The Collingsworth Family: God is Faithful

I know the Collingsworth Family has a new album out, but I’ve decided to write about their 2005 recording because … well, for one, that’s what was at the top of the stack and two, because for whatever reasons my review may or may not matter, timeliness really isn’t of them.

The Collingsworth Family
God is Faithful
P&KC Music
2005

ALI: 40%

Looking at the cover of the Collingsworth Family’s 2005 album, God is Faithful, the unironic wholesomeness wafts off the cd in gusts. After a while, you can almost begin to smell the homemade cookies and Sunday pot roast, practically feel little Olivia’s hand reach out and grasp yours in an unconditional welcome to join the family as they sit down to give thanks at a dinner scene that later this year they will send out as Christmas postcards.

A big helping of family goodness shouldn’t be all that surprising to find at the center of a southern gospel act, and yet the Collingsworth family’s shine is so glossy, their happiness apparently so undiluted and earnest, it almost makes Connie Hopper look like a phony by comparison.

I think this is because the Collingworths have managed to successfully package their wholesomeness for the market (right down to the “Hair and wardrobe design by Kim Collingsworth,” as the liner notes put it) while betraying very little of the contrivance and strategy and entrepreneurial cunning such successful marketing requires – it’s the difference between, say, Janet Paschal and Jan Crouch. Unlike other gospel music families who have capitalized on their homespun bonafides by playing up their rough edges and unpolished style (the Goodmans) or keeping the country but gussying it up via the Gap and Express (the Crabbs), the Collingsworths invite you to vicariously enjoy the harmony of one big happy, impeccably manicured, respectably attired clan who wakes up every morning ready to conquer the world for Christ in song – notice how often the family’s press photos are shot with some kind of urban (or urbane) backdrop – but without ever becoming part of that world (be ye not of … etc).

As trendsetters, the family’s sound and style are important for the way they implicitly critique the rank amateurism and hilarious garishness that afflict the majority of family acts and TBN moneychangers trying to break through in evangelical entertainment these days. Indeed, in their contrast to the prevailing trend, the Collingsworths suggest – and lo, a miracle, this – that slathered-on makeup, sine-wave vibrato, bad hairpieces, bejeweled stage props and instruments, cheap suits, DIY dye jobs, diphthongy oversinging, and gold lame anything might actually be unchristian after all, or at least works of so many false, gaudy prophets.

The Collingsworth family is largeish, numerically anyway (Kim, Phil and four kids all young enough that their voices aren’t easily distinguishable from one another), bringing to mind Brock Speer’s line about the whole fam damily. The myriad combinations that can be made from six different voices gives the album the feel of a variety show … Indeed, I had to follow along with the liner notes the first few times I listened to the album to keep straight who was singing what and when and with whom. Not surprisingly, some of the acts (especially the ladies trio and the Phil-Kim-Brooklyn combo) are more successful than others (the daughters’ solos - children’s music may work on the stage but doesn’t make for riveting records - and, with my flak jacket on and the promise to explain myself more in a moment, Kim’s piano solos). But even while I only care to listen to about half the cuts on return visits to the album, there’s a buoyancy to the family’s sound in all its iterations that’s impossible not to find endearing.

My favorite cut on the album is “Tradin’ A Cross for a Crown.” It’s one of the few songs (along with “We Want to Praise the Lord” and “Shine on Us”) with the full family ensemble, and as I sit here typing with the family’s tightly-knit yet delightfully expansive harmonies pouring from the speakers beside my desk, I’m smiling irrepressibly. The chorus is a picture of musical poise: the perfectly clipped and neatly trimmed phrases balanced against wide open intonations (“I’m notuh / gonna walk awwwayyyy, I’ve gotuh / too much at staayyke”) create a deeply pleasing symmetry sung with the kind of enviably easy blend that only comes from shared genetics.

This must be infectious stuff to hear live (assuming they pull off this kind of spectacularly tuneful sound onstage): six family members holding forth so naturally and expressively. And it’s not the novelty of it all (though it IS a novel act, which will become harder to sustain as these kids age, I suspect … wholesome is difficult to keep going when rosy cheeks turn pimply and hormonal). It’s the ear they all have – cultivated and trained, to some extent, but self-evidently full of natural giftedness – for matching each other note for note, tone for tone, and for contouring their phrasing perfectly … attacking a phrase, truncating a syllable, coordinating syncopations, bending a vowel just enough to leave their inimitable imprint on it. Listen to how they arc the intonations of the word “healer” in “The Healer is Here.” With just the right amount of torque, the “er” sound morphs phonetically unto an “ahhh” that lets them enrich and expand the resonance of the tone, and so, suggest the very experience of the healer’s arrival.

