This post is the second installment of Montgomery Made-Over, which is my effort to set some James Montgomery hymn texts to modern tunes. Read about the inspiration of this project and hear the first track, here.

Below are a demo version of “Bow Every Knee at Jesus Name” and the lyrics.

Bow every knee at Jesus’ name,
And every tongue confess;
Let the Redeem’d with joy proclaim
“The LORD our Righteousness.”

To Him through all the rounds of time
Perpetual prayer be made;
O’er sea and land, from clime to clime,
Homage to Him be paid.

From young and old with every breath
Let prayer and praise arise;
Life be the “daily offering”–Death
“The evening sacrifice”

Let heaven and earth reply “Amen!”
And all their hosts adore
The LORD of Angels and of men
For ever evermore.

Montgomery’s subscription for this hymn text reads, “The Name above every Name.” The hymn begins by describing believers’ praise and jubilation in Christ. Then, Montgomery crafts images of greater scale and scope. People from all times and all lands will pay homage to Jesus. All of life—from birth to death—is a sacrifice of praise to him. All earth and heaven extol the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Enjoy!

In the past few years, I’ve come to admire a form of modern hymnody popularized by singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken and groups such as Sojourn Music.  McCracken, who has given her work the moniker New Old Hymns, has produced two great albums of hymns (The Builder and the Architect, 2006; In Feast or Fallow, 2010).  Many of the tracks on these albums feature a historic text set to a modern tune.  Sojourn Music has two high-quality albums of modernized Isaac Watts’ hymns.

These efforts have inspired me to revive the work of a great, but somewhat unheralded hymnist, James Montgomery.  He’s probably best known for the Christmas carol, “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”  A few months ago, as I searched for new hymns set to familiar tunes to incorporate into my church’s congregational singing, several of the more appealing entries were written by Montgomery.  These hymns include “According to Thy Gracious Word,” “Stand Up and Bless the Lord,” “Forever with the Lord,” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.”

Out of curiosity, I went searching for a larger collection of Montgomery hymns.  Google Books obliged with over 400 pages of Montgomery’s work, Sacred Poems and Hymns.  I combed through the PDF and jotted down a few of the more moving texts, then I let these hymns sit for several months.

Just recently, I started working on setting these texts to original tunes.  I’ve never ventured much into song writing because I’m too self-critical and have loathed almost every lyric I’ve crafted.  Having Montgomery’s texts has certainly overcome that barrier.

The first of these hymns is “O Come, Let Us Raise.”  Here’s a decent-quality demo and the lyrics.

O come, let us raise
Our tribute of song;
Thanksgiving and praise
To Jesus Belong.
He came from above
Our bliss to begin,
Make perfect our love,
And free us from sin.

The old and the young,
His people by choice,
With heart, soul, and tongue,
In Him may rejoice.
We meet Him today
Triumphantly crown’d,
And welcome His way,
In chorus around.

Hosanna! – that word
To children is dear;
To Jesus our Lord,
We’ll echo it hear.
Let worldlings despise,
And enemies rail,
Hosannas shall rise,
Hosannas prevail.

God’s temple shall ring,
While under His eye,
Hosanna we sing,
For Jesus draws nigh:
Hosanna! Our breath
Through life shall proclaim;
Hosanna! In death, –
In glory, the same!

In Sacred Hymns and Poems, Montgomery often includes before the entries a subscription that notes the occasion or theme of the hymn. Montgomery’s subscription for this text reads, “Old and Young praising Jesus together.”

Montgomeryhas given us much to love about “O Come Let Us Raise.”  The last four lines of the text are my favorite and capture what makes Montgomery’s writing so endearing to me.  He has the ability to write succinctly, yet movingly, about the big themes of life, death, and eternity.  We who believe in Christ will cry out in praise to him throughout life, into death, and unto ages without end. 

Enjoy!  Please let me know what you think.

My Morning Jacket’s 2011 release, Circuital, is destined for a Grammy nomination and deserves the award for best alternative rock album.  This charmingly creative record has subtle—sometimes, even, conspicuous—religious material.  “Circuital” and “Holding on to Black Metal,” for instance, reference Christ and Satan.   

