NQC 07: Songwriters Showcase

The only showcase I attended last week was the songwriter’s thing that Phil Cross hosted, mostly because I’m always curious to hear about and see a little into the creative minds behind songs. So often the way a songwriter writes or imagines a song is simply nothing like the way it’s sung and though the showcase didn’t really highlight the writer’s sense of the song’s arrangement (except in one notable case I’ll discuss in a second), the writers’ introductions to their songs are still good opportunities to get a feel for the origins of the writerly impulse, which can often be quite different from the effect of the song in a given artist’s and arranger’s hands.

By far the most impressive moment of the showcase was Ricky Atkinson’s acoustical performance of “I Have Not Forgotten.” Quite simply, it was a revelation to hear him slow the tune down, vocally enrich the textures of the melody, and imbue it with a sense of beauty and nuance and pathos that you simply won’t hear in the Inspirations rendition. Atkinson’s piano-and-vocals approach was riveting. In the margins of my notes, I scrawled with the furious sloppiness of my excitement: “ok NOW I get why this is a No. 1 song!” Cross had the good sense to pass around a few mics to some of the assembled artists in the gallery and they quietly backed up Atkinson. But instead of the cartoonish Soggy Bottom Boy harmonies that the Inspirations give us, these were subtle, honest, plaintive intervals laid quietly down behind Atkinson’s voice, enriching and expanding the expressive contours. And instead of a hopelessly improvised, never-ending ending, Atkinson simply tagged the song and let it settle in, with a kind solemn forcefulness. It was remarkable. I would love to hear this song covered by a Janet Paschal or a Booth Brothers or a Talley Trio or Mark Lowry, with LordSong behind him.

Speaking of covers, Rodney Griffin’s performance of his “Voice I Could Not Resist” reminded me how badly that song cries out to be covered by Kim Hopper or Lauren Talley or someone like that. It’s such an unGriffinly song for Griffin to write, and though I don’t care for his poor-man’s-Glen-Payne approach to lyrical interpretation as a vocalist (lotsa of abruptly ended phrases and quick shifts between legato and staccato singing styles), it was a smart choice for him in this venue.

Scott Fowler was MIA when it came time for L5 to perform Diane Wilkinson’s “Strike up the Band.” It wasn’t exactly clear why Cross insisted that Wilkinson talk about the song right then, instead of waiting for Fowler to show up and have her take a turn later. So the result was a little awkward: L5 sans Fowler, plus McCray Dove struggling through an impromptu version of “Boundless Love,” one of Wilkinson’s long-ago hits. It wasn’t pretty or pleasant, keyed way too high for Frank Seamans, bless his heart, but everyone was a good sport about it and Tim Parton did a fine job keeping the train from completely derailing with a superb live accompaniment (save for keying it too high, of course).

It’s a good thing “Pray” is such a popular song, because the Doves’ rendition of it stunk. They weren’t done any favors by the house sound, which is always execrable in those large, flat exhibit hall rooms with crummy acoustics. But still, Jerry Martin was not in his finest form and the ensemble sounded like no one could hear their own parts.

After hearing the King’s Heralds in this showcase, I think I understand a little bit more of their appeal and their problem. They have a great ear for tight, structurally complex harmonies, which they can often nail pretty much spot on. But as a group they have very little rhythmic sense about them and seem particularly unable to reintegrate their voices gracefully into the harmonic ensemble after solo moments. They chose to close with “Champion of Love” and this brings us to the third new rule to emerge from NQC 07: Only ONE group gets to sing “COL” once per year, anywhere, ever, in Christian music. The GMA needs to set up a special high commission to track performances of this song and sanction any group or individual who violates the rule with a stiff fine and solitary confinement with only recordings of Archie Watkins’ part isolated on an endless loop, alternating with the Pfiefers’ “singing” O Holy Night (pictures of David Crowder can flash randomly on the cell wall for full sensorial punishment). I don’t know if the King’s Heralds thought this was a touching tribute to the showcase host or what, but just because this song kills every time isn’t a reason to use it. Screeching children and mentions of old glory get sg crowds on their feet too, but a stunt is a stunt is a stunt.

Funniest moment of the showcase: Mark Bishop beginning the story of how got into songwriting by saying, “back when I was working at an office Newport News ….” (see Thursday night’s round up if you don’t get the joke).

The Talley’s performance of Joel Lindsey’s “Orphans of God” sailed right over the heads of most of the audience (which is understandable to some extent b/c it’s a little more poppy than most sg audiences like), but Cross clearly had reserved it for last as a kind of capstone and summation of writing that exemplifies a certain ideal of the craft. This was an admirable choice. I know it’s pointless to expect mass audiences to “get” the difference between a “songwriter” like Jim Brady (I mean, shouldn’t we hear a bonafide hit written solely by him before we start nominating him for songwriter of the year based solely on a few successful co-writes and his day job with the Booths?) and a nonpareil writer like Lindsey, who has left an indelible imprint on Christian music – from CCM to inspo, sg and choral music – and chooses (like many of other talented writers … Sue C. Smith and Tony Wood and Marty Funderburk come to mind) to continue to write in sg because it’s where their writer’s heart is. So it was nice to see Cross reserve a special place of prominence for those writers who really do make musical weather with their careers.

