Review: The Nelons, Beside Still Waters

The Nelons: Beside Still Waters
Vine Records

At NQC in 1995, the Gaither Vocal Band was selling limited time pre-release editions of its Southern Classics, Vol. 2, Guy Penrod’s debut recording with the group. His big song on the album was “Count on Me,” a testimonial anthem with a fireworks climax built around Penrod’s gigantic range. On the version of the album sold at NQC, Penrod owned the song, start to finish, and it was magnificent. I can still recall huddling in the car outside the Louisville Airport Holiday Inn with friends listening to that track over and over. I think I may have shouted just a little the first time I heard the sound sample of a distant crowd roaring that’s looped into the track just before Penrod’s entrance on that transcendent second verse. Certainly I giggled deliriously. It was like hearing the cheering of a thousand me’s hardwired right into the song.

But on the album that went to retailers a few months later, Gaither himself took the first verse from Penrod, whose voice didn’t appear until after the first chorus. And thus did a great song become merely a really good one.

I was reminded of this story listening to the Nelons’ new project. Here’s a group with Kelly Nelon Clark, one of the most recognized names and beloved and capable voices in gospel music, joined now with the mature and increasingly gifted contributions of her oldest daughter, Amber. And yet over and over we’re left as listeners to wonder what song after song might have sounded like if, you know, the most talented members of the group had actually been featured.

Which is to say, Beside Still Waters might have more accurately been called The Jason Clark Show. Track 2, track 4 and 5 and 7 and 8 and 10 … by a rough estimation, at least half the album has Clark taking solos or commanding the lead the vocals on songs. While Jason Clark is no Bill Gaither vocally, he’s never been the star of the Nelons’ show on stage or in the studio. It would be nice if someone informed him of this fact. Perhaps his wife?

This dynamic will be no surprise if you’ve followed the Nelons since Clark assumed a greater role in the group. The difference is that up till now the group was basically Kelly and Her Backup Singers, at least as far vocal ability is concerned. But whereas the Nelons’ vocal talent had been lopsidedly tilted toward Kelly Nelon Clark, Beside Still Waters makes it clear that Amber Nelon Thompson has now come of age vocally.

There’s a certain pastiche quality to the sound of her solo voice, which clearly bears the trace influences of Miley and Taylor and Martina and Faith. But this hardly matters in the ensemble, which she and her mother and Clark transform into heavenly harmony. Joined to Wayne Haun’s superb orchestration, the sound of the album positively sparkles on a regular basis.

Unfortunately the song selection fails to live up to the album’s sonic quality. Far too many of the tunes here are melodically turgid and lyrically formulaic (“love’s embrace” rhymes with “fears erased” and “cross of calvaRY” rhymes with “love of God for ME”). Up to a point, insightful or sufficiently hookey lyrics can salvage dead-end melodies, and original melodic lines and creative harmonies can redeem flaccid lyrics. But songs that are lyrically and melodically weak – and often sung at a funereal pace, as is the case here with “Love of God,” “Weep,” and “I Choose to Live” – tend to sully and muddle the album with too many emotionally pensive episodes of dour spiritual weather.

The amateurish songwriting was my complaint about the Nelons’ last southern gospel album, The Light of Home, and to be sure the problem is not as bad here. Beside Still Waters includes a couple of upbeat numbers that stand out on the album not least because they foreground the Nelons’ harmony, including “He Found Me” and “Goodbye Valley, Hello Mountaintop,” perhaps the project’s most lyrically innovative song. “Consider Me,” a mid-tempo soother with a swaying sensibility, also falls into the group of “heavenly harmony” songs, with the added bonus of being built around a memorable lyrical concept (though the phrase “consider me a Jesus fan” is cringe-inducingly  church-campy). And “Jesus What a Wonderful Name” has an expansive sweep to the vocals and orchestration that demonstrate one way of spinning lyrical straw into … well, if not a quite a golden song, then at least gold plated.

But my favorite tune on the album has got to be the cover of Carroll McGruder’s foot-stomping old song, “I’m Going Home with Jesus.” In fact, it’s the one song I most wished I could hear, ala “Count on Me,” with the group’s stronger vocalist given the lead throughout. Here’s hoping Kelly Nelon Clark and Amber take turns taking command of the song live, which ought to absolutely knock the tops of their heads off.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that most of us will ever find out, unless you have a chance to hear them in concert as part of their fairly limited touring schedule. That’s because so far, the Nelons aren’t scheduled on the NQC mainstage. Sarah Palin is a NQC featured speaker, but you’ll have to sit through the Proclaimers, New Ground, and the Browns to hear a few precious minutes of the Nelons in the East Hall during prime cocktail nap time on Friday afternoon. Alrighty then.

