His love is like a river, splishin’ and a’splashin’…

Ever noticed that you can play “Splish Splash” and “Love Is Like a River” back-to-back and hardly notice when the one bleeds into the other? Compare:

Striking, isn’t it? It’s that same 50s rock feel, right down to the electric guitar stylings. Even the dance moves are the same. But then, Bobby Darin and Elvis were pretty much exact contemporaries. (Side note: I always get a slightly surreal feeling when I watch these old, old clips from when rock ‘n’ roll was in its embryonic stages. It seems so innocent and harmless looking back.)

Anyway, I guess this might fall into the category of “singing the world’s music for Jesus.” Whatever. I’m lovin’ it. Now I’m off to see if I can layer them together in Audacity so that they’re playing simultaneously in sync. (Can you tell I’m not having a busy summer?)

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A Few Words on Soul Surfer

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past few months, you’ve probably heard of the latest inspirational family flick to come out of Hollywood: Soul Surfer. Based on the true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton’s inspiring struggle to overcome the tragic loss of her arm in a shark attack, it’s been marketed to and largely accepted by a Christian audience. Since I rarely go to the movies, I’ve been relying on detailed reviews and short Youtube clips to give me a sense of the film.

I’ve seen enough to inform me that I don’t need to waste any time on it. One of the most insightful negative reviews I found came from, interestingly, a non-Christian perspective. There are many different reasons why I would advise other Christians not to bother with the film, but one of the things that bugs me most about it is its hopelessly generic treatment of the religious. It’s taken the real-life Christianity of Hamilton’s family and turned it into little more than insipid… inspirationality. I think Ebert At the Movies really puts it in a nutshell. They’re completely right: In order for the film to work even just as a good film, it needed to either leave Christianity entirely out of the picture, or go all the way with it. The tepid, mushy middle stance it ultimately took should not only make it less appealing to firm Christians, but it should also make it less appealing to those of us who appreciate good art and good film-making. As it stands, “cynical and calculated” is sadly not far from the mark as a descriptive phrase. Watch the review.

See also some solid words from a Christian perspective here. This snippet just about nails it:

It seems, too often, Hollywood uses Christians for free marketing. If they can produce a movie that shows enough flesh to sell in the secular market, all they have to do is convince the Christians that it has a godly message and we’ll find a way to excuse the immodesty.

First, they’ll need a good moving story (we Christians like to cry…thinking like a movie promoter here). If they can find a story where someone does an amazing good deed, or an athlete (we love our sports too) becomes a hero by overcoming some huge obstacle–especially if it’s true­–they’ve hit the jackpot. Now all they have to do is throw us a few bones to make it “Christian” enough for us to tell our friends and buy the tickets.

In the case of Soul Surfer, all they needed were two verses, a female youth pastor, a worship song, and the flash of a Bible. Throw in a deeply moving (true) story about a sweet Christian girl who pulls herself up by her bootstraps (or bikini straps) and we’re hooked.

Perfect Tenor Performances #3: Terry Franklin

Terry Franklin may not be a household name, but because he was only in the southern gospel spotlight for a brief period of time with the Gaither Vocal Band, perhaps that’s natural. Most of his career has been spent in full-time evangelistic ministry with his family, traveling around the country and the world. He is also in hot demand as a studio vocalist. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you were to ask folks in the SG industry who’s on their short list for most technically gifted tenors, Terry would be at or near the top. Glen Payne said he was the best tenor he had ever heard (having sung with him for a few dates when he was filling in with the Cathedrals), and Ernie Haase has named him as one of his all-time favorites. Interestingly, Wes Hampton has often prompted vocal comparisons to Terry today, and indeed, the resemblance is at times quite striking. This is a good thing. A very good thing.

Today I’m featuring a brief and powerful clip from his Gaither Vocal Band days, singing the classic “What a Day That Will Be.” You’ll never hear a better version. (And yes, all the David Phelps Phans can sit down and stop making indignant noises in the back row.)

I will refrain from saying anything about Terry’s mullet/pseudo-mullet, because he might be reading this, and I know he’d probably like to put it behind him. Far be it from me to bring back painful memories.

Without a Song…

I was browsing through comments on an old post at another blog, and I came across a fascinating discussion. A guy posting under the pseudonym of “soundcheck” was commenting on the vocal abilities of a couple of lead singers, both of whom he had worked with live and in the studio. He said that although the one had more popularity and name recognition, the other was unquestionably more talented. The way this guy put it was that singer A had gotten where he was because of “one group and one song,” while singer B had gotten where he was through raw vocal ability alone. (He then went on to add that they are both great guys and good friends of his, so he clearly wasn’t speaking out of spite—just honestly giving an opinion based on what he knew from personal experience.)

