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”

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”

The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “Joy to the World”

The last carol revision that came under the Grinch’s eye involved changing ye olde-fashioned grammar to something incorrect in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Today, the Grinch critiques something that makes him even grumpier: Politically correct revisionism. The carol in this case is “Joy to the World.”

If you pay close attention to the second verse, you might hear the traditional lyric as penned by Isaac Watts: “Joy to the earth, the Lord is come. Let men their songs employ.” But for a number of renditions, you might hear a subtle change. Instead of “Let men their songs employ,” you may hear, “Let all their songs employ,” or perhaps, “Let us our songs employ.” For some hymn-compilers, artists, etc., it’s a knee-jerk reaction to tweak the lyric. I mean, otherwise (*gasp*) the women in the audience might feel left out! We wouldn’t want them to think only the men were being invited to employ their songs!

Of course, this is silliness. “Men” here is simply a natural use of the generic male noun to refer to “the race of man,” that is, human beings. You see boys and girls, before the PC police came along and tweaked everything, people used to refer to “mankind” instead of “humankind” and use the generic “he” without thinking twice about it, because people were educated and understood graceful language. Now, with our new and improved “gender-speak,” well, it’s clunkity-clunk-clunk, look at Frosty go. Continue reading “The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “Joy to the World””

The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

This Christmas I… uh, I mean the Grinch thought he would get a few complaints off his chest about people who mess with the lyrics of old Christmas carols. To be clear, the Grinch is not unhappy with these carols themselves. The Grinch loves Christmas carols. It’s just that the Grinch doesn’t like what some people have done with them.

Sometimes there’s a not-so-subtle agenda at work, as when a lyric is truly mangled to be more politically correct (removing all references to men or the male pronoun, for example). Sometimes it’s a more innocent but still painful attempt to be “helpful” when it comes to a slightly archaic turn of phrase. Some more contemporary adapters have mistakenly thought they understood grammar better than the original writers, so, bumblingly, they actually make things worse.

One of Grammar Grinch’s pet peeves is a verse in one popular set of lyrics to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Unfortunately, some of his favorite musical renditions of this carol, from the Annie Moses Band to the Cathedrals, have a sadly corrupted version of one of the verses that hopelessly scrambles the grammar. The problem line is bolded:

In Bethlehem of Judah the blessed babe was born

And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn

To which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn

Oh tidings of comfort, etc.

No, no, no! You’re making Grammar Grinch cry.

Continue reading “The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen””

On New Hymns and Perfect Rhymes

A while back, I ran across some new hymns by progressive southern gospel songwriting regular Lee Black. He commented that it was hard to get them cut, but he saw no harm in performing them himself and putting them out there on Youtube. The first two were co-written with Gina Boe, another sought-after contributor to your favorite artists’ catalogues:

The Light and the Glory

That Death May Die:

All Glory To You, Jesus

Any of these new songs would be a classy and welcome addition to a church service. It goes without saying that they’re infinitely more intricate and contentful than the incoherent, monotonic dreck Jesus Culture is churning out (or whoever the kids are listening to, I don’t keep track to be honest). In fact, melodically I would say they’re even more interesting than “In Christ Alone.” So for well-written, yet accessible new church music, this is any worship pastor’s ideal. However, the songwriting purist in me can’t help wondering whether they could be improved in one respect: rhyme scheme.

Continue reading “On New Hymns and Perfect Rhymes”

An Interview With Rebecca Peck

 

Apologies for not posting anything yesterday. First I thought it was April 1st, then I thought it was March 30th, then I remembered that March has 31 days in it. So, needless to say, WordPress didn’t do what I thought it was going to do.:-) BUT, to make up for my absent-mindedness, and instead of coming up with anything clever for April Fool’s Day, I have a special treat for all you readers—an interview with one of my favorite songwriters, Rebecca Peck! Rebecca has a huge catalogue of songs with cuts from nearly all of your favorite artists, including, but not limited to, the Booth Brothers, the Collingsworth Family, Brian Free & Assurance, Legacy Five, Triumphant Quartet, the Hoppers, Signature Sound, etc., etc., etc. In my opinion, she is gospel music’s answer to Twila Paris. My personal favorite song of hers is the Collingsworth Family’s “Blessed Be the Lamb.” I got the chance to ask her some questions about her background and her career, including her recent song “Christ Is Still the King” on Legacy Five’s latest. My thanks to Rebecca for being so insightful, down-to-earth and gracious. You can read more about her and browse her work at her website. Without further ado, here are my questions and her answers to them!

Continue reading “An Interview With Rebecca Peck”

Featuring… A Reader’s Music

A gentleman named Judson Hair left a nice comment on one of my songwriting posts recently, inviting me to check out his own site and songwriting work. I was very glad that I did. Mr. Hair calls himself a “late bloomer,” trying his hand at songwriting later than most folks first pick up the pen, but seeing that as no excuse not to create. Here is one of his most recent compositions, “Learning to See.” As you know, I’m a pretty merciless song critic, but this one arrested me from verse one. Aspiring writers should study the lyrics carefully (although I believe there are a couple grammatical slips in the final stanza).

I pleased Judson greatly by instantly naming three artists I suspected (rightly) had influenced him: Gordon Lightfoot, Don McLean and Dan Fogelberg. Check out his site Footprints in the Sand here.

When he left her standin’ there he could see it all so clear
A year away would do ’em both some good
She couldn’t understand when he let go of her hand
And probably she never really would

If you go and leave, are you ever comin’ back?
Will I ever see you anymore?
He slowly walked away and she saw him disappear
Then she turned and very gently closed the door

Read on for full lyrics.

