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

 

YouTube/Screenshot

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 the one and only “Awesome God,” that legendarily cringe-worthy chorus at which my generation winces whenever it floats to the surface of our memory. Some ear-worms die hard. 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)

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

Carrie Fisher public domain

Wikimedia Commons/public domain

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”

CD Review: Chris Golden, Less of Me

A few years ago, I discovered that former Oak Ridge Boy Chris Golden had launched a solo career with his project Sunday Shoes. A country-gospel mix of forgotten tunes and new songs, some contributed by Chris’s songwriting brother Rusty, the album didn’t garner a whole lot of attention. But I kept it in rotation for a long time and still return to my favorite cuts from it. (The best one, “On Jordan’s Banks,” would later be covered by Alabama on their project Angels Among Us.) Most of the songs were new to me, and the arrangements had a spark to them that kept my attention. I was especially impressed by the fact that Chris did his own production and recorded most of his own instrumentals. Not only that, but he recorded these very polished-sounding tracks on the fly, recording in hotel rooms and on stages in between concert appearances. That’s the kind of talent that can’t be taught.

Since then, Chris has released several more projects, and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy of his newest album, Less of Me, for review. While I have found my attention drifting from the gospel music scene in recent months, I knew anything by Chris was worth a listen.

When Steve Green did an interview for his project Woven in Time, he laughed when asked what type of music it contained, replying “It contains all the music I like!” This seems to be Chris’s guiding principle with Less of Me. While the album is light on fresh material, it offers engaging takes on a selection of some of Golden’s personal favorite standards, including several ORB chestnuts. With a performance background comprising gospel, country and rock, Golden brings an eclectic sensibility to his musicianship that injects new life into old songs. “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” is a particularly entertaining, Hammond-and-electric-guitar-drenched shuffle. Once again, he did his own arranging and most of his own recording for this album, so that gives me an even deeper appreciation for the richness of arrangements like this:

The ORB tunes that Golden is blowing the dust off of include Dottie Rambo-penned tunes like “On the Sunny Banks” and “When I Lift Up My Head,” plus the Glen Campbell-penned title track and the feel-good fave “Thank God for Kids.” Golden makes the latter a family affair, allowing his dad to relive the glory days with a solo and bringing in his own kids on backup. His kids also contribute to a wistfully poignant arrangement of “Nothing But the Blood.” I particularly like the way this arrangement begins quietly and proceeds to a stirring climax, falling away to just an acappella breakdown.

Three tunes will be less familiar to listeners. The ballad “Show Me the Way to Go” was recorded on a newer Oak Ridge Boys project. Here, Chris opts to strip back the production to just piano and vocal, to tasteful effect. He also offers a low-key take on Russ Lee’s 2003 hit “Love is a Cross” and revives the Booth Brothers’ reflectively bluesy deep cut “What Salvation’s Done For Me.” I had forgotten about the latter and was reminded how much I liked it. This fun little tune was co-written by Rusty Golden and Dianne Wilkinson (one of several successful collaborations).

Although the song selection for this project isn’t quite as strong or original as some of his other work, it’s a fun walk down musical memory lane for Golden, and curious listeners should seek out his other projects. This versatile artist truly has something for everyone.

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”

CD Review: The Favorite Hymns of Fanny Crosby, by Ernie Haase & Signature Sound

Fanny Crosby is the most prolific hymn-writer in church history—so prolific that no matter what sort of hymns project an artist records, one or more of her tunes is bound to find its way onto it. So, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound reasoned, why not go all the way and just devote a whole album to nothing but Fanny Crosby tunes? This is a natural choice after they were included on a project putting some of her unpublished lyrics to new music (which I did not review, but you can hear samples from here). Haase also announced in a press release yesterday that they are planning to dig even further into her unpublished catalogue to write future tunes. This comes as welcome news to me, since, quite frankly, a lot of the music from other artists on the New Hymns project struck me as flat and uninspired. Haase, together with Wayne Haun, were a couple of the only people who seemed to “get it.”