Or “Shine on Us:” across the phrases in the chorus “find a way, in the darkest night” and “let your light shine on us,” the harmonics first expand, the chorus climaxing around the minor sixth of “the darkest night,” then collapse back into the lower, more reassuring registers in which to “let your light shine on us.” It’s so subtly sung that dissection cheapens its effect, not least of all because the Collingsworth sound owes a great deal to the vague but persistent feeling that the kind of music-theory scrutiny to which I’ve just submitted their songs is the farthest thing from their mind (whether or not this is true, I haven’t the faintest idea; it’s the perception I want to emphasize).

And this leads me to one of two complaints I have about God is Faithful. The Collingsworths’ voices are so naturally commanding and artlessly enthralling that the album often feels overproduced, with its swelling strings and maximally orchestrated scores and sky-high bgvs. Then again at other times, especially “Light from Heaven,” the family’s voices are oddly flaccid and disconnected from the song thematically, as if they’re relying too much on the orchestration to get the job done (vocally the song is all light without any of the darker colorations that Kim Lord’s voice gave the song when the Ruppes originally cut it, those dark tones essential in bringing into relief the illuminating power of divine light). I can fully appreciate wanting to take ample advantage of producers and arrangers of Roger Talley’s and Wayne Haun’s eminence and create an album that proves its seriousness by dint of symphonic majesty. But the lavishness of the orchestration at times feels stylistically incongruous with the Collingsworths’ sound – like Leonard Bernstein scoring the music for an episode of Seventh Heaven.

The Collingsworths’ voices can carry a sustained ending or rousing chorus all on their own, in their own way. They don’t need so much of the strings stringing and harps harping and the percussion section percussing and an oddly star-studded “appears courtesy of” chorus of bgvs (Jim Brady, Charlotte Ritchie and Lauren Frikkin Talley!) wailing away behind them. I’m not sure this is lily gilding exactly, but it comes awfully close.

My other issue is not so much a complaint as a disappointment: the piano solos. I admit I’m coming late to the Collingsworth party, which means I’ve listened to praises for Kim Collingsworth’s abilities at the piano for so long that my expectations couldn’t help but ascend to a level of the stratosphere to which no human could possibility rise. Still, even subtracting the hype, it was a big disappointment (though not, alas, a surprise) to find the gifts of this considerably talented keyboard artist obscured by all the clunky furniture of middle-brow piano soloism: the schmaltzy instrumentation and the cheesy ooooo-ing and ahhhhh-ing of the bgvs. All that was missing was a candelabra and one of Joanna Castle’s feather boas.

It’s not just that dense runs and tricky arpeggiations (see especially “Swingin’ and Marchin”) are far less impressive with a full band track keeping time and a host of bgvs establishing the melody behind the piano. More than that is the tired fact that absolutely everybody (in sg anyway) does it: from Dino to Roy Webb. Perhaps Collingsworth wanted to prove she could hold her own at what is an overwhelmingly male domain. But as the old music-school saying goes, the best notes are often the ones you don’t play, and this is especially true if the guys are busy measuring each other’s abilities by the size of their 32nd-note runs. Think less Andrew Ishee a la “The Prayer” and more Roger Bennett, a la Midnight Meditations.

It’s a lesson that might serve to guide the family’s sound as a whole: trust yourselves a bit more, and the bells and whistles of the producer’s booth a bit less. Because for however long the Collingsworths can keep this beatific sound together, the blandishments of the symphonic strings, the clanging cymbal, and the “appears courtesy of” will compete with even their best efforts to capture the sound of the unbroken family circle. I don’t guess the two are mutually exclusive. But listening to a song like “Free to Go Home,” the album’s final cut, it’s the voices I want to hear more of – less of the variety show novelty act and more of those wonderful but far-too-scarce moments when the song breaks free vocally from the apparatus of production, and in the process recreates a little of what it might have sounded like to stumble into some backwoods Nazarene church and discover this family for the first time, their voices knocking the roof off with every marvelous measure and magical phrase.

