Benjamin

It’s easy to sink into indifference. Looking out upon a world drenched in blood and smoke, it’s tempting to turn your back—to hitch a first class ticket onto a gospel train bound for Glory, while the world is left to smolder along the track. That is why it’s necessary to have a folk singer like David Benjamin Blower around. Blower follows a long line of prophets and protest singers—from Elijah to Woody Guthrie—who shift our gaze outward, to the greed and exploitation that burns in the world. His latest record, Welcome the Stranger, is immediate and fierce, drawing on the empirical imagery of the Old and New Testaments, and the Dust Bowl tunes of Guthrie, reminding us all that the world didn’t get better after the dust of the Great Depression settled. He sings of the displaced and the refugee, giving voice to their hardship. He sings with love, with brutality, and with anger, using his guitar and voice as a jackhammer to smash through the apathy of our age.

You can listen to and purchase the album at https://benjaminblower.bandcamp.com/

All proceeds from the record will go to charities working directly with refugees.

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The song was alive. It had travelled harsh seas and long roads. From the highlands of Scotland, it voyaged on rickety ships to the fog engulfed mountains of Appalachia. It was strummed on a handmade guitar, before it made its way down the mountain, into some parlor room where a quartet of well-to-dos sang it slow and mournfully. From time to time, it may have stood at the precipice of life and death, reflecting on its mortality. It had witnessed its brothers and sisters fade into the mountain fog. It saw pieces of itself—lyrics, melodies, a chorus—fade with them.   But somehow, miraculously, it endured. It found new lyrics, new melodies…a new voice to carry it down more roads. It found itself in a Cleveland, Ohio recording studio, bouncing hither and yon through the old guitar of a bespectacled young singer named Amanda Egerer. Egerer had always been drawn to the lost, hard-travelled tunes…the obscure ones, the prodigals. She didn’t come from the Scottish highlands, or the mountain hollers, or the parlor rooms, but her powerful voice reaches a kind of middle ground where those histories meet. She befriends the lonely song. She ushers it onto the next leg of its journey, like any great folk artist does.

You can listen to and purchase Amanda Egerer’s new album, Folk Songs of Many People, on itunes or at https://amandaegerer.bandcamp.com/album/folk-songs-of-many-people

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There’s no getting around the theology of the Louvin Brothers. It’s right there in the title of their most famous— or infamous— record, Satan is Real. Red and orange flames lick the darkness. And the accuser himself stares us down through empty yellow eyes, a crude statue standing atop a hill of burning tires.

Satan is real, working in spirit…

You can see him and hear him in this world everyday

The brothers’ voices, so matter-of-fact, are barely distinguishable from each other. There’s no fire in their tone. There’s no brimstone in their inflections. Salvation and damnation are as natural as eating and sleeping. And perhaps that is what makes their delivery all the more terrifying.

It’s true that the music on this record has been somewhat overshadowed by that very peculiar picture— the two brothers standing beneath a homemade devil statue, clad in white and breathing in those tire fumes. Their arms are outstretched and pleading us to follow a better road. But put aside your visual concerns (and possibly even your theological ones), and what emerges is a striking, pull-no-punches country masterpiece.   The playing is tight, a skilled Nashville band hitting all the right notes on all the right instruments, moving from sad county waltzes to tent revival celebrations.

The brothers had started off in gospel music, prompted by producer Ken Nelson, but had to fight to move beyond the genre. Charlie, always the straight talker, looked back on those years in his memoir. He writes, “Even though we were singing more and more secular songs, and making good money at it, we never did stop doing the gospel stuff. We wrote a lot of songs that got used for altar calls, and I still get fan mail from people who swear up and down that the Louvin Brothers music saved their life. I doubt if God’ll give us any credit for that though. I fear that we have to do more than write words for the big reward, but it was nice to know that our songs helped a person or two”. It was a few years into their “secular” career that Satan is Real was recorded.

*   *   *

The Louvin Brothers’ life was as harsh as the religion they sang about: hot days in the Alabama cotton fields; cruel beatings at the hand of an abusive father. Ira, the oldest, took the brunt of the violence, and perhaps grew angrier because of it. By some accounts he was a nonbeliever, who early in life was destined to be a preacher. When he chose music over the Good Book, his life took a hard spiral into alcoholism and bitterness that he never recovered from. Perhaps he did believe. Perhaps he drank to escape a chasing God, and lashed out not at his wives or his brother or his band mates, but at the One he was running from.

Whatever the case, a Cain and Abel-like mythology surrounds the two brothers. Charlie was the good, temperate family man. Ira was the resentful, angry womanizer; known to smash his mandolin in fits of rage. As the Louvins career rose in the 50s and early 60s, and fame took them from Louisiana to Nashville to the stage of the Opry, Ira slowly burned every bridge that led them there, until their partnership dissolved in 1963.

It was only 5 years earlier that the brothers had stood together among those burning tires and that peculiar stature, fighting the darkness with their extraordinary harmonies.

