Published Jul 01, 2004If there has been a predominant figure in pop culture so far this year, it might just be Jesus Christ. The most obvious example is The Passion Of The Christ, but while the film has been a focal point of debate over religion's current influence in mainstream Western society, Mel Gibson is only the most familiar of many other artists whose individual visions are making a new generation aware of Christianity, in all its mystery and inherent complexity. This year, God TV has had its hits (Joan of Arcadia) and misses (Wonderfalls); Madonna is devoting time on her current tour to preaching about Kabbalah; and recent Johnny Cash reissues are acknowledging the Man In Black's devotion to the gospels. The Polyphonic Spree conduct hippie-tinged sermons like a pot-addled Mormon Tabernacle Choir, while the Hidden Cameras' gay folk music invites new devotees to sing along, part of an increasingly important generation of believers - like Robert Randolf, Danielson and Royal City - who are pushing faith to the fore.
For most fans, the separation of Church and Rock is just as, let's say, sacred as the separation of Church and State. After all, what was originally conceived as "the Devil's music" should remain so, right? But rock'n'roll has never shied away from the spiritual realm, dating back to when Elvis Presley calmed fears of his evil powers with a solemn rendition of "Peace In The Valley," accompanied by the Blackwood Brothers gospel quartet as part of his first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.
Today, matters of faith are increasingly prevalent, not only in Christian-based music's own self-sufficient industry, but in the voices of young artists who are drawing upon the gospel tradition, for both musical inspiration and personal enlightenment.
The Gospel Impulse
Perhaps the biggest question raised by the overwhelming response to The Passion is, why now? America in particular has long been a predominantly evangelical Christian nation - latest surveys show that 43 percent of its citizens consider themselves "born again" - to the point where the Republican Party, with its "born again" president George W. Bush, has concluded that it need only appeal to this demographic in order to remain in power.
One thing that is certain, the use of religious imagery today in popular music has grown much more complicated in comparison to its earliest appearances in song. As Craig Werner writes in his thorough study, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & The Soul Of America, "Without question the spiritual explorations of the younger generation shocked some of their elders. But many appreciated the impulse behind the explorations; and almost everyone understood that almost any spiritual vision was preferable to the nihilism that threatened to destroy so many communities."
Werner's list of crucial gospel-informed hits includes Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," and many others that have undeniably had an impact far beyond other songs of their respective eras. The suggestion Werner makes is that artists who successfully utilise the "gospel impulse," do so out of a desire to build community, rather than out of pure self-expression.
He writes, "At its best, the gospel impulse helps people experience themselves in relation to rather than on their own. Gospel makes the feeling of human separateness, which is what the blues are all about, bearable. It's why DJs and the dancers they shape into momentary communities are telling the truth when they describe dance as a religious experience."
Rock Of Ages
The notion of using music as a vehicle to connect with a larger community, or higher power, directly reflects the fact that most early stars of blues, country and rock'n'roll came from small, rural areas where the church was a social pillar. For many, it was simply a natural progression to interpret music learned in church in their own personal ways.
As one of his final wishes, Johnny Cash recorded My Mother's Hymn Book, a collection of songs he had known since his childhood. There could be no better final statement from a man who balanced sin and salvation, and who was unparalleled at communicating the realities of each. While it is easy to sentimentalise Cash's gospel work as an outgrowth of his personal struggles over the years, the fact is that at when he first sang of shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, he was also asking, 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?' In fact, Cash intended his first album for Columbia Records, following his move from Sun, to be a gospel album, something the label wouldn't approve until there were a few hits under his belt.
As Sylvie Simmons writes in the liner note to Hymn Book, "If [Cash's mother] Carrie had not taught him these hymn book songs, encouraged him to sing them and told him that his talent was a 'gift from God' and he should not toss it away, he would likely not be here today."
While Cash never made what might have been a natural transition into a full-fledged preacher, history suggests that most artists who come from a strong religious upbringing invariably introduce those beliefs into their music.
Al Green is a prime example. Originally a deep soul belter, Green undertook a personal battle between the sacred and profane in the early '70s, just as his popularity was amplifying the isolation he had always felt, and subsequently eased with drugs and sex. It was in a hotel room at Disneyland in 1973 that Green found the Lord. "I had producers, promoters, record companies, booking agents, all these people saying, 'Al is doing what? Religion? Eighteen million dollars invested in this boy and he's got religion? We've got a career going here, we need to sell some records," he recently told Mojo's Andrea Lisle. "Everyone around me was saying, 'We don't need God right now - tell him to come back later.' But I had to reconcile what was going on with me, because this was the only thing that was gonna save me."
