My Top 10 Love Songs (Valentine’s Day 2017)

harmonia Vetor

Once upon a time, I gave you my top five underrated love songs (at the time). Once upon another time, I gave you my top five love songs (at the time). Notice a pattern? Like most “top 5/10/20 things” lists, my list of love songs is a many-splendoured, ever-changing thing. Certainly, I would keep some things, but not all, and others I would now add without a second thought.

Herewith, my top ten love songs. A few ground rules: no breakup songs. No Bryan Adams. No Air Supply. No Richard Marx (Dad, can you forgive me?) No Bette Midler. No Kenny Rogers. And no Lionel Richie. Absolutely no. Decidedly no. Uh-uh. Also, my mom will kill me if I put “Just the Way You Are” on here even though I kinda like that one. (Don’t tell anyone, I prefer we keep this between us.)

All right, now that we’ve got that out of the way, herewith, My Top Ten Love Songs As Of Right Now, c. Midnight on Valentine’s Day, 2017.

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Questions & Answers: Hearts and Bones and Carrie Fisher

Image result for "paul simon and carrie fisher" images
Carrie Fisher and Paul Simon

Many have commented that 2016 was thicker than usual in celebrity deaths. But some of those deaths have felt crueler and more poignant than others. (I for one couldn’t care less whether Prince lived or died. Sue me.) The comparatively young death of Carrie Fisher has come as a particularly sad shock to cap the year off. Tributes from various friends and associates have poured in, all emphasizing her sharp wit, humor, and honesty. It’s struck me that Fisher’s distinct un-sappiness as a person has rendered this outpouring less syrupy than the usual “dead celebrity tributes” fare. She was a complicated personality with lots of hard edges and dark corners, and she spoke about those hard, dark parts of herself with disarming candor.

Some fans are just now learning that Carrie Fisher was married: once only, to rock legend Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel fame. Their stormy, whirlwind romance gets extensive treatment in Peter Ames Carlin’s new Simon bio Homeward Bound, from which some pertinent excerpts are provided here. It’s painfully sad reading. Carlin paints a vivid picture of two people who had extraordinary sympatico, yet were so deeply dysfunctional that neither one could handle the other’s pain. They shared a fierce intelligence and a melancholy bent that inevitably drew them together. There are stories of titanic fights between them that would dissolve all of a sudden because they began to laugh helplessly at each other and themselves.

However, there’s no denying that their marriage was spectacularly ill-advised. Fisher’s bipolar disorder and drug abuse weren’t things that could be pushed under the rug. They were an ever-present ball and chain. Coupled with Simon’s own ongoing depression, and topped off by a tragic miscarriage, they inexorably dragged the marriage down to its doom, a mere year later. Interestingly, it was Fisher, not Simon, who made the final decision to cut it short, no doubt believing it was best for both of them.

As is typical with such things, this wasn’t the end of the story. Simon and Fisher maintained an on-again, off-again relationship for a number of years thereafter, before Fisher once again decided to break it off for good.

Musically, some of Simon’s best work came out of this relationship, most famously the song “Graceland.” Fisher is the “she” who “comes back to tell me she’s gone, as if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed.” However, Simon wrote another song about their relationship that slipped through the cracks at the time: the title track for a flop project called Hearts and Bones, which has been revived as something of a cult classic in recent years. While the stature of “Graceland” is undeniable, and the track understandably more ear-catching, “Hearts and Bones” is, for my money, the deeper and more poignant lyric of the two. It traces “the arc of a love affair” between “one and one half wandering Jews” (Fisher was half-Jewish), from marriage to divorce. One might mistakenly think it was written in the wake of their separation, but eerily, it was actually written on the cusp of their marriage.

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O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

Grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die, so that, living and dying, we may be thine… — The Book of Common Prayer

I was sad to read the other day that bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (sometimes called Dr. Ralph Stanley, for his honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University) had died. I’ve never studied his catalogue in depth, but like everyone else, I knew his performance of “O Death” from Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Originally, it wasn’t meant to be a bare-bones acappella number, but Stanley convinced the producers to let him sing it Primitive Baptist style, like the church where he grew up: no banjo, no guitar, no nothin’. Just Ralph’s reedy, old man voice, asking death to spare him over ’til another year.

When I first heard “O Death,” I thought it was one of the most remarkable songs I’d ever heard. Though virtually tuneless, it is arresting, even riveting, in Dr. Stanley’s able hands. It has the primal quality of so many early American folk songs—the kind of songs that are unerringly in tune with all that we know, and love, and fear. There is no cheap sentiment here, no sanctimony or pious platitude to cover the naked truth.

