Country, bluegrass, and folk music have always had a strong lean towards the biblical in their subject matter, and that trend is not confined to old Ralph Stanley gospel albums or contemporary country artists who do Christmas collections. Three new and recent releases that have come across my desktop approach the subject of faith and the stories of the Bible with original perspectives.
The Vespers are a relatively new act from Nashville featuring brothers Bruno and Taylor Jones alongside sisters Callie and Phoebe Cryar. Their new EP The Fourth Wall isn’t an all-gospel or Christian album but it has several strong faith-based tunes. The opening track “Better Now” takes the tale of Jesus healing the blind beggar and tells it from the now sighted man’s point of view telling his friends that he’s “better now” and how it has changed his life before widening the song’s scope to a more universal conclusion. Elsewhere on the EP, “Lawdy” takes a more traditional gospel sound and darkens it up a bit with some chilling vocals.
David Olney is an old hand at vivid storytelling through song, but his latest installment, the EP The Stone, is like being transported back 2000 years. Not a rote retelling of the Gospels, the songs here take the typical tales and turn them inside out to get at a new perspective on the Word. The opening number, “Jerusalem Tomorrow”, follows a false prophet who has the unfortunate luck to travel through towns after this new guy Jesus has already come through and wowed the masses; frustration mounts and he elects to join the crowd following Jesus–the end of the song is a nifty bit of biblical foreshadowing which finds him remarking that they’ll be “going to Jerusalem tomorrow.”
“A Soldier’s Report” likewise flips the traditional perspective, telling about the aftermath of the resurrection through the report of the Roman soldier who had been guarding the tomb to his superior officer.
Olney doesn’t endorse one particular religious view or another in these songs, choosing instead to simply lay out the tale in such a unique manner that those who already believe and those who do not may be equally challenged.
Finally, this week marks the release of the album Mercyland, the brainchild of Nashville session player and producer Phil Madeira (Amy Grant, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris), who brought together a number of very talented friends and peers to record their own takes on faith and spirituality. Madeira himself wrote or co-wrote several songs and sings one as the lead performer as well as sitting in on many of the other recordings. Notable participants include The Civil Wars, whose “From This Valley” is a highlight if only for their wonderful harmony singing. Buddy Miller’s “I Believe In You” is a reassuring yet self-doubting take on belief set to a mid-tempo roots-rocking tune, while Carolina Chocolate Drops offer up a familiar-sounding, timeless old-time gospel take on “Lights In the Valley”. Not everything here is reverential or traditional, as Shawn Mullins’ “Give God The Blues” proves. Emmylou Harris, Mat Kearney, Cindy Morgan, Dan Tyminski, the North Mississippi All-Stars and more round out this wonderfully rendered, heartfelt collection of artists who prove they’re just like the rest of us sinners out here searching for faith in the world we live in.