*   *   *

In 1965, Ira would leave with his fourth wife to play a solo show in Kansas City. Sometime before he left, he told his mother he was going to use the money from the show to buy a tent and finally start preaching.

Ira was only 41, but he had lived a few lifetimes by then. As a child, his father had beaten him with a fence post until he had lost consciousness. During his second marriage, he had been shot six times by a wife after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. And through it all, he had slowly sunk to the burning depths of alcoholism, fighting and cussing and smashing mandolins all the way down. Maybe, one hopes, he was about to crawl out again, and find a little redemption amid the cruel world he was able to characterize so well in his songs. And perhaps, before the shattering of glass and the collision of metal that robbed him of any future, he had found that redemption, or saw that light, or heard those angels rejoicing.

The irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Driving home from that Kansas City show, his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver, killing him and his wife instantly. It was a story as tragic as any the Louvins sang about. Bill Monroe gave a mournful rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the funeral. The voices of Charlie and Ira would never merge and beguile again.

Charlie would go onto a prolific solo career, eventually fighting the same fight that many of the country legends do— finding relevance amidst the harsh light of younger Nashville stars. But just like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and many others, Charlie re-emerged in his old age as a seasoned county icon, recording a string of albums at the end of his life for independent label, Tompkins Square Records. His voice isn’t as recognizable without the ghostly harmonies of brother Ira, but Charlie stuck to each word like it was Biblical truth, and the music— love songs and murder ballads, and of course, gospel hymns— continued to pull no punches. It was as matter-of-fact as it was in the 1956, reflecting a faith that had been callused by death and disease and every kind of hardship, but alive and real nonetheless. He writes, “…if you think you can do anything you want and still go to heaven, you’re full of shit. God’s always right there when you think you’re getting away with something. There’s nothing that escapes him and nothing he doesn’t know”.

Charlie, singing and playing till the end, died in 2011 after a long fight with pancreatic cancer.

Information was gathered from Charlie Louvin’s autobiography, Satan is Real, and Charles Wolfe’s In Close Harmony: the Story of the Louvin Brothers.

A Brief Respite

April 8, 2013

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Throughout this series of essays, I’ve been rummaging around in the fringes of gospel music, mostly looking at artists who have travelled that Appalachian gospel tradition in different exploratory ways, when the rest of the industry was adapting to the genres of hit radio.  But far outside of Christian radio, and even further than the Appalachian mountain fridge, there are artists that I love and admire who are making deeply spiritual music that cannot be defined by any category.  Call it outsider art, call it independent music; it is a big, bold reaction to the Father’s love. For that reason, I decided to take a brief respite from my essays to shine a small light on those particular artists.  Some of them you may have heard of.  Some you will hopefully check out and support.

Brother Danielson’s Brother is to Son– It’s extremely difficult to single out one album from Daniel Smith’s many Danielson incarnations (Ships is strange, complex, and brilliant), but I think the album that hits me the most on a spiritual level is his Brother Danielson solo record, Brother is to Son. Smith strums, stomps, shouts, and wrestles with his faith across 10 peculiar songs that continually veer directions.  A quiet, erratic plea from a doubting Thomas may lead to the revelation, “I can’t understand the ways of my Lord with my mere mind as a man”.

Brother is to Son can be found through the Sounds Familyre record label, some independent record stores, and most online retailers.

 

Chad Marine’s the Honey Trail– An eerie, droning noise arises, and it sets the tone for the rest of Chad Marine’s the Honey Trail.  A grave voice comes in. “By and by, we are going to see the King,” he sings with all seriousness.  Industrial sounds enter and exit, brooding noises permeate, and ancient texts are spoken, sang, and chanted aloud in what I can only describe as a severe celebration, like the thundering weight of Glory.

The Honey Trail can be downloaded at Chad’s Bandcamp page.

 

Jay Tholen’s the Great Hylian Revival-I have a faint memory of letting the beginning credits of the original Legend of Zelda play over and over again when I was a kid, so struck was I by that opening theme song.  There was something about that strange, electronic melody that enraptured me.  Perhaps Jay Tholen had a similar experience as a child, only the melody never left him; and as his faith was being fashioned in those formative years, the two sort of grew together.  Perhaps not.  But somehow, across a generous number of albums and eps, Tholen has reconciled the mystery of the Creator with the sounds and adventure of classic videogames. Working mostly in the genre of chiptunes, he has amassed quite a catalog over the years, writing many excellent, electronics-heavy worship songs; and, though it’s difficult to highlight just one, my favorite has always been the Great Hylian Revival, a worship ep using the music of the Legend of Zelda: the Orarina of Time.  Tholen proclaims, against a hypnotic, mechanical melody, “Creation stands at attention to behold His work; all up in the heavens and here on the earth; sing in harmony to show Him what He’s worth to them”.  And I’m struck again. 

