CD Review: I’d Rather Have Jesus (Dixie Echoes)

Probably, the best adjective to describe the Dixie Echoes is “consistent.” For ten or fifteen years after lead singer Dale Shelnut’s sudden 1983 death, they experimented with different styles in an attempt to find their niche. Not too long after they added Stewart Varnado as their pianist over ten years ago, they found that niche in the traditional style. They have maintained consistency since, despite several changes at the tenor and bass positions.

This is the third overall and second studio recording made with the Shelnut/Shelnut/Varnado lineup with Wesley Smith at tenor and Pat Barker at bass. It’s the first time they’ve had two consecutive studio recordings with the same lineup for six or seven years, and the first time they’ve had three consecutive recordings with the same lineup for over a decade.

Since it takes any lineup time to gel and fully utilize each member’s strengths, it can also be said that this lineup is the best the Dixie Echoes have been in years. Several of their lineups—the Rogers/Crouch pairing particularly comes to mind—had the same level of potential, but today’s lineup has stayed together for long enough to start realizing that potential.

As always, the Dixie Echoes have a few uptemo convention songs. Wesley Smith takes the lead on a rousing rendition of “He’ll Pilot Me,” and Pat Barker is featured on “I’ll Have a New Life.”

All ten songs are classics, and most of them were written before any of the members except Randy were born. Two exceptions come from the mid-80s, the Florida Boys’ signature song “When He Was On the Cross” (featuring Wesley Smith), and the Cathedrals’ classic “Plan of Salvation” (featuring Pat Barker).

Speaking of “Plan of Salvation,” I simply have to digress somewhat. They first sang the song on March 7. I was in attendance and posted a review here. Here’s what I said about the song:

A personal highlight was their rendition of  the Cathedrals classic “Plan of Salvation.” Knowing that I would be there, and how much I love Cathedrals music, they worked up the arrangement that afternoon. It was the first time they had ever sung the song on stage; I found out after the fact that Stewart Varnado pulled up the song on YouTube a few minutes before the concert to learn the Cathedrals’ piano licks.

It went over so well that they ended up staging it in other concerts, and ultimately put it on the CD. Thank you, Stewart, Pat, and the rest of the Dixie Echoes!

Barker is also featured on what may be the best rendition of “I’d Rather Have Jesus” recorded since the composer, George Beverly Shea’s, original rendition.

One other standout song was Scoot Shelnut’s rendition of a song his grandfather Dale used to sing, “Now I Have Everything.” Scoot’s unadorned straight tones bring out a delightful simplicity in the lyric.

Several production elements played a role in the overall rating being bumped up a full star from the average song rating. One is the excellent graphic design, which has a classic and classy look that fits the group’s sound well. The other is the extent to which the final result reflects group members’ own talents. Unlike other groups, which have a producer, hired studio musicians, and auto-tuning to make them sound good, much of what you hear on this project was recorded by the group members themselves. Stewart Varnado provided the piano parts; Scoot Shelnut Jr. played the bass guitar and drums. Two members of the Primitive Quartet, Mike Riddle and Jeff Tolbert, provided the guitars and specialty instruments (fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, banjo). But between producing, arranging, engineering, playing the instruments, and recording quality vocals that don’t need auto-tuning, the Dixie Echoes’ recordings reflect their own considerable talents. It’s an angle other genres stress more than ours, but it’s just another reason the Dixie Echoes’ name is synonymous with quality Southern Gospel.

Rating: 5 stars. ♦ Average song rating: 4 stars. ♦ Group members: Wesley Smith, Randy Shelnut Sr., Randy “Scoot” Shelnut Jr., Pat Barker, Stewart Varnado. ♦ Produced by: Randy Shelnut, Randy Shelnut Jr., Stewart Varnado. ♦ Available from: Artist. Review copy provided. ♦ Song list: Until Then; Wings of a Dove; When He Was On the Cross; I’ll Have a New Life; Now I Have Everything; He Keeps Me Singing; Plan of Salvation; Peace In the Valley; He’ll Pilot Me; I’d Rather Have Jesus.

