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.

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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!”

First Look at a New Hank Williams Biopic: I Saw the Light

Hank Williams is an endlessly fascinating character for fans of country/gospel music. As self-destructive as he was talented, he died at the age of 29–the Mozart of country music. Sixty years on, his body of work still stands the test of time. Bill Gaither’s son Benji co-produced a moving, loosely fictionalized account of his final days called The Last Ride, and now there’s a new film on the horizon that promises to be more of a proper biopic, called I Saw the Light. An unflinching look at the singer’s sad legacy, it will probably draw comparisons to the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Williams was a notorious philanderer, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the MPAA has slapped an “R” on it, although by the description it appears to be primarily for language.

Some controversy has surrounded the film’s casting of British actor Tom Hiddleston as Williams. I have mixed feelings about the choice. On the one hand, he’s a dead ringer for the country legend as far as looks go. On the other hand, he’s, well, British. Not even American, let alone Southern. So, among others, Williams’s own grandson has complained that the choice lacks authenticity, pointing to somebody like Matthew McConaughey as a better choice. I can see why he would feel that way, but then again, British actors have been playing American roles for quite some time now. Even iconic comic book characters like Superman and Batman have been taken over by Brits putting on a fake accent.

While I think Hiddleston is a superb actor, his American accent has been spotty in the past. And here, he not only has to speak the accent convincingly, but he has to sing Hank’s classic hit songs convincingly. But I give him credit for doing all of his own recordings, and I like the rough, unfiltered feel of the clips I’ve heard. It’s nice to be reminded of a time when country singing wasn’t as polished as pop music, a time when country songs had grit and depth of feeling to them. If they did this right, it could be a compelling piece of work. Ironic that it’s titled after Williams’s most gospel song, yet it is by no means clear that he ever saw that light for himself.

“Everybody has a little darkness in ’em. I’m talkin’ about things like anger, sorrow, shame. I show it to them. And they hear it, and they don’t have to take it home.”

An Interview With Rachel McCutcheon

Rachel McCutcheon is quickly becoming one of my favorite current songwriters. Discovered by writer/producer Wayne Haun, she has been contributing a plethora of well-penned fresh tunes to new releases by some of southern gospel’s best artists. Recently, she graciously agreed to answer some interview questions from me. I hope you enjoy this conversation!

Continue reading “An Interview With Rachel McCutcheon”

CD Review: The Inspiration of Broadway, by Signature Sound (with J. Mark McVey)

The Inspiration of Broadway

This project finds southern gospel’s most inventive quartet trying on yet another hat: Broadway. They are aided in their efforts by acclaimed tenor singer J. Mark McVey, who is best known for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. It’s been available from their site for a while, but it was only recently released to retail. I’m choosing to feature the album cover they designed while Doug Anderson was still with the group, because (thankfully!) his vocals have been preserved even though the cover has been re-done for retail with his replacement, Dustin Doyle.

It’s been interesting to watch Ernie Haase market this album to Signature Sound’s fan-base. On the one hand, I think a number of these classics will find an audience among the same folks who like their brand of gospel music, which has already borrowed from a show tunes tradition. On the other hand, the group has stressed in advertising the accompanying tours that these are not gospel songs, just to make sure that nobody who’s out of the loop will be surprised or confused.  This seems like a smart way to ensure that everyone is happy and gets their money’s worth. Myself, I’m always up for a collection of good music, and I’m always up for Wayne Haun’s producing ideas. If anybody can meet the challenge of selecting and arranging Broadway tunes that are recognizable, accessible, and adaptable for an all-male ensemble, it’s Wayne. And if anybody can meet the challenge of singing those arrangements, it’s Signature Sound.  But did I agree with every selection? Read on to find out. Continue reading “CD Review: The Inspiration of Broadway, by Signature Sound (with J. Mark McVey)”

CD Review: Just Sing, by Amber Nelon Thompson

Amber Nelon Thompson Just Sing

Amber Nelon Thompson is one of gospel music’s most talented, consistent, and consistently pleasing singers.  Her versatile voice can evoke female greats from Sandi Patti to Alison Krauss to Carrie Underwood as needed. Just Sing is her first full-length non-independent ADULT solo album. (Thanks to David for catching my forgotten first-draft error that it was her first, then informing me that another album from 2000 actually was put out by Daywind as well.) A 4-song EP was released ahead of time and previewed four tracks for this project, which have now been combined with six more. I did not listen to the 4-song EP, so these are my first impressions of all ten songs.

