20 Years, 20 Songs: A Rich Mullins Countdown (Part 2)

Part 1 Here.

In which I continue the process of spotlighting the 20 songs of Rich Mullins that I think are the most enduring, the most memorable, the “desert island” collection I would hand to someone who was hearing his music for the first time. (But not without a long list of honorable mentions.)

One of the things that impresses me most about the work of Rich Mullins in hindsight is its versatility. He could write classically cheesy 80s pop/rock in the vein of Mr. Mister or Toto. He could write dreamy, Carpenters-style ballads. He could write pop classical take-offs and piano-abusing growlers a la Billy Joel. Here you might interject that you don’t really need that kind of versatility in your life and give him a pass. But that would be a shame, because you’d be missing his nitty-gritty bluegrass, his Springsteenian soul, his country twang, his smart taste in folk covers new and old, and his Dylan-and-Simon-esque treks across the American landscape. And worst of all, you’d miss his unique, sometimes purely instrumental touch on instruments you’d never heard of, like hammered and lap dulcimer (and the inexplicable way he turned such instruments into the stuff of #1 singles).

Part 2 of our countdown continues to showcase that versatility across my hand-picked selection of tunes. Part 1 already included a number of favorites, but I’ve kept what I feel are some of the very best for second.

Continue reading “20 Years, 20 Songs: A Rich Mullins Countdown (Part 2)”

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20 Years, 20 Songs: A Rich Mullins Countdown (Part 1)

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Part 2 here.

For those who are interested, I have written some thoughts on the life and legacy of Christian musician, writer, wise guy and unofficial saint Rich Mullins at The Stream here. As I write this late at night, it was twenty years ago this night that his life abruptly ended in a car crash. Later, it came out that neither he nor his passenger was wearing a seatbelt–a boneheaded thing, but as those who knew him could have told you, it was typical of Rich’s particular brand of boneheadedness. Most of the time, it just made him a little weird and iconoclastic. This time, it cost him his life. A lot of people he touched are pretty sore about that, including me.

Anyway, there was a time when you couldn’t browse a Christian magazine stand or turn on Christian radio without hearing the music of Rich Mullins. With the state of the CCM industry today, his success feels, in hindsight, like a dream–a weird, miraculous dream, the kind you have once and never have again. (More analysis here, for music and music biz nerds only.) Nevertheless, it has been twenty years, and that dream is fading from the collective consciousness of the American church. The worship choruses and songs Mullins wrote (partly in collaboration with friends) were the fabric of a childhood that I’m forced to admit is long gone. I doubt this would shock him. He was a canny guy, and he understood music business. He predicted exactly when his first smash, “Awesome God,” would be a smash. He also predicted when it would fall completely out of use. That’s part of why people love him: He was a no B. S. kind of guy. He knew exactly who he was and never pretended to be anything else.

I remember when I first discovered Rich Mullins. I was in high school, and I was browsing an old shelf filled with books, CDs, dry pens and cobwebs. My dad had a small collection of discs that he’d bought but didn’t have time to listen to anymore. One of them was Songs, by Rich Mullins. At the time, I had a portable SONY CD player. I pulled it out the other day. It needs new batteries. It sits on my desk now as I write. When I slipped that CD into that player, the first notes to come out were Rich’s spin on Bach’s Fugue #2 in C minor (sadly, transposed to a different key). I was hooked.

The next song was “Awesome God,” a chorus which I was already thoroughly sick of at that young age. But the verses had always been fuzzy, and I heard them as if for the first time. Those verses, man. So weird. So cool. I find them even more so when I read that they came out of Rich in a spontaneous moment of improv while taking 16 hours to drag a trailer up a hill for a gig that was 8 hours away. He was bored and tired, his buddy was bored and tired, so what do you do when you’re bored and tired? If you’re Rich Mullins, and hence a little weird, you make like you’re an old black gospel preacher and start riffing. You take the Old and New Testaments and make a gumbo out of them. Out of that, you manage to pluck out an insanely hooky chorus. Then you try to remember it all for 16 hours until you can get to a piano and record a crappy demo. Then you hit stop, look up at your buddy and go, very quietly, “I think it’s gonna be big.”

Continue reading “20 Years, 20 Songs: A Rich Mullins Countdown (Part 1)”

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.

Continue reading “My Top 10 Love Songs (Valentine’s Day 2017)”

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.

Continue reading “Questions & Answers: Hearts and Bones and Carrie Fisher”

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

 Though 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.

Continue reading “Questions and Answers, Veterans’ Day Edition: Fortunate Sons”

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!

Continue reading “My Top 10 Gospel Songs of 2015”

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.

Continue reading “Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World: Diamond Rio and The Akins”

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!