Country Artists Bring Back Music of Their Childhood
Few songs can stir emotions like a classic hymn. Several of the top acts in country, gospel and bluegrass music are paying homage to the songs they've sung since childhood, reinventing their favorite hymns and adding their own unique touches.
Guy Penrod’s latest album is none other than Hymns, a 13-song collection including evergreens such as “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The project debuted at No. 1 on the Southern Gospel Albums chart.
On July 10, bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent will issue Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ Live!, recorded at her home church in Greentop, Mo. The CD/DVD combo includes favorites such as “Just As I Am” and “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds,” as well as new tunes.
Country veteran John Berry makes his gospel debut on Daywind Records with Real Man. Real Life. Real God, which finds him getting in touch with his roots, as well as sharing new songs.
The Oak Ridge Boys' new CD, Back Home Again: Gospel Favorites blends such standards as “Standing in the Need of Prayer” and “The Love of God,” with covers of country classics like Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me.”
“We like the creative process,” Oak Ridge Boy Richard Sterban tells gmc. “We enjoy going into the studio and creating new music or taking old songs and reinventing them. We’ve done a lot of that. That creative process puts new excitement and new energy into our group. That’s one of the things that keeps us going and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to experience longevity. We’ve been able to go into the studio and reinvent ourselves and create music relevant to the current marketplace.”
Back Home Again marks the first time the Oaks have worked with producer Ben Isaacs (also well-known as a member of the successful bluegrass gospel group The Isaacs).
“[Ben’s] got a real sense of being true to our roots and the music we cut," says Duane Allen. "We hit it off with Ben. The first songs he pitched were ‘Back Home Again,’ the John Denver song. He wanted to hear William [Lee Golden] sing that and he said ‘I’d like to hear Richard [Sterban] sing “Why Me” and Joe [Bonsall] sing “Coat of Many Colors.”’ Then he turned to me and said ‘I’ve got a new song for you called “I Get To.”’ That’s how we got started.”
Isaacs was honored to work with some of his musical heroes, and have a chance to hear them sing some of his favorite songs. “For me, it was a treat,” says Isaacs, who has also been working with the Oaks on a new Christmas album, due out this fall. “On the new album, they wanted to revisit some hymns and familiar songs. I tried to take them to where music was somewhere between the '50s and '60s quartet-wise, but maybe a little more modern.”
Honoring the Living Legends
Bonsall admits he was a little hesistant to cover Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.” When Isaacs suggested it, his initial response was “'Are you crazy?!' There are just some things in life that you don’t touch. I have so much love and respect for Dolly.”
Isaacs even talked Bonsall into playing a little banjo on the track. “Ben Isaacs is a good man. He convinced me that I could sing this song, that I could find a place in my voice where this song will really work,” he says. “I trusted him on it and then when he said I could play banjo on it I said, ‘Alright let’s go!’”
Sterban’s signature bass voice delivers a powerful rendition of “Why Me.” “Ben wanted us to do some things that were country, but were acceptable to the gospel music audience, and this was one of his suggestions,” says Sterban. “I thought it was a great idea and once we got in the studio, I just tried to adapt it to my style.”
Sterban says one of his favorites on the new album is Golden’s cover of “Back Home Again.”
“It’s not a gospel song as such, but it’s a song that certainly appeals to the gospel music audience,” says Sterban. “William Lee [sings it] and what a treatment he laid on that old hit song! It’s really a nice touch.”
It didn’t take much coaxing to get Golden to record “Back Home Again.” “It touched my heart,” Golden says. “It was just really thrilling to sing it in the studio that day when we were recording it. I love that song and traveling like we do, it just rings home to me.”
Allen says he was honored to cover the Jeff & Sheri Easter hit “I Get To.” “When you run across a great song that’s written as well as that song is written, it’s a matter of just opening your mouth and letting your heart speak,” Allen says. “I just feel like I’m the middle man with that song and I just tried to let my true emotions come out. It’s a masterpiece.”
Back to Where It All Began
Back Home Again also includes such classic hymns as “Led Out of Bondage,” “If We Ever Needed the Lord Before, We Sure Do Need Him Now,” and “In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning.” Allen credits his lovely wife Nora Lee with suggesting those timeless tunes.
“I had been talking about refreshing our show so she started throwing some titles at me. I started writing them down and took those into the listening session,” he says of sharing the suggestions in a meeting with Isaacs and his fellow group members. “We got into singing those old spirituals. We were in our old studio on Rockland Road that I built back in the '70s, and all those old vibes started coming out of the walls. It started feeling so good. Everybody in the room started bringing out titles that we should consider and we all got really excited. Gordon Mote was playing the piano and Ben was taking notes. We just went from one song to another. It was so much fun and such a pleasure to revisit those songs from our youth that were being done by the great gospel quartets when we were growing up, [the songs] that got us interested in being in a gospel group to begin with.”
Golden agrees. “We set out to recreate the songs that inspired us to be singers and it really worked out great,” Golden says. “It was a great idea and it just took us back to childhood hearing some of these songs.”
