CD Review: “Plain Ole Gospel” (Cathedral Quartet)

Cathedral Quartet - Plain Ole GospelAll right, I admit it. I shouldn’t have said “CD Review.” To my knowledge, this project has never been released on CD, but it should be. But since that is the pattern I have established for all previous reviews, I will maintain it here.

This table project was released in 1975. As a slight digression, what I mean by “table project” is that the Cathedral Quartet recorded without the support of a record company. It was not distributed to stores; it was only available from their record table at concerts.

The record cover is unique in that it was not made with the typical cardboard with a glossy surface. The cardboard used to make this record envelope had a matte finish, almost a canvas feel. It was printed in black and white, or to be more precise, dark brown and white. It short, the cover of Plain Ole Gospel is “plain” and does, indeed, have an “old” feel to it.

The orchestrations are simple but sufficient. Haskell Cooley, the group pianist at the time, played piano. Vic Clay, who played guitar for the Catehdral Quartet in its earliest years, produced the project and played guitars. The only other instrumentation was bass, steel guitar, and drums. Though simple orchestration is a common feature of many artists’ table projects, it was intentional here, for a recording based on the “plain ole Gospel” theme could not well have progressive orchestration.

The project starts out with the classic tenor feature, “Glory Road.” Of course, at the time, it was not yet a classic; the Kingsmen had just recorded the original rendition two years before. This rendition is interesting in that since the song was relatively new, groups did not feel any need to do a note-for-note remake of the Kingsmen classic. As examples, an extra bass line is added for Younce at one point, and Tremble does not slip into falsetto on the line “I can see Him on His throne.” Of course, Tremble rarely employed falsetto (or, for that matter, head voice), but is also true that it had not yet been established that every tenor who would do the song had to slip into falsetto on that line.

The second song, “I’ve Been with Jesus,” is the same song the Cathedrals redid on Radio Days in 1996. Much as I love the final lineup of the Cathedrals, this particular song was a perfect fit for the 1970s lineup.

Baritone George Amon Webster is featured on “One Day at a Time.” This was another song that is now a classic, but was relatively new at the time. The Florida Boys recorded their classic rendition in the same year, on their 1975 project First Class Gospel.

Roy Tremble is featured on “Tears are a Language God Understands” another song that was relatively new at the time (recorded in 1972 by the Stamps and in 1973 by the Florida Boys), but has since become a classic. For me at least, the highlight of the song is when George Younce takes the melody on the lines

God sees the tears of a broken-hearted soul
He sees your tears and hears them when they fall

The timing of inverting the harmonies and featuring his voice on those lines is so perfect that it still sends chills down my spine, even after I’ve listened to the project well over a dozen times.

Younce is also featured on the final song on the first side of the record, “He’ll Hold My Hand.” He was in peak voice at the time of this recording; his voice had not attained its full depth in the 1950s, and this was before his later 1980s heart attack that threatened to completely destroy his ability to sing. Of course, he recovered completely, and spent well over an additional decade on the road, but yet this project project–as well as the song–feature him at his peak.
The second side starts with the classic quartet song “We’ll Soon Be Done with Troubles and Trials.”

“What a Beautiful Day,” the seventh song on the project, is another song that has become a classic. But in 1975, when the Cathedrals recorded their rendition, the song was still new; the Happy Goodmans had just recorded their rendition the year before, on Happy Goodman Family Hour.

Of course, “I’ll See You in the Rapture,” the eighth song on the project, is another song that has since become a classic. But it, too, was introduced earlier in the same year on the Kingsmen Quartet’s 1975 Jubilation! project.

The project closes with “His Name is Wonderful,” another relatively new song at the time, and a George Younce narration entitled “Golden Toys.” The final two songs are ably executed but are not songs that incite me to hit the replay button quite as often as the others do.

This project is not only an enjoyable listen, it is interesting historically. With one or two exceptions, this project is composed entirely of songs that had been introduced within two years of when the project was released. Though looking back, it looks like a project of classic songs, it was actually a project of songs that were current hits at the time. The foresight of the Cathedral Quartet in picking current hits that were destined to be classics is somewhat remarkable; here, on one project, we have over a half-dozen songs that have since become classics.