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CD Review: Peace on Earth (Mark Trammell)

This project may well be the best solo Southern Gospel Christmas CD ever released.

Unlike the Mark Trammell Trio’s Home for Christmas project, reviewed last week, Mark Trammell’s recent solo Christmas project features all-new tracks. Legacy Five’s Tim Parton arranged the tracks and probably provided the piano (though uncredited). Reggie & Ladye Love Smith (of Gaither Homecoming fame) provided the background vocals. Milton Smith, who is better than anyone else at making a fake orchestra sound real, provided the orchestrations. Bobby Bradley provided percussion, and David Johnson played everything else.

Southern Gospel music tends to attract vocal freaks of nature. Quartet singers tend to be specialized at harmonizing in a certain vocal range, and this sort of talent—a much-need talent that carries a vocal harmony-driven genre—rarely carries over well to solo work. Most of the Southern Gospel quartet/trio singers who have done solo projects (even the best, like Gerald Wolfe, Christian Davis, and Michael Booth) still sound even better in an ensemble setting. Mark Trammell, who George Younce described as “the best quartet man that I ever worked with,” has the rare talent of excelling equally well as an ensemble singer and as a soloist.

The song selection is as original and varied as an album of Christmas classics can be. Several rarely recorded songs are included: “There’s a Song in the Air,” “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” and (at least on a Christmas project) “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.”

The songs that have been frequently recorded are given new life through fresh arrangements. The project’s highlights include Trammell’s authoritative anthemic renditions of “Angels From the Realms of Glory” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Lest one think the whole project was heavily orchestrated ballads, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus” and “Go Tell it On the Mountain” have a folk/Appalachian touch. Overall, though, the project has a musical consistency that reveals careful thought and planning.

If someone unfamiliar with the genre asks for a list of the best Southern Gospel recordings, this project should make any short list.

Rating: 5 stars. ♦ Average song rating: 4.5 stars. ♦ Produced by: E.T. Everett. ♦ Available from: Artist. [EDIT, 11/8/10: The link is broken and has been removed.] Review copy provided. ♦ Song list: There’s a Song In the Air Medley (There’s a Song in the Air / Away in a Manger / What Chid is This); I Wonder as I Wander; Go Tell It On the Mountain; Let There Be Peace on Earth;  Angels From the Realms of Glory; O Come, O Come Emmanuel; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear Medley.

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CD Review: Home for Christmas (Mark Trammell Trio)

cd_homeforchristmasHome for Christmas was actually released last year, while Eric Phillips was still with the group, but as I did not get it in time to review last year, I decided to hold it over to this Christmas season’s review section.

On first glance, if that first glance is at song titles and soundtrack choices, one might think Home For Christmas offered little new. After all, five of the project’s eight soundtracks (there are two acapella songs) come from Gold City’s 1997 CD Home For the Holidays—and the group (at the time of recording) had a tenor that sounded a lot like Gold City’s Jay Parrack and has a baritone that sounded remarkably like Gold City’s Mark Trammell. But first appearances are often deceiving, and are here.

On the opening track, “O Come All Ye Faithful / Joy to the World,” the group sings “O Come All Ye Faithful” as a trio, then adds their spouses and their bus driver (Walter Bohannon) for “Joy to the World.”

More family is brought in for “White Christmas”; Mark Trammell sings it in a trio with his son Nick (at the time with the Perrys) and Nick’s wife Jessica Brown Trammell (at the time soprano singer for the Browns).

One of the project’s obvious highlights is Mark Trammell’s definitive rendition of “O Holy Night.” He uses Gerald Wolfe’s track, but brings something to the track Greater Vision didn’t—trio harmonies. Wolfe’s original ends with his solo voice going up to the fifth (the high G); Wolfe’s richly satisfying big ending is only improved by Trammell nailing the G, Dustin Sweatman singing the E below, and tenor Eric Phillips completing the chord with a solid high C.

