Once Upon a Cross (Mark Trammell Trio)

Once Upon a Cross - Mark Trammell TrioFor several years, the Mark Trammell Trio has been the sort of group that gets to hear a songwriter’s fourth- or fifth-best song of the year. Now, given that we’re talking professional songwriters here, that’s still going to be a decently strong tune. But there is a slight difference; both are good tunes, but the better one is just a little more powerful.

Well, with this project, the Mark Trammell Trio has broken out of that mold. There are several songs on this project that were probably their respective songwriters’ strongest efforts of the year…and when we’re talking songwriters like Kyla Rowland, Marty Funderburk, Dianne Wilkinson, and Rodney Griffin, that is really saying something. (Okay, okay, Rodney’s isn’t his best song of the year. As Roger Bennett says, he saves those for Greater Vision. But back to topic.)

The Mark Trammell Trio has assembled its strongest collection of songs to date. Though liner notes are often be hyperbole, the notes on this project aren’t stretching the truth much if at all:

Eric Phillips, Distin Sweatman, Steve Hurst and Mark Trammell have made a covenant, one with the other, to deliver their best effort to date…. It seems that Mark’s Cathedral Quartet schooling is resurfacing in the area of song selection and arrangement, and all who know him are excited to hear what’s next. Mark states, “In over thirty years of singing, I’ve never been more pleased with the finished project than I am with this one. I still believe that it’s about the message and not so much the messenger.”

The project starts off with a Dianne Wilkinson / G.L. Nipper / Mike Richards song, “Even Thomas Couldn’t Doubt it.” This song features Mark Trammell. It’s not the strongest tune on the project (or even Wilkinson’s strongest number), but I actually like its placement here. It’s a good, solid song and sets the pace for the project. While a project that starts with its best song builds momentum which it typically loses by the end, over the first five or six songs this project just keeps getting better and better.

The second song on the project, a 1999 Chris Allman song called “Won’t it Be Wonderful There,” is probably Eric Phillips’ strongest solo. The Celtic feel of the song is something the Mark Trammell Trio hasn’t tried before, but they pull it off well. The first time I heard this song, I wondered why it had a built-in turnaround. But the second time, I paid a little closer attention and tried to picture Eric singing it live. This song should go over very well in that setting, and I think most audiences’ response will, indeed, demand an encore.

Kyla Rowland is easily one of the finest songwriters in Southern Gospel, so when someone says that a song is quite possibly her best effort in the past year, that’s not something to take lightly. Yet that is exactly the case with “Moving the Hand of God,” the third selection on the project. It sounds like it could have come off a Perrys project–and I mean that as a high compliment.

The fourth song on the project is the title song, “Once Upon a Cross” (by Marty Funderburk and Gina Boe). This song is good enough that I won’t try to spoil it for you by capturing it in words first. Might it suffice to say that I voted for this song for song of the year after only hearing it once? (If not, let me add that it is now #2 on my iTunes top 25 most-played list.)

The fifth song, “However I Go” (by Mark Mathes) features Dustin. The song might not leave a first impression of being a standout song. However, this song will probably become a highlight of the trio’s live program. I consider it one of the best songs onthe CD.

I Still Believe is written by Chris Allman, who also wrote “Won’t it Be Wonderful There.” It is a good song that features some interesting chord progressions in the chorus. (I must admit that I haven’t taken the time to figure out just what they are yet.)

Dianne Wilkinson’s contribution to the album, “Let Me Bring Your Children Home,” has some of the strongest lyrics she has written in recently years. Mark Trammell is featured on the song.

Joseph Habedank and Matthew Holt contribute “Weary at the Well.” It’s a good song, but not one that jumps out and grabs your attention to the extent of some of the others on the project.

“You Can’t Hold Back the Flood” is Rodney Griffin’s song on the project. As Roger Bennett said on Legacy Five’s Live in Music City live project, Rodney saves the best songs for Greater Vision, and there is more than a little truth to that. There are, of course, exceptions, like when he sent “He’d Still Been God” to the Freemans and the more recent “Don’t Let the Sandals Fool Ya” (done by Triumphant). Don’t misunderstand me, though; all kidding aside, this song is good. In fact, it may have been one of those songs that just barely didn’t make the cut onto a Greater Vision album.
The project closes with a song written by Steve Hurst, “Heaven Can’t Be Far Away.” It was originally recorded by Greater Vision in 1993, back when Mark Trammell was with that group.

