Jason Crabb’s Pan-southern sensibility

Jason Crabb
Jason Crabb
Spring Hill, 2009
ALI: 83%

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.

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Comments

  1. Videoguy wrote:

    Will the real Jason Crabb please stand up?

  2. JB wrote:

    I just received a comp in with the same song “Somebody Like Me” by The Martins

  3. William wrote:

    Any idea what CD I’d find the Martin’s version on?

  4. mark forester wrote:

    Ellsworth was recorded by Rascal Flatts a few years ago.

  5. Casual Observer wrote:

    I listened intently and tried to like this project but it just didn’t do it for me…sorry.

  6. Broussardandjasonfan wrote:

    sitting in a concert, I looked at Jason Crabb and told him his voice is quite similar to Marc Broussard…Marc Broussard recorded “Hope for me yet” first and by the way, is one of the greatest singers of our day in my opinion…

    Jason is fabulous…his delivery is impecable live and on CD…I hope to have my music in his hands some day…

    Go to youtube and type in Marc Broussard “HOpe for me yet”

  7. GrandmaPam wrote:

    I ordered the Best of the Crabb family DVD yesterday from the Gaither store, and this CD was included as part of the deal.

  8. DaTweetMan wrote:

    It is a great CD, and being able to listen to it FIRST before buying it was so helpful! I bought it the moment I got on iTunes Tuesday. I would NOT have done that had I not been able to listen to it first. This is becoming a huge trend online. Record companies and other marketing peeps are realizing that people don’t want to gamble on not liking something and paying for it, but if they listen first, they buy it after because they KNOW they are gona like it/

  9. Michael Davis wrote:

    I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the new recording but one thing I can attest to is Jason Crabb is a remarkable singer and musician. I have watched his career evolve since the early days of the Crabb Family and I for one believe he is singing with more heart and vocal genius than at any other time in his career. Jason is focused on genuine ministry with a delivery like few vocalists exhibit today. I look forward to many years of musicial excellence from this Godly young man.

  10. fan wrote:

    Jason’s Genuine attitude towards people is what makes him great…he’s willing to talk to anybody, and take as long as it takes to minister….this will distinguish him from all the other “big wigs” who have to rush off to catch the next plane…

  11. Madison Easter wrote:

    Broussardandjasonfan, you my friend have great taste in music. I heard Marc about 7 years ago in ATL (wow, it doesn’t seem that long), and I’ve been a fan ever since.

  12. Nick wrote:

    They just announced Joel wood as mark trammell’s new tenor

  13. Angie M wrote:

    You made me go out (er, log in) and buy this! Listening now. Great stuff.

  14. Snowy wrote:

    For “somebody like me”, songs with the like of Jason Crabb’s new recordings, want and need to hear there is hope. We get blinded by doubt, fear and pain and our heart is clouded by these emotions. Praise God! for help and comfort through music.

  15. NG wrote:

    My favorite Dylan reference in a non-gospel song is by Rodney Crowell in “Beautiful Despair”

    “Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan
    When you’re drunk at 3 a.m.
    Knowing that the chances are
    No matter what you’ll never write like him”

  16. thom wrote:

    I recently had occassion to make a little road trip for business and took the opportunity to listen to this new CD. I love it. As moderator said the fresh arrangements and great songs position this CD for potential success in country, sg, and maybe even ccm genres.
    Several of the songs moved me to tears, literally. Maybe it was the ability to really listen as I cruised down the highway, lost in the moment, captivated by the music. Maybe it was my heart’s willingness to hear the messages in the songs. Whatever the combination of forces was in that hour, it worked for me, and I was moved by this project.

  17. DaTweetMan wrote:

    Well I bought this from iTunes the day it was released because I was able to listen to it first. Jason’s peeps “got it” - you give it away and you get more in return - oh wait, isn’t that a BIBLICAL way to do things too?

  18. Casual Observer wrote:

    OK, so here’s the thing…after reading all these comments I went back and listened again to Jason’s project. There have been times when I’ve not loved an album after the first listening - for whatever reason - maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to truly absorb it at that moment. But, over the years, there have been many projects that have grown on me and have become my favorites in the end. So NOW I get it. And I’m growing to really love it….for many reasons. I appreciate Jason’s understated vocals - the songs probably dictated much of that, but it’s nice to hear more finesse than fanfare from him. I may be wrong, but I can see this project becoming a pivotal reference piece for the future of Southern Gospel music. I contest that most God-fearing, church-going people who prefer Country music because of its relevance and honesty have not found the spiritual equivalent in SG. Jason’s album seamlessly incorporates the spiritual into the work-a-day man’s reality - without the sense of agenda-based proselytism, or the one-dimensional approach found in much of SG. If this project does as well as I think it will do, SG could be on the verge of being redefined. Not a bad thing.

  19. Trent H wrote:

    I preordered this CD and was not disappointed when I listened to it for the first time.

    I thought the new Through the Fire sounded a little middle eastern, but it is still very good.

    Does anybody else think that #4 “Worth it All” sounds like “Climbing Up The Mountain” on the chorus?

  20. Tom Kirby wrote:

    It is amazing to me that anyone who has spent any time around Jason could possibly miss the sincerity, humbleness and generosity coupled with the amazing talent God has given him and he is using for The Kingdom. Have listened to the CD several times, watched “The Best of The Crabb Family video several times, have seen and heard some of the songs in person and, to this avid old fan, they are both great releases. I agree most heartedly with Michael Davis’ Post No. 9. This is, in deed, a Godly young man. To accomplish what he has done at 30 or 31 years of age and pass up other opportunities which would have made is life a lot more “comfortable” to do what God has called him to do is AWESOME! IF YOU PREACH IT, LIVE IT!!!

  21. Rita Stacy wrote:

    I pre-ordered this cd and was not
    disappointed. Fantastic as always!

  22. NonInsider wrote:

    On “Daystar” is it the NEW GVB that is backing him up or is it the 2008 lineup???

  23. Tom Kirby wrote:

    #22 - The NEW GVB!

  24. Cindi Wolfe wrote:

    I’m listening to Jason’s new project as I’m writing this and I’m not surprised that it’s the best I’ve ever heard him. A great mix of songs from a great guy. I’m so proud of Jason. I pray that God keeps him in the palm of HIS hand.

  25. LYNDA wrote:

    i CAN’T BELIEVE THE NERVE OF d.a. i AM HIGHLY EDUCATED AND WHAT KIND OF PERSON MUST YOU BE TO CRITICIZE JASON CRABB. YOU BIG DUMB A. tANGLE WITH ME IF YOU WANT , I CAN OUT WIT YOU EVRYTIME. THAT is WHAT THIS IS ABOUTM, LITTLE BIT OF ATTENTION FOR YOURSELF, ENJOY IT. jASON CRABB HAD AN IMPACT ON SOMEONE WHO has saved 3 people in less than a year, 2 by cardioversion. Respond if you can, you have to have a lot of time on your hands. DUMB A.

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