Though many of the tracks draw from Trammell’s Gold City days, there is a nod to his Cathedral Quartet years with the Cathedrals’ acapella arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

The other acapella song, “I Know a Name,” closes the project. It has the feel of a hymn; there are hymns with that name by Charles Gabriel and by Haldor Lillenas, but I was unable to ascertain whether this song was one of those two or a third song by the same name. Whatever its provenance, it’s an excellent song with an equally excellent arrangement.

Though Southern Gospel fans will have heard nearly all the songs (and most of the tracks) before, strong vocals carry a project that fans of the Mark Trammell Trio will find a welcome addition to their collections.

Rating: 3.5 stars. ♦ Average song rating: 3.5 stars. ♦ Group members: Eric Phillips, Dustin Sweatman, Mark Trammell. ♦ Produced by: None credited. ♦ Available from: Artist. [EDIT, 11/8/10: The link is broken and has been removed.] Review copy provided. ♦ Song list: O Come All Ye Faithful / Joy to the World; The Christmas Song; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Silver Bells; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; White Christmas; O Holy Night; Carol of the Bells; Beautiful Star of Bethlehem; I Know a Name.

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CD Review: Just Stand (Legacy Five)

Over their first ten years on the road, Legacy Five has produced several landmark recordings. Their debut, Strong in the Strength, set a high standard that only one or two other CDs in the following decade—namely, London and Live in Music City—would approach.

Just Stand redefines just how magnificent a Legacy Five project can be. It raises the bar in such a literal way that if any of the three aforementioned projects were follow-ups to this release, they would be 4.5 star recordings. It’s that good.

It’s that good for two simple reasons—song selection and the master’s touch of Lari Goss.

Let’s start with the latter. Lari Goss had some hand in Heroes of the Faith; his touch can be seen in a couple tracks on that project, particularly the poignant title track. But he never produced an entire Legacy Five project, until this one. What took so long?

From Roger Bennett’s homegoing until this project, Legacy Five was a group of partially but not completely filled potential. Goss’s majestic vocal arrangements and lush orchestrations realize this potential.

The song selection is, stylistically, the perfect fit for this lineup’s voices. From jazzy numbers (“New Born Feeling”) to convention songs (“My Soul is Firmly Anchored”) to country-influenced songs (“Above All Circumstances”) to, of course, a heaping plateful of big ballads, this album shows off a wider range of what Legacy Five can pull off well than any previous project.

The project is anchored by two ballads, “When They Found Nothing” and “Faithful to the Cross.”

“When They Found Nothing,” the group’s first radio single, comes from the pens of four writers, Marty Funderburk, Beverly Lowry, James Isaac Elliot, and Melissa R. Bishop. All too often, groups with three or more co-writers lose that special something—a unity in the lyric and consistency in the tune—while in committee. But not so with this song; Marty Funderburk (one of Southern Gospel’s most prolific non-performing songwriters), Bev Lowry (Mark’s mother), James Isaac Elliott, and Melissa Bishop struck gold.

“Faithful to the Cross” is one of the greatest songs ever written. Notice that last sentence was without any qualifier. It is that one-in-a-million anthem that would be equally at home at a wedding or a funeral. And that’s not even to mention services where a pastor is installed or retires, or regular church services. Kenna Turner West and Lee Black have written a song that deserves to go down as one of the greatest all-time Southern Gospel classics.

In closing, I ought to try to find another way to say that this is simply one of the best CDs released this decade—but I’m out of superlatives and synonyms. Just buy the thing!

Rating: 5 stars. ♦ Average song rating: 4.5 stars. ♦ Group members: Frank Seamans, Scott Fowler, Scott Howard, Glenn Dustin, Tim Parton. ♦ Produced by: Lari Goss. ♦ Available from: Group. Review copy purchased (not provided). ♦ Song list: New Born Feeling; Great Is Thy Faithfulness; One Thing God Can’t Do; Just Stand; Faithful to the Cross; Above All Circumstances; When They Found Nothing; My Soul is Firmly Anchored; Statement of Faith (including Legacy Five, the Booth Brothers, the Hoppers, and Greater Vision); Thankful for the Change; ‘Til We Meet Again.