* * *

As I mentioned toward the beginning of this review, many observers of the Mark Trammell Trio have said that they have the vocal ability to be one of the best groups out there, but they have been handicapped by having less-than-first-rate material.

Probably any group with Mark Trammell would be among the top twenty Southern Gospel groups, but the trio hasn’t yet had a breakout project that would place them solidly in the top five or ten. Is this the project?

I don’t know. The vocals are good enough, as are the soundtracks. The material is breakout quality. I suppose it all comes down to one thing. Is the time right? Are the fans ready to view this group as one of the top five groups out there…or even the best?

If the fans are ready, the material is here in this project, which could well go down as one of the strongest Southern Gospel projects to be released this decade.

(EDIT: Rating: 5 stars of 5)

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11 Letters to the Editor

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  1. I think you got a bit carried away with the superlatives, Daniel.

    This CD is very good…it may possibly end up being one of the top ten releases of the year in Southern Gospel. It’s certainly one of the best so far this year.

    But it’s nowhere close to being one of the best in this decade.

  2. Daniel is such a huge fan of MTT that it probably clouds his judgement a little. He even stated somewhere on the web that this would probably be one of his favorite albums BEFORE he even heard it. Hey….I have favorite groups too so I know how it is! MTT is a pretty good group. This is a pretty good CD.

  3. Sure, I’ll admit that my judgment is clouded and I’m biased…because of superb song selection, strong vocals, and excellent production.

    And how boring would life be if we never used a superlative? Once in a while I find a project I think is worthy of superlatives, and this is such an instance.

    And I do think this will go up there among the album standouts of the decade–with Gold City’s Are You Ready and Walk the Talk, the Perrys’ This is the Day and Come Thirsty, Palmetto State’s It’s Settled, and Signature Sound’s two big Gaither releases.

  4. You go Daniel!!!!
    Mark is one of our AR home boys (like Roger Bennett). We are proud of him down here. I need to get a copy of the CD real soon…then I can register a qualified opinion.
    from my long time relationship with Mark, I do know this: Given the right tools and resources he is as capable of putting together a “super” project as anyone in SG.
    His years with the Cat’s and their association with Lari Goss was the finest of prep for doing what he is doing now…how does the saying go?…”He learned from the best!”…well, he did. Congratulations Mark!

    Paul Jackson / Ed Hill’s PROPHETS Qt

  5. I just got this CD a few weeks ago (I guess in late October, actually). I’ve listened to it quite a bit to “get a feel” for it. I’ve been getting a stronger and stronger feeling that I recognized “Heaven Can’t Be Far Away.” That’s why I looked up this review, actually. So I can see now that GV recorded it, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard their rendition of it. Did someone else do it? Or is this just a weird déja-vu (sp) thing? 🙂

  6. Hmm, I guess it’s something weird, then.

    Or I’ve been listening to MTT’s version too much!

    I’m almost positive, though, that there’s something buried in the back of my mind … If it wasn’t written before ’93, then it can’t be on our old albums. Maybe there is another song that is similar. I’ll have to keep thinking about it.

  7. Oh, I know. But I also did a Google search and came up with nothing. And I think you have a lot more comprehensive selection of the last 10-15 years than I do. The majority of my albums are Cats, GV, and L5 … with some odd ones thrown in here and there for good measure. OK, make that heaped up, pressed down, and running over. I have quite a bit of other music. (Just now I searched my iTunes music too, in case maybe I’d had a “duh” moment, and I can say with some small degree of certainty that I don’t have a digital version of it anywhere.)

  8. I’m not personally aware of any other renditions.

  9. Do keep in mind that I don’t have every Southern Gospel CD ever released. 😉 It may be on a CD I haven’t heard / heard of yet.

  10. Actually, the mid-90s is probably the weakest spot in my collection (which ranges from late 50s through today). I have a fairly extensive SG album collection, for someone who’s only been at this a few years, and a decent selection of current music over the past few years.

    But for quite a few groups, the early 90s is the weak spot in my collection–even for groups like the Florida Boys, Inspirations and Cathedrals where my collection of their projects is fairly well represented elsewhere.

    That’s all the long way around saying that if some other group did it at right about that point, I might well not know.

  11. OK, I think I have settled it for myself. A few years ago, some of our friends gave us some tapes of “amateur” Bible Missionary singers. I haven’t gone through the tapes to confirm it, but I think they probably heard GV’s version and picked it up for themselves.

    At least I’m not losing my mind! 🙂


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