CD Review: Never Walk Alone (Brian Free & Assurance)

When Brian Free & Assurance’s released their previous mainline album, Worth It, I spoke highly of the song “Die Another Day.” I was criticized for this, as it’s no secret that I have a strong personal preference for the traditional and orchestral portions of the Southern Gospel spectrum. But its insightful and theologically solid lyrics makes it first-rate, no matter what instruments are on its soundtrack.

Never Walk Alone is an album full of “Die Another Days.”

Brian Free & Assurance turned to an all-star cast of songwriters, drawing upon some of their most theologically sound and lyrically intriguing work yet. Song after song is filled with well-crafted, thought-provoking references to Noah, Abraham, Thomas, Abraham, and Noah. The songs individually would be enough to merit the project a 4 or 4.5 star rating, but they do not stand alone.

These Old Testament references counterbalance a sometime tendency in our genre to draw from the riches of the New Testament to the exclusion of the Old, and give the project an overarching theme (or, if you prefer, an underlying motif). Some background is in order: Never Walk Alone was recorded as Brian Free’s father was passing away, and as bass singer Jeremy Lile was walking through the grief of losing his father the previous year. The title track sums up the song’s theme; Free is featured on this tastefully soothing, gentle song that looks at Christ’s suffering as a reminder that we never walk alone.

The songs on the project are unified around this theme, this reminder that we never walk alone. The first three songs draw deeply from familiar and obscure Old Testament references, reminding us of the trials and triumphs of our heroes of the faith. “The Part Where You Come In,” the project’s fourth strong and one of its strongest, pivots to a two-song focus on salvation. “It’s My Life,” song six, is a biographical narrative about the group’s calling to share the Gospel, and their reasons for being on the road. Song seven (“Turn the Page”) revisits the heroes of the Old Testament, while song eight (“Stand Among the Millions”) moves to the other end of the story, the first gathering of all the redeemed of the ages. Song nine is the only song that doesn’t really fit the story-song format—”story-songs,” as used here, referring to true stories of those who have walked before us; Never Walk Alone, to its credit, generally if not totally eschews the fictional accounts so in vogue today. The closing track is the penultimate conclusion that ties the narrative together, these reminders that we “Never Walk Alone.”

Reviewers have given several of Brian Free & Assurance’s most recent projects a lukewarm reception, and with good reason; overcompressed vocals and soundtracks that were a little too edgy for the genre made them good but not great. But with Never Walk Alone, the group took the characteristics that made their strong songs strong, and filled an album with tracks of the highest lyrical caliber. These songs are not merely individual works of art; they stand together to tell a story. This theme has likely never been developed with this cohesiveness of narrative or clarity of execution on any previous Southern Gospel recording—and thus ranks this five-star album high on the list of must-purchase Southern Gospel albums of 2010.

Produced by: Ricky Free. • Group Members: Brian Free, Bill Shivers, Derrick Selph, Jeremy Lile. • Review copy provided. • Song list: Anything is Possible (Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, Tony Wood); I Believe (Lee Black, Kenna Turner West); God Will Close the Door (Kenna Turner West, Sue C. Smith, Simon Hawkins); The Part Where You Come In (Ricky Free, Sue C. Smith); Remind Me of the Cross (Kenna Turner West, Jason Cox); It’s My Life (Marty Funderburk, Gina Boe); Turn the Page (Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, Tony Wood); Stand Among the Millions (Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, Tony Wood); It’s Gotta Be God (Marty Funderburk, Kelly Garner); Never Walk Alone (J.P. Williams, Jeremy Johnson). • Average song rating: 4.1 stars. CD rating: 5 stars.


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61 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Great review Daniel. I will definitely have to purchase this one. I love the songs that reference the Old Testament heroes. I did not notice if you said there were any upbeat songs on the album or not? Are there any “toe tappers?”

    • Yes, there are toe tappers, but no convention-style up-tempo songs – only songs uptempo in the progressive way.

      • Gotcha! Thanks again for the review.

  2. Just a formatting comment – the gray of the songwriters’ names is close to invisible on my computer w/o selecting the text. Don’t know if it’s that way for everybody else or not.

    • I intentionally made it light gray, which should display fairly well on most screens unless the brightness or contrast monitors are a little lower than the norm.

      This is a first experiment on including songwriter info; I’m not sure of the best way to do it without really breaking up the visual flow of that “closing basic stats” paragraph.

      • Sorry, but I’m with Amy. The light gray against a white background is almost totally unreadable.

      • OK. Now that I have two votes that way – whether or not I have a chance to go back on this post, I’ll plan to do something darker in the future.

      • Just another shade or so would make a difference, I think.

        Not complaining, just “feedbacking”! (Now the grammarians will really hate me; I think I verbed a non-existent noun.)

      • That’s OK – thanks! 🙂

      • Yep. Another vote with Amy here. 😀

        (And Amy, that is a truly atrocious verb, but since you were joking, I’ll give ya a pass. ;-))

      • I hope I didn’t start something. :Getting worried:

      • If you’re referring to pointing out the gray – don’t worry about it, I’m sure someone else would have mentioned it had you not.