  1. Just Sing: I suppose I’ve heard worse icebreakers. This one is relatively cute, although Bill Gaither’s stuttering cameo and the heavily computerized spoken-word exhortations to “Sing along” were a tad annoying.
  2. He’s Making Me: I like this lyric’s play on the phrase “making me.” The word “making” means pushing or demanding, but it also means forming, creating. This song explores where those two meanings find their union in God’s firm, yet formative work in us.
  3. Another Time, Another Place:  A classic old CCM duet. Amber nailed her Sandi Patti impression. As for Michael English on the Wayne Watson part… I’m trying really hard not to be snarky here, but suffice it to say Amber is so much clearer and more listenable that it just becomes distracting at a certain point. While Michael is breathing his way around the melody, Amber is just, well, singing it. I have to wonder what this would have sounded like with Riley Clark, Andrew Goldman, Wes Hampton, or any number of other talented young singers. For that matter, Wayne Watson himself is still sounding good pretty good these days by comparison.
  4. Be Thou My Vision: Amber is joined by her family here, so it’s been suggested that this should have been reserved for another Nelons hymns album. But I can’t complain about its inclusion on this project. The arrangement is tasteful, richly layered and haunting.
  5. What Do You Say?: This song has a weak melody, and the bridge doesn’t show off the most pleasing aspects of Amber’s voice. She leaps up an octave and begins belting out the lyrics, but the high range combined with the choppy tune gives her voice a strained, shouty sound. This distracts from the meaning. Bluntly put, heart-tugging stories about cancer patients need to be complemented by melodies that keep you listening long enough to get invested in them.
  6. Without Your Love: Ah, now this is a duet I can get into: Amber plus Joseph Habedank. Joel Lindsey’s golden songwriting touch is apparent on this tune. He can write a perfect inspirational pop ballad. He’s the king of “Good Schmaltz”: songs like a chocolate cheesecake, on the sweet side, but melodies so rich you want to sink your teeth into them again and again.
  7. Grateful: This is the Keith Urban-ish single. Country instruments, pop vocals. Nothing too deep here.
  8. God is Always Good: Really nice MOR with a classy 90s feel. Sort of like something Scott Krippayne might have written and recorded back in the day. One thing I like about it is that the arrangement isn’t pushed to overblown heights. It reaches a nice little peak, then quietly draws to its conclusion without muscling its way through a bridge and two key changes to get there.
  9. Give it to Jesus: A power ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place on American Idol, but in a nice way. While Amber does get to show off her chops and her range on this one, the melody actually goes somewhere, and she stays in vocal control the whole way. This track gives us a sense of what Amber might have gone on to do had she capitalized on that golden ticket. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of what happened there, click here.)
  10. Falling: A lengthy string quartet intro gives way to a series of single piano notes. The complex arrangement and carefully crafted lyrics actually reminded me of some of David Phelps’s solo work. The lyrical theme is the juxtaposition of our perspective with God’s: “We see… you see…” The “falling” hook concludes the chorus: “But even when we see life falling apart, you see life falling in place.” The strongest  line is “We see our Savior forsaken, you see Easter’s dawn.” The force of this line is accompanied by an unexpected twist and lift in the melody. There was only one bit that needed work, and it actually comes right before that last line: “We read a story so tragic, seem too far gone.” The phrase “seem too far gone” doesn’t really make sense. The only possible antecedent is “we,” yet the lyric has shifted from talking about our story to our reading Jesus’ story.

Final thoughts: This album could be divided into radio-friendly contemporary country on the one hand and nostalgic MOR material on the other. The country tunes include some of the album’s biggest highlights, packing a good Carrie Underwood-like punch. At the same time, they include the album’s weakest moments. The MOR material makes up the solid, consistent center. Throw in “Be Thou My Vision,” which is neither but stands out on its own, and the album as a whole tips toward my good side. I want to hear Amber wrap her voice around more good songs some time soon.

Prime cuts: “Be Thou My Vision,” “Give it to Jesus,” “Falling”

Rating: 4 stars

Todd Suttles Movie Sighting: The Second Chance

Recently, I re-watched a small Christian movie called The Second Chance (2006), directed by Steve Taylor and starring Michael W. Smith as a yuppie music pastor who spends some time serving in an inner-city church. Naturally, the film uses Smith’s musical talents for more than one set piece. Guess who I spotted in the choir on a couple of them? Todd Suttles, now singing baritone/bass for the Gaither Vocal Band. Here’s my favorite number, “Follow Me.” Michael’s character has wandered into a church choir practice, and the lady director enthusiastically encourages him to sit down and play something with them. You can see Todd in the orange shirt on the far right. He has a step-out around 2:10.

