

At the very end of the interview (around 53:00), Blazier mentions another poignant discovery from the box: thank-you notes to her publishers, when they would give her a little extra money over and above what was agreed on for her songs. “I will be able to feed so many people with this ten dollars,” one note reads. She was so broke near the end of her life that she and her husband came close to being evicted. But ten dollars would show up on the doorstep, allowing her to pay the rent.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for some of these like-new hymns to bump some worship pabulum off the music rosters of churches everywhere. The album will be released in October, but you can see a track-listing here. Signature Sound will be featured on one called “I Have Found a Priceless Treasure.”


Filed under Hymns, Songs

Questions and Answers: As We Are Known (featuring Edie Brickell and Audrey Assad)

Loneliness is woven into the fabric of the human condition. Lifelong companionship is a gift not everyone is given, and even when they are, it still doesn’t magically make the problem of loneliness go away.

One song that deals with loneliness in an especially poignant, painful way is Edie Brickell’s “Remember Me This Way.” Written with Steve Martin and released on their joint album Love Has Come For You, it asks a painter to paint the speaker’s portrait for her. The request is almost child-like as she thinks of things to add to the picture. There’s “a happy family,” surrounded by “kids and dogs and babies.” And then, for no particular reason, “put horses and a house in the background.” By listening to what she wistfully tells the painter to put in the picture, we learn about all the things she doesn’t have: home, family, someone to love her, someone to love.

As I listen to the lyrics, I think about how many of us have met women like this. Just ordinary women, getting a little on in years, the days slipping past one by one, and nobody to share them with. “Make me look like I’m somebody. Make me a little younger than I am now. Will you please remember me? Remember me this way?”

The most heart-breaking part is the bridge. The speaker is very concerned that this not be just any painting. “Make it a work of art,” she urges, “a real sight to see.” Not just a painting, but “a real masterpiece.” Of course, not realizing that she herself is the masterpiece. The masterpiece of a human soul.

One thing more. “Don’t forget my dear companion. Put someone who loves me by my side.” And again, the refrain: “Will you please remember me? I want to be remembered this way.” Perhaps this painter is the only person who will remember her in any way.

And this is where the song leaves us, with no happy ending and no easy answers. This is because the answers aren’t easy. Life isn’t easy. Even for the Christian, life is quite often not easy. Jesus offers something different. He offers himself. We may not experience his presence in the immediate, tangible way that we would experience the presence of a loved one, but the knowledge that he knows and loves us is enough to provide hope. It is enough to provide that measure of grace, never measured in excess. It is enough to know that in the end, we may have nobody else, but we will have God. This is not a small matter.

As Audrey Assad writes in her song “Known,”

From the fall of my heart to the resurrection of my soul
You know me, God, and You know my ways
In my rising and my sitting down
You see me as I am. Oh, see me as I am.

As I am. Not as I imagine myself to be, but as I am. This is how God sees us. This is how God remembers us. This is how we are known.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music Commentary, Questions and Answers, 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.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Anatomy of a Song, Songs

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Singers, Songs, Videos

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. 

Continue reading


Filed under Faith and Culture, Hymns, Songs

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


Filed under Anatomy of a Song, Songs

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.


Filed under Great Music, Songs

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Songs, The Definitive Hymns