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CD Review: The Journey (Liberty Quartet)

journey-cover-web2My journey with Liberty Quartet started several years ago, when I started hearing good things about them from a number of west coast friends (particularly John S. in California and Elysse B. in Idaho). At the time, I chalked up the rave reviews to local pride. So when I met them at NQC 2007, and they gave me a copy of their hymns CD,I politely thanked them, and promptly put it in my stack of CDs to review . . . at the very bottom. It ended up being December 2007 before I got to that CD—and promptly gave it a five-star review (here).

But no matter their talent level (or if they are full time), it’s not easy for a group that is literally off the beaten path to attract top-notch songs from top-notch songwriters. Between producer Phil Cross and then-baritone/pianist Doran Ritchey, they managed to come up with a number of strong songs on each project, but not enough to equal that five-star rating.

Until now.

The Journey proves that creative and progressive don’t have to be synonyms in the Southern Gospel thesaurus. Instead of relying on soundtracks to create a fresh sound, Liberty does it with their vocal arrangements. When was the last time you heard someone put a fresh spin on “He Came Down to My Level?”

The project starts out with the title track, easily one of its most memorable songs. The song is kicked off by an “almost exotic” drum solo (hat tip, Aaron Swain [EDIT, 2/22/13: Broken link removed]), before piano and orchestra kick in to carry this uptempo track along.

Nine of the twelve tracks are new songs. Besides “He Came Down to My Level,” the other two classic tracks are “Till There Was Jesus” by W. Elmo Mercer and “Welcome to Heaven” by Phil Cross & Carolyn Cross English. The latter track is a straight-ahead big ballad featuring lead singer Dan Gilbert that isn’t remarkably different from the Singing Americans original. But in this case the old adage “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it” applies, and it should be a concert favorite for the group.

For a second straight recording, Liberty Quartet and a major east coast group both simultaneously cut a Rodney Griffin song. With Amazed and Triumphant Quartet’s Everyday, it was “Amazed at the Change.” For this project, Liberty and Tribute Quartet both cut “I Love Living In Grace.”

Former Liberty Quartet baritone / pianist Doran Ritchey was still a part of the group during the recording process; he contributed five of the project’s songs and did a guest solo on “The Welcome.” He has since left to be a part of Phil Cross’ musical endeavors (including the group “Crossing”), but hopefully he will continue to send some of his best tunes to Liberty.

This project introduces new Liberty Quartet baritone Jordan Cragun (who, as has been mentioned before, is Kim Collingsworths’ nephew). He is featured on “I Made it Mine” and “In the Day of the Lord.”

Keith Waggoner unfortunately only had one solo, on “He Came to Me.” Bass and manager Royce Mitchell is featured on three, “He Came Down to My Level,” “Till There Was Jesus,” and “Too Long.”

Lyrics are included in the CD booklet. One would think this would be default in a lyric-driven genre, but unfortunately, it’s not, so it’s worthy of mention.

This project easily earns Liberty Quartet another 5-star rating—their second on this site, and first for a recording of new songs.

Rather than just write about it, though, I have received permission from the group to feature several tracks in the flash player for the month. So , for the remainder of this month, enjoy “The Journey,” “In The Day of Our Lord” (featuring Jordan Cragun), “God Made a Way” (featuring Dan Gilbert), and “Till There was Jesus” (featuring Royce Mitchell).

Rating: 5 stars. ♦ Average song rating: 4.33 stars. ♦ Group members: Keith Waggoner (tenor), Dan Gilbert (lead), Jordan Cragun (baritone), Royce Mitchell (bass). ♦ Produced by: Doran Ritchey, Phil Cross, Roger Talley. ♦ Available from: Group. Review copy provided. ♦ Song list: The Journey; He Came Down To My Level; I Made it Mine; I Love Living in Grace; Till There Was Jesus; God Made a Way; He Came to Me; The Welcome; Too Long; He’ll Come Through; In the Day of the Lord; Welcome to Heaven.