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Comments

  1. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    That’s not bad for an Averyfineline review. It’s a sure mark of greatness that an album has both the complexity to satisfy your critic’s ear and the simple joy to satisfy mine!

    By the way, the family’s conservative clothing is part of the reason I listen to the group. Clothing styles alone eliminate all but a handful of groups with female vocalists from my CD purchase list.

  2. Videoguy wrote:

    The Collingsworth Family: enLighten-ment in the XM darkness.

  3. Geno wrote:

    DJM,

    What a statement about the reasons you do or don’t purchase a CD!!! I cannot believe that anyone takes you seriously.

  4. JimT wrote:

    I’m in total agreement with your comments about Kim’s recorded piano solos. You have to see her in person to appreciate her. There is no pianist who can make you feel blessed with her music like she can.

  5. Bryan K. Fowler wrote:

    Kim is on our Board of Directors at our station and has a lot of talent, both on and off stage, behind or in front of a piano. They are all a class act. They are in a league of their own and as far as I am concerned should be the model for a lot of groups. Without slamming or thumping a Bible-when they walk on stage they look like Christians and they are selling themselves on quality straight up for what it is and not because they try to mimick a top 40 or Christian Rock Band. In other words, people who like them have a genuine desire to hear them not someone they resemble or look like. She did an impromptu concert number last summer in Cincy when my wife and I had a Radio Interview with Kirk Talley at a Concert at a large Baptist Church. Kirk was singing and as he left the stage he was on his way back to get us for the interview and he stopped in the aisle. He had stopped to talk with Phil and Kim. He advised the Pastor she was there and he had her play some tunes. Mercy! It was great.

  6. Dug Deeper wrote:

    To Geno and comment #3. Why attack DJM for his personal preference? If he doesn’t like to see women in sparkling dresses and half the make-up aisle at Wal*Mart on their faces, and uses that as criteria not to buy a CD, I see no big deal with it. Alot can be said about selling out who you are for fame and fortune. After all, it worked so well for the Crabb Family.

  7. NashvilleMusician wrote:

    I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the Collingsworth Family in person yet but I did get to see Kim perform “How Great Thou Art” at a sogospelnews.com event a few months ago. While I do agree with you, Avery, regarding the issue with BGVs and particularly solo pianists, I have to say that Kim’s artistry left me breathless in a way that Anthony Burger never did and that Dino hasn’t done since I was about 10. I’d love to hear her do something that’s all her - no tracks, just her sheer talent, but then I can say that about most of southern gospel these days.

  8. Elisabeth wrote:

    Yay, Doug!! You finally got around to the Collingsworths… :) Good review. I love them to death, and I do have to agree with you on much of what you said. Their new CD is awesome (I guess we’ll get a review of that in 2009, huh? LOL). And about Kim, some of the above comments hit the nail on the head. Hearing her play on CD is great, but in person, she is incredible!!! I have seen the family 3 times in concert, and all 3 times, my family traveled over 2.5 hrs. It was worth it!! They are kind, gracious people who could teach a lot of Southern Gospel artists a good bit about classiness and style without immodesty! What else can i say? I love the Collingsworths!!

  9. RF wrote:

    I would be interested to know what female artists’ clothing offends Daniel. From what I’ve seen, most dress modestly.

  10. Tyler wrote:

    I agree with RF that most SG female singers dress modestly. However in response to this quote by “Geno”: “DJM,

    What a statement about the reasons you do or don’t purchase a CD!!! I cannot believe that anyone takes you seriously.”

    Ummm…. Maybe you forgot what site you’re posting on… I can’t believe you take yourself seriously considering who’s blog you seem to enjoy reading…

  11. JP wrote:

    Doug,
    Great review - I guess I’ll have to pick this one up - you threw in everything but the kitchen sink, but I’m intrigued enough to shell out actual cash -
    Geno,
    I agree with you - but take a look at who Daniel’s favorite groups are - musical talent seems to carry the LEAST amount of weight in his choice of favorite groups.
    Dug,
    That’s a mighty big axe you have to grind against the Crabb Family - how is a fine review of the Collingsworth’s CD an excuse to take a dig at what is arguably THE most talented Vocal/Instrumental ensemble in christian music?
    Tyler,
    And yet, here you are.