But, for now, we have this project of old favorites to enjoy, and it’s a nice treat to tide us over while we wait for new tunes. Not content with by-the-numbers treatments, Signature Sound has worked hard to offer some original musical ideas, while still respecting these classic hymns. Here are my quick takes on each arrangement:

1. Blessed Assurance: Perhaps Crosby’s most covered tune, but Haase & Co. are up to the challenge of injecting some fresh life into it. The pace is slowed down for a deep southern-fried, bluesy take, anchored by Paul Harkey’s rumbling bass. Grandma might not be quite sure what to make of it, but as for me, “There’s a dobro and lots of B-3 Hammond” is all I need to know.

2. He Hideth My Soul: Oh good, somebody heard that I ordered more B-3 Hammond! But even without all the wonderful little touches from the full band, this arrangement could easily be an acoustic live number that brings the house down with nothing but four voices and a piano.

3. I Am Thine O Lord/Draw Me Nearer: This arrangement is mellow, but it keeps a steady beat going in the background. Devin McGlamery takes the lead, but I would have advised him to keep the vocal a bit simpler. The gentle accordion and guitar behind him don’t quite mesh with the runs he’s trying to do.

4. Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross: This beautiful lyric gets an almost lullaby-like treatment. I especially like the use of the pennywhistle. However, I’m less drawn to the use of spoken-word recitation for one of the verses. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that unless your name is George Younce or Hank Williams, I will most likely tune out when the singing turns to talking.

5. Pass Me Not: I can’t fault this arrangement, though from a pacing perspective, it may have been better to break the slowness with an upbeat number here. Once again, the accordion is used to subtle, tasteful effect behind close harmony. Newcomer Dustin Doyle gets a silky-smooth step-out.

6. Praise Him! Praise Him! After dropping some Celtic hints earlier in the project, this arrangement gives Miss Crosby a full bells-and-whistles Irish makeover. Well done, lads! Is it wrong to imagine the boys singing this lustily in a pub with foaming drinks in hand?

7. Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim Him: This fast-paced, nu-folk arrangement offers a foot-stomping, banjo-plucking good time (complete with “Heys!” in the background). It might remind younger listeners of Imagine Dragons in a rootsy moment. Older folks will just be clapping along and having a good time. Something for everyone!

8. Tell Me the Story of Jesus: This track continues the nu-folk flavor (again, if you follow some newer music, think OneRepublic’s “I Lived”), bringing the project to a close. Lyrically, it’s a nice touch to place this at the end of the album.

Eight tracks is a curious length for an album. I’m sure Signature Sound had their reasons for not including more, but I would have been interested in hearing more of their ideas, perhaps on a couple more vigorous tunes like “Redeemed.” As it is, this project is heavily skewed towards slower songs, which is not a bad thing, it just makes it a less than balanced full-album experience. But it’s more creative than the average hymns album, and it will offer some excellent live moments.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Prime cuts: “He Hideth My Soul,” “Redeemed,” “Praise Him! Praise Him!”

My Top 5 Love Songs

The death of Justice Scalia sadly over-shadowed Valentine’s Day for me and for this blog. But a slightly belated Valentine’s Day top five list of love songs is better than none at all, right? I said, right? Okay, we’ll assume I’m right and carry on.

So last year, I came up with this list of my top five underrated love songs. But it wasn’t a top five list period. This year, I’m unveiling my top five. Favorite love songs will vary widely depending on each person’s individual tastes. These happen to be the ones I personally return to most often, that come closest to perfection as far as I’m concerned. There may be greater, more stirring, more heartfelt love songs out there that I have forgotten or never even heard. There are also a ton of honorable mentions that I’ll have to give a nod to at the end of the list. To some extent, this is all a matter of taste. Still, I would like to think that while the exact ordering of some of my choices may be disputable, the fact that they belong somewhere among the ranks of great love songs is not. So, without further ado…

5. Reminiscing, by the Little River Band

Hurry, don’t be late

I can hardly wait

I said to myself “When we’re old

We’ll go dancing in the dark

Walking in the park and reminiscing.”

Of all the songs on this list, this one certainly has the lightest touch. A smash 70s radio hit, it still strikes me today with its freshness, both lyrically and musically. The melody is catchy, yet full of pleasing harmonic twists and turns. And the lyrics offer a window into a more innocent time, when young men thought beyond their next date to the life of memories they might share with that one girl.  It’s also a loving homage to the big bands of yore. Naming specific artists like Glenn Miller and Cole Porter grounds the song in a sense of time and place, making the listener wonder what it might have been like for his own grandparents to fall in love for the first time.