Continue reading “Featuring… A Reader’s Music”

Songwriting Tip: Using Colors In Your Lyrics

There are many marks of a clever songwriter. One is the quiet insertion of little details that you might not pick up on in a first casual listen. Take colors, for example. Colors are powerful symbols. They can trigger recognition, evoke memories, and stir emotions. Flags, holidays, religious rituals, even abstract virtues and vices are linked with certain colors. This is fertile ground for the songwriter. You can convey something specific or set a general tone with a little dash of color in your lyrics. Sometimes there is no particular symbolism to it—it just serves an end in itself as good poetry. Here are three examples:

Ilene

Writer: Benjy Gaither

She’s a firecracker on the fourth of July

With her red hair, white dress and big blue eyes

Her kisses are as sweet as apple pie

I hope I never have to hear her say goodbye

***

All I Really Want

Writer: Steven Curtis Chapman

Well I don’t know if you remember me or not

I’m one of the kids they brought in from the home

I was the red-haired boy in an old green flannel shirt

You may not have seen me, I was standing off alone

I didn’t come and talk to you, ‘cuz that’s never worked before

And you’ll prob’ly never see this letter anyway

But just in case there’s something you could do to help me out

I’ll ask you one more time

Chorus

All I really want for Christmas…

***

Storm

Writer: Fernando Ortega

Sometimes it takes a storm to really know the light,

The scent of rain, the weight of clouds pulling down the sky.

Sometimes it takes a storm to know how you feel

To understand indigo and the varnished sun lighting up the fields.

It takes the rain between the lines to know what sorrow finds

The way a cloud divides sometimes, the clearing and the blue

I love you.

I was just passing through and taken by surprise.

Between the black sky and the blue,

Between the black sky and the blue, I love you.

I love you.

The Hardest Part of a Song to Write

What’s the hardest part of a song to write, assuming you’re not a genius who can make up an entire song in three minutes (which is most of us)?

For my money, it’s the second verse. The chorus usually comes to you in your first blast of inspiration, so that’s the easiest part. After that the first verse, because you’re all full of things to say that build off of the chorus. Then a bridge is no big deal (if you need one), because you basically don’t need to do any more than come up with a short lyrical idea and put a key change on the end.

But the second verse can be surprisingly hard. Unless you’re writing one of those super-formulaic story-songs (highschool prom, married life, nursing home, done—love ya Mark Schultz), it can sometimes feel like you used up all your good ideas in the first verse and now you’re stuck. “Wait, you mean I have to come up with more than one new thought because unlike the bridge this is still verse-length?”

I’ve lost count of the number of partially finished songs I have floating around just because I haven’t found the time or the discipline to write that second verse. Even though it doesn’t even have to be as long as the first verse (most second verses aren’t).

Is there anyone who’d like to share his thoughts on this? I know I have songwriter friends who read, mostly lurkers (one I didn’t even know I had until she left a solitary negative comment—ain’t that how it is). You guys know you’re welcome to chime in at any time.

Oh, Just Sing About Your Girlfriend Already

They’re a soft target, most worship songs. Partly because they tend to be lousy musical compositions, but also partly because they tend to be mushy and indistinguishable from love ballads bar the occasional “God” and “Jesus” thrown in. In short, they’re all-around lousy songs.

One day I was in a cruel mood. So I thought I would try taking a couple of these fluff-fests and seeing how they fared when set next to the genuine article: real, bona fide love songs.

It’s not pretty.

Take, for example, Big Daddy Weave’s “Every Time I Breathe”:

Now compare it with Brad Paisley’s “She’s Everything”:


Fact: I’d rather hear Brad Paisley sing this song about his wife than hear Big Daddy Weave sing that song about God. Not only is the romantic language far more comfortable and appropriate, but the writing actually holds my interest. A novel concept.

Let’s try again with something a little different, a song that’s not technically worship but has a “vertical” orientation and got played a lot on Christian radio:

This one gives a laundry list of things the singer “questions” before concluding with, “The one thing I don’t question is You. You really love me like you say you do.” God is the fixed point in the singer’s life.

Okay as far as it goes, but when one of your main hooks runs, “Hold me, come on, hold me. I need your love. Hold me. Come on now…,” and when, moreover, the song is addressed to God, this is an epic fail. It’s an epic fail anyway, but the God part makes the fail even more epic. Plus, if you seriously “question” your “ability to judge wrong from right,” you’ve got some issues. And if you’re not sure what race you are, you’ve got even bigger issues. (Yes, yes, I know that’s not what he meant, but I couldn’t resist.) The whole thing just comes off very trite. It fails to make me take it seriously or provoke any thought, even though presumably it’s supposed to.

Compare this with the very similarly themed but vastly superior “Kathy’s Song,” by Paul Simon (lyrically anyway, though admittedly the melody isn’t particularly inventive). Note in particular how Simon self-consciously takes some of the language commonly used in reference to the divine and works it into this very horizontal piece (and how much more elegantly this succeeds than the reverse operation):

So you see I have come to doubt

All that I once held as true.

I stand alone without beliefs.

The only truth I know is you.

Or even more explicit: “There but for the grace of you go I.” And yet this lyric is far more believable, profound, and thought-provoking than the Coleman song, which actually is referring to God.

Here’s the brutal truth: If you’re going to talk to or about God, you need to expand your vocabulary. Because if all you’re doing is writing a love song with “God” and “Jesus” thrown in, I’ve got news for you: The rest of the world writes way better love songs. Like so much better it’s not even funny. Your job is to prove that a relationship with God is deeper and more holy than any human love relationship could ever be. Will you still write about love? Absolutely. The love of a father for his child. The love of a shepherd for his sheep. The love of a creator for his crowning creation. But what you write for your girlfriend? Keep that separate from what you write for God. If that’s something you need to work on, do us a favor and just sing about your girlfriend until you figure out how to write better songs about your God.

That is all.