Just how good is this project?

I’m not about to claim that it is the best project the Cathedrals ever recorded. That honor would probably go to Something Special (1982) or Live in Atlanta (1983), the Cathedrals’ best studio and live projects, respectively. But this project may well be the best table project the Cathedrals ever recorded. It is also perhaps the best example of the tight harmonies of the 1970s lineup.

It is always fascinating to listen to a group on the verge of greatness; examples would be the early 1970s Kingsmen, early 1980s Gold City, or late 1990s Perrys. This is just such an album for the Cathedrals; they had in place many of the elements that would make them great, but fans just hadn’t yet figured it out.

Very few people will attempt to collect every single project that the Cathedrals recorded. But for those who just want to find the ten best projects they put out, this project certainly belongs on that list. For some, it might even deserve to be numbered among their top five.

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CD Review: “Sounds of Sunday” (Dixie Echoes)

Dixie Echoes - Sounds of SundayThe Dixie Echoes recently released Sounds of Sunday. This independent release features 10 classic songs and introduces their new tenor, Dallas Rogers.

Most groups use studio musicians on their recordings instead of group members, because the cost of paying for studio time makes paying someone whose skill is a technically perfect first or second take a financial necessity. However, the Dixie Echoes own their own recording studio, Echo Sound, and this frees them to use group musicians and take as long as it takes to get it right.

Only one musician on this project is not a Dixie Echoes member; that musician, David Johnson, played several assorted instruments on the project. Group pianist Stewart Varnado played the piano and organ. Baritone singer Randy “Scoot” Shelnut, Jr., played bass guitar and drums. Lead singer Randy Shelnut, Sr. played guitars.

The project starts with a classic four-part harmony song, “If Jesus is There.” This song captures the style of the project quite well.

The second song, “Up to the House of Prayer,” was written by Buford Abner, who was one of the original members of the Suwannee River Boys in 1938 and remained a main player in the group for years. The song was also done by the LeFevres / Rex Nelon Singers, but has not to my knowledge been staged by a quartet in decades. They had to go far back into the archives to find this one!

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CD Review: “It’s So God” (Brian Free and Assurance)

It's So God - Brian Free & AssuranceLet me start this review off with a confession. I’ve had this project for a few months, but I didn’t post a review until now. Why the delay?

Quite frankly, the first few times I listened to the project, I honestly didn’t like it. And since I follow my grandfather’s maxim “If you don’t have something good to say about someone, then don’t say anything,” I simply put off posting a review indefinitely.

But over time, this project has grown on me. While I still prefer Live in New York City and Greater Still projects, I have finally concluded that this project is on par with those projects. So it’s time to post a review.

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CD Review: “headin’ home” by Eighth Day

Eighth Day is a mixed trio based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their third project, headin’ home, was released earlier this year.

The groups’ members are Scott and Joni Robinson, who sing tenor and lead/soprano, respectively, and baritone Derek Parker. The group has a somewhat progressive sound; they describe themselves on their website as being “a little bit country, a touch of bluegrass, and a whole lot of gospel.”

All of the songs on this album are written or co-written by Robert Arthur, Monty Lane Allen, and Eric Childers. Allen, Arthur, and Susan Whisnant collaborated on the project’s first song and current single, “I Wanna Go Home.”

Joni is officially the group’s “featured vocalist,” and she is indeed featured on enough songs to make the description accurate. She is featured on six of the ten songs: “I Wanna Go Home,” “Even Then,” “He Would’ve Done it Anyway,” “Gonna Get Left,” “Rolled Away Stone,” and “When You Know Where They Are.”

The project’s third song, “He Would Have Done it Anyway,” sounded immediately familiar. A little searching confirmed that it was indeed a radio single for the group earlier in the year.

The CD has a good variety of songs. “Rolled Away Stone” is an enjoyable ballad with a big-production feel. The song “Gonna Get Left” has a country feel and is a novelty tune in some ways. There are several mid-tempo songs on the CD, including “Let Go and Hold On,” “Work in Progress,” “Living Water,” and “When You Know Where They Are.” The song “Safe in His Loving Arms” is perhaps the only song on the CD that would be instantly identifiable as a traditional Southern Gospel song.