I have no desire to relitigate the dead-end debate about the indecipherable process by which artists are and are not selected for mainstage appearances. NQC owners have a right to give and withhold mainstage slots to whomever they wish. But it speaks powerfully to the degenerative state of the southern gospel industry’s vision of itself that the former half-term governor of Alaska can get top billing at southern gospel’s flagship music event, but the Nelons - an act that actually sings gospel music - don’t even rate twenty minutes on the evening concert lineup.

We may never know for sure why this sort of thing happens (the profit motive only goes so far as an explanatory framework), but the vagaries and mysteriousness of the process don’t make many of its outcomes any less outrageous or discrediting.

So until or unless NQC changes its mind, Nelons fan will have to make do with Beside Still Waters.

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  1. | CD Review: The Nelons – Beside Still Waters on 14 Jun 2010 at 11:59 am

    […] singing, with some interesting lyrics on the chorus. “Consider me a Jesus fan,” as Averyfineline noted, is a bit campy for my taste, but not so glaringly annoying as to detract from the […]


  1. Nate Stainbrook wrote:

    And the Vocal Band song your referring to is “Count On Me” not “Count Of Me” which I am sure was just a typo on your part… Which I am often guilty of myself, along with various other mistakes…

    That aside I tend agree with you on the point,that Jason gets way to much solo work on this project… The growth of Amber as a vocalist does not surprise me at all. She is her moms daughter in every sense vocally and personality wise…

    The songs on this project are strong, but tend to leave you hanging in some instances… Jason Clark had a huge hand in writing several of these songs. I do enjoy the new Gerald Crabb song “Jesus What A Wonderful Name.” My favorite by far, is their cover of “I’m Going Home With Jesus” Amber really shows her pipes on that one… The strongest and perhaps the most controversial song is “There Is A Way” which Amber really nails… There are several other songs that I enjoy as well…

    The NQC thing… Well the politics that dominate their board of directors are well…to political… I mean when you have the Pheiffers (nothing against them personally they are great people) on three nights for full sets and then the Nelons are relegated to the East Hall something is wrong… Some people might say “well this is not the Nelons of the past” well the Kingsmen are definitely not the Kingsmen of the past, but there they are… There are several other groups I could mention, but I won’t… But as you said it is the choice of the board and not ours…

  2. Hummingbird wrote:

    I guess that recording (NQC Southern Classics II) is a treasure indeed! :) I know I’d love to be able to compare the two releases.

  3. Not Doug wrote:

    You’re too harsh by half in your overall critique. Perhaps you wrote this while still under the influence of reading disappointing student papers at semester’s end? Sounds a little like displaced aggression. Factually, you’re a bit off as well. It’s not just the Jason show; Kelly does sing well on this CD, and one particular performance brings to mind the glory days. Quite close to flawless, but then, you missed it.

  4. Shellye wrote:

    I absolutely LOVE The Nelons! We’ve been to several of their concerts within the last 3-4 months and they are great ON and OFF stage. You won’t find a more down-to-earth, grounded family anywhere. They are awesome! So friendly! They are truly what SG needs more of and especially on the NQC Main Stage. I’ve been at NQC for the past several years and I’m very disappointed at some of the selections for the evening concerts. Some of those groups really don’t deserve to be on mainstage while other GREAT groups (Like The Nelons) are singing down some long hallway in some side room. Doesn’t make any sense to me either. If you’ve ever met Jason, you’d feel different about him. He’s so nice and sings much better LIVE! He has a great voice and is a very talented song writer. He lends a great blending quality to Kelly & Amber’s voices and makes the harmonies really tight and very professional. Not only do The Nelons sing great, they minister in their concerts - not many groups do that anymore…. it’s usually just about “see me, my hair, my new clothes and listen to the words of this next song as I try to sing it tonight for you”! I’m so tired of that mentally in this business! It’s not about YOU! It’s about HIM!!!! Get to the BUSINESS and minister! I’ll quit now… ;)

  5. A Friend Of A Friend wrote:

    Yeah… What Shellye said…

  6. Andrew S. wrote:

    I’d rather hear Amber Thompson or Kelly Nelon sing for 15-20 minutes on NQC mainstage every day of the NQC week than suffer through the Inspirations sing & sing & sing & sing one song for 3 20 minute sets like they normally do.