Unlike Little Richard's flirtation with the ministry in the late '50s, which essentially stalled his career at its height, Green wholly embraced his calling, and deftly incorporated religion into such landmark recordings as 1977's The Belle Album. At the same time, Green preached every Sunday at his own church in Memphis, still today a guaranteed cure for Saturday night excesses. Yet, after establishing himself as undoubtedly the most popular gospel artist in America, Reverend Al's excellent new album, I Can't Stop, returns to the sultry themes and grooves that first brought him fame. For Green, the gap between physical love and spiritual love was bridged long ago. "Even the Pope is a human being," he says. "And that is what this album is about. When people come home from the church house and start dealing with the children, their job, the mortgage and the insurance, they're gonna deal with this album. It's about life."
From The Altar To The Stage
While mainstream rock fans have often turned to Green's work for an accessible gospel fix, more recently they have been introduced to the music through several unlikely sources. One of these is the sacred steel movement, first "discovered" by blues enthusiast Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records in the early 1990s. Until then, sacred steel was an obscure fixture of black Baptist church services, mostly in Florida, where the choir was accompanied not by an organ, but by pedal steel guitarists. As unlikely as that seems, players like Sonny Treadway, Aubrey Ghent, and the Campbell Brothers, managed to create both joyful and heart-wrenching sounds that perfectly complemented the hymns. With its popularity grown following such acclaimed releases as None But The Righteous and The Word (featuring John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood), sacred steel had its first mainstream crossover success last year with Robert Randolph, the young phenom whose urban chic has brought him those all-important young white followers.
Randolph, who grew up near Newark, New Jersey, admits that staying close to his churchgoing relatives saved him from a life of drugs and crime, and ultimately got him playing steel guitar. A family connection to sacred steel legend Ted Beard firmly set him on his path at the age of 17. "I said to Ted, 'I want to play like you,' but he taught me that you can never be like someone else, and if you keep that in mind and stay humble, then nobody will be able to do what you're doing. A couple of months after that, I was back home playing steel guitar at our church services." Since then, Randolph's major label debut, Unclassified, and his band's incendiary live shows have drawn comparisons to guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But at its core, Randolph's music is pure gospel, and judging by his statements, will remain so.
Although Randolph and others have helped to modernise the established tenets of gospel music, the enduring appeal of what have come to be known among collectors as "true vine" recordings from the 1920s and '30s is undiminished. Proof is in the brisk sales of last year's six-disc set Goodbye Babylon, a labour of love for Atlanta music archivist Lance Ledbetter, who released it on his own Dust-To-Digital label. Although a substantial purchase for even the most ardent fan - the set comes with the requisite book in a wood box lined with freshly picked cotton - it rivals Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music in both quality and historical significance.
Ledbetter says his motivation was simply to fill a void in documenting important early gospel artists like Thomas A. Dorsey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In doing so, he ingeniously placed them alongside little-known gospel sides from their better-known peers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Monroe Brothers, along with an entire disc of sermons. "I was doing a radio show of old-timey music at Georgia State University and I just noticed a void in gospel music reissues," he explained in an online chat. "That led me to write a letter to a collector about whom I'd read on the internet [Joe Bussard]. He lived in Maryland and owned over 25,000 78 rpm records. Over time we developed a nice relationship, and for the next year-and-a-half I listened to all of his religious records. He would make me cassettes of the songs for $.50 a track and I'd get them and listen to them every night on headphones and would have the hair on the back of my neck raised. It was an incredible time!"
The force of this old time religion can be heard elsewhere, from the White Stripes' now trademark renditions of Son House's "John The Revelator," to former 16 Horsepower front-man David Eugene Edwards' latest haunting project, Woven Hand. But for anyone familiar with roots music of the past 20 years, the revival of that spirit can be credited to only one man: T-Bone Burnett.
The High Priest
"I've made it a policy not to talk about Bob Dylan," T-Bone Burnett has repeatedly said. "But I will say this, his career has been about Bob Dylan's search for God." Burnett, a devout born-again Christian from Texas, first made his name after Dylan enlisted him in 1975 for the Rolling Thunder Revue. Less than three years later, Dylan himself was taking Bible study classes and damning non-believers both in his songs and on-stage harangues.
While Burnett's influence on Dylan's conversion was probably minimal, his influence on reconnecting America with its gospel music tradition has been immeasurable. Although he never found his footing as a solo artist, his work as a producer has invariably put them in touch with the rich heritage of American song that Burnett seems to be able to summon at will. His greatest recent accomplishment has been as the architect of the O Brother Where Art Thou? phenomenon. The multi-million selling soundtrack proved far more lasting than its film, spawning a further documentary of live performances (Down From The Mountain), a tour, and unprecedented new followings for many of its artists.
