Kenny Bishop’s Grammy Nomination
I guess I should have listened more carefully to Kenny Bishop’s project when I got it back in the summer. What are we to make of the nomination and this album? Having just finished listening to it tonight, not too much, I hope. Not because the album isn’t good (it ranges from serviceable to enjoyable, but more on that anon), but because the word “Grammy” tends to have a distorting effect on every music-bidness conversation it enters into.
Inevitably, people who have any reason to dislike Kenny Bishop or his music, or generally to find fault with the Grammy treatment of sg (and I have been among this latter group) can and probably will attribute his nomination to the artificial pressure that record labels put on award nominations and ballots like these. I can even imagine really hard core conspiracists pointing to elements of Bishop’s comeback that might easily appeal to a certain kind of west coast “liberal” entertainment industry personality that seems to haunt the minds and dreams of many conservatives.
I guess I should be all high-road and take umbrage with dysfunctional (which is to say, almost every) major awards show selection process and deliver a fiery lecture about the value of objectivity in judging musical quality. But in reality, I have no real problem with either lobbying for awards or voting your values or even just voting for the guy whose label did the best job lobbying you. After all, The Grammys are always going to listen to southern gospel through a secondhand Beltone with a low battery.* The only thing you really need to know about Grammy nominations in southern gospel is that they just aren’t that important.
With that established, all that’s left is to listen to the album. I did that, and find it checks in with an ALI of 60%. Bishop writes “let grace prevail” in the liner notes, but he could have just as easily (and more fittingly) wrote, “let mercy prevail.” Indeed, “mercy” should really have been the album’s title. Mercy is everywhere. Track 1: “Lord Have Mercy.” Track 5: “Out of Mercy’s Way” (one of the more stylistically creative tunes Gerald Crabb has written in a while, even if it is somewhat flaccid). Track 7: “Under the Influence of Mercy” (a lyrically formulaic, by-the-numbers country-gospel ditty). In fact, most of the material on the project is chained together by an explicit concern with unmerited and merciful dispensation – “The Prodigal’s Dad” (which is one of the better, because more lyrically modest, Jeff Steele tunes I’ve heard), “I Can’t Believe What Grace has Done for me,” “More Than Amazing” and so on.
The merciful grace theme is apt, given Bishop’s emphasis on redemption and forgiveness in his own story. There’s a penchant among gospel artists for selecting songs with all ears on project pacing (we need another fast song to balance out these two long ballads; the tenor doesn’t have enough lines of his own) while not bothering to cast much of an eye on the lyrical content (other than to make sure that Jesus and/or blood and/or the cross and/or grace are mentioned generously). So it’s nice to encounter an album with a clearly articulated thematic agenda.
Taken as a whole, the album looks squarely, intently, from all sides, at the same point: you can trip up, screw up, or give up and yet be forgiven by grace that works on a part of you your failure can never corrupt. It’s not exactly clear who the primary audience for this message is: the meanspirited, moralistic, Christianist scolds who drove Bishop from his first career in gospel music over questions about his sexuality, or Bishop himself, who always seems to be whistling in the dark – as perhaps anyone in his position would – reassuring himself that he’s not all the nasty and hateful things people have said about and to him in the name of hating the sin and loving the sinner (after all, it’s no coincidence that the hate comes first).
When these kinds of volatile feelings and charged issues are so close to the surface, things inevitably are bound to get a little heavy-handed: “He’s only concerned about what’s underneath my skin,” goes one line from “God is Looking at My Heart.” No need for a secret-decoder ring there. And then there’s “Don’t Let Who You Are Keep You Away,” which comes with a baseball bat and an icepack. One can’t help but imagine someone from Bishop’s self-described “clubbing ministry” as among the intended audience here. But then Bishop himself wrote this particular song, so it’s forgivable (and not especially surprising) to find him dealing rather unsubtly with the truth he seems to have taken away from his exile from and return to gospel music.
Just as often as things are flatfooted, though, they can be quite pleasant. There’s an understated shuffly little cover of “I Need you More Today.” And “It’s Never Too Late” holds down the project’s final slot firmly and loudly. Though I physically cringed during the part of the bridge when Bishop enthusiastically speaks a few exhortative lines about not giving up (this kind of “spontaneous” gimmick never works in the studio, no matter how much you think you’ll be the one to pull it off), the song’s black gospel style, R&B ornamentations and the B-3 accompaniment provide some much-needed grittiness and oophm to the album’s finale.
Bishop excels vocally as a stylistic minimalist. With age and experience, he’s filtered out most of the nasally honk that came from singing with his family (something his brother, Mark, has never figured out how to do), and the distilled remainder has a bracing, almost boyish clarity to it. What it lacks, though, is a certain warm-bloodedness. The solemn and reflective emotional tone that Bishop seems to have gone for on the album, while understandable, only exacerbates this problem, so much so that “It’s Never Too Late” has the effect of turning up the house lights right about the time you’re beginning to lose interest and maybe nod off. Yes, yes, you’ve been forgiven. Don’t judge a book by its cover. There’s always hope. [stifled yawn] Ok, ok, we get it. “It’s Never Too Late” falls in line with the album’s mercy-me theme. But whereas much of the rest of the project tends to hug itself somewhat sentimentally, as if contemplating the wondrous discovery of suffering’s many textures, this final song on the album has a lip-snarling, head-nodding, “that’s what I’m talkin’ bout” kinda manner to it that gives voice to the defiant and exuberant, bittersweet celebratory side of post-traumatic experiences.
And if, on the other hand, you tend to take your music without a side of psychospiritual analysis, it’s a song - like much of the rest of the album - that’s easy and pleasant to listen to and feel good along with. (Incidentally, the song owes a good deal of its success to the chorus of big-name BGVs helping out there and elsewhere on the project – indeed, let me add a subtitle to my imaginary renaming of this album, Mercy: Kenny Bishop and Friends.)
None of this may, with apologies to Emily Dickinson, take the top of anyone’s head off with its musical majesty or lyrical power, but it’s good – if not great – music. Is it Grammy material? I don’t know, but then we already know that the Grammys have never been much of a measure of gospel music anyway. So listen to it for what it’s worth.
Update: For a take on Bishop’s album before he was Grammy news, I recommend David Bruce Murray’s review from back when the project first came out.
*Sidebar: Here’s how I imagine Grammy picks for sg happening. There’s some catching of a few bars of a song on the radio while visiting one of those southern cities with Ash in its name, there’s some listening to whatever buzz makes it out of sg’s tightly knit subculture and into the mainstream, there’s some asking around among friends or acquaintances who know more it than you do, and finally there’s waiting for the lobbyists or someone who impresses you (or just buys you a nice enough dinner) to tell what you really should think and viola … another obscure downballot Grammy category covered. This is precisely the kind of approach that would yield a Crabbs nomination, for instance, from a bunch of sg outsiders. Young, interesting story, don’t wear ties, have messy hair.
And to those same outsiders, Bishop’s nomination must look like an obvious choice: the ultimate good son fallen from grace, who confronts the truth about himself, and struggles to earn a hard-won reconciliation with, rather than run away from, the music and culture that unceremoniously rejected him – emerging from crisis with a stylistically hybrid solo sound in a conventional genre full of not-soloists. It’s made-for-feature-story copy (literally … see, here it is in tomorrow’s Lexington Herald Leader). And in almost any other genre of music, it would be. Not so much, though, in southern gospel, where Bishop’s name still has a big ole asterisk by it. But you can’t fault the majority of Grammy voters for not knowing they weren’t rewarding the feel-good story of the southern gospel year.