It got me thinking: Just how crucial is a signature song to a southern gospel singer’s success? Are there any SG singers who have achieved “star status” without that one hit that everybody knows and identifies with them? And can we observe the same phenomenon in other genres?

A New Favorite Song: “Seventy Years Ago”

Twila Paris is one of those singer/songwriters who, it seems, never really learned how to write a bad song. Oh, she’s made a few half-hearted attempts, but deep down, she just doesn’t have what it takes to craft a convincing dud. It takes work for her to even come close. And on top of that, she has a sweet voice, and she’s beautiful—inside and out.

Every time I think I’ve found my favorite Twila Paris song, I find another favorite. My latest find is a cut from her 1993 album Beyond a Dream, best known for the smash hit “God Is In Control.” But the whole thing was solid, and tucked in the middle was an absolute jewel of a piece called “Seventy Years Ago.” It tells the story of her ancestors’ life as traveling evangelists in the early 20th century. The lyrics and music are stunning and inspiring. If you love songs like “Find Us Faithful” that carry a message about leaving a legacy behind you, put this one right up there with all your other favorites. It has been in constant rotation in my library for… well, I’m not sure how long. A long time. Just listen:

A Hymn Bridge Done Right: “Greater Still”

Some people think it’s “cheating” for a songwriter to make use of a hymn for the bridge of his song. The idea is that the song needs to be good enough to stand on its own, and falling back on a hymn to carry it at the climactic point is like using a crutch. I can see both sides to the debate. On the one hand, it is a slight disappointment when a writer doesn’t put in the effort to come up with a new thought of his own and instead “plays it safe.” On the other hand, there’s an evil part of me that says, “Hey, maybe he would have come up with something dreadful and ruined the song anyway, so perhaps it’s just as well that he let Charles Wesley handle it.”

All kidding aside, I guess I’m just more relaxed than some about hymn bridges. And sometimes it just works, mate. Case in point, the title track of Brian Free & Assurance’s album Greater Still. The piano begins with a suggestion of the melody for “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” and then launches into the intro for the song, which has Assurance’s signature “swing.” Another musical hint is dropped in the chorus on the phrase “God’s grace.” For the bridge, they finally go all the way and sing most of the chorus of “Grace Greater Than Our Sin,” syncopating the rhythm just slightly so that it fits with the rest of the song. They dive right back into the song chorus instead of singing the last line of the hymn chorus, after which the piano once more echoes the hymn melody to finish it off. It’s all done so tastefully and cohesively that the listener never once feels like the hymn has been awkwardly shoe-horned in just because everybody ran out of ideas. It’s woven into the fabric of the song as opposed to being tacked on.

Oh, I forgot to add that it has Tony Wood’s name on it, and I recently learned that Wayne Haun produced it. Which explains everything, of course.

Saturday Morning Fun: Brian Regan

Brian Regan is a refreshing exception to the rule that you can’t work it clean if you want to make it in secular comedy. He’s not a Christian to my knowledge, but he deliberately avoids the kind of “humor” that most people seem to accept as a matter of course these days. This not only makes his brand of comedy accessible to a wider audience, it also makes it much more funny and creative.

And here is his finest moment: “The Dinner Party.” Have a great weekend, folks.

Focus On the Family: The Beginning of the End?

This is an excellent post on the “new face of Focus on the Family” and its implications for conservatism in America. Specifically, it addresses the recent dust-up over Blake Mycoskie and his organization’s association with FotF—or rather the lack thereof.

I would like to hope there are other conservatives similarly alarmed over the direction the organization has been gradually taking ever since Dobson stepped down. The pathetic attempts of ostensibly conservative Christians to curry favor with a political side that will never have anything but contempt for them are simply… well, pathetic. I heartily agree with this author and couldn’t have said it better myself.

Happy Birthday Daniel Mount

Today Daniel J. Mount of southerngospelblog.com turns 25. I am grateful to him for giving me my start in the blogosphere as New SoGo Fan. He made me an official contributor for several months, and the response to what I wrote was overwhelming. I found out then and later that my reviews (which you can read all in one place here) had directly caused people to invest in southern gospel music, people who may not otherwise have made those particular investments. I was encouraged to start southerngospelyankee through Daniel’s repeated promises that he would do all that was in his power to assist and promote me  if I launched out on my own.