Here’s a zip of the ep: http://jaytholen.net/jaytholen-thegreathylianrevival.zip

You can also find many of Jay Tholen’s recordings at his Bandcamp page.

 

Josh Garrels’ Love and War and the Sea Between-As the story goes, Josh Garrels lost his voice halfway through the recording of his 6th album, Love and War and the Sea Between, a cliché-devoid study of relationships, seen through the lens of his faith and journey.  The songs were written, the instruments recorded, but following a sickness, he couldn’t sing anymore.  After fasting for days, he was laying in his bathtub praying, when a voice told him to give the album over to God. He had a sense that would mean giving the album away for a year (a Year of Jubilee).  He briefly struggled with the idea of giving away his art (as well as his main source of income), but he ceded, and his voice returned.  The album went on to reach hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom could identify with the brokenness, longing and redemption of the seafaring wanderers in Garrels’ songs.  Love and War is as epic as the ocean itself, and charts both new and ancient paths as the artist struggles to understand the emotional chasms that sometimes separate us from those we love.  But his questions won’t hold him down.  “Farther along we’ll understand why”, he sings, drawing on the old hymn, with a faith that sustains any storm and a conviction that prophetically comforts.

Love and War and the Sea Between can be found at most online retailers and through Garrels’ website.

 

Josh White’s Achor– There’s an all-around feeling of fellowship that surrounds Josh White’s Achor.  I’m not sure how the record was recorded, or who the players are, but each cellist and string player, each guitarist, each vocalist, brings with them a gentle sense of joy to assist White in his candid folk and gospel tunes.  Worship music usually has a stigma to it these days. Much of it has been robbed of its poetry and honesty.  But when White sings of forsaking all else “to burn in You, my love”, there is true depth to his words…and it sounds likes he means it.

Achor can be found at most online retailers.

 

Half-Handed Cloud’s Halos & Lassos– I’m a little more secure in my musical tastes these days, but there was an exploratory time in my life where I had trouble recognizing what was real and beautiful and full of truth in music.  I’m still a little ashamed that I barely gave Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska a chance the first time I listened to it.  I had heard nothing but good things, bought it at a discount price, rushed through it, and didn’t take it out again for a year or so, at which point it realigned how I thought about music.  That’s been the case for many of my favorite albums, Half-Handed Cloud’s Halos & Lassos included.  Granted, the music of John Ringhofer isn’t as instantly accessible as that of Mr. Springsteen, but I’m extremely thankful that I had the sense to dust off the album and give it a second listen.  Ringhofer can put more ideas into a 50 second song than most composers can fit into a double album.  His songs are musical collages of spiritual reflections, obscure Bible lyrics, toys, instruments (both traditional and found), and a giddy zeal for the Creator and His creation.  The lyrics are oftentimes bleak and bloody, observing the darker side of the faith and it’s black and blue origins. But the child-like enthusiasm that the artist brings to each song fills you with joy at where the Kingdom is heading.

Halos & Lassos can be found through Asthmatic Kitty Records, some independent record stores, and most online retailers.

 

Soul-Junk’s 1961– Glen Galaxy and his rotating roster of noisemakers is another artist with a dense catalog (this is to be expected from someone who has set out to translate the entire Bible into experimental hip-hop and garage rock songs).  1961 is his most recent Soul-Junk project, and Galaxy is up to “the Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134) in his mission.  Joined by two brothers, his son and daughter, Galaxy recklessly launches into each mournful, triumphant, observant psalm with crashing guitars, overextended vocals, and complete unrestraint.  There’s no falsity here.  At the same time as the record was being recorded, Galaxy’s wife was overcoming a battle with cancer.  You can hear the weight of tribulation in his wracked voice, his very soul tapped into each vibrant word.  It’s as loud and as messy as a manifested life of faith.

1961 can be found through the Sounds Familyre record label and Soul-Junk’s Bandcamp page.

 

Sufjan Steven’s Seven Swans– A stripped down departure from Sufjan’s typically ambitious concept albums, Seven Swans begins with a quietly plucked banjo and some playful use of Old Testament poetry; and they set the tone for what is to follow.  There are bursts of aggression, hints of darkness pervade throughout and the title track reaches a soaring apex; but most of the songs are hushed, subdued reflections on the artist’s abstract faith.

Seven Swans can be found through Sounds Familyre, independent record stores, and most online retailers.

 

The Welcome Wagon’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices– After an epic, Sufjan-orchestrated debut, the Welcome Wagon pared down their sound and built their songs around simple melodies, delicate instrumentation, and quiet vocals for their second album, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.  The husband and wife duo of Reverend Vito and Monique Auito draw upon classic hymns, religious texts, and the world at large to explore their faith.  The Reverend, in his forthright lyrics, finds God in unlikely places.  And there’s a fragility in Monique’s soft, sometimes timid voice that speaks volumes.

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices can be found through Asthmatic Kitty Records, independent record stores, and most online retailers.