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)”

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.

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”

The Bitter-Sweetness of “White Christmas”

Christmas greetings! Thank  you for your patience as this blog has gone semi-dormant this past semester. I have hopes that next semester will be less back-breaking, and I’ll be able to resume writing about all my favorite things. For the immediate future, I’m hoping to knock out some mini-reviews for the backlog of CDs I wasn’t able to listen to properly this semester. (Apologies to any record labels and artists who’ve been patiently waiting for my feedback.) Also, Little Sister is slated to make a guest appearance and lend her thoughts on the new Star Wars movie (she seems to have been a popular guest in the past, so I’ll not mess with success!) In addition, I’ve been asked to write a piece about the enduring popularity of Star Wars for Summit magazine, so stay tuned for a link to that. It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m getting paid to write about Star Wars. Merry Christmas to me. (I guess even worldview organizations feel like just having fun once in a while.) Finally, I’m putting together a Top 5 list of 2015 films and hope to have that posted soon.

But, for now, I want to write some reflections on the popular carol “White Christmas,” sparked by some backstory I had never heard until yesterday.

Continue reading “The Bitter-Sweetness of “White Christmas””

Fanny Crosby Meets Ricky Skaggs

I’ve been rotating Blessed Assurance: The New Hymns of Fanny Crosby in the car for a few days, hopefully preparing for a review (one of these days!) But, in case it takes me a little while to get around to that review, here’s the crown jewel of the project: Ricky Skaggs’s haunting folk waltz treatment of a lyric called “All is Well.” Note the subtle metaphor in verse one to Crosby’s blindness: “Though the clouds may veil the sky, my steps are led by your sweet light.” Also, the repeated references to HEARING God’s voice.

To be honest, the rest of the album is just okay by comparison with this, although I did like Ernie Haase & Signature Sound’s “I Have Found a Priceless Treasure.” Part of my problem with some of the other tunes is that they’re very tied to a particular worship sound that’s not going to be current forever. But what Skaggs has done with “All is Well” is timeless. It won’t age. This right here is one of the best new (new/old?) songs of the year, if not the past decade. I’d like to think Fanny would appreciate it:

The Definitive Hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

I love reading about how the great hymns came to be. For some hymns, one writer sat down and composed lyrics and music. Others were collaborative, like the work of Fanny Crosby and Philip Bliss (wouldn’t it have been something to sit in on one of their songwriting sessions?) But some, like today’s hymn, came together more slowly. Originally, it was written as a poem by a young Methodist preacher named Robert Robinson, in the year 1757. But it wasn’t set to music until roughly 1813, when the tune is commonly attributed to John Wyeth. It also appears that he tweaked a couple of the lyrics to make them flow more smoothly with the music. Even today, you can encounter several lyrical variants depending on which hymnal you’re using.

The story of the hymn is fascinating, and I hadn’t heard it before looking up its provenance. Robinson was apparently a rather delinquent lad, but he was much struck by a George Whitefield sermon at the age of 17. Three years later, he sobered up and set out to become a Methodist preacher. A couple years after that, at 22, he penned “Come Thou Fount.” A helpful hymn collector has created sheet music with the closest thing to the original lyrics he could find.

Sadly, it appears that Robinson “wandered” from orthodoxy in later years, ultimately straying into Unitarianism. It was said that towards the end of his life, a lady riding with him in a stagecoach starting humming it and asked him what he thought of the hymn. He answered that he had written it, but he no longer felt the passion in his own words, though he “would give a thousand worlds” to feel as he did then. The obvious problem with this story is that there wouldn’t have been a tune for the lady to “hum,” since the melody wasn’t written until after Robinson’s death. So, there is good reason to believe that it’s apocryphal. Certainly, it would be a tragic ending indeed to the story of one of hymnody’s finest.

The version I’ve selected comes from Fernando Ortega, who can always be counted on to deliver a classy take on an old hymn. The way he starts quietly and builds the dynamics with the cello is excellent. Take a listen:

Unpublished Hymns of Fanny Crosby to Be Released, Recorded

It’s probably safe to say that Fanny Crosby was the most prolific American hymn-writer, perhaps the most prolific of all hymn-writers. She wrote so many thousands of hymns that her publishers literally couldn’t read them all. I’ve always wondered whatever happened to all those unpublished hymns.

Just recently, I was pointed to a radio podcast that answers my question. Those unpublished hymns were, quite literally, stuffed into a box and forgotten. That box was eventually donated to Wheaton College, where it continued to collect dust and be forgotten.

Until now.

In that broadcast, which you can stream here Nashville producer Bobby Blazier explains the remarkable process whereby these hymns were discovered and have now been set to music by some of the best artists in the industry. But it almost never happened. As Blazier recalls, “They [Wheaton] didn’t know what to do with it. Who cares about Fanny Crosby?” A friend of Blazier’s found out that the box was there and lobbied for permission to get into it. At first, Wheaton discouraged him, saying on the one hand, “They’re fragile, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to them,” and on the other hand, “Who cares anyway?” which I find amusing.  So his friend undertook the cost of copying every one of the forgotten hymns, then preserving them in print and on a backup drive.

Blazier then took them to Integrity Music, who agreed to publish a compilation album of the poems set to new music. Artists ranging from Michael W. Smith to Ricky Skaggs to southern gospel’s own Ernie Haase & Signature Sound were invited to participate in the project. The Blind Boys of Alabama, appropriately enough, were also among the artists invited to participate, and Blazier describes how moving it was for them to be involved. You can hear preview snippets of them exclusively on the Public Square interview. At around 47:00, they play a minute-long clip of Ricky Skaggs’s contribution, a haunting minor-key setting of one called “All is Well.” I’m already noticing that her signature of including explicit or implied references to sight runs through these unpublished works, as it did through her well-loved standards:

All is well, for thou art near

Gracious Lord, thy voice I hear

Though the clouds may veil the sky

My steps are led by your sweet light

All is well, all is well

For thy peace within me dwells

In your presence, fears dispelled

Loving Savior, all is well

At the very end of the interview (around 53:00), Blazier mentions another poignant discovery from the box: thank-you notes to her publishers, when they would give her a little extra money over and above what was agreed on for her songs. “I will be able to feed so many people with this ten dollars,” one note reads. She was so broke near the end of her life that she and her husband came close to being evicted. But ten dollars would show up on the doorstep, allowing her to pay the rent.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for some of these like-new hymns to bump some worship pabulum off the music rosters of churches everywhere. The album will be released in October, but you can see a track-listing here. Signature Sound will be featured on one called “I Have Found a Priceless Treasure.”

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.