All of which is to say that Daniel has played an important part in this blog’s existence, and for that I thank him today. You may leave your good wishes for him here or on his blog.

CD Review: The Only Way by Greater Vision

This is my first Greater Vision project ever. I’m just starting to get into the group, so my review may be a little different from the many others that have been posted. This is the opinion of somebody coming to GV’s music with fresh ears. Hopefully that’ll get you to read this even though everybody and his uncle has already reviewed the album. Enjoy!

1. He Didn’t When He Could Have Passed By (Griffin): Perfect country/gospel opener. Brisk fiddles get things going at a satisfying clip, providing a catchy setting for a thoughtful lyric about Jesus’ choices to stop and care for people’s needs when He could have let their cries go unanswered. As the lyric points out, “With every step he took, the cross was heavy on His mind.” Yet He heard the cry of the blind man: “Do not pass me by.” The second verse then makes the natural comparison to our own sinfulness and need for a Savior, who did not pass us by either.

One thing I did find somewhat odd is the repeated line in the chorus saying, “He could have passed by the little boy who had died, left him laying in the way.” I believe it’s meant to refer to the story of the widow’s dead son. But number one, he wasn’t a little boy, he was a young man (which is why his mother’s plight was so desperate—as a widow, she now had nobody to support her), and number two, he wasn’t just “laying in the way,” his body was being carried away for burial. However, this really is a fun song to listen to, and there are several key changes to keep the interest going.

2. Safe Within His Hand (Allman): A mellow Chris Allman song makes a smooth listen. It’s very leisurely overall, but Chris sings a strong and confident second verse after a key change to give it a bit of excitement. Short but sweet.

3. No Longer Chained (Griffin): This song’s historical blooper has already been noted by Daniel Mount. It uses the Roman practice of chaining a soldier to a prisoner to create a story-song about one such soldier who was saved through Paul’s testimony (which naturally leads to a convenient double use of the phrase “no longer chained”). In the very first verse, it sets the stage by having the soldier come home and tell his wife and children about meeting Paul for the first time. The problem is that this would never have happened, because Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to marry and have families.

There have been varying opinions on whether this anachronism matters, but I find it distracting. “Hugged his wife and kids and said ‘I’m home…’ ” Now I’m imagining them all around the dinner table on the day he gets saved: “So guys, what were your three good things for the day? […] That’s awesome! Well, I guess it’s my turn now…” See? It just doesn’t work. Then the bridge asks us to imagine other soldiers like him and “what they might have gone on home from work to share.” It’s all through the song. So ultimately, a good idea (probably inspired by Philippians where Paul says, “It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ”) with nice music and some good lyrics, but an awkward setup.

4. I Know a Man Who Can (Campbell/Davis): Insert wild cheers, whistles, and screams here. This is EASILY the prime cut of the CD. I am serious: Think twice about listening to this one while driving, because you could end up having a Holy Ghost moment on the road, and then, well, “Jesus take the wheel” and all that.

This has hitherto been Kirk Talley’s signature song, but Chris Allman has officially stolen it. Southern Gospel has many great tenors, but few with a more effortlessly clear sound than Chris. As Aaron Swain once put it, he must have found the tenor singers’ fountain of youth, because he certainly shows no signs of aging. His flawless delivery combined with flawless production (a heavenly blend of piano, B-Hammond and electric guitar), make this a touch-down moment and a sure-fire future crowd favorite.

5. He’s the Only Way (Allman/Griffin): This is a very timely song, bringing welcome theological clarity when too many people are bringing fuzziness. It matter-of-factly brushes aside all the “many roads to heaven” nonsense and says plainly, “He’s not a good, not the best, but the only way.” And it’s heaps of fun, with a great “chicken-pickin’ ” electric guitar sound. One quibble: In the second verse, it discusses Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus and assumes that Nicodemus walked away with a complete Christian understanding of who Jesus was and the theology of salvation. This is a bit simplistic. No doubt Nicodemus walked away intrigued, with a growing realization that Jesus was not just another prophet, but he would hardly have had all his theological ducks so neatly in a row. (Incidentally, a fascinating Old/New Testament connection was recently brought to my attention regarding that passage, which I’ll probably write a post about one of these Sundays.) But overall, great lyric, and I love the 3rd verse:

Have you come by the way of the cross

Where atoning grace is found?

All of your gains been counted as loss,

Have you laid your burdens down?