As for the spirituality of the showcase mentioned numerous times in comments elsewhere, I musta missed that. I get the impression that Cross is kind of a deep-thoughts guy, and inevitably this sort of disposition can become a caricature of itself pretty quickly (think Jack Handy from SNL). But without diminishing Cross’s untiring support for every writer (his generosity of spirit and introduction was equally enthusiastic for everyone and he made a point to whip up support for everybody’s songs, to a fault really), Cross’s manner can come across as forced and unctuous when encountered over prolonged periods of time. Time and again at the writer’s showcase, I felt like he was trying to make a spayshul speerchul moment out of every song, whether the stuff of momentousness was there or not. Much of the music was either just ok or middlin’ to fair. Some of it was great (see Atkinson, Ricky; above). But you’d think an old hand as experienced as Cross in this bidnuss would know by now that there’s a natural dramatic arc to every performance and that the better part of showmanship is knowing how to read the flow of feeling of a room and intuit the shifting moods and emotions that coarse through a performance. Standing up and raising your hands in exalted praise during the FIRST HALF of the FIRST VERSE of a 3.5 minute song – which of course forces all the other writers and artists on stage to follow suit – is just awkward. Taking 10 minutes to tell a melodramatic, overwrought, lachrymose story about a disfigured in-law and then snatching away Gerald Crabb’s intro to his song because you put the showcase behind schedule, this kind of stuff is not endearing, and it erodes the very effect you’re aiming for. Perhaps it’s time for someone else to take a turn hosting the showcase for a change?

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  1. Jim2 wrote:

    Writing like this explains, in part anyway, why I’ve become a faithful reader.

  2. Brkfast wrote:

    Perhaps Saturday Afternoon’s Songwriters Showcase was indeed a spiritually rich gathering…for those of us deeply in need of spiritual relief from a week of “stage antics”. Phil used the gaither-like approach of calling out a Writer and/or Artist as his feel for the highs and lows called for a specific moment or song. I appreciate the format of letting the God given talent tell their own tales as if to set up the hearing the familiar lyrics almost like it was the first time. Phil summed it all up, near the end, by pointing to the seated cast of Writers and exclaiming “Folks just take a look at God’s toolbox”. God bless the Writers!!!

  3. BGC wrote:

    The Songwriters Showcase is one of the most uplifting and spirtual moments of NQC week. Others must feel the same way as it always the talk of the convention. One prominent performer has even suggested moving the entire event to mainstage. As far as your (Avery) comments about lenthy song stories, without the story there is no song. After all this is a songWRITERs showcase. Maybe the moderator would enjoy a different showcase next year.

  4. dd wrote:

    i think your writing is “looser” since the big reveal. loose is good.

  5. Trent wrote:

    I cannot believe you are applauding a song that the Inspirations sing. Something is amiss. The next thing we know, you will be buying tickets to see the Inspos just so you can hear Archie sing “I saw those two shoes, storebought slippers, come walking down the aisle”.

  6. SGM wrote:

    Big songwriters showcase fan here, this year was about the best yet. Each song selection was great, I enjoyed the one about Phil Cross’s father-in-law the best. Thank you writers!

  7. gc wrote:

    I to agree that the songwriters showcase is a very spiritual time. I also disagree with Doug on raising your hands in the first verse.
    “Orphans Of God” first line:
    “Who here among us, has not been broken. Who here among us is without guilt or pain”
    I am raising my hands now!

  8. Irv wrote:

    Just for clarification gc, are you raising your hands in answer to the lyrics, attesting that you have never been broken, and are experiencing neither guilt nor pain?

  9. SGM wrote:

    Good one Irv! If we had a dollar for everyone that threw up their hands to impress their boss or others in the group how rich we would be!

  10. gc wrote:

    That’s cute…I have learned that some lyrics and songs touch people in different ways. I am not into judging if people are real or not when worshipping God. Typically though, Christian people who are sensitive to the Holy Spirit see thru fake..

  11. Carol Lundy wrote:

    I’m tired of having to stomach the fake people in this industry. I think it is time for these fakes to do a reality check and see if they are truly doing God’s work or just out for money and fame.

  12. Harley wrote:

    I was at the songwriters showcase and as always blessed. There was evidence the entire week at NQC and the songwriters showcase was no exception that a few hands were raised by a group member or two to impress their earthly boss. I guess it could be chalked up to showmanship. gc makes a good point about seeing who is real out there. There are real groups out there doing the right things for the right reasons. These groups always have a professional look on stage, are being blessed by the Lord financially, Usually never searching for a new sound or style, and there are no member changes unless they are due to health or one deciding to go into full time ministry.