    BTW- Why is Liberty on there twice? I’ve heard good things about them, but never heard their music on the radio..

  7. Kyle wrote:

    The original Penrod cut of “Count On Me” (where he sings the first verse) was released to retail on a compilation CD called “In Honor Of The Father” several years back. I was surprised to hear Guy on the first verse, but much preferred his take over Bill’s.

  8. Hummingbird wrote:

    Thank you for the info, Kyle! I’ll be sure to look it up. :)

  9. Dixie Dawg wrote:

    Sarah Palin at the National Quartet Convention? She will go to the spotlight anywhere she can find it……unbelievable! I am amazed that so many Republicans, “Religious Right”, Tea Party Patriots and born-again Christians still refuse to see what she is truly about… and spotlight. Where is Christian discernment? Anyone with a book named “Going Rogue”……well, I tend to wonder if they’re trying to tell us something.

  10. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    Does this new album feature that insufferable vocal chorusing the Nelons have been using for 30 years? Even on The Lights of Home and You Are God it’s prevalent.

    The Nelons are the Alabama of southern gospel…no hits since the 80s and chorusing up to their eyeballs.

  11. quartet-man wrote:

    You can listen to full songs free on Rhapsody (25 a month I think.) Those who haven’t heard it should check it out even if you didn’t want to download it.

  12. SaraBeth wrote:

    Am I the only one blown away by Kelly’s performance on “Settled At The Cross?” Not only is this a great song but Kelly just wrings the emotion out of every word. I think this is her best performance in 20 years. Check it out!

  13. gina wrote:

    Speaking of NQC, why are the McKameys only performing ONE night, and that is Monday? I mean, they have more #1s than any of these groups.

  14. Nate Stainbrook wrote:

    12. I tend to agree with you that “Settled At The Cross” is her best performance in 20 years… The song is a very nice song… And it leaves you wanting more of Kelley’s voice…

  15. Andrew S. wrote:

    13- That is the question of my day! Why not cut some lesser-known artist’s/artists’ time so they can be maneuvered in the concerts. For goodness’s sake, the McKameys have the most #1s in their history, have always been in the lively group list, and have always done a great job! Why do we only get to see them ONCE this year???

  16. NelonsBigFan!!! wrote:

    The Nelons have PHENOMENAL TALENT! Unfortunately, it is not being used.

    Doug’s assessment of this newest CD is DEAD ON!

    One thing Rex knew how to do was 1) pick songs and 2) feature the right singers! You never saw him pushing himself to the spotlight.

    When you think of “The Nelons” (at least in the present day) you think of KELLY NELON!

    Jason needs 1 solo, 2 MAX on a CD!! PERIOD!!!! THAT’S IT!!

    And he should NEVER start a program!!!!!

  17. Brett wrote:

    I wonder how the Nelons would sound if Jerry was still with them. Would be neat to hear Amber sing with her parents.

    Solo Gloria whatever. The Nelons had hits in the 1990’s. Remember I’m Glad I know Who Jesus is?

    Nelons are way better than Mckameys, and Inspirations. They sing a variety of songs enough to be SG and a little contemporary. A nice blend.

    To put it plainly Nelons are far better than the NQC gives them credit for.

  18. Ruth Meyers wrote:

    I think this was a very good review. It’s not often that you like a CD top to bottom without forwarding through a few songs. And I don’t understand why groups don’t filter out the bad stuff. I’m also in agreement with the comments made on “Settled at the Cross.” It is one of the best on the recording and one of the best on radio right now. I agree with Avery in that I wanted more of Kelly and Amber. Hopefully we will see them on the main stage at convention. Why don’t we start by demanding it on facebook. It worked for Betty White on Saturday Night Live.

  19. Andrew S. wrote:

    Let’s all comment of NQCStaff’s wall saying how much we want the NQC to add the Nelons to the night schedule. :)

  20. Andrew S. wrote:

    *comment ON NQCStaff’s wall.

  21. justafan wrote:

    10-classic commentary (the last sentence I mean), but I will have to say that there actually were some great Nelons songs in the 90s (Angels Step Back It’s Our Turn to Sing - He Rolled Back the Stone, which may have even been post-2000). Dan Clark was was a very good singer to be a bass. Wish he was still around. Come back Dan.

