Friday, November 9, 2007

My Favorite Things: Music Edition

Our family was at a house concert last weekend of a songwriter whom I really admire. He is a Christian and a d*** good lyricist who sings about everything from seeking to hear God to confessing a murder to your wife. He says his songs fit into three categories, "God, women, and geography." I'd say that just about sums it up.

Anyway, before we had to leave because of overtired kids, he took a break from singing to answer some questions. Someone asked him what he thought of the Christian music industry, and he didn't have great things to say. He said that it started out as a good thing for musicians who wanted to be able to mention Jesus in their songs but that it has turned into reverse censorship. In other words, musicians have to "go and stick in a few more Jesuses" in order to get their album recorded. For the record, he is not signed with a Christian recording agency, and he is not connected to that part of the music industry. But his songs are some of the most profoundly spiritually true songs I have heard.

So on the way home, as Calvin screamed that he would "never get to do anything fun ever again!!!!!" in the backseat, my husband and I tried to discuss where people like this singer fit in. Most popular labels won't take a guy who sings about Jesus and God in a reverent way, and the Christian music certainly wouldn't have gone for his murder ballad (which was our favorite of the night).

I started thinking about other singers who fit this mold. Nearly all of them were in my list of favorites, and nearly all of them fit in the ambiguous "folk" or "bluegrass" category. (The other categories that have this blend of the spiritual and troubling sides of life are the traditionally African American styles of music like the blues.) I hardly have to ask why this is. Separating spiritual life and "real" life was never even an issue for me growing up where I did. In rural Appalachia (and other poor, rural parts of this country) the rhythms of life and death, planting and harvest, marriage and childbirth are bound up in the spiritual truths that they represent. There is no sacred and secular. There is just life, and Jesus and God and the devil and the kinfolk all inhabit it in some way. That is why I loved that house concert the other night. The artist sang from a holistic life, where a murder ballad could stir my soul just as much as a song about Jesus.

On that note, here are some other musicians I love. Some of them are Christian, some are not. Some sing of explicitly Christian themes, and others sing and write of truths that are deeply spiritual because they are real life. There are many more than I list here. And I am always looking for new artists to add, now that I have entered the 21st century and use iTunes!

Gillian Welch
She may have been born in Hollywood, but that was a mistake. This woman looks and sings and writes like an Appalachian mountain girl. I never miss a concert if she is near. My favorite song is Barroom Girls, but there are so many good ones.

Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs
My boys have already been to concerts by both of these legends of bluegrass. A highlight of my summer was hearing Doc sing Nights in White Satan at an outdoor concert at our art museum. That voice is so good!

Andrew Peterson
He is part of the Christian music industry, but he tells a good story. Many of his songs are sacramental looks at everyday life without being overtly "Jesusy."

Rich Mullins
He will always be my favorite songwriter. I have yet to find someone who matches him.

The Cowboy Junkies
They will haunt you. Their music is often dark. But it is an honest look at life. Black Eyed Man has been a favorite album of mine for years.

Lyle Lovett
I love him. What else can I say? Calvin and Hobbes' current favorite song is The Truck Song.

The Indigo Girls
They are here if for no other reason than The Wood Song. I listened to them nonstop in my melancholy college days, and my devotion has cooled. But they still rank up there in my list of people who get it.


Mark Horner said...

Your narrative of life in Appalachia reminds me very much of "Cataloochee," a novel by Wayne Caldwell. Not only am I fascinated by the real-life town the book is based on; it is a fine read in the full Southern authorial tradition (think Faulkner).

At any rate, you and I could have some fine conversations about you say about Gillian Welch, I was truly born in the wrong state!

Thanks for your insights.

Elizabeth said...

Sounds like a good concert. Did you know that Jason and Andy were roommates for a year or so?

Anyway, interesting thing about the Indigo Girls... I rarely listen to them these days either. They're mostly associated with my college days. But I agree, their lyrics reveal that they just get something important about life.

Daniel Kirk said...

Some of the richest lyrics I've heard are in a Harrod and Funck song, "Your Voice at Tidewater." My favorite part:

I can feel the ocean pulling inward, I’m sinking on sand.
It makes me think about Peter
Sinking like a stone, and not believing he grabs for your hand.

I go to a movie.
I can feel the tears on my neck stinging, because I just shaved.
Someone gets killed.
Someone else gets shot up real bad, and in the end someone gets saved.
And in the end someone gets saved.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Mark, I'll have to check that book out. I've never heard of the author.

Elizabeth, I had forgotten about Jason and Andy being roomies. I really enjoyed him. It was just a small concert for IV grad students, so we got to chat.

Catherine said...

Rich - yes, absolutely the best ever.

Indigo - funny, I like them just for that song too...

Andrew Peterson - augh. I heard him in concert about 10 years ago and hated it. Sorry. :(

TwoSquareMeals said...

Yeah, I should have clarified that I do NOT love AP's voice. But he has gotten so much better over the past ten years, and his songwriting is really good. I saw Rich early in his career and wasn't too hot on him either. (Not that AP is as good as Rich.) If you are willing to give him another try, I recommend checking out "Love and Thunder."

Allison said...

Hi! I am a new reader and I'm enjoying your posts...I found your blog, um, from Daniel's I think? Anyway, just wanted to commend your musical taste... I didn't know Jason Harrod was still doing music! I used to love Harrod and Funck!

I also wanted to mention the Square Pegs. Andrew Peterson is one, and they are part of a group of musicians who don't fit in the "round hole" of CCM. (And I second the assertion that if you heard him 10 years ago and didn't like his voice, check out Peterson now. Especially Behold the Lamb of God.) Some of my favorite square pegs are Eric Peters, Randall Goodgame, and Andrew Osenga. Real, honest songwriting.

Andy O once wrote a post about how bars wouldn't let him play because he was "too Christian" and a church wouldn't let him play there because he drank beer. So it's not just a problem of getting on a label, it's also a problem of where to play...

Hopefully, in this new online music age, artists like Jason and these others will be able to find a niche and be heard.

One more might enjoy Buddy and Julie Miller, who are also folksy/bluegrassy type artists.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Thanks for stopping by and for the music recs! I'll definitely look into some of the other Square Pegs. I hadn't heard of them. Jason is mostly just doing music locally, though he does venture out. I think he is in Boston soon.

I hope you keep stopping in to comment now and then. Anyone who knows Daniel has to be cool!