There’s a joyful noise in the air, a music of spiritual uplift that is undeniable and, to these ears, irresistible. Whatever the reason for the glut of Christian albums by secular artists in recent release, the most inspired and inspirational of this music could make the spine of an atheist tingle and cause an agnostic to reconsider.
Or so I might have thought before I started one of my recent journalism classes in arts reviewing by playing Alan Jackson’s Precious Moments. I’d thought I was introducing the students to a musical experience of uncommon purity and grace. Yet they suspected I was subjecting them to sermonizing, inflicting them with dogma.
“Why are you doing this to us?” one of them complained. Now these students aren’t devil’s spawn (at least most of them). Yet on the decidedly liberal campus of the University of Iowa, the very idea of devout Christianity carries all sorts of cultural/political implications that most of them disavow.
I’d actually decided to play them Jackson after giving them a taste of Uncle Tupelo (and Jeff Tweedy’s progression within Wilco) a week or so earlier. The selection I’d picked was the traditional “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, and the reaction from the students was that the band must be making an ironic statement, that it was satirizing the very idea of Christian fundamentalism. For plainly the band didn’t believe all this fire-and-brimstone stuff, so how could they sing about it with a straight face?
It’s a question worth considering. Can we separate the feeling the music engenders from the faith it expresses? Can we submit, even succumb, to the artistic rapture while remaining resistant to the doctrine that inspires it? As someone whose opinion of religion vacillates from superstition to metaphor to wishful thinking to moral coercion (though, hey, some of my best friends are Christians), I nonetheless find that many of the qualities I associate with musical transcendence — celestial harmony, the rhythm of the spheres, a submission to something so much larger and more powerful than oneself — might echo the most profound spiritual transcendence.
Reviewing albums such as these in musical terms presents some of the same challenges and complexities as critiquing the Bible as literature. Though the Bible could well be the cornerstone of western literature, for literalists it is foremost the word of God, divinely dictated, above and beyond criticism. For the devout, this music isn’t entertainment. It’s a form of worship, even prayer.
I suspect it’s partly the strength of Alan Jackson’s faith that makes it difficult for a heathen such as me to resist the musical expression of it. The results are about as radical an achievement by mainstream Nashville production standards as you’re ever likely to hear. The arrangements rarely extend beyond stately solo piano or guitar, the harmonies sound homespun and familial, and Jackson’s vocal subtlety has a self-effacing humility in the face of a higher power.
There is nothing, in short, to distract from the sturdy strength of the hymns, a strength that most often lies in their plain-spoken simplicity and unwavering conviction. Some are so familiar that they carry almost a genetic cultural imprint — “The Old Rugged Cross”, “How Great Thou Art”, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”. When Jackson sings “In The Garden” — “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own” — I hear my mother singing it. (Jackson reportedly recorded this album for his mother before deciding to release it commercially.)
“Softly And Tenderly” will be familiar to filmgoers as the musical centerpiece of Junebug, with the haunting “Come home, come home” refrain that I couldn’t get out of my head for weeks after enjoying that movie. The hymn here that blindsided me is one I’d never heard before, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, with the singer’s promise that “the pains of earth will grow strangely dim in light of His glory and grace.” It’s a striking, redemptive image, one that makes me wish I could believe in anything as devoutly as Jackson clearly believes what he’s singing here.
The two musical efforts that have hit me hardest this year are Jackson’s expression of faith in Precious Moments and Rosanne Cash’s wrestling with doubt concerning that same faith in Black Cadillac. In both cases, what makes these albums mean so much to the listener — this listener, at least — is that they mean so much to the artist.
Johnny Cash’s mortality not only inspired the best album of his daughter’s career, it spurred his son John Carter Cash into producing Voices Of The Spirit: The Gospel Of The South, a compilation of all-new recordings with arrangements that are almost as minimal as Jackson’s. (Sometimes it sounds as if John Carter Cash might be Rick Rubin’s son.) As the only multi-artist album surveyed here, it’s the one that seeks common ground for black and white spiritual strains.
Mavis Staples delivers an impassioned rendition of “Twelve Gates To The City”, backed by the solo acoustic guitar of Marty Stuart (whose recent Souls’ Chapel celebrates the musical majesty of Pops Staples and the Staple Singers), while the Mighty Clouds Of Joy’s over-the-top performance of “We Shall Overcome” suggests the transformation of southern black Christianity into a progressive social force (no longer content to wait for just reward in the afterlife).
Rodney Crowell crosses the racial divide into country blues with a revival of “Denomination Blues” that brings the ecumenical message home in full force. Perhaps the album’s pivotal track is “Uncloudy Day”, the first recording by Johnny Cash after the death of his beloved June; his voice is weak, but the spirit of the song soars. In the closing “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?”, the ethereal tenor of Vince Gill shows how they must sound there.
Of the two releases by bluegrass patriarchs, I found the first all-gospel album by Del McCoury (who’s also featured with son Ronnie on Voices Of The Spirit ) less consistently satisfying than the new one by Doyle Lawson, who has long made spiritual music his bedrock. Those who equate rootsy authenticity with a rawer sound might consider Lawson’s Quicksilver harmonies too smooth, almost like a barbershop quartet on “Remember My Name In Your Prayers”. Yet the a cappella finale of “When He Welcomes Me In” thrills me like the Beach Boys, a mature southern version of the vocal symphony to God. And rarely has anyone sung so ebulliently about imminent death than the quintet does on “We Shall Inherit”.
It isn’t that I mean to disparage the venerable McCoury Band’s The Promised Land, but the competition here is stiff and expectations ran high. Gospel has long been represented in McCoury’s repertoire, providing a chance of pace on albums and show-stopping highlights in concert (“Get Down On Your Knees And Pray” has proven a particular stunner at the band’s live shows).
Nothing here rises to such holy heights, though the folkish simplicity of “I’m Poor As A Beggar”, the bluesy recasting of David and Goliath in “Five Flat Rocks”, and the call-and-response harmonies of “Gold Under My Feet” are all highlights. The problem with much of the rest is that the strength and range of the material doesn’t match the stellar selection on McCoury’s eclectic secular albums.
The results here never fall short of the workmanlike precision and virtuosity we expect from the McCoury Band, but rarely do they carry the sound of divine inspiration. And whether or not I believe in it, I know it when I hear it.