  22. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    Oh, don’t get me wrong…the Nelons are everything that southern gospel should be striving to be. The McKameys and the Inspirations are everything southern gospel should have evolved from long ago.

    That said, seriously, what’s with the chorusing on their albums?

  23. LS wrote:

    #22…Obviously, you’ve never seen the McKameys or the Inspirations in concert! Both are very talented, select songs that work well for them, and connect with their audiences in a way many groups would envy. Their joint showcase at NQC last year was amazing! And yes, I also love the Nelons. There’s plenty of room for both styles. Don’t dismiss one just because you don’t happen to like it!

  24. gina wrote:

    Actually, the McKameys, as previously stated, have more #1s than any group. This includes the #1 song for this very month, so I would argue that they are as prominent as any group singing today.

  25. pk wrote:

    Can anyone tell me what the bridge of Settled at the Cross says? I have listened over and over and cannot understand the words. It would be so appreciative. This is probably the best song they have done in years.

  26. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    The fact that the McKameys have that many Number 1 songs says far more about the southern gospel industry than it does about the quality of the McKameys.

  27. LS wrote:

    #26…We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

  28. Andrew S. wrote:

    #26.. Where do you get your argument?? The McKameys..imo..sound better w/Sheryl than ever. They’re way more relaxed in concert than the times I’ve seen them. But I will say that it’s a better deal to see them by themselves.

    But they still deserve more than 1 spot on NQC’s mainstage!!

  29. SaraBeth wrote:

    PK - the chorus to “Settled At The Cross” says:

    Every word was mercy,
    every breath forgave
    every drop of blood
    testifies of grace

  30. Lee wrote:

    #25… Every word was mercy / Every breath forgave / Every drop of blood testifies of grace

  31. pk wrote:

    thanks guys! I just could not get that first line….you people are the best!

  32. Brett wrote:

    For anyone who wanted to see the song Nelons sing of Settled @ the Cross.

    #22 you are funny. Remember the Nelons of the early 80’s, they certainly improved once Karen joined them.

  33. A Friend Of A Friend wrote:

    Whoa #32…. Are you kiddin’??? Don’t get me wrong. I simply LOVE KP - always have… but The Nelons with Janet Paschal established a new, fuller mixed group sound for Southern Gospel that no other group has really ever topped!

    . Can you top songs like “Come Morning”? “I’m The One”? “I’ll Go”? The Sun’s Coming up in The Morning”? and of course, their sugar stick “We Shall Wear A Robe And Crown”?

    Rex told me once that - for well over 2 years - each night they sang that song the folks simply went wild, and The Holy Ghost infiltrated the venue. Hundreds of thousands of folks were blessed! And, I was honored to see that happen on more occasions than I can count. You can’t argue with that kind of success!!

  34. Andrew S. wrote:

    #33- I understand what #32 was saying. Janet’s voice wasn’t as strong enough as Karen’s to actual hold her own above Kelly & Jerry’s voices. When Karen joined, the sound got tighter and made them more able to follow more musically creative paths.

  35. NelonsBigFan!!! wrote:


    I don’t remember the days of Paschal, but I do remember the days of Peck and I remember songs “Jesus Is Your Ticket To Heaven”, “Bring My Children Home”, “I Will Give You Water”, “Calm Before The Storm”, “Let The Redeemed Say So” and more and more and more. I say if the Nelons can’t top songs like this, they just need to go back to the old book and get some CLASSICS that are AMAZING!!!!!!

    If they did THAT, I think you’d see the Nelons come forth from within the mundane middle of SG and move to the TOP.

    Take THE HOPPERS for instance. They sing GREAT SONGS - whether they are OLD or NEW!!!!

  36. Brett wrote:

    To see Settle at the Cross video.

    #33, Karen & Kelly tore it up on “Aint No Grave” That song really change the Nelons sound all together. They weren’t so hillbilly sound like Mckameys. The Nelons went from country sound to more of a progressive sound with the In One Accord album. That album alone forever changed the sound of the Nelons. Much better than anything the Rex Nelon Singers ever did from before 1985. I think when they shortned the name to the Nelons was when they really took off.

