International Songwriting Contest, 2013: My Picks

I enjoy browsing the winners of large songwriting contests. It’s always fun to discover  brand new talent, and it reveals something about my own musical tastes when a large selection of completely new music is put in front of me. Most recently, I took a listen to some of the musicians who placed in the 2013 International Songwriting Contest. There are certain genres I just avoid altogether (electronica, hip-hop, etc.) and others where the genre isn’t what it used to be (Top 40, adult contemporary). And then, happily, there are the genres where good music is still being made. This year, I kept coming back to the Americana, folk/singer-songwriter, blues and country selections. I guess I prefer music that says something to “music” that exists merely to put a worm in your ear.

The wealth of untapped talent out there is incredible. I laughed and cried over several of the songs that placed in these categories. In several cases, I actually preferred the 2nd or 3rd place finishers to the category winner. Below are some of my favorites. Think of this sampler as a little slice of “coffeehouse cake,” or alternatively, “songs that are too good for radio.”

Continue reading “International Songwriting Contest, 2013: My Picks”


Kickstart Something Good: Jean Watson

For those who are weary of the pablum now paraded as “music” on the airwaves of mainstream and Christian music alike, I offer an alternative: Jean Watson, a gifted singer/songwriter who also happens to be a dear friend of mine. Her style is clear, contemplative CCM, much like Fernando Ortega. She is a classically trained singer and violinist, and she enjoys an active ministry both in America and in the U.K. On her two latest projects—one Christmas and one original worship—she has teamed up with some of the best talent in Nashville, including producer Bill Smiley (WhiteHeart, Steven Curtis Chapman, Johnny Cash, Bebe & Cece Winans, Gaither Vocal Band, 4Him, and more), drummer Steve Brewster (Bob Seger, Chicago, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Richard Marx), and most excitingly, Phil Keaggy on a fresh arrangement of the carol “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Jean aims to help fund both records at once through a Kickstarter campaign she is calling “The Sound of Heaven.” She writes:

The greatest challenge for me in creating this project is simply financial. Whatever I have to pay towards the cost of production, manufacture, artwork, photography, travel, etc, etc, simply puts a burden on the ministry which provides the bulk of my income. I desire to be in a place where I am not hindered by any debt and can give away as much of my ministry proceeds as possible!

The total cost of ‘The Sound of Heaven Project’ is projected at approximately $40,000 which includes all expenses from start to finish. Kickstarter is a great way to raise funds for projects like this, but if I don’t raise the whole $14,000 that I am asking for to help me, I get nothing! Kickstarter will help me meet as many of those expenses as possible so I can focus on MINISTRY, not money! 🙂

Reading the numbers closely should impress upon us all just how difficult it is to be an independent artist in today’s economy. As you can see, this Kickstarter campaign won’t cover half of her costs even if it’s successful. But it will be a significant help. Click here to back her project, and if you want to hear her music, you should go to her website. The soundtrack to the promo video is music by Hillsong, not Jean. Here is one of her original songs:

A Southern Hymn from Steven Curtis Chapman

It’s finally here—SCC’s first “proper” pop album since his daughter’s death. After the immediate, gut-wrenching lamentation of Beauty Will Rise, The Glorious Unfolding shows Chapman slowly returning to his old self–not the same, but healing. This is not going to be an album review, but I’ll just say very quickly that after listening through the whole thing last night, it’s encouraging to hear SCC in this mood again. Is the music as good as his glory days? Well, much of it follows the Speechless/Declaration template, which, for those of you who don’t have his entire album timeline memorized (grin) was the phase where he left the beaten path of MOR Christian pop and began adding rockier textures to his style. While that was creative and different then, each successive time he’s duplicated the formula feels like a progressively fading photocopy (and even then, truth be told, he’d already written a large chunk of his best songs in the late 80s/early 90s).

So, if I’m being honest, there were some tracks on here that didn’t grab or hold my attention. Musically speaking, that is. Most of the lyrics are excellent, and so far beyond anything else spinning on CCM radio right now it’s not even funny.  And, oh my, can this man still write a ballad! Here are just a few lines that particularly struck me. This one is from “Michael and Maria,” dedicated to his own daughter and another child lost by some close friends:

Michael and Maria

Someone said they thought they saw you

Giving names to babies this world never knew

I’m sure by now you’ve found your great grandparents

And some friends like Dave and Erin

I bet you’ve met Moses too…

Or this from the Five-for-Fighting-flavored “See You In a Little While,” a song dedicated to his grandmother:

And just one more thing before I let you go

Please tell my little girl I love her

Though I’m sure she already knows

And ask the Father to please tell the Son

That we’re ready and waiting for Him to come…

But my personal favorite is this closing, hymn-like track, “At the Feet of Jesus,” which feels like it could fit easily onto an Alison Krauss project. Enjoy:

