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.)


Biblical Thinking: The Pauline Paradox

Before I launch into this post, I have a somewhat tongue-in-cheek warning for any Calvinist friends who might be reading:  I’m going to be talking positively at some length about things like Free Choice  and Self-Effort. So, if you are a Calvinist, continue at your own risk. 😀 (Side Note: This will also be my last post for a week or so since I’m mired in finals. So hopefully this will give y’all something to chew on and debate about while I’m gone.)

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way… Have you ever noticed that the Apostle Paul sometimes appears blissfully unaware of his self-contradictory statements?

Take these two very famous pieces from his epistles:

Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me

Philippians 2:12-13 Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

What did the rabbi say? He’s speaking in riddles. He says I live, yet I do not live. He tells us to work out our own salvation and then turns around in the very next verse and says it is God working in us. And then he goes on his merry rabbinical way with nary a clarification, leaving us sputtering, “But, but… you contradicted yourself! Which is it?”

And yet if you’re a Christian, you understand exactly what Paul means. When you look in the mirror at the end of a hard day, and you know in your heart you have not lied, you thank God for the strength he gave you. You fought your way through the day, but you did it through the strength of Christ within you. Christ will not run our race for us, but he will put the swiftness in our feet if we ask him.

And this is the gospel: On our own we are powerless. Yet if we daily call on the Father, he will answer us. We freely choose to follow Him, because He made us with free will. Each day is a crossroads. Even though we are alive in Christ, Satan is also alive and well, setting up roadblocks, showing us a tempting alternate route at every step. God could have made automatons who were “programmed” to follow His every command, but then we would not be acting out of love. Our choice for Jesus is only meaningful because we could have chosen otherwise.

This is why I dislike the common analogy of “lying down in the boat” while Jesus does all the work. It’s probing at something true, but it’s really not that biblical. It’s not an analogy found anywhere in the Bible, and it in fact directly contradicts some very clear analogies to the contrary. How are we supposed to “fight the good fight and finish the race” when we’re “lying in the bottom of the boat?” I believe that my analogy of the runner who is powerless without God but becomes swift in His strength is much closer to what Paul had in mind. It’s all in Philippians.

So, are we alive in Christ? Yes! Is Christ alive in us? Yes! They are both true, at the same time.

Are we working out our own salvation? I think that this verse is incomplete without the second verse, and the second verse is incomplete without the first. Even though it seems to create a contradiction, I think that both verses are necessary to give us the whole picture. The first verse taken by itself implies a works salvation, and it needs the second verse to provide the reality that we can do nothing apart from God. Yet the second verse taken alone could imply that God doesn’t demand anything of us, that the Christian life isn’t a daily process of choices. Taken together, they present us with a distinctly synergistic picture. Remember the catch phrase “you plus Jesus equals a majority?” Cheesy it may be, but it’s straight out of Paul. He is quite clear on the matter: It’s a team effort. It is you and Jesus working together. The will to press forward must come from you, and the strength to press forward must come from him.

Now let me get really Arminian (Calvinists, if you’re still reading, I warned you). I believe that we will ultimately become our choices. I see this theme in everything from Dante to C. S. Lewis. Two minds worlds apart in many ways, yet they both understood the same truth. Dante’s Inferno paints a picture of beings who spent their lives rebelling, rebelling, and rebelling. They pushed God away through the repeated process of unrepentant sin. So by the time they reach Hell, they have in a sense become their sin. At one point, souls are literally shown frozen in ice, to represent that they have  been frozen in sin.

Lewis’s Great Divorce is essentially a thought experiment about what it might look like to observe dead souls being granted a final chance at redemption. What Lewis sees as he stands watching the drama unfold (a character in his own novel) is that the harder they push God away, the smaller they become, until they finally disappear. The way that his guide in the novel (George MacDonald) describes one woman’s fate is that she has “become a whine.” Her self-hood is engulfed in her sinful nature. Yet this is beautifully contrasted with the fate of a man who burns with lust, represented by a lizard on his shoulder. An angel tells the man that he will have to let him kill it (the lizard), and after an agonized back-and-forth, the man consents. When the angel kills the lizard, it becomes a glorious white stallion. At the same time, the man himself is changed and purified. Then he mounts the horse and rides away. By contrast with those who would not let go of their sin, he has become more fully himself than ever before. And this is the beautiful mystery: When we give God our lives, he gives ourselves back to us. Dante sums this up when he reaches the top of Mount Purgatory (again, a character in his own work), and his will has been purified to the point where his guide (Virgil) appoints him ruler over himself:

No word from me, no further sign expect

Free, upright, whole, thy will henceforth lays down

Guidance that it were error to neglect,

Whence o’er thyself I mitre thee and crown. (Tr. Dorothy Sayers)

Like the characters at the end of The Last Battle, Dante can no longer want evil. His will is one with the Savior’s. Now he is ready to ascend to the heights of Paradise.