  37. Rev. Edward Robinson wrote:

    I have been a fan of the Nelons since the “Rex Nelon Singer” days. I think that each change in personnel provided a unique sound to their group. I also have a deep respect that for the commitment that Kelly has made (through some very difficult circumstances) to carry on her father’s legacy with a great deal of class and integrity.
    Having said that, there are 2 points that I would like to made. Neither of them is intended to be a point of criticism. Rather, they are just both observations from someone who certainly has no deep knowledge of the details of southern gospel music. First, I do think that it would be to the group’s benefit to have a bass singer. So many of their songs, especially those from days gone by, need the deep foundation that Rex Nelon provided for such a long time, and, that I hoped, Dan Clark would continue to provide for a long time to come.
    Secondly (and I know that this is extremely difficult in terms of economics), I wish that the Nelons would have a fulltime pianist /keyboard player, and, if at all possible, a fulltime bass player and drummer. Especially during the days of Jeff Stice on keyboards and Todd Nelon on bass guitar (and vocals), there was a “magic” to the Nelons’ sound that was rivaled by very few. Whether it be Janet Paschal or Karen Peck on soprano, there was always a strong band who provided such a strong backup to the vocalists. Even the encores seemed to be genuine. It wasn’t just a programmed “flip of the switch” to play another chorus. It was Jeff turning it around “one more time” on the keyboards.
    I am amazed that the NQC denied the Nelons a prime spot on at least one evening. One would think that as much as Rex Nelon did for southern gospel music, there would be those who would pay more than just lip service in their tribute to him.

  38. s.smith wrote:

    To be fair, the Nelons went through a period when they weren’t so good; and I’m not surprised they were taken off the main stage. That said, they have improved tremendously, and now deserve a slot. Maybe if Jason backs off and let’s the women stand out more, they would find their way back to the main stage.

  39. cynical one wrote:

    As to the discussion of hiring a bass singer and a band, I’m sure, with their more limited touring schedule these days, it’s probably much easier to get the family in the van (or bus, or however they’re traveling these days), and go. And there are enough dynamics within a family, that adding other personnel may be something they don’t want to deal with right now.

    And we’ve had the discussion (ad nauseum) about the cost of traveling with a live band. Unless the singers are their own band, the added cost is not an option for most groups, in today’s economy.

  40. Charlie Sexton wrote:

    I recently had the pleasure of hosting The Nelons at my church. They were phenomenal, to say the least. Although they are indeed ‘artists-in-residence’ at their home church in Jacksonville, they do still maintain a full singing schedule. For whatever it matters to anyone, they were traveling in a very nice Van Hool bus. Matter of fact, Tim Dillman, their leasing agent, had brought them a newer Prevost for them to use.

    We were blessed to have them bring their full band, as well. (They always carry a keyboard player with them.) They rocked the house with some of the best Southern Gospel Music I’ve ever heard. To top it off, Brother Jason preached, and we concluded with a moving prayer service, where many folks got help around our altar.

    They were the epitome of professionalism, and our folks are still talking about how sweet and genuine they are. Can’t wait to have them back sometime soon!!!

  41. gina wrote:

    Back to the NQC for a moment.. Obviously there is an error on the official site; the McKameys will also be appearing on Wednesday night’s program. Still not the respect they deservce, but better than only Monday night.

  42. Gerald Douglas wrote:

    Half the stuff written by ‘unqualified’ , self-appointed critics has no merit. I have been to many Nelon’s concerts, and rather than analize things most of us don’t care about the opinions of; I just use my God given EARS to hear the Word of GOD displayed through their music, reguardless of who is featured… a ministry to spread the word of Jesus Christ, the Nelons programs work for me. ( and I am a musician so I do know a ‘little’ bit).

  43. RJH wrote:

    The Nelons are awesome. I don’t really know why they don’t have a slot on the NQC mainstage, but they deserve it. E-Mail NQC and let them know you want the Nelons on the mainstage.

    “Beside Still Waters”, by far, the best album they have released in a while. “The Love of God”, “There is a Way”, “Settled at the Cross”, and “I’m Going Home with Jesus” are my personal favorites :). In my humble opinion, I loved “The Light of Home” as well. I read the review on it, little harsh, but everyone has their own opinions. I don’t fully understand the music style switch with “You Are God” though but its all good :).

    God Bless

  44. John Mark wrote:

    I am looking for the lyrics to Settled At The Cross. I really love this song! If any one could help, I would appreciate it very much.

  45. sandra Brigandi wrote:

    Looking for lyrics to “Settled at the Cross”
    Thank you

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