  12. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    “enviably easy blend that only comes from shared genetics.”

    ————–

    I’m rather surprised to see you’ve endorsed this myth.

    This very thing was also said about the Martins for years and years, and it’s true they were excellent. However, there’s few who would argue that they improved when Paul Lancaster replaced Jonathan.

    So much for the notion of family combos not being surpassed.

    I’m not knocking the Collingsworth Family’s harmony. They’re good…some combinations work better than others as you’ve also said. If I were in their position, I’d be showcasing the entire family too. Audiences will eat that with a spoon.

    My point is simply that the level of harmony quality displayed on this CD and on the song in particular that you were referencing ISN’T unique to family groups.

  13. Geno wrote:

    Dug Deeper

    Mr. Mount presents himself as a Southern Gospel aficianado and even has his own blog dealing with such. To me, he loses a lot of credibility when he won’t even listen to a CD because of what someone is wearing. I do not read or enjoy his blog.

  14. Allen Dorre wrote:

    Well I do.

  15. Allen Dorre wrote:

    JP,

    I may be wrong here, but doesn’t Daniel list the Perrys, the Mark Trammell Trio and Ernie Haase & Signature Sound as his favorite groups?

    If you don’t think the Perrys, Mark Trammell, or the entire EHSS gang has musical talent, here’s wondering why you even like SG?

  16. Dug Deeper wrote:

    To JP

    I personally do not own an axe, therefore I have none to grind. I was simply commenting on the Crabbs humble “country bumpkin” beginnings. They were conservative in dress and manor, heck, Cathy Crabb at one time even opened a botique in their home town that catered to conservative and modest attire. A far cry from the new look she sports these days. Also, I never said that the Crabbs weren’t talented. As far as them being THE most talented ensemble in Christian music? Where are the Grammy awards? The Dove awards? The Singing News Fan awards? If they were THE greatest, wouldn’t they be sweeping all of these awards?

  17. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Wow! I post a comment, forget about it for a few days, and when I come back, there are more comments about what I think than about what Doug thinks. Sorry, Doug–didn’t mean to do that to you!

    I like what I like, and that’s that, and I do my best to cover both what I like and what I don’t like fairly.

    Allen in #15, you hit the nail on the head. I think the Collingsworths–as well as my other favorites you named (you are a careful observer!) exemplify the best of what family harmonies in Southern Gospel can achieve.

  18. Jp wrote:

    Not being a regular reader of Mr. Mount, I just know he gets gigged on this site for being an Inspirations and McKameys fan - not exactly my choice for musical excellence, but everyone has their own acquired tastes, right? My taste runs more to the Crabb Family, Hope’s Call, the Perrys, etc.
    That being said, I’d also like to point out the qualifier “arguably” in my statement about the Crabb Family - you’ll also note the inclusion fo the word “Instrumental” - which means I’d put their band up against Ernie’s tracks and stacks any day.
    Doug,
    I’ve since gone out and acquired this Collingsworth CD - and your review is right on! Thanks for widening my window on the SG world!

  19. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    JP, neither group is in my top 10 favorites. The Inspirations might be in my top 20, somewhere around #18. This is missing the point. Unlike some people, I don’t vehemently hate them or post vitriolic reviews, so compared to the general tone of some comments my indifference to the group appears like an enthusiastic endorsement.

  20. Keith wrote:

    Thanks for the review, Doug. I, too, am impressed with the Collingsworth Family. Whatever it is that they are doing (especially when it comes to their marketing and promotion) is working, and working quite well. When you look around at the bad hair, garish clothing, and overall negative image that many SG groups engender, the Collingsworths are a breath of fresh air. As a somewhat cynical connoisseur of Gospel music, I have been deeply moved by their concerts. While this observation may be a bit subjective , this emotional response rarely happens in most stale, schtick-ridden, tenor-screamin’, soundtrack-thumpin’ SG concerts that I frequent. I also agree with NashvilleMusician (#7): Kim’s piano artistry, while impressive on a recording, can only be fully appreciated within a live concert context. Awesome!

    Doug, keep the reviews coming. You write too few. I enjoy your overviews, whether or not I agree.

  21. Tyler wrote:

    I’m still wondering how anyone could dub Daniel Mount as a big Inspirations or McKameys fan. In over a year of knowing him, I don’t think I’ve EVER even heard him mention the McKameys as a favorite of his. Even of the Inspirations he talks very little.