Fans of progressive Southern Gospel with a country touch will find much to enjoy in this project.

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CD Review: “Make it Real” (Christian Davis)

Christian Davis - Make it RealAlthough Christian Davis has spent less than ten years in Southern Gospel music, he already has quite a resumé. He sang with the Old Time Gospel Hour Quartet from 2000 through 2003, at a point when they had one of the smoothest blends in Southern Gospel. He was a member when the group won its only Singing News Fan Award thus far, Favorite Horizon Group of 2001. Christian left in 2003 to form his own group, the Christian Brothers Quartet. This group disbanded in 2005; he joined his current group, Mercy’s Mark Quartet, in 2006.

Davis released his first solo project last month. Of the ten songs on the project, Make it Real, at least eight should already be familiar to an average Southern Gospel fan.

The project starts with a Gaither classic, “Thanks to Calvary.” Davis’ rendition appears to be an unspoken tribute to George Younce’s rendition, proving that Davis did not waste his time singing backup vocals and filling in for the Old Friends Quartet. I have never heard a singer come any closer to Younce’s classic rendition than Davis does here.

The second song on the project is the classic Fanny Crosby hymn “My Savior First of All.” Davis’ early work with the Old Time Gospel Hour Quartet created an initial impression that he was a low-note specialist who would think nothing of rattling the subwoofers with an A-flat below low C at the end of every other song. But Davis’ rendition of this hymn shows that he has a pleasant solo voice as well. The song is keyed in E-flat with a transposition to E, which leaves him hitting a high note of the B below middle C. This is the range in which a baritone would typically perform the song.

When many bass singers are in the higher register of their range, they sing each note in a way that leaves no question that they are a bass singer. (Burman Porter is a good example of this style.) Christian Davis, though, takes a different approach to singing a melody. He sings it in a straightforward fashion, evidently confident enough of his own abilities that he feels no need to convince the listener with every note that he is a bass singing high. The result is a pleasing voice timbre that George Younce mastered, but few other singers achieve.

The third song on the project is “We Seek Your Face.” To my knowledge, this Rodney Griffin song was first recorded by Eric Bennett with the Kingdom Heirs on their 2000 project City of Light. Jeff Chapman, who replaced Bennett with the Kingdom Heirs, recorded it with Greater Vision in 2003 on their Quartets project. Christian uses the soundtrack from the Greater Vision Quartets project. Interestingly, Christian himself appeared on Quartets, singing a different song, “Crown of Bright Glory.”

The fourth song on the project is a song entitled “It Matters to Him About You.” This is one of the two songs on the project that is not already familiar. Unfortunately, this project has no liner notes, so I do not know who wrote the song or whether it is original to the project.

A choir joins Davis on “The Love of God.” Christians’s bass solo on this song was bears the imprint of influence from George Younce.

Davis turns in able performances of three other classic Southern Gospel songs, “He Touched Me,” “Beyond the Sunset,” and “Beulah Land.” “Beyond the Sunset” is another song that is often identified with George Younce. In his rendition, Davis delivers the narration with a voice quality very similar to Younce. However–unlike on his excellent renditions of “Thanks to Calvary” and “The Love of God”–Davis’ rendition of the narration doesn’t quite seem to capture the pathos that made George Younce’s version unforgettable.

Beyond any doubt, the most impressive vocal feat on the entire project is Davis’ a capella rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Davis sang all four vocal parts, from tenor to bass. I am serious in stating that he sang tenor. He didn’t just sing the tenor part in a lead singer’s range. The song is keyed in A; the tenor part focuses on the fifth interval, so he sang the E above high C on an ongoing basis throughout the song. He sang the G above high C at several points in the song, with a smooth voice quality more reminiscent of Roger Bennett than of current Mercy’s Mark tenor Brent Mitchell.