Audiences have been treated to many remarkable moments, such as Ralph Stanley singing the gospel standard "O Death" at the 2002 Grammy Awards, a night when O Brother swept every category it was in. When speaking to No Depression, Burnett admitted that O Brother's success could at least partly be credited to America's state of mind following 9/11, a time when "people wanted to connect to who we are. Elvis [Costello] said that 'O Death' was the truest response to the bombing that had come from the arts. That's true, even though it was actually done before 9/11. It was an unconscious thing."
In fact, what makes Burnett's work so special is that the spirituality he injects most often is unconscious, making it an inclusive listening experience in a pure gospel sense. When asked by Radix Magazine in the early '90s about changes in the cultural perception of Christianity that resulted from Dylan's conversion, Burnett was eerily prophetic in how the hardliners were beginning to take over America. "It was exciting for a while to see all this stuff going on, but a lot of things never led anywhere. It's funny to see how some of the people who were part of that have now turned into incredibly right-wing dupes. They're falling right into line with nationalist-type power needs. What I believe now is that maybe they were fearful at the time. Maybe what they were about at the time was all fear. There's a tremendous amount of fear in the evangelical church."
Of course, that fear has only been heightened by current world events, but the hope provided by artists like Burnett and others in tune with gospel messages will always be the antidote. They are present in every genre of music, whether the artists are conscious of it or not.
The New Disciples
"I don't plan things out," Daniel Smith says. "I try to be obedient to what the Lord is showing me and telling me to write and play. It's like putting a puzzle together in the dark and trying to stay out of the way as much as possible. I have very little idea of what I am doing."
When Smith first appeared with his siblings in 1994 as the Danielson Famile, reactions were a mix of awe at the odd-yet-uplifting music they made, and confusion over what precisely their intention was in bringing a strong Christian-based philosophy to indie rock. Speaking with the conviction of a true preacher, Smith says he found God a year prior to the band's first album, A Prayer For Every Hour, as he finished his final year of art college. The band has since gone on to release five more uniquely rough-edged albums and spawn many offshoots, released through Smith's label Sounds Familyre. His latest outing is as Br. Danielson, a solo album entitled Brother Is To Son, which ventures into confessional singer-songwriter territory. It is some of Smith's most heartfelt work to date, with his faith being the cornerstone in exploring other subjects, like his job as a carpenter.
When asked to describe his music, Smith states with typical aplomb, "Rock'n'roll came out of the invisible Church, so musically and spiritually I feel connected to those roots. My relationship with Christ in the details of the everyday is my source and my inspiration. I have no faith in politics or pop culture, they all fade away over and over again. I do think many people everywhere are starving for something deeper than themselves."
What makes Smith unusual among spiritually-informed artists is that he actually professes no allegiance to any organised religion. He says, "I think the Bible portrays Jesus perfectly. The Lord created everything and uses whatever He wants for whatever He wants."
Although Smith, and peers like Sufjan Stevens and Pedro The Lion, clearly have no problems espousing their religious conviction with their fans, the challenge of other young, spiritually-informed artists to avoid their work being branded with a "Christian" tag is certainly unfortunate considering how the religion has always been integral to the blues and folk tradition.
One tactic has been to boldly delve into that rich musical heritage and see what comes of it. That's been the basic formula for success so far for New York's Ollabelle, whose self-titled debut is a document of their euphoric initial foray into traditional gospel. The six-piece collective, which includes vocalist Amy Helm, daughter of the Band's Levon Helm, has appropriated a genre they were not born into, but like the Band's elemental mishmash, Ollabelle's approach to gospel standards like "Soul Of A Man," and "Jesus On The Mainline" adds a refreshing musical sophistication to the inherent power of the songs themselves.
Keyboardist Glenn Patscha (a New York resident originally from Winnipeg) says the band formed in late 2001 out of a weekly jam session at an East Village bar. "We did a couple of gospel tunes one night, and the owner of the bar asked us to do a full gospel night every Sunday," he explains. "People really caught on to it, because it just felt so honest and good, and out of that we started getting this real communal feeling playing together. You can't help but feel that way when you play this music, and I think part of the fun was that we all sort of discovered that feeling for the first time when we played these songs."
Although an established musician prior to forming Ollabelle, Patscha says that no one expected the band to catch on this quickly; they are now part of T-Bone Burnett's DMZ Records roster and are touring with legends like Ralph Stanley. "The most amazing part of what we've done has been that this music has afforded us so many opportunities to become better musicians, and better people," he says. "We're all on our own spiritual paths from these different places we've come from, but we've found common ground in this music. I think that's the appeal of it, that it doesn't matter what your beliefs are. I think anybody can listen to these songs and be inspired."
Royal City's collective approach has likewise drawn comparisons to the Band, but for main songwriter Aaron Riches, his beliefs have always manifested themselves in much more complex ways than traditional gospel songs normally offer. In fact, talking about religion with the Guelph, ON native (currently in Virginia completing his PhD in theology) is both an intimidating and eye-opening experience. The band has just released its third album, Little Heart's Ease, and while the lyrics once again have a ring of Old Testament starkness that would make Leonard Cohen proud, Riches says that most people miss the point when discussing his spiritual influences.