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CD Review: The Answer (Collingsworth Family)

The AnswerWhen I interviewed Phil Collingsworth for this site’s April feature article, he explained why the Collingsworth Family only releases a project every other year:

It might be interesting for you to know that our cost of recording an album is almost triple what some of the other ones are. That’s what we put into it, because we put time into it, and time is money when you’re in the recording studio. We put a great deal of time into it because we want it to be a lasting product—something you listen to years down the road and say, “That’s still good quality.” We feel quality rather than quantity is the key issue here.

This attention to quality has paid off, since each of their projects has been a noticeable step up from the previous. Strength for the Journey (2003) was good enough to launch them into the national Southern Gospel scene. God Is Faithful (2005) was good enough to launch them onto the Gaither Homecoming scene. We Still Believe (2007) was a project worthy of a Gaither Homecoming tour artist. And, somehow, The Answer is even better.

Like every other Collingsworth project, The Answer includes a wide variety of vocal and instrumental configurations. Spreading six or seven configurations between fourteen songs—and that’s not even counting things like a Phil/Kim duet on a verse of “Oh the Thought that Jesus Loves Me”—gives the album the same variety their live programs feature.

The most noticeable change is a decreased reliance on the soprano/alto/baritone trio. In their earlier years on the road, many of their vocal songs featured Phil and Kim with their oldest daughter, Brooklyn, probably since she would have been the only child able to hold a part by herself. As the other siblings become capable vocalists in their own right, they have increasing liberty to reserve this lineup for the songs that it best fits. Only three songs use this configuration: “Jesus is Still the Answer,” the old Lanny Wolfe Trio classic, which has been getting a strong response at live concerts, a new Kyla Rowland/Dianne Wilkinson-penned ballad called “Within the Reach of a Prayer,” and a rare composition by Phil Collingsworth himself, “Bottom of the Barrel.” The latter track is the project’s first radio single.

Two other trios are featured. A trio of the Collingsworth teens (at the time of the recording; Brooklyn has since turned twenty) sings “Count Your Blessings Again.” It’s a new song penned by Daryl Williams and the project’s producer, Wayne Haun; it is also one of two tracks with a more progressive arrangement than they have used on past projects. The other, “I Shall Not Be Moved,” is the same song that Palmetto State recorded in 2006 on When it Pours, God Reigns. But the song is so completely reinvented that you’d have to compare the songs back to back to be fully convinced that it’s the same song.

Of all the various vocal configurations, the female trio of Brooklyn, Courtney, and Kim has the most unique and distinctive sound. It was the only lineup other than the entire family to be featured in the Collingsworth Family’s first appearance at a Gaither taping. During the two-day taping that produced Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Rock of Ages, Nashville Homecoming, and Joy in My Heart, the entire family sang “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” and the ladies’ trio saing “God is in the Shadows.” Of that latter appearance, I said:

. . . Of all the vocal configurations the Collingsworth Family uses in any given concert, this female trio is possibly their best and certainly their most distinctive. The Collingsworth ladies are Southern Gospel’s female Booth Brothers. They match their enunciation and vocal placement more precisely than any other group in the genre (besides, perhaps, the Booth Brothers, the Isaacs, and Voices Won).

This lineup is featured on two of the projects’ best songs, “Fear Not Tomorrow” and “Ever Gentle, Ever Sweet.” The latter song is the same mid-tempo song that the Bill Gaither Trio recorded in 1974 on Because He Lives. But despite the (well-deserved) legendary status of the Bill Gaither Trio, their version can’t touch the simple beauty of this one.

With “Fear Not Tomorrow,” the ladies’ trio proves its abilities are not restricted to mid-tempo numbers. I saw the Collingsworth Family the weekend after their project came out (review here), and though this was the first time that the audience ever heard this power ballad, it brought down the house with one of the biggest responses of the night.

A new vocal configuration appears for the first time on this project: Phil, Kim, Brooklyn, and Courtney sing the project’s closing track, “More than Anything.” This quartet would be a strong default configuration for the group; adding Courtney to the mix gives the mixed quartet a much fuller, warmer tone than the mixed trio has.