Davis’ rendition does not neglect fans of his low notes, either. He hits the A two and a half octaves below middle C at several points towards the end of the song (including ending on that note). In other words, he sings one note short of three octaves in the song. The blend toward the end, where the high and low notes are two and a half octaves apart, is simply amazing. It’s a better quartet sound than many quartets, including Davis’ own group (Mercy’s Mark) have. But to listen while realizing that that one voice produced the entire range of sounds, from a low contrabass to a reasonably high tenor, is a feeling that I simply cannot put into words.

The project closes with the title track, “Make it Real.” Unfortunately, since this project has no copyright information in the liner notes, I can’t give much on the background of this song.

The project was produced by Wesley Pritchard and Davis’ wife Sophia Davis. The graphic design is more professional than most table projects. The liner notes are also well done, although copyright information on the individual songs is regrettably omitted.

Most solo projects by bass singers that I’ve heard seem to have a tension between focusing on rattling the subwoofer with incredibly low notes and with carrying a smooth melody. Many bass solo projects lean toward the subwoofer end of the equation, sacrificing a smooth melody for the subwoofer notes. However, the bass singer’s emphasis on low notes, which works so well in a quartet setting, does not translate as well into a solo project, where there are no other singers to carry the necessary smooth melodies.

Some bass singers adapt better than others to the different requirements of a solo recording. Davis seems to have done remarkably well with this project. He has mastered the art of carrying a smooth melody to an extent that his performances on Old Time Gospel Hour Quartet and Mercy’s Mark projects have not fully revealed. His current group, Mercy’s Mark, would do well to grasp his abilities in this regard and feature him more in the future.

I am not one to dispense high praise casually. But this project deserves it, so let me conclude with this: This is the best solo project by a bass singer that I have ever heard.

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CD Review: “Live in Music City” (Legacy Five)

Live in Music City - Legacy FiveLegacy Five recently released Live in Music City, a project billed as their first live release. This isn’t technically accurate, since they have released several live videos, as well as one previous live CD, Live at the Palace (with Greater Vision). But this is their first live project on which they introduce new songs.

Legacy Five takes the stage with “Strike Up the Band,” an up-tempo Dianne Wilkinson tune featuring Scott Fowler (and a brief piano solo from Roger Bennett).

No sooner do the notes of this song fade out than the introduction to the second song, “The Blood Covers it All.” The song, which features Scott Howard on the first verse and Scott Fowler on the second, is one whose appeal might not be evident on the first time you listen through the project. Its placement could leave a first impression of the song as a song meant to calm the audience down immediately after the up-tempo opener. But taking the song out of the context of the concert lets it shine as one of the nicest ballads Legacy Five has recorded.

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CD Review: “Something’s Happening” (Mercy’s Mark)

Label: Daywind
Release Date: October 10, 2006
Song List: When It All Starts Happening I Want to Be There; Prayer Will Take Heaven By Storm; Something’s Happening; Living in the Arms of Mercy; I’m Amazed; Anytime; He’s The God of Second Chances; Jesus Said Love; All I Need to Know; He Was There All the Time.

Mercy’s Mark Quartet came onto the Southern Gospel scene with a classic quartet sound and relatively traditional arrangements on their 2004 self-titled debut. The debut project had classic convention-style songs like “This Jordan” and “We Shall See Heaven Someday,” big ballads like “His Response” and “Soldier On,” and inspirational songs like “Who Is This King.” The song selection, arrangements, and even the vocals were reminiscent of top-tier groups like the Kingdom Heirs or like Gold City back when Garry Jones was their pianist. Even the harshest critics said that Mercy’s Mark was headed for the top if they maintained that lineup.

As they entered the studio to record their second major project, Something’s Happening, it could well be said that expectations were high. But after the project was complete, and after advertisements (including cover art) appeared in Singing News, bass singer Chris West announced that he was leaving the group. Shortly thereafter, tenor Anthony Facello also announced his departure. Even though he was able to keep lead singer Josh Feemster, baritone and manager Garry Jones essentially had to start from the ground up. So he pulled the project from the release process, hired Christian Davis to sing bass and Brent Mitchell to sing tenor, and went back into the studio. The project, now with new vocals, will be released next Tuesday.