  13. tim wrote:

    I also agree that it is ridiculous when groups pretend to “feel the Spirit” and raise their hands on stage to impress the group members or other groups present. It looks ridiculous and you can definitely tell who is doing it to be noticed and who is sincere. I wasn’t at the songwriter’s showcase this year, but I enjoyed reading about it. “Avery” did a great job of bringing the performance to life. I especially enjoyed reading about Ricky Atkinson’s performance. I had never really heard his group until convention this year, but I enjoyed them a lot!! I spoke to his group members at their table later and I truly believe after seeing them on stage and meeting them that they are real. I was glad to hear Ricky’s song did so well at the showcase and that it was finally heard for the amazing words instead of the style the Inspirations bring to the recording.

  14. CG wrote:

    Carol Lundy wrote:

    “I’m tired of having to stomach the fake people in this industry. I think it is time for these fakes to do a reality check and see if they are truly doing God’s work or just out for money and fame.”

    Rest assured, no reality check is necessary (on their part). “They” are well aware of what motivates them (not that there’s anything wrong with that - in most cases, at least). Maybe it’s time that WE do a reality check and understand/accept what a large part (majority?) of the SG industry is really all about.

    Why is “entertainment” so taboo among us? Why do we think that God can (or will) not use (Christian) entertainers to do His “work”? Why can we not accept that often “God’s work” may be fulfilled by simply making us (Christians - the choir that’s being preached to) smile , clap along, and pat our feet to four chords, a rhyme, and a memorable hook?

  15. gc wrote:

    It always amazes me to hear people say, “I spoke with them at their product table and after speaking with them and seeing their set I believe they are real(I Like Ricky by the way). Why do we have to do a in-depth spiritual analysis of everyone in 5 minutes? I saw many tears at Songwriters Showcase, I guess they were for their boss? As a music minister, I see many people express themselves in many different ways..I never think they are doing that to impress me or the congregation..Some people are uncomftorable with open worship and I understand that being a conservative Baptist for most of my life.

    Glad you did not come to the Brook Tab showcase…There were 6,000 people you would have had to judge….

  16. tim wrote:

    Apparently my post was partially misunderstood. First, I do not “judge” whether people are “real” or not. In general, I do not even think about that sort of thing. Ricky Atkinson & Compassion’s group just really impressed me. I did not go to their table to “check them out.” I went to buy a c.d. (It is great, by the way!) I also don’t think all sg music has to be a big spiritual experience. I think some of it is just great entertainment and I am a fan of that as well. Christians deserve to be entertained just like everyone else. I do, however, hate to see a group try to make it into a spiritual experience if it really is just entertainment. This does not happen to a point that annoys me often because it has to be pretty bad to get me annoyed, but it has happened once or twice.

    By the way, I’m a big fan of Brooklyn Tab.

  17. gc wrote:

    I can agree with that but that is a tired subject with me because many people never let go to truly worship because of what other people might think of them. That is a stumbling block that has always existed. Peer pressure..as an artist, I have never had a boss but it would be hard to fool one when your riding a bus with him everyday.. and surely no group would instruct their members to raise their hand or be disciplined..? The groups who work majority churches most likely feel more comftorable with open worship because of their experiences ….but I do agree that theatrical hand raising gets a little tiresome…
    There were many tears at the showcase and it has always been that way. It is a unique presentation of SG music and usually turns into a spiritual service…

  18. Carol Lundy wrote:

    Maybe you should do a showcase next year on how people should let go and truly worship.

  19. gc wrote:

    I suggested that this year but I made so much money and have become so famous from SG, that I really can’t work it in..

    Carol Lundy wrote:

    “I’m tired of having to stomach the fake people in this industry. I think it is time for these fakes to do a reality check and see if they are truly doing God’s work or just out for money and fame.”

  20. Carol Lundy wrote:

    I know if you did the showcase I would not be there because I know I couldn’t stomach you or the showcase. I will allow God to lead me in my worship not MAN. You seem like you are an expert in SG.

  21. Edie wrote:

    Carol…wow, the Christian love flowing out of you in that last comment is quite staggering. Those singers just in it for the money should take a lesson from you, huh?

  22. Goodness wrote:

    Edie what a Christian way with words you have of judging others. GC made a smart remark, Carol responded. The end. They both have to live with their comments. Not us!

  23. gc wrote:

    Carol is entitled to her opinion just like everyone else on this site. I commented on her comment which led to a comment that I decided not to comment on because any further comment would lead to other comments that i would get tired of commenting on….

  24. Goodness wrote:

    But yest you continue to comment, haha

  25. Susan Voorhes wrote:

    I am probably the biggest supporter and fan of song writer showcase! I have known Phil personally for a number of years and really believe that if anyone else were to take over that showcase at NQC it would lose the special way he has of building people up! The songwriter showcase is the greatest showcase I have ever attended at NQC! No one ever sings a song like the writer to whom God gave the words! Maybe if you attended in search of a blessing you would not have time to be so critical!

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