Penrod also reveled in reinventing some of his favorite songs from childhood on Hymns, which he co-produced with Pete Greene. “I wanted to make some of my favorite hymns feel like a good country song,” Penrod tells watchgmctv.com. “A lot of times our hymns get a church sound to them that you grow up used to hearing. I wanted to treat each one like a single [on a] radio station. So I changed some of the feel and arrangements, the timing and instrumentation. I wanted it then to feel more like a stand alone song that a hymn in a church service.”
Penrod took that approach on such classics as “Nothing But the Blood,” “Softly and Tenderly,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
“I wanted to bring these timeless messages to a younger generation that may not be as familiar with them as I was growing up,” says Penrod, “because there’s such good truths in these hymns and the melodies are always so nice. They deserve as much light as they can get shined on them and kids these days needs to know these truths.”
One of the many highlights on the project is “Does Jesus Care?,” a duet with George Beverly Shea. “Bev has been a hero of mine since I was a kid,” says Penrod. “I used to order his records and wait on the mail. I’ve loved his voice, that deep baritone voice and his gentle, humble spirit you could see when he sang.”
During Penrod’s year of singing with Bill Gaither’s famed Gaither Vocal Band, he had the opportunity to get to know Shea, who performed for decades with Dr. Billy Graham’s crusades. In preparing to record the new album, he called on the veteran singer for a duet. “He said, ‘I’d love to! How do we work it out?’ and I said, ‘We’ll load up and come your way,’” recalls Penrod. “I took my engineer and his assistant to North Carolina and we met at Dr. Graham’s office where he used to film ‘The Hour of Decision.’ Bev sat in a big chair in front of that desk and we sang ‘Does Jesus Care?’ Who better to ask that question than a man who has lived 103 years and leaned on Jesus all his life?”
Penrod’s next album will be another country project in the vein of his acclaimed 2010 solo debut Breathe Deep. “I want to take the good news of Jesus and His way into the culture and the marketplace in as many ways as I can. That would include hymns or country records or lullaby records, whatever I can conceive of,” Penrod says. “On the next one I may push a little further and have a more edgy feel to it. I think love songs ought to come out of the church. I think party songs should come out of the church, a Biblical view of living, so we’re gonna back that up with records that support it.”
A Long Time Comin'
For bluegrass fans, few artists in the genre are more revered than Rhonda Vincent. The Missouri native has won multiple female vocalist honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and the Society for Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA). She was also named IBMA entertainer of the year in 2001 and earned the top entertainer accolade from SPBGMA from 2002 through 2006.
“It was something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” she says of recording her new gospel collection. “I was under contract and when I said something about wanting to do a gospel project. They didn’t want me to do that, so I started my own label and this was at the top of my list. I am so thrilled that I was able to. I grew up performing with my family in church and our very first project when I was five years old was a gospel project.”
Those who have heard Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ have high praise for the project. ““Like so many great Bluegrass singers, Rhonda got her start singing in church,” says Bill Gaither. “And this recording was made in the very church where she grew up singing. It’s a wonderful tribute to the music we both love. Great singing, great playing and great harmony. This project has it all. I love it!”
Vincent is happy with the way her new record turned out, but admits recording Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ in her tiny Missouri church had its challenges. “There had been a storm the night before and there wasn’t any electricity,” she says. “The church is over 100 years old ...when we got there people started gathering and we started singing just a cappella. My bass player and another friend of ours went and bought $1,500 worth of electrical cable and they hooked it into the bus and powered [the sessions]. We had a film crew, a recording crew and all kinds of guests who had traveled hundreds of miles, so it was like, ‘We have to do this. Everybody is here.’ So they made it work.”
The CD will be released on July 10. Vincent says they are in the process of editing the video footage and hope to have the DVD out the same day or soon after.
“It was 100 degrees in the church and so it was almost unbearable circumstances,” she says. "You could barely breathe. But in the end, it was the most special experience of my life. We prayed. We read scripture and went to Philippians 4:13 that says, ‘I can do all things through Christ’ and that got us through.”
Copyright 2012, watchgmctv.com. For permission to repost or reprint, click here.
About the Writer
Deborah Evans Price has covered Christian/Gospel music for Billboard magazine since 1994. She also contributes regularly to CountryWeekly, CMA Close Up, Devo’Zine, Christian Single, HomeLife, BMI Music World, and other publications. A Nashville resident since 1983, Deborah has held editorial posts at Radio & Records, Country News, American Songwriter and Billboard. Amy Grant, Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley, Charlie Daniels, 3 Doors Down, Third Day, Don Henley, Bon Jovi, Chris Rice, Sandra Bullock, Mercy Me, Alan Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood and Steven Curtis Chapman are among her many interviews. Additionally, she's a sought-after music industry analyst who has been interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, TNN, The Today Show, and ABC PrimeTime Live, among other outlets.Deborah is a member of the Gospel Music Association's board of directors and a graduate of Leadership Music. She resides south of Nashville with her husband, Gary, and son Trey.
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