So there is my feeble attempt at resolving the Pauline paradox, with a little help from much greater minds than mine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be hiding under the bed. If Paul Washer comes to the door, tell him I’m gone fishing.

CCM vs. SG Smackdown: “Wish You Were Here”

I’ve decided I’d like to start a new series. Here’s the idea: I take two songs, one drawn from Southern Gospel, the other drawn from a different genre like CCM or country,  that have very similar themes (maybe even similar titles)  and ask my readers which one they vote as better. Now, it would be all too easy to just pick a favorite either way and then choose something that’s obviously dreadful for the other side, but I’ll restrain myself to make it as fair as possible (although obviously I will have my own preferences). I should make it clear that my intention is not to set off a “SG versus x or y” flame-war among my readers. Rather, my hope  is that this series will ultimately showcase some of the best of all genres.

I thought I would start with two songs that happen to have not merely similar, but identical titles: “Wish You Were Here.” My readers will I’m sure be familiar with the song of that name that was recorded by the Kingsmen and became a big hit for them in the 90s. But there was also a beautiful song of the same name by CCM singer Mark Harris.

So, who wins this round? The Kingsmen or Mark Harris?

Make your choice and leave a comment!

Rare Old Dove Awards Footage: Bill Gaither, Mark Lowry, Twila Paris, Vestal Goodman, 4Him, and Many More…

Well, it’s that time of year again. This week, the GMA will supposedly recognize the brightest and best in Christian music (tee-hee!) At this point I am unsure whether the mediocrity of the Dove Awards is due to the fact that a lot of talent is being ignored, or whether there just aren’t that many good artists anymore. I think it’s some of each.

As you can probably guess, I am hardly on the edge of my seat in anticipation of this year’s installment of said awards show. But perhaps my readers would like to take a little journey back in time with me… say, to the mid-90s. Aaaaaaah, the mid-90s. Excuse me while I get a little misty-eyed. You see, the 90s hold some of my first musical memories. This is the stuff I grew up on. This is the stuff my radio used to play. And best of all, it was a time when the worlds of CCM and gospel were much closer than they are today.

So, I present two videos which aren’t the best in quality, but nevertheless are priceless little time capsules of this golden age in Christian music. First, we’ll send our Delorean back to 1994 and watch a little montage of presentations and interviews, in which Twila Paris interviews Vestal Goodman on the 25th Anniversary of her win of the first ever Female Vocalist Award, Steven Curtis Chapman wins Long Form Music Video for his classic concert The Live Adventure, the Mark Lowry Vocal Band wins Southern Gospel song of the year, and more:



And this is the opening of the 1995 show, in which Mark Lowry gets himself disinvited from co-hosting with Bill Gaither, after which 4Him comes out for a slightly pitchy but infectious rendition of their latest hit as of 1995, “Real Thing.” Unfortunately the video is a little choppy on this one, though the audio is constant. Be sure to stick around for the announcer’s reel of featured artists for the evening at the end—if watching the videos hasn’t already brought back a ton of memories for you, just seeing all those names read off in a list is sure to do the trick.

[Edit: Link broken. Sad face.]

Absolutely Gospel Awards 2012: My Reactions

It’s late, but I wanted to gather some thoughts on how the Absolutely Gospel Awards turned out this year in some of the major categories. First, I want to tip my hat to the Unthanks and everyone else involved in this awards show. They consistently recognize the very best in our genre. One never comes away from browsing a list of AG winners saying, “Well, that was pointless. At least half of those people didn’t deserve their trophies.” To the contrary, I feel like it’s spot-on most everywhere. They’re doing southern gospel a wonderful service here.

So for what it’s worth, here are my two cents on the latest batch of winners. I’ve listed the original nominees with the winners’ names in bold.