Another track, “Outta My System,” provides an object lesson regarding the Christian virtue of repentance. 

 

MMJ sings of growing out of the youthful vices of drugs, sexual curiosity, and theft.  The message of the track, however, is mixed.  The lyrics limn these vices as unsatisfactory—“I know what I ain’t missing.” Yet, the song’s bridge describes the experience of these vices as necessary:

“If you don’t live now, you ain’t even trying,
And then you’re on your way to a midlife crisis.
Let it out anyway you feel
You can feel it in your bones, but try to deny it.
Wipe it off your face but your eyes won’t hide it.
You knew it all along but never made it clear.” 

Perhaps, these vices are a rite of passage, without which we will never mature.

Under an explicitly Christian analysis, several of the song’s presuppositions will not stand.  Most importantly, the way to get these desires “outta” our systems is not, in fact, fulfilling them.  We may gratify these desires and for a time feel satiated, but the desires will return with greater desperation.

We purge our systems of these desires by getting new systems.  We grieve that we have complied with them, ask the Lord Christ to forgive us these sins, and receive, by the Holy Spirit, a heart change.  In the age of grace in which we Christians live—between the first and second comings of Christ—we live with the complicated reality that we already have new hearts, but we are not yet fully rid of our evil desires.

When I first heard My Morning Jacket’s “Outta My System,” it brought to mind some of the notable sins from my past.  I realized that I can never be “glad I did it all.”  If I could look back at my sins with a glad purview (aside from the joy of forgiveness), then, likely, I have not truly repented of these sins.   

In the book of Romans, Paul transitions from a rich doctrinal discussion that focuses on salvation by faith to a discussion of this doctrine’s implications.  In Romans 12, he hones in on love:  “Let love be genuine.  Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”

There’s an application for us who believe regarding our former sins.  Our conversion saps the joy and the sense of nostalgia we may associate with our sins.  We come to abhor the evil we’ve done.  Christ’s redemptive work prevents us also from plunging into despair over these former transgressions.

For many of these youthful vices, I don’t know what I’m missing, and perhaps, I’m on my way to a midlife crisis.  That’s ok:  I’ll dye my hair or get a gym membership.

Children are a great gift! I’m blessed to have two happy and healthy little ones, who were big babies at birth (both over 9 pounds!). However, several friends of mine have children who faced complications because of premature birth. Knowing what they went through has led me to be more active in March of Dimes this year.

I hope you will participate this year, as well.  Through The Persistence of Song, I want to offer you an easy way to be involved – the Music for the March series.

Posts in the Music for the March series will feature a collection of Amazon MP3 albums.  Purchase any MP3 album between now and September 23rd, and I’ll donate ALL of my Amazon Affiliate commission (which is 10% of the album cost, up to $1.50) to March of Dimes.  You can follow my fundraising efforts (and make other contributions) here.

This week’s collection consists of my candidates for the 53rd Grammy Awards (to be held in February).  One of my most visited entries on this blog is this post, which featured a few mid-year Grammy predictions.  Click any of the links below to contribute to March of Dimes by purchasing the album.  Checkout the YouTube clips to see if the albums are up your alley.

Album of the Year

Adele, 21 Adele (who happens to share my last name) has the voice of an old-soul, and 21 is a great production, with, imagine this, real instruments!

______________

Alternative Rock Album of the Year

My Morning Jacket, Circuital I cannot write coherently about Circuital without teenage-girl gushing.  The album’s title track has no serious competition for best rock song of the year.

______________

Best New Artist/Best Contemporary Folk Album  

The Civil Wars, Barton Hallow If anything, we should all rally behind them to keep Bon Iver (pronounce that like your French) and their prating falsettos at bay in the Folk Album category.

______________

Best Bluegrass Album  

Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest Ten tracks of minimalist, newgrass excellence.  It will be difficult for this album to win the bluegrass category, since the Academy plans to rename the award, “the Allison Kraus Award for Excellence in Bluegrass.”

