A couple of years ago, Jesus crossed over and went pop. It was an unlikely development to say the least. At a time when contemporary Christian music and southern and black gospel were as far outside the cultural mainstream as ever, four very different, theologically fraught singles went to #1 on the popular charts.
Both Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and Hoobastank’s “The Reason”, the latter not an expressly religious record but one that resonated with young Christians, topped Billboard’s Hot 100. Both also won Grammys.
Meanwhile, Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train”, a latter-day gospel number, reached the top of the Billboard country singles chart. Buoyed by the hit “Come To Jesus”, Mindy Smith’s One Moment More did the same at Americana radio.
Yet in the end, apart from coinciding with evangelical Christianity’s co-optation of national political discourse, what might have been a trend proved to be a fluke. After the records in question enjoyed their respective runs, the pop charts went back to secular business-as-usual, and the above-mentioned hitmakers followed suit.
All of them, that is, except for Mindy Smith, a church-bred backslider who seems constitutionally incapable of not singing and writing about matters of the spirit, most notably her own.
“I wish I knew how to get to where it’s just cool,” Smith says, using the word cool as a euphemism for peace of mind and pronouncing it the way Rickie Lee Jones might.
“I am a war zone with myself and I write about it,” Smith goes on, pushing her sunglasses up into her lank brown hair. “I told myself I wasn’t going to do that on this record [the new Long Island Shores], but I can’t help myself. It’s just what I do.”
Smith is sitting at the desk of her producer, Steve Buckingham, in the Nashville offices of her record label, Vanguard (which released Long Island Shores on October 10). Gold and platinum LPs line the walls, and trade magazines are scattered everywhere. Smith, a naturalized daughter of Tennessee whose Long Island brogue intensifies the more emphatic she gets, looks pretty damn cool — rocker chick cool — in her stovepipe jeans, knee-high boots, and cotton tunic. Rail thin and with penetrating dark eyes, she could pass for Grace Slick circa Surrealistic Pillow.
The internal conflict or “war zone” Smith talks about is writ large on her new album. Within its first 20 minutes, she prays for a broken world (“Out Loud”) and sings about leaps of faith (“Edge Of Love”), a soul on fire (“Please Stay”), and the key to heaven (“I’m Not The Only One Asking”).
“I know I’m not the only one waiting among wandering souls down here/So brother if you know the answer, please whisper it in my ear,” she beseeches on the chorus of “I’m Not The Only One”, a neo-Appalachian Goth-rocker flecked with lap steel and octave mandolin.
Granted, some of the language Smith employs on her record is metaphorical, grist for her musings on the ins and outs of love. Time and again, though, she reaches for images that carry spiritual freight. The girl can’t help it: The gnawing in her soul pervades everything she does. Maybe nowhere is this more evident than in the words she commits to song.
“It tends to be a lot of what I write about,” she says. “You can try to deny that you’re a dog lover, but if you love dogs, you’re going to love dogs. I’m not belittling the issue. I’m just saying that sometimes it’s easier to figure out how to go with your own flow. I’m drawn to God. I want God. I think everybody, most people do.”
For all of Smith’s talk of matters of the spirit, she insists her music isn’t explicitly Christian. “I actually don’t really spend a lot of time physically going to church,” Smith explains. “I have a different perspective. I’m not opposed to church. I would go if I found one that I was comfortable enough in.”
So how do you get fed spiritually, if not in a community of other people?
“That’s a good question,” Smith says. “I don’t know.” Then, after a short pause, she lowers her voices and adds, “Maybe that’s something I should think about.
“I have really neat people that I admire who have really neat outlooks on the world and we all just kind of visit and chat,” she goes on. “It’s just about the fellowship.”
Smith certainly doesn’t see her music as a vehicle for converting anybody. “It’s not like, ‘Can I be a Christian artist?’” she says. “I’m just talking about what I know. If I don’t know what I’m talking about, I won’t write about it.
“I’m not a good storyteller. I wish that I knew how to do that. I really respect the Kris Kristoffersons and the Patty Griffins and the John Prines of the world. Patty Griffin can do it all. And Dolly. They’re very well-rounded when it comes to their writing. I’m a little bit more limited to spiritual battles and life as I know it.”