Chris Allman (Greater Vision)
Doug Anderson (Ernie Haase & Signature Sound)
Jim Brady (Booth Brothers)
Jason Crabb
Joseph Habedank (The Perrys)

Honestly, how could I complain? Doug turned in some fine vocal work this year, particularly on Signature Sound’s new songs “Sometimes I Wonder” and “Singing In the Midnight Hour.” However, I would have been tempted to go with Chris Allman, if only just for his cover of “I Know a Man Who Can.” But this was a tough category and Doug is a perfectly deserving winner here.


Becky Isaacs Bowman (The Isaacs)
Karen Peck Gooch (Karen Peck & New River)
Kim Lord (Sisters)
Libbi Stuffle (The Perrys)
Amber Thompson (The Nelons)
Sonya Isaacs Yeary (The Isaacs)

Libbi is a very inspiring singer and personality. To me, she recalls Vestal. Another deserving winner. However, I personally might have gone with Kim Lord of Sisters. All of the Sisters are outstanding vocalists, and they’ve been turning heads this year for good reason.


Beyond the Ashes
Booth Brothers
Gaither Vocal Band
Gold City
Greater Vision
Triumphant Quartet

All worthy candidates. However, the Booth Brothers released some of their strongest material this year, so I would have been inclined to go with them.


Perry Sisters
Red Roots
Sweetwater Revival

Duh. Moving on… 🙂


Bowling Family
Collingsworth Family
The Isaacs
Karen Peck & New River
The Perrys

KPNR is a logical choice since they had the song of the year, though I might have gone with the Collingsworth family instead.


Booth Brothers
Collingsworth Family
Jason Crabb
Gaither Vocal Band
The Isaacs

This is tough. All nominees are excellent in this category. Any one of them would be a deserving winner. The Collingsworths’ harmonies have only become more refined. Jason Crabb has brought a great live element to the genre with his phenomenal band.  But ultimately… I agree with the final choice. Michael Booth’s emceeing is better than ever, and the Brothers provide the perfect mix of showmanship and ministry with their live concerts.


Blue Skies – The Perrys (W.Haun)
Family Ties – Wilburn & Wilburn (B.Isaacs)
Let It Be Known – Booth Brothers (L.Goss)
New Day – The Martins (J.DeMarcus)
Part of the Family – Collingsworth Family (W.Haun)
Reach Out – Karen Peck & New River (W.Haun)
Somebody’s Coming – Gold City (M.English, D.Riley)
Treasures Unseen – Beyond the Ashes (W.Haun)
We Will Stand Our Ground – Kingdom Heirs (J.Collins, A.Rice)
Why Can’t We – The Isaacs (B.Isaacs)

I’ll admit I’m a bit surprised by this choice, but then again I haven’t heard the album. Some of my favorites from this list include Family Ties, Part of the Family, and Let it Be Known.


Dreamin’ Wide Awake – Doug Anderson (E.Haase, W.Haun)
Family Ties – Wilburn & Wilburn (B.Isaacs)
Feels Like Sunday – Bowling Family (M.Bowling, T.Thompson)
Let It Be Known – Booth Brothers (L.Goss)
New Day – The Martins (J.DeMarcus)
Reach Out – Karen Peck & New River (W.Haun)
Treasures Unseen – Beyond the Ashes (W.Haun)

For me, it was a toss-up between Let it Be Known and the Wilburns’ Family Ties. I would have been happy to see either project win. However, I really enjoyed Doug Anderson’s solo album as well, and KPNR and Beyond the Ashes had some memorable moments on their projects.


“Jesus Saves” – LeFevre Quartet (T.Cottrell, D.Moffitt)
“May I Never Get Over the Cross” – Eighth Day (M.L.Allen, R.Arthur)
“Never Walk Alone” – Brian Free & Assurance (J.Johnson, J.Williams)
“On the Banks of the Promised Land” – Karen Peck & New River (J.Dyba, D.Moffitt, S.C.Smith)
“Unredeemed” – The Martins (C.Cates, B.Petak, T.Wood)

I have trouble picking a favorite here, partly because two of these songs were borrowed straight from CCM, “Unredeemed” and “Jesus Saves.” They are both outstanding songs, but it seems a bit odd to nominate cover songs for what’s supposed to be a specifically southern gospel award. I would have swapped out a song like “Unredeemed” for, say, the Wilburns’ “A Cross Became My Saving Grace.” As the list stands, if I were going on sheer “Which song is the best?” criteria, “Jesus Saves” would be my easy pick. However, “On the Banks of the Promised Land” is a more fitting winner for this category as an authentic southern song. It is also an excellent piece.