      • Oh, and I really do appreciate having songwriter info.

      • Great! I thought it was a good idea, but I wasn’t sure how to do it without making it hard to skim for just song titles, which is what most people will presumably be looking for.

      • I am with Amy about the light gray being hard to read and love the songwriter addition. I have become more and more interested in who writes the songs that I love!! Thanks!

      • I also, too, in addition, as well agree with the aforementioned appreciation for having the songwriters listed. But, yeah, the gray is difficult to see on my computer, too.

  3. I’m impressed! I never thought I’d see the day you would rate a BFA project 5 stars. I know they aren’t exactly your “cup of tea” stylistically.

    • You’re right – but this is that good. 🙂

  4. Hey Daniel—somehow I had a feeling this was the one “nobody was expecting.” 😉

    • Had I told you about it in advance?

      • Nope. You just mentioned a while back that there was a yet unreviewed album that you were planning to rate extremely highly, even though this was an unusual and unexpected thing for you. I took a guess. I wasn’t sure, but as it turned out, I was right. 😀

      • It could’ve been anyone from BF&A to the McKameys!

      • Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum!

      • Yes, but they do have one thing in common. 😉

  5. Brian has such strong material because he’s constantly in “search mode” – while many artists don’t begin looking for new songs until a recording date approaches, Brian listens all year long to hundreds and hundreds of songs. While he’s recorded more of my songs than any other artist out there, he’s also passed on more of my songs than any other artist out there! He’s very, very picky and, as Daniel has stated, it shows. Stylistically, he’s braving territory that is controversial to some, but he loves the Southern Gospel industry and is trying to broaden its appeal. Country music used to be all Hank Williams and Roy Acuff – now it’s Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift. There are still those artists who keep the traditional Country sound alive, but the genre had to broaden to keep the industry alive. That’s why I believe Brian is a visionary. May his tribe increase.

    • This is quite interesting!

      Country songs often draw upon / create fictional stories. I was intrigued by the fact that virtually all the songs on this project were story-songs that draw on non-fictional stories.

      • Some of the best story-songs I’ve ever heard came from country—there’s something special about those lovingly crafted stories, the ones that just hit you in the gut. It has to be done just right, or else it’ll just be horribly cheesy, but when it’s good, it’s really good.

        Example: “Ellsworth,” which works largely because the lyrics aren’t really trying to “shove” something down the listener’s throat. There is an underlying truth there, but the lyrics just tell the story without hollering, “THIS IS THE MORALISTIC LITTLE POINT WE WANT YOU TO TAKE HOME FROM THIS, OKAY?”

        Anyway, regarding Brian, I think it’s a good thing he’s doing. He’s stretching without breaking. I like that.

      • Ah, well, here we go again. 🙂

        You know my thoughts on “Ellsworth” and its ilk. Perhaps I’ll just leave it at this, in this discussion: I don’t think it would have fit all that well on this project, with its lyrical direction.

      • Yes I do know your thoughts, and I think you’re very misguided. But we’ve hashed and thrashed that all out elsewhere. 🙂 Suffice it to say, I don’t think we have any kind of biblical mandate to approach fiction with a bias. That’s all.

        And regarding this project, I actually agree with you that it would have felt out of place given the direction they took.

      • And I likewise think you’re mistaken – that if it doesn’t meet the Phil. 4:8 criteria of being true, it had better meet the rest – be honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy! 🙂

      • How do you Paul was talking about fiction when he used the word “true?” 😉 And why should fiction not qualify under “if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things?”

      • “How do you KNOW” rather, sorry.

        And I don’t think we would disagree that we should dwell on things praiseworthy, lovely, etc. Let me know when something like “Ellsworth” fails there (in your opinion), and I’ll be interested. 🙂

      • Whether Paul meant “true” by “true”? I refer you to Strong’s Greek #227, alethes, “true,” “truthful,” “truthfully.”

      • Paul was writing a letter. When you read a letter, you take context into account. What is the message he’s trying to communicate? He is telling his “flock” to think on whatsoever things are true—as in “embracing the truth.” As in turning away from un-truths like false doctrine (which was a very real problem among Christians in Paul’s day). The other adjectives he goes on to list are enhancing this point—he wants them to fill their minds with healthy, beautiful things. And at the end, he sums it all up, boils it all down: “If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.”

        Why would Paul tell us to view with suspicion or bias a song or work of fiction that is full of truth, full of loveliness, full of virtue, and worthy of praise? Is he not rather giving us a mandate to dwell on this sort of fiction?

      • I tell you what, my friend. When we get to heaven, we can go ask Paul ourselves what he meant. If you’re right and I’m wrong, I’ll buy you dinner. If I’m right and you’re wrong, you do the same for me. Deal? 😉

      • Sorry, I have faith and worldview-based objections to making bets. 🙂

        …besides, buying meals in Heaven? That could be pretty intriguing. What would the currency be?