You might be wondering if the movie itself is any good, and the answer is that parts of it are very good, but it’s a mixed bag. Michael W. does a surprisingly good acting job, and the black pastor he works with is even more impressive. The writers are clearly very familiar with inner city church ministry in Nashville and fill the story with memorable small moments and characters. A subplot involving a pregnant prostitute is particularly sad and powerful. My main problem with the film is its excessive wallowing in white guilt. Granted, it could have been even worse, and it tries to present an equal array of black and white antagonists (including a corrupt black city official and a cruel black gangster). It also acknowledges that the black pastor is prideful and cynical, and he needs to give Michael W.’s wide-eyed character a fair chance. But in my opinion, it doesn’t come down hard enough on some of his spewing, and the closing scene has him getting choked up at a Malcolm X quote. Yes, both pastors are presented as having lessons to learn, but it seems like in the end, the white guy has learned more.

Then again, it seemed pretty mild compared to what I found when I looked up the actor who plays the black pastor, Jeff Obafemi Carr. The guy is a total nutcase. He’s a black liberation activist with his own cult down in Nashville that, if I have this right, combines Pentecostalism with African tribal paganism with Freemasonry. Nope, not making this up. But hey, he can act. Soooo, ANYway. Enjoy the music!

CD Review: Aim Higher, by The Browns

Aim Higher   -     By: The Browns<br /><br /><br /><br /><br />

The Browns have gone through a few lineup shifts, beginning with two sisters and two brothers, then down-sizing to four voices after the older sister got married, then enjoying her return along with her husband, Nick Trammell. But for their last couple projects, it’s back to just mother Shelly, daughter Michaela, and brothers Adam and Andrew. The three younger siblings enjoy a strong blend, and they also please crowds with their dynamic violin trios. Aim Higher is the family’s second release with Stowtown Records, set for official release this Friday.

Continue reading “CD Review: Aim Higher, by The Browns”

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”

Doug Anderson’s Farewell Party

Dustin Doyle just made his live debut as Signature Sound’s new baritone singer the other day. He sang “Redemption Draweth Nigh,” the song he picked for his audition. Meanwhile, I just discovered some great up close and personal videos of Doug Anderson and the guys from about a month ago. They’re from a retreat session in Shipshewana, Indiana, and since Indiana is Doug’s home state, some old friends of his came up to show their appreciation. So the retreat kind of doubled as a going-away party for him, and it just looks like a sweet time all round. A user named Joyce Williams has uploaded several of these videos (about 15-20 minutes long each), full of funny stories, heart-to-heart reflections from both Doug and Ernie, and some performances by request. I’ll point readers to her channel for all of them but embed a couple that I found especially fun.

In the first half of this one, Ernie Haase shares his top ten moments with Doug on the road. I’d never heard any of these stories before, but oh my, these are some good ones. Some are funny, others are embarrassing (and funny), some are touching, and one of them is a little bit scary (it involves going jogging in a spot in Israel where you do NOT want to go jogging). Ernie really bares his soul in a couple of these moments, particularly the last one:

And the number one top ten moment for me, ever, was you reaching across the aisle late one night, giving me a fist bump, telling me everything was going to be all right, when this group was going to hell pretty quick. And for staying and being my best friend, and helping me get this group off the ground.

The second half is some other stuff, but that was the part that really got me.

And here’s Doug singing an old sugar stick of his: “Gone.” If you watched the first video, you know they’re laughing at the beginning because they’re thinking about the fact that Ernie specially requested Doug sing this, and the hook reminded everyone that Doug was going away. (But that was nothing compared to Ernie setting up “Forgiven Again” by saying Doug was going to spend more time with his family, and then Doug singing the first line of that song: “I left my family, the love I had known…”)

Here’s an impromptu group performance of “All the Gold in California.” Never heard them try this one before!

One friend of Doug’s who shared some words also happens to know Bill Gaither. According to him, Bill once said in a conversation about Doug, “I can’t believe I let him get away!” So congrats, Ernie. You one-upped Bill for thirteen years!