Guest Post: CD Review: A Man Like Me by Wes Hampton
This is a guest post from NewSoGoFan.
Wes Hampton is the reason I (NewSoGoFan) am a gospel music fan today, and it all started with Steve Green. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Flashback to fall of 2009. I’m sitting in a waiting room and pick up a Gaither Homecoming magazine, which happens to be the GVB Reunion issue. At this point, I know practically nothing about the Gaither Vocal Band or gospel music. But I’m immediately engrossed by the personal glimpses into the individual members’ lives. I am surprised to discover that Steve Green, one of my musical heroes, was a member of the group. As I read on, I come across what Wes had written about the experience of getting to meet Steve at the reunion. Even though I didn’t register Wes’s name, the story stuck with me because it was just so cool. “I gotta remember that kid,” I thought.
Fast-forward to January-ish of 2010. I’m on a Steve Green kick, and I’m really digging into his repertoire in-depth for the first time. While daisy-chaining on Youtube, I come across a video entitled “Wes Hampton sings with Steve Green.” A little bell rings, and I wonder, “Could that be the young guy I read about in that magazine? Let’s check it out.” And I did. And I was blown away. I couldn’t believe how good Wes was—to stand there toe-to-toe with Steve and more than hold his own.
That video was the starting-point for further daisy-chaining as I discovered the Gaither Vocal Band. Wes’s powerful delivery on “A Place Called Hope” from Give It Away made it one of the first gospel songs to really catch my ear. Eventually I found my way to some videos from the Reunion, and that sealed it for me. I had officially become a southern gospel fan. From there the rest is history. I discovered other great singers like Guy Penrod and Ernie Haase, to say nothing of great singers of the past, like Glen Payne. But it was Wes who opened the door.
So, it was with great pleasure that I took up the task of reviewing his first solo album for this blog. After becoming a fan of Wes, I began wanting to hear even more of him than I was hearing from his work with the vocal band. Apparently others have wanted the same. So Wes has offered up this project in reply. I think his fan-base will be more than happy with what they find. Without further ado then, let’s take a look at the album itself. First, let’s look at…
The songs: Wes said in an interview that when he began getting the demos for these songs, it was the lyrics that really struck a chord with him. And in some cases, like “Sweet Surrender,” he read just the first couple lines and instantly decided that he wanted the song, just for the message in those few words. After even one listen through the album, it’s obvious that Wes placed the lyrics front and center. I will resist the temptation to quote copiously from multiple numbers, but I will simply say that these are powerfully written songs. Virtually all of them are well-crafted, thoughtful pieces that manage to avoid common CCM cliches. The title track is particularly strong in the lyrics department, a refreshingly honest self-portrait that may cause some soul-searching on the listener’s part:
A man like me
Says one thing and does another
A man like me
Holds a grudge against his brother
A man like me
Thinks a promise can be broken
Just as easy as a glass on the floor…
But in the words of the chorus, there is “hope for everyone,” because God’s arms reach “even for a man, for a man like me.”
After a glance at the writers’ names, I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that Cindy Morgan was a contributor on one of the album’s most poignant lyrics, “Find Me.” Faithfully following the principle that good things usually happen wherever Cindy Morgan is involved in the writing process, this song is sure to leave a lump in some throats, particularly parents’. A sample:
Find me in the little things
When life is turning upside down
Find me playing in the yard
Cheering on my boys’ touchdown
Find me when I want to run
And I’m afraid to face the dark
When I’m brave enough to think that I can light the world
With just one spark…
Another lyrical gem is “Heal the Wound,” to which prominent singer/songwriter Nichole Nordeman contributed. This song recalls some of her own better moments and is a deeply thought-provoking look at grace—and remembrance. “Heal the wound,” it asks, “but leave the scar.” This is a profound truth—we need the scar to remind us of God’s redeeming love and our unworthiness. Powerful stuff:
I have not lived a life that boasts of anything
I don’t take pride in what I bring
But I’ll build an altar with
The rubble that you found me in
And every stone will sing
Of what you can redeem…
“If Sunday Had Not Come” stands out on the album because of its slightly “darker” sound. A minor-key piece, it simply asks the question, “What if Sunday had not come?” Interestingly, it leaves it at a question with no resolving answer—yet that feels right somehow. This is another piece that should provoke some thought.
Probably the album’s most powerful moment is a cover of the recent worship song “Jesus Saves.” Co-penned by David Moffitt and Travis Cottrell, it’s already been covered in southern gospel by the Lefevre Quartet. Not having heard LQ’s studio version, I cannot offer a fair comparison of these two versions. However, I can say that I absolutely love Wes’s version. I had not heard the song before hearing it on this project, and the power of the lyric absolutely knocked my socks off. The flow of the poetry is so natural, so right, and more, fresh. Worship music tends to suffer from sloppily crafted lyrics full of endlessly recycled cliches. This lyric is not only technically excellent and correct, but it is stuffed with rich doctrine. And Wes delivers it to perfection, ending on a high note worthy of David Phelps.