    He talks the most about the Perrys, EHSS, and the Mark Trammell Trio. Anyone suggesting otherwise really hasn’t been paying attention. Either that or has bought the load of balogna Doug serves about him about every week about some thing or another…

  22. cdguy wrote:

    Geno -
    I’m not sure how you know you don’t enjoy Daniel’s blog, if you don’t read it.

    Call me puzzled!

    Most of us who read and/or write on these blogs consider ourselves s/g aficianados, or we wouldn’t be on here. You probably do, as well. Truth be know, we probably don’t any of us know nearly as much as we think we do. We only know what we like, and what we don’t like.

    True, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but first impressions can be lasting impressions. And in some cases, the last impression.

    So, some of us a narrow minded in one area or another. I’ll be the same could be said about you, in one area or another. Just a thought.

    And, for the record, my parents are HUGE fans of the Collingsworth Family. I put off listening to their cd because of their conservative appearance. But when I finally broke down and broke the shrink-wrap, I was pleasantly surprised. Good stuff! Best I’d ever heard? No, but worth listening to, again. I plan to go see them next time they’re in town.

  23. Frank Lee wrote:

    While I am a fan of several styles of Christian music (including SG, where among my very favorites are Crossway, Austins Bridge, Three Bridges (w/Mitch Kenitzer, of course), The Isaacs, Gold City, The Crabb Family and The (New) Imperials), still no group or artist has ever grabbed right ahold of my heart like The Collingsworth Family. From the first few moments of a performance, one would have to be void of a pulse to not notice the genuiness and ministry-mindedness of this wonderful family. From Kim’s impeccable (yet humble) unique skilled artistry on the piano, to their passion-filled vocal renderings, Jesus Christ just shines through them. One cannot helped but be touched by their love for Christ and their desire to let HIM shine!! Their “wholesome look” only adds to their appeal. I find it very refreshing to be able to see Christ shine through them and not have to redirect my focus because of some gaudy and/or flesh revealing outfit. I must commend them on that point!

    Their muisic is great, but their testimonies of God’s direction, miracles and providence… plus the way the Spirit just shines through them only adds to their appeal and keeps me coming back for more again and again.

    I’ve seen them several times and always look forward to the next concert. I would encourage anyone who has not experienced one of their concerts to do so soon. I guarantee you that you’ll be touched!

    Alas, though… I am in agreement with Avery in that… in my opinion, also, there is a bit too much “overproduction” at times on this project, and I also would like to hear more of the vocals shine through, because they DO have the talent and tight harmonies to bring it all ‘out front’ and make it happen!
    Also, from a marketing standpoint, I do think it would be better in the future to record seperate instrumental and vocal projects. Of course, that’s just my humble opinion on that matter!

  24. Liz wrote:

    I really enjoyed the review - knowing The Collingsworth family long before they were “The Collingsworth Family,” I found your take interesting.

    I can tell you this: they are not contrived, but genuine Christ-followers who have followed God’s leading to the place they are now.

    I’d love to read a review of the latest recording. Go see ‘em live when you get the chance!

  25. elunlipt wrote:

    I agreed with you

  26. christina wrote:

    hi im bored . my dad loves the song by u thats called i can trust jesus. i love it 2. i gotta go k. bye

  27. Ruth Ayala wrote:

    I have seen and heard and watched the Collingsworth Family for quite some time now and put them at the top of ALL singers and I have attended the NQC many times and there is NO comparison. The witness and spirit they display cannot be matched in any other group today. The are genuine, great appearing, talented yet so very humble. This does not happen often when singers become popular and well known and so many times goes to their heads. This family has a testimony and appearance that appeals to everyone I know that has ever seen and heard them. They always look great but never overdone, so to speak, and you have to see them in person to really catch this. There is absolutely NO pride in what they do. They are just serving the Lord with what He has given them to share and that is what it is all about. Please do not refer to them as “an act” because that is the farthest thing from their minds and those who see and hear them. God is glorified in all they do and there is no “show” about them; they are the real deal. They never try to make people look up to them but to the Lord. I do not think there is an ounce of pride in them except that they do take pride in presenting the gospel in their music. I pray God gives them many souls through their efforts. Love them so much!!!

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