Once upon a time, many, many years ago, there were these things on television called variety shows. The format was simple. Once a week, you’d have a host, and an ensemble cast performing various musical numbers and comedic skits, with a guest star or two helping move things along. In the early days of these shows, namely the 1950s through the early to mid-1960s, not all, but some, would feature the host singing a gospel song at the show’s end. This was also an era during which mainstream recording artists regularly made gospel records sold alongside their regular music releases at your local department store.
Fast forward a few decades. Such shows, artists, and records are but memories for boomers who watched them along with their parents. Imagine trying to explain to your average millennial the appeal of a Tennessee Ernie Ford, and you quickly realize there is no way in the world to make such an artist or their music relevant again. Best to leave it alone.
Or, bring it to life by making a brand new album of old brand music.
Mike Roe, of The 77s and The Lost Dogs acclaim, has drawn from his lengthy series of Saturday evening streaming shows with 77s bandmate Bruce Spencer and assorted guests to, under the 7&7iS moniker, assemble Hymnsongs. Hymnsongs is a collection of Americana hymns written for and sung in rural churches long before the Americana music genre emerged. Roe and cohorts typically end each show with a hymn. The thought occurred somewhere along the line: Why not polish some of them up in the studio and see what happens? The result is warm magic.
Such an album could quickly turn into kitsch, an exercise in hokey sentimentality. Roe deftly avoids this trap through multiple means. Most noticeable is he believes what he sings. The second method is through the album’s musical approach. Roe is a masterful guitarist, who on this album, whenever some electric work is called for, channels his blistering blues licks into a more Chet Atkins-like sophisticated rockabilly-related lead style. This pulls off the neat trick of making the music authentic without directly emulating how these songs would have sounded sixty-five or more years ago.
The backing arrangements are mostly unadorned acoustic guitar, sometimes adding mandolin touches, supported by steady bass and light, straightforward percussion. Roe’s vocals are respectful without schlock, and he is unafraid to add the occasional affection where suggested. The result is an album of depth and color. Hymnsongs never strays from its intended course of breathing life into hymns fallen into disuse in today’s church music world, one in which praise and worship songs invariably follow the pattern of U2 meets Coldplay, and they both lose.
What Hymnshows also demonstrates is the simple yet not simplistic lyrical depth of these songs. There are no questions about whether the subject matter is God or a girlfriend, no fluffy warm fuzzies of life filled with lollipop dreams beneath a cotton candy sky. The Gospel of Christ crucified and risen is preached. The lyrics have well-honed depth. These are songs of and for people who fervently believed. They echo through the clutter and clatter of city streets, calling His people home.
It is fitting Hymnsongs has been released just before Christmas, as in its presence, Mike Roe and compatriots have given us one of the most soul-satisfying presents imaginable. Here at RedState, every day, we chronicle the follies of a world going ever increasingly mad. We should all be thankful for reminders such as Hymnsongs that there is no need to despair regardless of how insane things appear. Jesus is still on the throne, and as anyone who has read the Good Book knows, in the end, He will win.
The album is available from Mezzo Music Ltd.