Though the original plan for the project called for no instrumentals, evidently plans changed before the project was complete. Phil does a trumpet solo on “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” while Kim is featured with a piano solo on “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

There are two other songs that the review wouldn’t be complete without a mention. “I Want a Principle Within” is a magnificent, sweeping rendition of a Charles Wesley hymn largely forgotten except in some holiness circles. The hymn deserved to be brought back, and this rendition does justice to the strength of the lyric and grandeur of the melody.

Since words fail me when discussing “Oh, the Thought that Jesus Loves Me,” I’ll resort to statistics. About the time I started this site, I switched from Windows Media Player to iTunes. Since I don’t re-set play counts, my automatically generated top 200 list tracks each time a song has been played for the last three or four years. After just a month of having this CD, “Oh, the Thought that Jesus Loves Me” is at #6 out of 19,319 tracks. It’s that good.

In closing, a few words need to be said about where this album positions the Collingsworth Family. In addition to a strong assortment of new songs, the project has three hymns (one vocal, two instrumental), several familiar Southern Gospel selections, and two or three songs from Inspirational music. Specifically, that latter group of songs is “Jesus is Still the Answer” (Lanny Wolfe Trio), “I Want Jesus More than Anything” (Truth), and depending on if you count the Bill Gaither Trio (which, historically speaking, you should), “Ever Gentle Ever Sweet.”

The audience of aging music fans that loved Inspirational music back in the 1970s is a largely untapped market right now. Contemporary Christian music long since passed them by, and though many have some familiarity with the Gaither television specials, many more have no idea that anything like the style they used to love can now be found again. The Answer fuses the best of both genres in a way that, if properly marketed, will win many new fans.

Rating: 5 stars. ♦ Average song rating: 4.3 stars. ♦ Group members: Phil, Kim, Brooklyn, Courtney, Phil Jr., and Olivia Collingsworth. ♦ Produced by: Wayne Haun. ♦ Available from: Label, Artist. Review copy provided. ♦ Song list: I Shall Not Be Moved; Fear Not Tomorrow; I Could Never Praise Him Enough; When the Roll is Called Up Yonder; I Want a Principle Within; I Know; Ever Gentle Ever Sweet; Jesus is Still the Answer; Count Your Blessings Again; Within the Reach of a Prayer; Oh the Thought that Jesus Loves Me; Bottom of the Barrel; Great is Thy Faithfulness; More Than Anything.

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CD Review: Vintage Gospel (Mark Trammell Trio)

Rating: 4.5 stars

Average Song Rating: 4.3 stars

Executive Producer: Mark Trammell. Associate Producer: Dustin Sweatman.

Song list: Leave Your Sorrows and Come Along; Mansion Over the Hilltop; Hold Me; John Saw Me; Standing On the Solid Rock; While Ages Roll; Sweetest Song I Know; Sin Will Take You Farther; In the Sweet Forever; Hide Thou Me.

* * *

After Joel Wood joined the Mark Trammell Trio earlier this year, there evidently wasn’t enough time to turn around a CD of new songs featuring the new lineup by NQC. So the group decided to put out its second CD of classic songs. (Their first, Journey Thus Far, introduced Dustin Sweatman in 2006.) Much like Journey This Far, Vintage Gospel includes a mix of hymns, classic convention songs, and songs Mark Trammell was known for other with other groups.

Mark Trammell reprises his rendition of his Cathedrals hit song “Sin Will Take You Farther.” He also performs a song that originally featured George Younce, “Hold On.”

Uptempo convention songs like “Leave Your Sorrows and Come Along” and “Sweetest Song I Know” reinforce something I’ve said before: The Mark Trammell Trio is the best quartet without a bass singer on the road today. Other trios, like the Booth Brothers, Voices Won, and the Bishops, have (or had) a sound that was so trio a bass singer just wouldn’t fit. But this group is a mega-quartet waiting to happen.

Joel Wood is featured on “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and “Hide Thou Me.” Particularly on “Mansion,” his voice tone is enough like Eric Phillips that a casual observer might hear the song and not even notice that there’s a new tenor. His voice doesn’t seem to be quite as high, and seems to have a more power-tenor mid-range (should the group choose to employ it). But he should have little problem with the group’s repertoire.