You see, perfection’s required

To stay away from the fire

So call on Jesus’ name…

6. Like I Wish I’d Lived (Griffin): This is the first of three slow songs in a row, prompting some reviewers to complain that the CD’s tempo drags too much in the middle. I do have something of the same feeling and might not sit through all three before jumping around to one of the faster ones for a break. But it doesn’t seem like a huge deal. However, I’m puzzled, along with others, that this is the album’s first radio single. Yet I hasten to add that I really like the song. It’s a very poignant, simple prayer asking God to help us make up for any regrets we may carry with us from past mistakes. Plus, it’s sung by Chris Allman, and well, what more can you say?

7. But God (Griffin/LaBar): Gerald Wolfe sings this  reflective song about trials and God’s sovereignty, originally done by Legacy Five. It’s a good performance and a soothing sound, but they slow down the tempo from the original, which makes it run a little long. And even though the verses are sung in a minor key, the overall easy-listening country feel seems to clash a bit with the lyrics, which are trying to describe some pretty dark times of suffering. It’s a little hard to concentrate on a lyric like “The voice that once praised Him now groans through the tears/And questions, ‘Lord, where are you now?’ ” when an electric guitar is doing bluesy little licks in the background. Like David Bruce Murray, I might have preferred to replace this with another fast song. But Lari Goss’s strings do sound good here.

8. We Still Have to Pray (Griffin): This is one of my favorite songs on the record. The music is gorgeous, and Rodney Griffin’s voice sounds very rich. It uses the Old Testament story of Rebekah’s barrenness and Isaac’s prayer for her to make a moving illustration about waiting on the Lord. It reminds us that “even when we’re in God’s will, we still have to pray.” I thought the bridge was striking: “You’re wishing that the Lord would show you what’s in store. But He loves you way too much to let you lose your faith’s reward.” It’s just a really comforting song, a great encouragement for anyone seeking the Lord in a difficult time.

9. Eternity’s About to Begin (Allman): Injecting some welcome up-beat relief, this textbook toe-tapper begins with Chris Allman, Gerald Wolfe’s piano and the B-3 once again stealing the show black gospel style. It then picks up the pace and proceeds to hop along quite nicely, filled with imagery about the celebration that’s “waiting to begin.” The Imperials’ “First Morning in Heaven” (not to be confused with “First Day in Heaven”) is still my favorite song along these lines, but this one is enjoyable too. (Say, maybe Greater Vision should think about covering that Imperials song. It’s very Chris.)

10. Heaven Can’t Be Far Away (Hurst): If “I Know a Man Who Can” was Chris Allman’s “hallelujah, glory be” moment, this song is Gerald Wolfe’s. They’re covering themselves here, having first recorded this song 18 years ago. Gerald still knocks it out of the park today. Even in the studio, he can barely contain his excitement as the song ramps up to the climax. He practically takes you through the gates of pearl with him. Classic, classic stuff.

11. Another Child’s Coming Home (Allman): With all the songs that have been inspired by the prodigal son, somehow the theme never really gets old. This Allman-penned closer is a quiet, understated addition to the “prodigal son catalogue.” There’s a beautiful novel called Gilead where one of the central characters is a lonely prodigal son, and that book together with its companion novel Home has caused me to hear songs like this in a new way. You constantly want to tell the character, Jack, that he is loved, that he’s not worthless, and that he needs Jesus to right all the wrong in his life. His father desperately loves him, yet Jack struggles to accept grace, even after he comes home. Even though the song is more straightforward than the books (which are more complex than your average prodigal son-inspired piece), I still think the lyrics really capture the cry of the father’s heart in the story. He stands with open arms, truly overjoyed and eager to welcome the wayward child home, for no other reason but love.

Get his room prepared, because I know he’s tired

And when he gets here, I’m sure he’ll want to rest awhile

And if you need me, I’ll be out in the road

Because another child’s coming home…

Final thoughts: You can’t get much more quintessentially southern gospel than Greater Vision, and this album reminds me why I like the music so much. Griffin and Allman are churning out solid songs, and putting Allman back on tenor has given the group a huge shot in the arm vocally. Not that Kitson wasn’t a great singer, but I think I speak for everybody when I say “WELCOME BACK, CHRIS!” This album also promises good things for the group’s future from a production standpoint. Many artists are going to miss Lari Goss’s work as he pulls back for the sake of his health in the coming years, but if Gerald Wolfe’s production on this CD is any indication, Greater Vision should manage just fine. His touch is relaxed and sure.

I’m very glad to have this album, and I’m giving it 4. 5 stars. Go get it. (Unless you absolutely cannot stand southern gospel of course. Then you might not like it so much.)