      • My dear chap, you are taking me altogether too seriously. 😉

      • Here’s one thing though Daniel where I think you and I would completely agree. As a matter of fact, it’s what you just said—that if it doesn’t mesh with “whatsoever things are true” then it had better be worth our time in other respects. The deal is that we’re disagreeing as to whether Paul had fictional stories in mind when he wrote that passage. But when it comes to, say, a novel or a movie whose ultimate message I disagree with—I think it’s a false message—I’m tougher on it than I ordinarily would be. It had better be very, very well done for me to appreciate it, because ultimately, what it’s communicating is not true.

        And in that respect, I believe we would be in full agreement. 🙂

      • Agreed. 🙂

  6. I really do like the progressive sound that Assurance has, reminds me a little of the Valor sound, but that got a little extreme. Looking forward to hearing this project.

  7. A large group of my relatives and their friends are going to see BF&A up in North Carolina on Saturday night. A lot of these people have never seen the group before, so I’m praying they enjoy the concert.

    I’ll be going to see BF&A myself in less than 3 weeks. 🙂

    • They are a classy group. Enjoy yourselves! 🙂

      • You’re right–they are nothing but class. Love their music, love their witness. We’re blessed enough to get to see them 3-4 times a year.

        There are some unsaved folks going to the NC concert, so I’m really praying that somebody hits that altar when Brian gives the altar call.

  8. Amy et al – how is it from a readability standpoint now, with everything in the stats paragraph the same color?

    • I prefer that to the gray. I get what you’re saying about readability. I assume you’re avoiding a list format in order to take up less space.

      • Thanks for the feedback. I think so – mainly for aesthetic reasons.

  9. I really believe that BF&A consistently has the strongest music, lyrically-speaking, in Southern Gospel. I get really tired of songs with predictable messages but love the kind of songs that make me think of God in newer and deeper ways.

    • There are a few other groups right up there with them – for example, the Booth Brothers’ release this spring had an incredibly strong collection of lyrics.

      • I love the Booth Brothers but their songs have not been lyrically-strong as consistently as BF&A’s. Every project seems to have deep, fresh lyrics.

      • In the past – agreed.

        As to their latest, Declaration, I’d put it on par lyrically/theologically with this one.

      • I think the BBs have relied fairly regularly on up-tempo material. Which can be very good, but it’s not deep, it’s up-tempo.

        But then there are the songs like “Beyond the Cross…”

      • I think I would also say—not to take anything away from BFA—but I think I would rather listen to the Brothers. Sort of a personal style preference as far as production and vocals are concerned.

  10. Great review Daniel,I will have a review up of this one soon… I honestly believe this is the best album released this year; and that is no easy task with some of the great CDs that have been released this year by various groups.

    • Looking forward to your review! I’m not sure this tops the Booth Brothers’ Declaration, but it is quite well done.

      • WOW how could I have forgotten “Declaration” somehow I forgot that CD was a 2010 release. I just started a new job so I have been a little frazzled lately… 🙂 Anyway “Never Walk Alone” is definitely top three IMO…

      • OK! 🙂 And congratulations on finding a job!

        I still think Declaration is a landmark release for the genre, the “Symphony of Praise” we’ll remember for this year—but BF&A’s definitely is on a top 5 list.

      • Yes, Declaration is outstanding. And it’s funny, because when I think about it, hardly any of the songs are what I would call Great songs with a capital “G.” But they are very good, and the production is Great with a capital “G.” It just sounds good, mate!

  11. When I listened to “Worth It” the thing that stuck out to me wasn’t over compressed vocals…. what you have on that album is a classic example of poor mastering… the mixes are solid… but when you get a heavy handed mastering engineer who puts a big fat limiter on the track and brings the thresh down and the ceiling to -0.1db… that’s what you get… with more sensitive mastering I bet you’d be impressed… when you listen to “New Thing” and “You Must Have Met Him” you hear the mix almost sounds cloudy… that my friend is a mastering engineer that’s trying to make the loudest final master possible

  12. After listening to samples from all the songs, it sounds like the three strongest are “Remind Me of the Cross,” “Stand Among the Millions,” and the title track.

    The others, while they sound fun and biblically sound, didn’t really grab me as much…

  13. I finally got my copy of this CD a couple of weeks ago, and I cannot stop listening to it.

    IMHO, it is definitely the best CD that Brian and the guys have ever done. I am so impressed with the arrangements, both vocal and instrumental. Ricky is to be commended for the job he did on this CD. I’m a huge fan of the band Chicago and their music from the late 60’s and 70’s, and the horns on “It’s Gotta Be God” remind me of a Jimmy Pankow brass arrangement.

    There are a couple of things about the vocals I wanted to mention. Jeremy shows here that he can hit not only those looooow bass notes, but on this project he shows that he can sing his heart out–for example, “Remind Me of the Cross.” Second, I love Bill Shivers as a lead singer, but I flat out love to hear him sing harmony. He works in these subtle vocal licks that add so much to the song.

    Folks, this CD may not be a traditional SG purist’s cup of tea stylistically, but I can see it as a bridge between the traditional and the progressive camps.

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