The Isaacs: Heroes

The Issacs
Gaither Music Group 2004
Posted November 15, 2004 10:25 PM

A few years back when the A&E channel’s “Live” musical performances were all the rage (MTV Unplugged for Boomers, really), I caught a few minutes of Vince Gill’s performance. And who was doing background vocals, playing just about any stringed instrument possible, and generally making Gill sound like a million and one bucks but Sonya Isaacs. I wasn’t so much surprised as infinitely pleased. Gill made some brief mention of Isaacs, and she stepped halfway out of the darkness of the band section to nod demurely and grin nervously (or, rather, it appeared that she was nervous, though that hardly seems possible). Then she stepped back into the shadows and resumed her omnicompetent work as the consummate musician she is. That scene could be something of an epigram for Heroes: like Isaacs herself, the disc is stylistically mature and musically dexterous, comfortable incorporating a variety of sounds and styles into the mix while remaining conceptually coherent.

This is true, I think, in large part because the Isaacs have learned from sg, their adoptive musical home, and brought to bluegrass the sg process of absorbing the best and brightest from other musical genres without losing the stylistic integrity of their native form. There’s no one style, per se, of music that dominates Heroes. Rather, from their bluegrass core, the Isaacs radiate outward, passing through any number of other genres, from country and gospel to the edges of contemporary, pop, and even jazz sounds, while always returning to their roots. The overall effect is musically stunning. The diversity of sounds running throughout the project pretty much guarantees almost anyone could listen to the project and find something identifiably familiar and pleasing. Yet, Heroes leaves little ground for bluegrass purists to complain. “Friends ‘Till the End,” the project’s smart, lively opening number, is thorouhgly bluegrass, while containing echoes of Irish folks rhythms, country, gospel, and little jazzy harmonic structures in a few places. “Peace Like a River” (not the old church camp standard) showcases the magical sweet agility of the Isaacs’ voices (listen to the way they sing the word “peace”). And like so many tunes on the project, this one comes with a musical twist: though infused with traditional bluegrass rhythms, there’s a subtle piano working understatedly in the background, and the effect is as delightful as it is difficult to describe.

Alongside this hybrid musical style is a consistency of lyrical themes centered around the title track’s notion of “Heroes” … average people in above averagely demanding situations. Lyrically, the project looks at this idea of ordinary heroes (or not) from a variety of perspectives - from the way regular Christian lives can be the source of great courage and accomplishment to the reality of profound pain, loss, and suffering. The connective tissue here is a preoccupation with scenes and experiences from everyday family life: In “Half a Day Away” it’s a kid’s first day of school (”I’m through with twinkie number two”); in “Heroes” it’s a family that bears the burdens of a child with “special needs” or a barren couple that adopts a child; in “Yours and Mine” it’s a mother wishing she could take her daughter’s pain (”I heard from the doctor … Oh I am so frightened … If I could take the fear all away / I’d gladly walk a mild in your shoes”); in “Peace” it’s a tragedy reported on “Channel 5″ or a friend in need of spiritual healing (”looking for God” in “a few good self-help books”). And some of these experiences seem pretty clearly to come from the Isaacs’ own experience. Take, for example, these lines from “Half a Day Away”:

Twently years and half a million miles
A lot of tears and ’bout as many smiles
Getting by with life the way I do
Getting’ paid to sing and play for you

Vignettes likes this one from family living (the Isaacs’ family living, this case) have the effect of imbuing the Isaacs with a great deal of goodwill and authenticity. The concern throughout the project for real people leading real lives of real suffering and trial is palpable. And the mellow bluegrass sound underwrites all these songs in a way that makes the Isaacs seem like old friends (this a Gaither Music Group project after all) singing their favorite songs in your brother-in-law’s rec room or, more likely, at a local benefit fundraiser for some ill or suffering family.

A couple of interesting things strike me about the way Heroes develops this idea of heroism (and, also, failure) amidst commonplace family life: first, the pain, hurt, grief, loss or suffering described in many of the songs often goes without any of the obvious or clear-cut resolution you might expect from gospel music. While the promise of God’s faithfulness or spiritual perseverance for the redeemed is implied, these songs often reach very ambivalent endings. “Sweet Holy Spirit,” for example, is as much a desperate plea for the ministerial grace of the holy spirit not to withdraw its presence as it is a promise of ultimate relief from current trials. Which brings us to the second point, heavenly relief in Heroes is at best something you often have to read between the lines of songs. For instance, “Peace” centers around three case studies in hopelessness (suicidal teenagers, a spiritual despairing friend, the town drunk) and their need for peace, rather than any description of the work of peace in these lives. I’m not sure what to make of all this. On one hand, I’m attracted to the humanness of the project, which stands in contrast to so much of the bromidic and clichéd songs that dog too many Christian music projects. On the other hand, there’s a slightly evasive quality to much of Heroes. In key moments, the music here lyrically backs away from or seems to be struggling to get squarely at the essence of grace and redemption. Too many trees from everyday life, and not enough of the prevailing spiritual forest.