"Initially, my interest stemmed from English literature, which contains all the stories and metaphors our society is based on," he says. "And if you go to any university English department and ask what the greatest work in the English language is, most people will say the King James Bible. What made it exciting to me was learning that part of the motivation in translating it into English was to try to create a common language for the first time, and that this language was imbued with a spirit beyond what the words themselves represented. These were some of the greatest poets who ever lived."
Rather than taking any specific religious stance in his music, as a student of the folk tradition Riches understands its origins in the mysteries of the natural world. However, he admits that this remains a Judeo-Christian tradition simply because of the language used to articulate it. "I just keep going back in time," he says. "I guess what started with a love of that old, weird American folk music has led me to explore more of where that kind of mystical language came from. So, on this new album there's probably less of a gospel influence as opposed to maybe the writings of St. Augustine, but to me that's still a continuation."
Of course, not everyone is able to grasp such an approach, at least right away. Word had it that Royal City's British label, Rough Trade, was considering marketing the band specifically to a Christian audience. Riches' response to that prospect is unexpectedly terse: "No, we're not a Christian band."
Still Bigger Than Jesus?
No matter what trends prevail, music, like all art, will always retain a semblance of spirituality, since most accept that the creation of art is a spiritual experience. Of course, this experience is not limited to Christians. The influence of Islam, Rastafarianism, Buddhism, Krishna, Kabbalah - not to mention consciousness-expanding drugs - are separate stories unto themselves. But it seems that music remains one of the few realms where all their shared principles of peace, love, and understanding can be expressed (on the whole) in a non-judgmental way.
In his 1988 book Hungry For Heaven, British music journalist Steve Turner came to that conclusion, stating at the time of its revised edition in 1995, "I'm pretty sure that religious issues will always be fairly prominent in music. It amazes me that secular journalists don't seem to see how much of rock, and how many of the leading musicians, have had this dalliance with religion. It's a perpetual issue."
But whatever beliefs an artist is espousing, they will undoubtedly always go hand-in-hand with a belief that music itself can be considered a spiritually binding force. As Craig Werner quoted Erykah Badu in A Change Is Gonna Come, "I think the Creator loves that we understand to get a foundation and then to build from there. I don't stifle my creativity or my will to learn. My religion, if I have one, is probably the arts."
God Was Their Co-Pilot
Rock's Essential Religious Recordings
Elvis Presley - Peace In The Valley (RCA, 2000)
This three-disc set is intended to be the last word on the King's treasured gospel side. With 87 tracks, there's no denying that this was a major aspect of his art, one that made it acceptable for other rockers to venture into the sacred. Songs range from favourites like "His Hand In Mine" to the previously unreleased "Why Me Lord?"
The Electric Prunes - Mass In F Minor (Reprise, 1968)
More a construct of uber-hip producer/arranger David Axelrod, this acid rock landmark remains mind-boggling in both its audacity and power. Some will recognise "Kyrie Eleison" from the Easy Rider soundtrack, while others will note the album's influence on Spinal Tap's "Rock 'N Roll Creation."
Van Morrison - Astral Weeks (Warner Bros., 1968)
While not a religious album per se, Morrison's unbridled performance certainly sees him at times approaching a state of nirvana few others glimpsed before or since. As his first proper solo album it set the standard for the spiritual journey he would undertake for the rest of his career, although he never recaptured the magic of this mystical document.
George Harrison - All Things Must Pass (Apple, 1970)
As the "spiritual" Beatle, Harrison's beliefs brought the world to India, but on this solo debut, he manages to successfully weave them into a powerful wide-screen rock sound, with the help of Phil Spector and Eric Clapton. Despite its subject matter, "My Sweet Lord" was an undeniable hit, while the title track and "Art Of Dying" reveal a wisdom far beyond his years.
Bob Dylan - Slow Train Coming (Columbia, 1979)
At the time a shocking move for the born-again Jewish kid, Slow Train Coming remains one of his most well-crafted (and well-produced) albums. Twenty-five years on, the sheer beauty of "I Believe In You" and pure gospel zeal of "Gotta Serve Somebody" is undiminished. Also see 1980's Saved and 1981's Shot Of Love.
Sam Phillips - Zero Zero Zero (Virgin, 1999)
The wife of T-Bone Burnett, Phillips started in the Christian music industry, but eventually crossed over as her richly diverse songs began dealing with more earthly matters. This compilation of her personal favourites is a good introduction to her unique talent, and features contributions from Elvis Costello, Peter Buck, Van Dyke Parks and others.