Country Singing Coal-Miner/Military Vet on America’s Got Talent

I think the pickings are pretty slim for America’s Got Talent this year, but there are a few acts  I’ve enjoyed. There’s a popera trio named Forte who’s easy on the eyes and reminds me of Il Divo. There’s a teenage magician who’s as good a showman as he is a magician. Perhaps most impressive is Anna Christine, a 10-year-old girl with an old soul who sang and played “House of the Rising Sun.” Let’s also not forget the black guy who came out and sang like… well I won’t spoil the surprise, but watch his audition here, and stick around after the performance for a great extra “Awwwww” moment.

However, as soon as I saw the audition I’m sharing with you today, I knew I’d instantly found a new favorite. The singer is Jimmy Rose. This video gives you some background about his life as a coal miner in Kentucky, then choosing to serve in the Marine Corps for four years. He is now 32, pursuing his dream of becoming a country singer. But he’s not just another country singer. He’s a singer/songwriter, and for this audition, he made the daring choice of performing an original song dedicated to the coal miners of his hometown. Continue reading “Country Singing Coal-Miner/Military Vet on America’s Got Talent”

Recently Added: Billy Joel

Since he turned 64 the other day (cue the Beatles!) it seemed appropriate to showcase some Billy Joel songs I’ve been enjoying recently (which you may or may not recognize) and to try to capture in one humble little blog post why I’m such a fan.

As a child, I never listened to secular radio, and my knowledge of popular secular music was shaky beyond the 1940s. So my earliest memory of hearing Billy Joel’s music goes back a mere 5-7 years. I was hanging out with a neo-classical composer friend at a university roadhouse. We took turns making fun of the songs on the radio. Then the first few bars of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” started playing. My friend paused, listening intently. “This…” he said, pointing to the speaker. “This is a great song.”  Continue reading “Recently Added: Billy Joel”

SG vs. CCM Smackdown: “Your Love Broke Through” and “Love Was in the Room”

Pitting southern gospel songs against similar songs from the world of contemporary Christian music. I think I’ve done precisely one of these so far. High time for another installment.

Both of these songs use some of the same language and imagery to refer to God’s redemptive love. But stylistically, they couldn’t possibly be more different. Keith Green’s “Your Love Broke Through” may be a blast from the past for some of you. It’s the epitome of light 70s pop. Karen Carpenter could have sung this one and it would have been a perfect fit. “Love Was In the Room” is a warm, country-styled harmony vehicle, done to perfection by the Booth Brothers.

This might come down to a matter of taste, but surely some objective comparisons could be made. I’ll just say, to kick things off, that a big strength of both songs is melodic richness. Let’s see what y’all think:

Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World: Sisters and The Andrews Sisters

This one occurred to me the other day, and my instant thought was “Duh! Of course!” So here’s a family harmony installment of Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World.

First, The Andrews Sisters. I have a special fondness for these gals because I grew up on them. My folks gave me a greatest hits collection and a double-disc collection of their duets with Bing Crosby for Christmas one year when I was a little girl. That was around the same time they put The Great Gershwin Decca Songbook in my hands. For months on end, I was in jazz heaven, singing along with everything from Judy Garland to Louis Armstrong’s trumpet (mixed success on the later). Continue reading “Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World: Sisters and The Andrews Sisters”

Two Articles for Retuned

Interested readers can read two more pieces I’ve posted at the site The Retuned since I was invited to be a guest contributor there. One of them examines the biblical symbolism of justice and mercy in a song from Les Miserables entitled “Who Am I?” The other discusses secular love songs that are beautifully written but offer a vision of romantic love/passion that their authors themselves feel is too good to be true. I view the songs from the biblical framework of our longing for Eden and the joyful fulfillment of that longing in God’s perfect design for marriage and sexuality.

So, unless you hate Les Miserables (or musicals in general), Simon & Garfunkel, or Marc Cohn (or secular love songs in general), I hope you can take something good away from my thoughts on all of the above.

“Who Am I?”: Harmonizing Grace and Justice in Les Miserables

Whenever I May Find Her: A Song for Paradise Lost (Note: The image for this post depicts the creation of Eve. If a Dore engraving of Eve in her original created state would bother you… then don’t click on the post.)

Britain’s Got Talent 2012: Who Were My Favorites?

Jonathan and Charlotte

Simon Cowell may consider his life’s work complete, but I was a tad disappointed that this year’s BGT was won by a dancing dog act. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge dog lover, and Pudsey is adorable and talented, but with so many deserving acts that placed below the dapper canine and his trainer… it was just a bit disappointing, if predictable.