Dustin Sweatman keeps improving as a vocalist. This is most notable on the song “John Saw Me,” where he has an impressively smooth yet powerful solo.

It took a member change to prompt Journey This Far—one of the group’s best CDs to date. It took another member change to prompt this project. If this keeps up, the group might soon find their fans doing something incredibly odd: Hoping there will be a member change … so the group puts out another table project of this caliber!

But, truth be told, it would be far more sensible for the fans to do something that would work just as well: Purchase so many copies of this project that it doesn’t take a lineup change for them to put out the next one.

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Classic CD Review: One Nation Over God (Dave, Duane and Neil)

onenationMembers: Duane Nicholson (tenor), Neil Enloe (lead), Dave Kyllonen (baritone/bass).

Song List: One Nation Over God; From a Star to Stripes; Statue of Liberty; Statue on the Rock, Joshua; Whose God is Alive?; The Place of Prayer; Loaves and Fishes; Country Church; I Just Don’t Get It; Father’s House; Immortal, Invincible, Almighty God; He Has Forgiven Me.

Available From: Artist.

* * *

For nearly 50 years, Dave Kyllonen, Duane Nicholson, and Neil Enloe toured as the Couriers. Several years ago, they retired and passed the name along to a new generation of Couriers (now performing as a duo). But several years after their retirement, they felt led to start performing together again, so adopted the group name “Dave, Duane and Neil.”

Several years ago, they released their only CD since their reuniting, One Nation Over God.

The project starts with the “God & Country Trilogy.” The first song is a new composition from Neil Enloe, “One Nation Over God,” discussing how a “small, yet very vocal sector of Americans” seek to remove God from our culture and place our country over Him. The second and third songs on the trilogy, also penned by Enloe, are the familiar classics “From a Star to Stripes” and “Statue of Liberty.” Though the project was produced by Phil Armenia, master producer Lari Goss was brought in to do the orchestral arrangements for the God & Country Trilogy, and the trilogy bears his signature touch.

Other than the title track, the project has two other recent compositions from the pen of Neil Enloe, “Loaves and Fishes” and “I Just Don’t Get It.” Producer Phil Armenia, Marie Armenia, Mike Hammer, Daryl K. Williams and John Darin Rowsey, Tim Enloe, and Toni Jolene Clay also contributed songs.

This project will primarily be of interest to Couriers fans, but it will also serve as a good introduction to their music for anyone unfamiliar with their classic recordings.

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CD Review: Hold On (Dove Brothers)

dbRating: 3.5 stars (of 5)

Average Song Rating: 3.2 stars (of 5)

Members: Jerry Martin (tenor), McCray Dove (lead), Eric Dove (baritone), David Hester (bass), Jerry Kelso (pianist).

Song List: Hold On; I’m Gonna Rise; Leavin’ On My Mind; When I Wake Up in the Morning; He’s Gonna Smile on Me; A Little Good News; Back to Egypt; Little David; Jesus, He’s Everything to Me; He’s Sending Miracles.

Available From: Label, Artist.

* * *

When the Dove Brothers released Anything But Ordinary, Everything but Typical in 2005, fans and industry insiders recognized that the album was indeed exactly what its title suggested for the group. It was quite the departure from the group’s classic traditional-quartet sound that had brought them to the top in the genre. What wasn’t immediately clear was whether the experiment would catch on, and whether their fans would follow them and warm to the new style. Evidently, enough of their fans liked the new style for the experiment to be a success, because Hold On is the Dove Brothers’ fourth project in this style.

As always, the Dove Brothers include a few tracks that pay stylistic tribute to their roots. “When I Wake Up in the Morning” and “I’m Gonna Rise” are solid uptempo quartet songs. David Hester delivers a stellar rendition of the Rusty Goodman classic “Leavin’ on my Mind.”

The track on this project that has already sparked the most discussion is their cover of the 1970s Oak Ridge Boys song “He’s Gonna Smile on Me.” Lyrically, the song is a rather interesting choice for inclusion on a Gospel project: “If I just say my prayers at night / And keep living right / He’s gonna smile on me.”