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CD Review: “Shout it Out” (Dove Brothers Quartet)

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Song list: Joshua; Those Tender Hands; Go the Distance; Run On; Look For Me at Jesus’ Feet; Clouds Roll Back; He Didn’t Throw the Clay Away; Shout it Out; Thanks to Calvary; Stand By Me; Lonesome Road.

The CD starts off with “Joshua,” an uptempo song featuring McCray Dove.

Baritone Eric Dove has often been compared to Statesmen baritone Doy Ott. Ott fans will enjoy Dove’s rendition of “Those Tender Hands,” a song that Ott recorded on a 1964 Statesmen album entitled Hovie Lister Spotlights Doy Ott.

Run On is a song that sounds like it was recorded for live performace. While the soundtrack and tune would normally get an audience tapping their feet or clapping along, the lyrics address adultery head-on, and the incongrous combination is probably more likely to leave audiences scratching their heads than calling for an encore.

Eric Dove has stated that his all-time favorite song is “Thanks to Calvary.” David Hester turns in a superb performance on this song. Too many of today’s bass singers are merely low-note specialists, unlike the bass singers of yesterday, who could sing low but focused on carrying a fine melody. David Hester is probably the lowest low-note specialist in a top Southern Gospel quartet, but he performs this entire song in a baritone range with a pleasant timbre, and proves himself to be as much a “complete package” bass singer as the greats of yesteryear.

Message boards and blogs have made much of the Dove Brothers’ Saturday Night NQC performance of the next song on the CD, “Stand By Me” (another Hester feature). McCray Dove referred to Signature Sound as being the hottest act in Southern Gospel right now, and referred to the fact that for the past several months, Signature Sound has been performing “Get Away Jordan,” a song that the Dove Brothers brought back to Southern Gospel several years ago. He then asked the audience if they wanted to hear the Dove Brothers’ rendition of a song that Signature Sound brought back, “Stand By Me.” One thing that it seems nobody has observed is that while Signature Sound has been singing “Get Away Jordan” for a few months, the Dove Brothers actually released their recorded version of a Signature Sound song several months before Signature Sound’s take on their hit song is set to release.

The CD closes with what is probably David Hester’s most requested song, “Lonesome Road.” Ever since fans discovered that Hester could hit the lowest C on the keyboard, and do a fairly good imitation of J.D. Sumner in the process, this song has been regularly requested at Dove Brothers concerts.

David Hester has a surprising number of solos on this project. He is featured on “Stand By Me,” “Thanks to Calvary,” “Lonesome Road,” “Go the Distance,” and “Shout it Out.” Perhaps Hester will have few solos on the Dove Brothers’ upcoming Sonlite release of new songs, and so the quartet made up for it by giving him extra features on this project. Projects featuring new songs often do not have as many bass features as projects of classic songs, so this is a distinct possibility.
This enjoyable project showcases the fresh, energetic arrangements of classic songs that first brought the Dove Brothers to the forefront of Southern Gospel.

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CD Review: “Sweet Land of Rest” (Palmetto State Quartet)

Rating: 4 Stars

The Palmetto State Quartet released their most recent project, Sweet Land of Rest, on June 13, 2006. It is the final Palmetto State project featuring tenor John Rulapaugh and bass Aaron McCune in the same group. It was Rulapaugh’s fifth project with the group and McCune’s fourth.

Black-and-white photos with sepia tinting give the cover and packaging of the album an old-fashioned look. The liner notes give the copyright information, credits, and a list of the group members.

The project starts with two uptempo songs, “I’m Gonna Pray” and “No Doubt Salvation.” The former, an uptempo Dianne Wilkinson tune, was introduced by the Dove Brothers in 2001 on Every Time I Feel the Spirit. Ironically, John Rulapaugh first recorded the song on an album released during his final year with the Dove Brothers, and brought it back on an album recorded during his final year with Palmetto State. The Blackwood Quartet (Rulapaugh’s current group) would be advised to avoid recording the song if they want to keep him around for a while!

Aaron McCune has the solo on the song’s first verse. His voice quality on this song has a quality reminiscent of Bill Lawrence and, to a lesser degree, of Tim Riley. In hindsight, his performace of this song could well have helped Aaron get the call from Gold City. Kerry Beatty takes the solo on the second verse.