Perhaps the most representative example of this disjointed quality is “Heroes,” which I find to be an tune odd, though I don’t mean that disparagingly. Without question, it’s the kind of song that truly ministers to people, by which I mean it speaks to the deep truths of everyday life and affirms the spiritual value of unglamorous struggles. And too, the song testifies to the Isaacs’ (and their arrangers’) considerable musical gifts. The sheer force of their talent keep the song’s lyrics, which tend toward the maudlin, from becoming unbearably sentimental.

… Every single parent who must carry twice the load
And those who sacrifice to raise a child that’s not their own …

On their own, these kinds of lines make me cringe. They feel too emotionally opportunistic - like singing about mama and daddy in heaven watchin’ over us - but somehow the music, the arrangement, and, above all, the Isaacs themselves manage to pull it off in a way that not only redeems the lyrics but makes them affecting and honest. Still, the tune leaves the underlying meaning - which I gather to be that everyday heroes are glimpses of divine grace in action - a little too disconnected from the case studies. Save for a passing reference to God knowing a little a girl who needed a home, there’s nothing much to distinguish the song lyrically from a poppy tear-jerker like “In My Daughter’s Eyes” or “Butterfly Kisses.” “Heroes” does a spectacular job of depicting in vivifying detail common situations that demand uncommon portions of grace and strength, but we are left to infer that such grace and strength come from the mystery of faith. The song, like a lot of others on the project, could and probably should do a better job of suggesting the way specifically Christian lives are equipped to deal with the kinds of struggles the songs describe.

The project is not all darkness, despair, or disjointedness. “If That Don’t’ Make You Want to Go” is quite fun, all the moreso for its admirable restraint. It’s one of those “Ahab the Arab” kinda sounding tunes that have a tendency to become instrumental black holes into which arrangers and producers often throw everything they’ve got lying around in the studio (see the Perry’s “David and Goliath” from Life of Love for an example of this “and the kitchen sink” brand of overly indulgent fun). “If that Don’t Make You Want to Go,” though, is musically good-humored while being highly disciplined. Meanwhile, “Yours and Mine” is proof positive that Lily Isaacs is the Connie Hopper of bluegrass: not someone who will knock your head with her solo abilities, but her powerfully genuine stage presence, her ensemble capacity, and her matriarchal appeal let her pull off a gentle-shepherdesque tune like “Yours and Mine” with great success (Lily’s version of Connie Hopper’s “Go Ask”). Finally, “Half a Day Away,” “Great is Thy Reward,” and “In His Hands” fill in around the edges of the more substantial tunes (of the three “Great is Thy Reward” is most successful placeholder).

The project concludes with “Sweet Holy Spirit” and “Peace.” The former is an old-fashioned tune in the tradition of the bluegrass crooner, in whose number Sonya Isaacs ranks very highly. At the same time, the country-edge to the harmonies (mortgaged heavily to old country-gospel chords, like the reliable five-seven) and instrumentation (a dash of piano, a leavening trap set) give the song a depth of emotional expression that makes the hair on the back of your arm stand up … not least of all because in addition to being steeped in the enriched sounds of the country-gospel tradition, the song does what too many other tunes on the project don’t do: it lyrically foregrounds the specifically divine component of Christian life that gives Christian music its emotional bite. Which is why, if I had been sequencing songs on the project, “Sweet Holy Spirit” would have swapped places with “Peace” in order to send the project out on a more satisfying note. The idea behind “Peace” - a seeker-sensitive take on various quests for peace - is evocative. The lyrics capture the real need of average people, and the musical score is truly beautiful. But something about the grittiness of the lyrics doesn’t quite come out in the wash of the arrangement. Or maybe, as the last song on a project full of anecdotal lyrics and images from everyday life, “Peace” suffers from listeners’ potential emotional fatigue. After all, one can only hear so many moving tales of how ordinary people can hurt in extraordinary ways before one becomes desensitized to the pain. Perhaps, then, Heroes ultimately is a victim primarily of its own success: it renders the painful reality of normalcy all too well, a bit too consistently. And in the end, that’s probably not a bad thing to be accused of, not bad at all.

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