If you look closely at the lyrics, you can tell that the speaker is meant to be a younger man who is not yet ready to die. He’s being tended by his mother, and he asks the ice-cold specter to “please consider his age.” This makes it all the more striking for Stanley to cover it as an old man full of years. The phrase “please consider my age” takes on a different meaning, almost like a private joke between Old Ralph and Old Death.

It’s welcome news that Stanley remained implacably Christian to the last. This adds yet another layer to this, his most haunting performance. It is a reminder that Death is merely the means of separating soul from body. It summons us to heaven or to hell, but God alone decides which. I close my eyes and try to picture Stanley as he must be now: as C. S. Lewis said, a creature of surpassing brightness which, if you could see it, you would be strongly tempted to worship.

Well what is this that I can’t see,
With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me?
Well I am death, none can excel,
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.

Questions and Answers, Veterans’ Day Edition: Fortunate Sons

 IThough here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the stars farewell.

— Sam’s song from The Return of the King

It’s been far too long since I visited this column, now several years old (catch up on past entries here if you’re new to the site). So, I’m reviving it by pairing up two songs that hold especially poignant significance for Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, or really for any day where we reflect on the costly sacrifices of our military servicemen, living and dead.

On the “Question” side, we have Bruce Hornsby’s shattering song “Fortunate Son,” based on the tragic life and death of Vietnam veteran Lewis Puller. On the “Answer” side, a song by Rich Mullins called “I’ll Carry On,” which is open to more than one interpretation but can naturally be read in the voice of a young man going to war.

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My Top 10 Gospel Songs of 2015

Top 10 SG Songs Album Cover collage

Christmas break has afforded me the pleasure of picking through the best of the best in 2015’s new southern gospel releases. I was able to review some of the albums these songs come from within a reasonable period of the time they came out, but alas, not all. Looking on the bright side, this meant I got to discover some great songs for the first time just as I was preparing this top ten list.

As usual, I have avoided including covers and traditional hymns, focusing on the best material that was brand new to 2015. Thankfully, many talented writers turned in some of their best work this year, including a new talent named Rachel McCutcheon. She co-wrote three out of ten of these songs, the highest single percentage of any contributing writer on this list. Other “double-dippers” include Kenna Turner West and Tony Wood. Most people probably wouldn’t recognize Tony by name, but I learned a lot about the craft of CCM songwriting from him growing up, especially through the songs he wrote with Scott Krippayne back in the 90s. I’m glad to see that he’s found an avenue through which he can continue to turn out songs.

Below the fold, I’ll provide a countdown of the songs with some bits of lyric and comments, then at the end, a playlist for your listening pleasure. Thanks to all the talented artists and writers who reminded me why I keep coming back to this music!

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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.

Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World: Diamond Rio and The Akins

You might know that the Akins are one of my favorite groups in southern gospel today. I’ve raved a bit about them before, but I think if I could boil it down to one word, it would be “musicianship.” They’re completely self-taught, yet they play, sing, and write all of their own material and give completely live concerts. They make it all look deceptively easy, but it takes a special talent to wear that many hats and produce quality work. The Akins do it with style. For this entry in “Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World,” I picked country band Diamond Rio to spar with the Akins. The two bands have similar country-rooted styles with a rocky kick. Both bands are also accomplished jammers, and to top it off, both bands specialize in rich vocal harmonies.

Diamond Rio enjoyed huge mainstream success throughout the 90s, but with surprise hit “In God We Still Trust,” they gained fans in the Christian market as well. They’ve dipped their toe in a variety of musical styles, mixing in everything from pop to bluegrass, but all with the signature tight blend of lead singer Marty Roe, baritone Dana Williams, and tenor Gene Johnson. One of their best albums and one of my favorite Christmas projects is The Star Still Shines, which shows off all their talents across a great cross-section of music (my review here).

To be fair, I’ll try to compare like and like tracks from both artists. Unfortunately, I can’t find studio versions of the Akins’ acapella arrangements on Youtube. Fortunately, there are a couple of good live videos out there. When it comes to instrumental/jamming skill, I would say Diamond Rio’s greater experience tips in their favor. Their licks are simply more varied and advanced. However, I think the Akins can give them a run for their money in the acapella department. And when you consider that I’m comparing a group of seasoned veterans with a band of 20-something youngsters at all, the Akins’ relative skill and polish becomes even more impressive.