The third song on the project, “Sweet Land of Rest,” is probably the highlight of the project. This Dianne Wilkinson song was introduced by the Kingsmen on their 2005 project The Past is Past. John Rulapaugh turns in one of his finest performances with the Palmetto State Quartet on this song. If Rulapaugh had not left the group a few months ago, this song could have been a very strong radio single. It is unlikely that this song would ever hit the airwaves, and that’s unfortunate because it would probably do quite well.

Though the song is new, it has an old-time feel; this might be because adding Rulapaugh’s classic tenor voice to a song with melodic similarities to the chorus of “Sweet Beulah Land” can put the listener in a nostalgic mood.
The fourth song is another up-tempo song, “Old Fashioned Altar Call.” The song, written by Daryl K. Williams of the Daryl Williams Trio, is the group’s current radio single and is presently at #30 on the Singing News October 2006 Top 40 Chart.

Several mid-tempo and slow songs follow. Aaron McCune is featured on “In the Palm of His Hand.” Kerry Beatty is featured on the following two songs, “Only By the Blood” and “The Life You’ve Always Wanted.” (“Only By the Blood” is not the same song as Brian Free & Assurance recorded on their Live in New York City album last year.)

Rick Fair is featured on a slow ballad, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The project closes with two mid-tempo songs, “What a Wonderful Lord” and “I am Sailing Away.”

On the initial listen, I would probably have given the project 3 or 3.5 stars. But the songs grow on you after you’ve played it seven or eight times, and I think that this solid performance deserves 4 stars. It is unlikely that it will receive the attention it deserves, since the Palmetto State Quartet will probably release a project with their new tenor (Wesley Smith) and bass (Burman Porter) as soon as they can. But this is a solid project, and is (along with their 2004 release It’s Settled) one of the two best that the Palmetto State Quartet has released in recent years.

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“Come Thirsty” (Perrys) CD Review

Rating: 5 Stars

I reviewed the Perrys’ Come Thirsty CD a few months ago, when it had just come out. Since it’s still their most recent CD, I thought I’d update the review and post it here as the inaugural CD review for this blog.

Let’s start with the big question. Is this CD worth purchasing?

If you liked This is the Day or Life of Love, the answer is yes. This project manages to capture both the raw enthusiasm of This is the Day and the polish of Life of Love. Happy Goodmans fans will enjoy several songs in the style the Perrys used on Remembering the Happy Goodmans.

The album starts off with a song in the classic convention style. Bass Tracy Stuffle takes the solo on “Until the Last One is Home.” This is the best walking bass feature he’s done on a new song since “Come On and Join Us” (from 2001’s Changed Forever).

The Perrys recorded two old songs and one new one from the pen of Kyla Rowland. “Still Thrilled” is a slow song featuring alto Libbi Perry Stuffle; lead singer Loren Harris takes the lead on the infectiously enthusiastic “They Sang a Hymn,” a 1984 Rowland song. The Perrys also introduce a new Kyla Rowland song, “He Will Hide Me.” This big ballad, featuring Joseph and Loren, is already climbing the charts. It is stylistically comparable to their 2001 hit song “I Rest My Case at the Cross.”

The Perrys’ love for the Happy Goodmans shows on “A Day that Never Ends,” a convention song that could just as easily have been a Happy Goodmans classic.

The album also has several nice ballads. Libbi takes the lead on “Mary for a While,” a unique song in that the rest of the group doesn’t sing anything more than background vocals. “When Jesus Prays” features baritone singer Joseph Habedank.

“Walk Away Free” has been dismissed as being somewhat predictable or formulaic. That is quite an underestimation of the most powerful song on the CD. The second verse closes with these lyrics:

When Satan says I’m still in slavery
My Jesus takes me back to where He paid the price for me
To walk away free…

While I felt that Life of Love had no song quite comparable to This is the Day’s “Calvary Answers for Me,” “Walk Away Free” easily fills that slot on Come Thirsty.

This project is the best that the Perrys have released since their 2000 restructuring into an alto/lead/tenor/bass quartet.

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