In another nod to country music, the Dove Brothers cover Anne Murray’s “A Little Good News.” The song was the title track of a project that won Murray won Album of the Year in the 1984 Country Music Association Awards. Though the lyrics of the original song do not reference Christianity,  Dove Brothers preface and conclude the song by singing the line, “You know, the Gospel is the good news needed today.”

I would point to the project’s most obvious standout tracks as “Leavin’ On My Mind” and “Back to Egypt.” The latter, in particular, would probably make a good choice for a radio single.

After several years of bringing back the quartet classics of yesteryear, the Dove Brothers intentionally shifted course to start making their own mark. And in a genre where any given group frequently has a number of groups that have a similar sound, the Dove Brothers have been consistent enough over the last few years that their albums have an immediately recognizable sound. Anyone familiar with their last few albums could listen to practically any 5 or 10 second clip from this project and know it was the Dove Brothers—and this sort of distinctiveness pays off.

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CD Review: Missing People (The Kingsmen)

kingsmenRating: 5 stars (of 5)

Average song rating: 4.5 stars (of 5)

Song List: Missing People; Someday; They Went to Pray; Mountain of Grace; When It’s All Said and Done; Cheer the Weary Traveler; God Saw a Cross; He Picks Up a Beggar on the Way; God Knows; He is the Only One; Reprise – Someday.

Members: Harold Reed (tenor), Phillip Hughes (lead), Bryan Hutson (baritone), Ray Dean Reese (bass), Cody McVey (pianist), Brandon Reese (sound engineer).

Available from: Label.

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The Kingsmen’s last release, When God Ran (2008), picked up quite a bit of positive buzz, even earning a 5-star review here. It was the first project with new tenor Harold Reed and returning baritone/lead Bryan Hutson; it was also their first post-band release. But even with all the factors I could enumerate that made the project different, there was one factor that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that made all the difference.

With Missing People, that factor is a little more obvious.

First off, the basics: Missing People has a street date of September 15, but the digital download is available for purchase on Crossroads’ site now. The same vocal lineup featured on the previous project returns for this one. Pianist Cody McVey appears for the first time, but that doesn’t make much difference in the group’s sound, since groups typically use studio musicians to cut soundtracks.

The project has one nod to the past, a lively cut of the convention song “Cheer the Weary Traveler.” But—as on When God Ran—the highlight is the new material. “When It’s All Said and Done” (penned by Dustin Sweatman and Scotty Inman) and “Someday” (by Woody Wright) are strong quartet songs that should go over well in live concerts. “Mountain of Grace” (Dianne Wilkinson) and “God Saw A Cross” (Rodney Griffin) are big ballads with powerful lyrics.

The title track, “Missing People,” has some similarities to the 1997 Kingsmen song “Missing Children” (on Shelter). Both start with first verses about the loss of family and loved ones on earth. But while the earlier song, “Missing Children,” takes the idea down a Good Shepherd / evangelistic path, “Missing People” contrasts losses here on earth with the lack of loss in Heaven. (One minor side note. I hate to be nitpicky on grammar, since I’m far from perfect myself, but on the first line of the chorus, the singular “There’s”—there is—doesn’t match the plural “people.” It really should either be “There’s no missing person up in Heaven” or “There’re no missing people up in Heaven.”)

So what sets these two projects apart from the last few years of the Kingsmen discography?

Since getting the rights to the Kingsmen back a few years ago, the current lineups have been constantly compared to decades of strong recordings from one of Southern Gospel’s most popular groups. So they did their best to capture that classic Kingsmen big-and-live sound.

They really didn’t do all that badly. After all, pretty much every project from 2004’s The Past is Past picked up a few reviews that said “with this project, the Kingsmen are finally back.” But the aptly named The Past is Past was just a few years prescient.

Today’s Kingsmen have recognized that even if they can come closer than anyone else, they can never quite be the 1979 Kingsmen. So while their sound and arrangements still frequently bring to mind the classic Kingsmen sound, this lineup has found its own niche. When God Ran and Missing People show a Kingsmen lineup comfortable in their own shoes.

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