“Bring On the Joy” – Tribute Quartet (A.Downing, D.Williams)
“Celebrate Me Home” – The Perrys (W.Haun, J.Lindsey)
“God So Loves Me” – Greater Vision (R.Griffin)
“He’s Everything I Need” – The Kingsmen (J.Habedank)
“Love Came Calling” – Triumphant Quartet (W.Haun, J.Lindsey)

“Love Came Calling” would have been my pick here, but I understand why “Celebrate Me Home” won.


Blue Skies – The Perrys (W.Haun)
Part of the Family – Collingsworth Family (W.Haun)
Sailing Smooth – Southern Sound (B.Harris)
Somebody’s Coming – Gold City (M.English, D.Riley)
The Waiting Is Over – Tribute Quartet (R.Talley)

Some good choices here, but I would have to go with the Collingsworth Family on this one. Even though Somebody’s Coming was a strong project,  Part of the Family was more memorable to me.


Jim Brady (Booth Brothers)
Phil Cross
Rodney Griffin (Greater Vision)
Joseph Habedank (The Perrys)
Becky & Sonya Isaacs (The Isaacs)

Again, while I haven’t heard the Isaacs’ latest album, I do feel the award should have gone to Jim Brady this year. He did some of his best work on the Booth Brothers’ latest, as well as contributing to the BFA gem “Stand Among the Millions” (my personal favorite from their latest).


Marty Funderburk
Twila LaBar
Joel Lindsey
Rebecca J. Peck
Sue C. Smith
Kenna West
Dianne Wilkinson

So many good choices here. Kenna West is a deserving winner, having had a hand in songs like “We All Came to the Cross,” Legacy Five’s “Ask Me Why” and the BFA hit “I Believe.” However, I may have been tempted to hand the award to either Sue Smith (who co-penned the Song of the Year) or Dianne Wilkinson (who wrote two of her best songs ever this year) instead.


Red Roots
The Old Paths
The Taylors
Wilburn & Wilburn

Wilburn & Wilburn are the clear winners here. No contest really. Question: Why were the Old Paths nominated?

So there you go. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my choices in the comments!

I Don’t Understand Forgiveness

Have you ever desperately wanted someone to apologize for wronging you, just so that you could forgive them? I have felt that way sometimes, because I’m a naturally tender-hearted sort of person. When relationships are broken, I long to make it right, even if I’m not the one at fault. So I wait… and wait… and wait. And the more I’m hurt, the less inclined I am to forgive. Yet all the while I keep hoping. If that person could just for one moment see what he’s done and how wrong he’s been, for one moment be willing and able to admit the whole truth, and then come to ask forgiveness for everything… how gladly would I give it! How thankful I would be for the healing of that relationship. Because that was all I ever wanted.

But what if that moment never comes? What if time moves on, and that person is never sorry, never sees that he’s been wrong, and maybe even continues to hurt you? Can you still say “I forgive you?” Must you still say “I forgive you?”

Forgiveness is a strange thing. The older I get, the more I realize I know nothing about it. On the one hand, God didn’t tell us to forgive… if the other person is sorry. He just told us to forgive. That seems to indicate that the answer is yes, we should extend that grace regardless. Yet when I think about exactly what the picture of forgiveness modeled by Christ’s sacrifice looks like, I realize that we can only receive his forgiveness if we ask for it. In a strange way (and I’m aware that this is very much a live debate, so I’m contributing nothing new here) I wonder whether perhaps it’s misleading to say that Jesus forgave our sins at that one moment in time on the cross. Should we not rather say that he made it possible for us to be forgiven? That he provided a way for us to obtain grace? There are people who will choose to live and die in their sin, because they rejected grace. And that means that God will not forgive their sin! The offer was there, the grace was extended—but they turned away from it.

And yet, when I look at Jesus’ words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…” I am thrown back the other way. Here were these cruel, brutal men, obviously unrepentant, and Jesus was asking the Father to forgive them anyway. He was pleading for them because of their ignorance—they literally didn’t know what they were doing. But of course, that didn’t make the act any less evil. Jesus was still an innocent man, even if they didn’t think of him as God.

So ultimately, I have to say that I simply don’t understand just how forgiveness is supposed to work. It is a profound and beautiful mystery to me. In the past, I have thought that I was obliged to offer it no matter what, and I have offered it when it was not asked for. Part of me still feels that was right. I just know that I want to follow what God requires. The question is… how much exactly does He require?