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Grooveshark Goes Dark

Some of you might be familiar with a music streaming website known as Grooveshark. With the rise of officially sanctioned outlets like Soundcloud, Spotify, Google Play, and now even Youtube, Grooveshark has passed its usefulness, and judging by their recent farewell letter, they’ve run afoul of some big music companies in the process. This apparently wasn’t just one of those situations where an isolated few artists get grumpy and ask that their music be taken down. It was serious enough that the only way Grooveshark could settle was by wiping the site entirely.

I knew it was just a matter of time, but I won’t miss it too much since there are so many more options now. Although, the open source nature of the site made it unique in that people would sometimes upload rarities from their private collections. For example, I found limited edition live releases from a couple favorite artists that aren’t digitally available on these other sites. Sadly, a good deal of OOP gospel music has also been lost this way. (But don’t worry, I plan on doing something about that.)

The reason I’m mentioning the news here is that in past posts, I’ve embedded some Grooveshark songs and playlists when a song wasn’t on Youtube. I bet I could replace most of those with Youtube embeds now, but I don’t relish the thought of picking my way through the archives to find broken links. I won’t foist that task on my readers, but I would humbly ask that if you should be spontaneously moved to check out old posts (maybe under “Songs?”), and you chance upon a broken Grooveshark link, please leave a note so that I’ll know something needs to be replaced. Thanks!

Garth Brooks vs. Digital Music

A while back, I blogged about the fact that Youtube is setting itself up as a competitor to Spotify by putting out artists’ digital music, including both new releases and back catalogues. Reader and musician Kyle Boreing noted that technically, since these videos are ad-supported, artists are supposed to receive some revenue. Well, if the kind of revenue they get from Spotify is any indication, that’s probably small comfort. And it probably means streaming platforms like Spotify aren’t economically sustainable at all in the long run.

While most artists have chosen not to fight it, a few big names have pulled their music from Spotify in order to make a statement. Taylor Swift is the most popular artist right now who’s chosen this. And for a while, the Beatles estate wouldn’t even agree to put Beatles music on iTunes. That changed a few years ago, but Beatles music still hasn’t made its way to Spotify, along with fellow oldies band Led Zeppelin and a couple current ones like Black Keys.

But of all the digital-resistant artists I’ve found, nobody beats Garth Brooks. Not only is Brooks anti-Spotify, he’s anti iTunes AND Amazon Mp3 AND Youtube. In fact, in his words, Youtube is “the devil.”

Brooks is more than happy to elaborate on his decision in this article, among others. It’s not that he’s hurting for cash. For him, it isn’t about money. It’s the principle of the thing.

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Harmony Master-Class: The Cactus Cuties

I still remember when the Cactus Cuties first became a viral sensation. I was watching it on Youtube, and my mom walked by in the background and said, “Huh, they sound good.” Then she leaned over to read the description and exclaimed, ” ‘Range in age from 8 to 13???'”

That was basically America’s reaction too, and if you’re one of the five people who hasn’t seen the video yet, you’ll understand why once you do. The harmony, which could only have been the result of diligent practice, appears absolutely effortless. Best of all, the Anthem is sung tastefully, with the usual vocal histrionics replaced by a winsome Texas twang.

The Lubbock, Texas quartet soon had offers and opportunities flooding in. They kept up a tour schedule for the next few years. Unfortunately, if you look up their website now, it hasn’t been updated past 2011. They resurfaced in 2012 to ask for fan suggestions about a new group name, but I haven’t found anything more recent. It appears that they eventually just broke up without much explanation. I know their tastes shifted to more mainstream pop as they grew older. Perhaps they discovered that this didn’t differentiate them enough from any number of other aspiring pop singers. The lightning in a bottle that they captured with that National Anthem performance was what made them unique.

There’s a higher quality performance from an appearance they did on the 700 Club around the time they went viral. This video also includes an interview segment where they talk about how learning the history of the song affected the way they sang it. Coincidentally, I was just quoting Harry Connick, Jr. the other day about the importance of respecting a song’s lyrics. And coincidentally, Terry Franklin was just commenting under that post about how many singers have butchered the National Anthem, because they made the performance all about their vocal flourishes. (And for readers who aren’t familiar with southern gospel music, Terry Franklin is a crackerjack pro singer and demo artist himself.) It’s very heartening to see singers this age taking their craft so seriously. I only wish they could have found a way to stay together and continue making great music for longer than just a few years.