And of course, I could not leave a discussion of the songs without mentioning the closer, a studio cut of “It is Well” with Steve Green. I was elated when I found out they were getting into the studio to do this, because (as I talked about in my introduction) the video of their duet had started everything for me. Vocally, this arrangement appears to be pretty much identical to the live performance. The accompaniment is kept very simple and lush—a piano and a cello. But it’s absolutely perfect (then again, you can’t expect any less when Gordon Mote and John Catchings are in the same package). Although the polished studio version lacks some of the raw energy and power of the live performance, it is pure pleasure to listen to and is probably my favorite track on the entire album. Steve and Wes have a truly lovely blend, and their treatment of this classic hymn may be the best I have ever heard.
Now let’s move on to…
The sound: Stylistically, this album is much more CCM than SG. In fact, I could hear many of these tracks being played on my local CCM station. Whether or not listeners think that’s a good thing will depend on their own personal preferences. Honestly, I would say it works better in some cases than others. Sonically, some of the up-tempo tracks (e.g. “One Day,” “Hands,” “New Day,” title track) seem to run together, because they share that trademark blend of drums/electric guitars that defines the CCM sound. This means that even though the lyrics are above-par pretty much everywhere, the style in which they are couched is sometimes a distraction.
However, this is not always the case. The gorgeously lush piano strains of “Because of Love” set off the tender lyric beautifully with a rich chord progression, moving from minor to major to minor and finally ending in major. “If Sunday Had Not Come” is also piano-driven and is set to a distinctive, hauntingly lovely waltz tempo that stays with you long after the music ends. The confessional “Sweet Surrender” is particularly sparing, led by the elegantly simple sounds of an acoustic guitar. And as already noted, “It is Well” features nothing more than piano, cello, and a little percussion. “Heal the Wound” packs somewhat more punch but still relies on a largely acoustic backbone of guitar and piano, complementing rather than intruding upon the powerful lyric. “Jesus Saves” of course gets a soaringly anthemic treatment, but it takes its time to build and only really explodes at the climax.
The fact that the project’s most effective moments tend to come where “flesh-and-blood” instruments are being used indicates that Wes might do well to consider a somewhat more stripped-down approach in the future—peel back the electric guitars and leave the piano, acoustic guitar, etc. to speak for themselves. And yes, I admit that I’m an acoustic nut (see this review if you really want to plumb the depths of my acoustic nuttiness) but in my opinion, lyrics are best communicated when they are not fighting to be heard. For his faster material, I could definitely see Wes successfully working with the kind of down-to-earth, folk-rock sound displayed in the early work of an artist like Bebo Norman (his album Ten Thousand Days shows this style at its best).
And finally, a word on…
The vocals: Wes has definitely matured as a vocalist since he first began singing with the GVB, and this album shows it. In my opinion, this is some of his best vocal work so far. He shows excellent versatility, communicating a quiet ballad like “Sweet Surrender” and a sweeping epic like “Jesus Saves” with equal ease. “Jesus Saves” is particularly impressive because the first part of the song showcases a richness in Wes’s lower register that he rarely gets to display, while the climax has him soaring through the roof with a high B natural in full voice. And of course, he delivers his performance on “It is Well” to perfection, once again displaying the fullness his voice has acquired over time and experience.
However, I feel once again that the CCM style is a bit of a hindrance in some places, because not every song on here really shows what he can do vocally. The fact that he sounds most in his element when delivering something like “Because of Love” or “It is Well” indicates that this kind of pure gospel or inspo style would enable him to harness the full extent of his vocal capabilities and would just be a better fit all round. I’d love to see him go further with this style and perhaps even cover an old Imperials song or two on a future project—like “One More Song For You” or “I’d Rather Believe In You.” And some good old-fashioned southern gospel singin’ sure wouldn’t hurt either. To put it in a nutshell, Wes is a singer’s singer, but even singers’ singers need to have a classic style for their voices to reveal themselves in full splendor.
Conclusion: There’s no question that Wes is one of the finest young tenors in gospel music today (Steve Green himself told me Wes was “amazing” when I saw him in concert last May). His voice is warm, tender, vibrantly youthful, clear as a bell and just plain beautiful. Although this album could have been better, it is an impressive first effort. Wes fans will want it because it’s Wes, but everybody should find something to like here. Wes wanted the lyrics to be the main focus and definitely accomplished this goal. Hopefully he will keep this focus on future projects while simultaneously refining his musical approach so as to complement the lyrics even better. Meanwhile, this project has enough gems to be worth having on its own merits.