So I thought I would write a little post about a few of my favorites from this season, because I really think this was one of the best “batches” yet. I think I’ll work my way backwards and end this post with who my personal top three would have been. Hopefully that will keep you reading to the end. 🙂

First, I’ll mention one semi-finalist who didn’t make it to the finals: Hope Murphy. This 16-year-old girl was pretty quiet, but she was classy and really had a great voice. In her semi-final, she covered Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and even though she messed up some of the lyrics at the beginning, it was an impressive moment. Because she literally left out a whole phrase in verse one, and because her accompaniment was minimal, it’s impressive that she was able to get back on track. Watch her performance here. I would have definitely preferred to see her in the finals over one of the boy bands or dancing acts who did make the cut.

Next, there were two similar contestants who both happened to fit the “clean-cut heartthrob/crooner with a guitar” image: Sam Kelly and Ryan O’Shaughnessy. I enjoyed both of these guys. I thought they were sweet, likable and had actual talent. Sam’s voice is somewhat squeaky/emotional for my taste, but all three of his performances were good, and my favorite was probably his cover of “Bless the Broken Road” in the final. Even though this song is a standard in America, neither Rascal Flatts nor the song is well known in Britain, so it was refreshing to see them getting some exposure “across the pond.” Sure enough, I went over to a video of Rascal Flatts doing the song and saw British viewers saying, “Sam Kelly brought me here!” So this is a very good thing. Watch his performance here. (Be warned though—looks like he’s been raiding Ernie Haase’s closet recently. The shirt is fine, but the pants…)

However, I preferred Ryan, both because he has a cleaner voice and because he’s a songwriter too! The Irish 19-year-old had the guts to perform exclusively original material throughout the show. There’s a bit of a sad story surrounding the song he auditioned with, “No Name,” a heartfelt expression of love for a certain girl he’d fallen for. The judges pressed him to reveal her name, but he shyly refused. Later she came forward and revealed herself, but then the story didn’t have a happy ending because she told Ryan she had another boyfriend and couldn’t go steady with him. I felt bad for him because he just seems like the nicest guy, and he wrote the sweetest songs for her. Everyone agrees it’s her loss. Here is his audition. When he puts out an album, I’ll check it out for sure. A very warm, folksy sound.

Now for my top three. In third place, I would have put child singer Molly Rainford. She’s only 11 years old, but she has an amazingly pure, mature, well-rounded voice. It’s an old-fashioned pop voice, not opera in a Jackie Evancho vein, but very impressive in its own way. And she’s an absolute dear as well. Sadly, I can’t help feeling it will be bad for her if she does become a star, since the industry always seems to take the innocent girls who enter into it and spit out ruined, sexualized young women on the end. We’ll pray that’s not Molly’s fate. Meanwhile, enjoy her innocence and sweet voice while we have it. Here is her breath-taking semi-final performance of “It Must Have Been Love.” (I had never heard the song before, and then I discovered her arrangement was COMPLETELY different from the original. Her arrangement is light-years better.)

In second place, I would put the Welsh boys’ choir Only Boys Aloud. Now these lads did take 3rd, so that wasn’t so far from where they deserved to be, just a little behind IMO. This 133-voice choir is easily one of my FAVORITE acts ever to take the stage on this show. They gave me goosebumps, they gave Britain goosebumps, they were classy and inspirational to the max. There’s nothing like over a hundred fresh-faced teenage boys singing Welsh hymns fit to burst. It’s everything I love about male singing and male bonding rolled into one. Hats off to their director and the men who have mentored them. Watch their brilliant audition here, which also provides the group’s inspiring backstory. Here are the lyrics with English translation to the hymn they were singing, “Calon Lan (Pure Heart)”.

Finally, some of you may have heard of the act I would have placed first. They came so close, but they had to be content with second: Charlotte and Jonathan. The two teenagers  (16 and 17 respectively) came on the show together to sing pop/opera duets, Charlotte being the pop half and Jonathan being the opera half. Their friendship is a really special thing, because Charlotte has encouraged Jonathan in his struggle for self-confidence as he battles obesity. His gift is truly remarkable, so remarkable that when the pair first auditioned, Charlotte was somewhat lost in his shadow, and Simon even wondered if Jonathan should “dump her.” But Jonathan determined to stick by her, and it paid off, because I saw Charlotte grow vocally as she sought to prove herself through the remainder of the competition. She could definitely have a future in musical theater. Meanwhile, I just hope Jonathan has the emotional strength to deal with his newfound stardom. Break out the tissues, prepare to be blown away, and watch a couple of their performances—their semi-final here (this was where Simon officially ate his words from the audition) and their final here.

What do you think?

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

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

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

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

Make your choice and leave a comment!