Jason Crabb’s Pan-southern sensibility
Spring Hill, 2009
The first line of the first song, “Somebody Like Me,” on Jason Crabb’s new album says a lot about his debut solo album:
The congregation parted like the Red Sea,
When that old drunk stumbled in down the aisle
And took a seat, right in the middle of Amazing Grace
It suffers alone in print (for one thing, it comes off as triter than it sounds when sung), but the lyric captures the album’s general tendency to take familiar tropes and idioms of gospel music and torque the frame, distort the focus just a bit, skew the point of view so that that even as you’re investing emotionally in music that sounds reassuringly familiar, the song is busy undercutting the basis for that investment bit by marvelous, lyrical bit.
In the case of “Somebody Like Me,” the title has already prepared us to expect that, like a thousand tear-in-my-beer-for-Jesus tunes, the old drunk in the first verse will turn out to be a cipher for more ordinary spiritual struggles of the sort familiar to “somebody like me.” But something happens on the way to the Baptism of Jesse Taylor.
You can listen to the song for yourself (thanks to a “listening party” going on over GospelMusicUpdate; btw, notice how giving something away online like this is likely to drive substantial sales of the album). But it won’t spoil anything to point out that those opening lines hint at the shift in perspective that’s key to the song’s hook: this repulsive drunk is no descendant of ole Jesse, everybody’s favorite alcoholic delivered from the drink, and there won’t be any beatific baptism here.
Nor is this album just a typical countrified collection of Christian crooning by an erstwhile front man of a defunct family act. It may be all that, but it’s also full of first-rate songwriting and singing of the sort rarely found in gospel music today.
Given the Crabb reputation for staging music with sharp hooks and trenchant tunes, you may think you know what I mean. And yes, there are Gerald Crabb lyrics here (including a rearranged “Through the Fire” that sounds like it went to the Middle East – or maybe just Paula Stefanovich’s house – and picked up a Persian leitmotif since it was last among us). But you’ve never heard Crabb Family music quite like this.
As befits a solo project, the album emphasizes songs about the ever-moving dawn of spiritual striving that preoccupies the individual religious life. Here’s the opening of “Hope for me Yet”:
I could bless the water
But it wouldn’t turn to wine
Paint a picture of a sunset
Hanging there in your eyes
But it’d be just some compromise.
I could write a million verses
Of words you’ve heard before
Steal some of Dylan’s best but it’d
Leave me wanting to say more
Purists will doubtless object to the song’s equivalence of romantic love in the first verse with the experience of Christian salvation in the second. But tell me, dear readers. When’s the last time a gospel song rhymed “your eyes” and “compromise” and made such a graceful (or any!) reference to Dylan lyrics? While you think, I’ll continue to giggle gleefully.
The album is full of this sort of vivid, deft imagery, like these lines, from “Sometimes I Cry.”
I look the part, blend in with the rest of the church crowd
I know the routine, I could list all the bible studies in town.
Watch Christian TV, I know all the preachers, their clichés
I been born again, and without a doubt I know I’m saved.
Hearing lines like this from a guy who regularly appears on Christian TV alongside the people whose names and faces show up in the lexicon of modern evangelicalism next to “tv preachers and clichés,” I don’t know whether this is self-parody or a plea for dispensation. And I can’t tell how much we’re supposed to hear the use of stock phrases like “born again” and “without a doubt” and “I know I’m saved” in that last line as a parody of preacherly cliches spewing from the tv.
But it all makes for marvelous music. “Sometimes,” Crabb confesses with that achey twinge of tears and self-embattlement in his voice during the chorus, “I fall down, stumble over my own disguise.” Dear Lord, who doesn’t.
The album is not all written this well. The second verses of both “Hope for me Yet” and “Sometimes I Cry” are substantially weaker than the first (something about “Sometimes” feels like it was originally conceived as a straight-ahead country tune and then revised for a cut on a gospel album). But that’s rather like complaining that people only ever remember the first verse of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Spring Hill is clearly positioning this project as a country album, but it’s no more or less country (the marvelous “One Day at a Time” or “Walk on Water,” whose intro sounds remarkably like the melodic hook to “Whispered Prayer”) than it is also at times very southern (“Worth it All”), inspo (“Forever’s End”), and CCM (“No Love Lost” or “I Will Love You”).
In fact, the most obviously country tune, “Ellsworth” (about a family matriarch sliding into dementia after the death of her dear husband), is probably also the singly weakest tune on the album. The song will be immediately recognizable to contemporary country fans as a family-and-nostalgia number, but that’s the problem: like so many off the rack country ballads, it’s all sentiment with little of substance to elevate the song out of its emotional self-indulgence. Fortunately, the tune is an exception.
It’ll be too bad if southern gospel diehards spend a lot of energy fighting about whether or not to claim this album, because this is precisely the kind of work that suggests a way out of the wilderness for southern gospel: well-written, curious, warmblooded songs, arranged with originality, imagination and exquisite attention to detail, sung with the care of a craftsman … and infused with the lived experience of a spiritual struggler.
There are all sorts of reasons to call this Crabb’s Country Solo Album. But the truth is, its style is unclassifiable (I suspect Crabb is constantly labeled as “country” more because of his twangy vocal style than anything about the types of songs he sings).
Anyway, what you call it is hardly the point. What matters is the album’s masterful example of the very best pan-southern sensibility that’s at the heart of all good gospel music.Email this Post