4. You Are So Beautiful, by Joe Cocker

You are so beautiful to me

Can’t you see?

You’re everything I hope for

You’re everything I need

You are so beautiful to me

It’s been said that Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had an uncredited hand in writing this song but generously gave it away to his co-writers. Regardless, it’s a good one. Although it has hardly any lyrics, the gorgeous piano setting juxtaposed with Joe Cocker’s gritty delivery makes for an unforgettable listening experience. I suppose you could argue that the arrangement and the performance are such a large part of what makes this song work that its inclusion on a top five songs list is questionable. But whatever. As long as I can play the piano, my fingers will not be able to resist going to those chords.

3. She’s Always a Woman, by Billy Joel

She’ll promise you more
Than the Garden of Eden
Then she’ll carelessly cut you
And laugh while you’re bleedin’
But she’ll bring out the best
And the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself
Cause she’s always a woman to me

Billy Joel fans will forgive me if I neglect the overplayed “Just the Way You Are” in favor of this sharper-edged, yet (in my opinion) deeper offering. At first glance, it seems like a series of back-handed compliments. We don’t necessarily like the woman being described in this song. She sounds stubborn, fickle, sometimes callous or even cruel. But look again at the verse quoted above. That line “But she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be” is especially telling, and absolutely true to human nature. People can be both “frequently kind and suddenly cruel,” and women in particular seem able to shift emotions at the drop of a hat. And there is no husband who can’t relate to the line “She never gives out, and she never gives in. She just changes her mind.” But of course! “Yes,” she will say, “Just as I thought all along.” The man sighs and doesn’t even try arguing the point. She’s always a woman to him: his woman.

2. In My Life, by the Beatles

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

This is one of those songs where the more you think about it, the better it gets. And the older you grow, the truer it rings. It’s arranged so crisply and sung so freely that you almost forget how deep the lyrics really are. Certainly, it is a love song, but it is also more than a love song. The listener is moved to reflect on those people, places and things that have touched him, that he has touched. But in the end, as all other memories, all other loves fade away, there is one that stays ever new.

1. I Will Be Here, by Steven Curtis Chapman

I will be here
And you can cry on my shoulder
When the mirror tells us we’re older
I will hold you
And I will be here
To watch you grow in beauty
And tell you all the things you are to me
I will be here

This is not just a great Christian love song, or a great song sung by a Christian singer. It’s a great song, period. But it has a bittersweet provenance. Chapman was inspired to write the lyrics when his parents went through a bitter divorce. It shook him and forced him to reexamine his own commitment to his wife. Although he was not even 30 yet at the time he wrote the song, it remains far and away his best work, and in my opinion, far and away the best love song of all time. Of course, you are free to disagree. You’ll be wrong, but you’re free to disagree.

Honorable Mentions

Faithfully, by Journey

God Only Knows, by the Beach Boys

True Companion, by Marc Cohn

Dancing in the Minefields, by Andrew Peterson

Kathy’s Song and For Emily, by Simon & Garfunkel

My Love, by River

She’s Everything, by Brad Paisley

Longer, by Dan Fogelberg

In This Life, by Collin Raye

… and many more.

On Bing Crosby and the Sexual Revolution

 

Bing Crosby public domain image

Few voices are as inimitable or instantly recognizable as that of Bing Crosby. Warm, yet cool, he defined an American generation, and he remains one of the best-selling pop singers of all time.

In 1977, Bing Crosby gave his last televised interview. The interviewer, Barbara Walters, was known for asking prying, uncomfortable questions. She chose to leave no stone un-turned when it came to interrogating Bing about culture, morality, and its connection to his own family. Walters maintains a pleasant tone throughout, but it is clear that she saw herself as one of the cultural elite, while Crosby represented a generation whose cultural influence was gradually slipping away.

However, if she expected to one-up or throw off the Crooner King, she was sadly mistaken. And thanks to YouTube, we can see for ourselves just how mistaken she was.

Continue reading “On Bing Crosby and the Sexual Revolution”