______________

Albums that Deserve a Nomination

Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge, for Best Bluegrass Album.

______________

The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart, for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

______________

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine, for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

I have a strategic plan for my daughter’s participation in music.  Guitar-playing daddy needs a proficient, live-in piano player.  We are in the stage of the strategic plan in which I’m seeking to develop her love for music in general.

We sang to Riley, instinctively, from the beginning.  Unfortunately for her, the earliest songs she heard me sing were diaper parodies like “Stinker-ma-rinky-dink, stinker ma-rinky-doo, I smell you.”  Mommy came to Riley’s rescue by singing hymns and nursery rhymes for comfort.

Singing became one of our most effective consoling strategies.  On two- or three-hour commutes to our parents’ homes, we tried to hold off as long as possible before offering renditions of hymns, for which we could remember the lyrics.

Riley loves when I play the guitar around her.  Of course, the appeal to her is “helping” (that is, an excuse to drop guitar picks in the sound hole).  She doesn’t know yet, that the guitar routine is an exercise in bait-in-switch.  Someday, she will want to learn to play guitar; I will require her to learn the piano first.

Randall Goodgame and Andrew Peterson’s Slugs, Bugs, and Lullabies album was my daughter’s gateway drug to other forms of listening pleasure.  Confession:  I like it as much, if not more than, my daughter does.  It’s the perfect mix of songs for children, offering rudimentary biblical instruction, assuring children of their parents’ love, encouraging them to play, and evoking their laughter.

__________________

Somewhere along the way, Riley developed an insatiable love for the Jackson 5.  So, we frequent the best of album in the car, and a favorite evening treat is getting down to this classic performance.  And, yes, this two-left-footed, pop-music-hating geek tries out a few moves, too.

__________________

Recently, I realized the need to shape my daughter’s impressionable musical preferences (or I’ll be rocking out the Jackson 5 for the rest of my life).  I may have been inspired by this Bill Simmons column--where he, a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, teaches his daughter to dislike the Los Angeles Lakers (perhaps, with reprehensible pedagogical strategies).  So, enter The Head and the Heart.  We’ve added “Lost in My Mind” to our YouTube playlist, and Daddy puts on his best sales pitch before we listen to it.

__________________

I hope to pique my daughter’s interest in good music, but I also shamelessly admit that I want to steer her preferences.  By modeling excitement in quality music, I hope to preempt interest in womanizing, “gangsta” rap.

However, greater goals than making her a musician or influencing her tastes compel my musical interactions with my daughter.  My greatest musical aspiration for my daughter is that she will join me in the great multitude, singing, “Hallelujah! For the Lord, our God, the Almighty reigns” (Revelation 19:6).

To that end, I hope this final clip is a preview of coming attractions.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the first installment of what I hope will be a regular feature here at The Persistence of Song.  “New Songs, Old Tunes” is a project I started recently at Auburndale Baptist Church.  In an attempt to find fresh content for our congregational singing, I have identified roughly 40 hymns that are new to our congregation, but which are set to familiar tunes.  Read the first post in the series to see how I identified these new hymns.

This Sunday, we will sing the Augustus Toplady hymn, “What tho’ I Cannot Break My Chain.”  Our congregation will recognize the tune (titled Arlington) from the Watts’ classic, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross” (Baptist Hymnal, 1991, #481).

Toplady was an Anglican minister in the 1700s, best known in his day as an interlocutor of John Wesley.  His hymn, “Rock of Ages,” remains one of the few vestiges through which modern believers are acquainted with Toplady.

“What tho’ …” stirringly reminds us of the genesis of our faith.  The hymn’s speaker cries out to God, that he would grant the faith he requires. God alone, who is everlastingly strong and loving, can overcome our hearts.

Here’s a low-quality recording and the lyrics.

 

What tho’ I cannot break my chain
Or e’er throw off my load,
The things impossible to men
Are possible to God.

Who, who shall in thy presence stand,
Or match Omnipotence;
Unfold the grasp of thy right hand
And pluck the sinner thence?

Faith to be healed I fain would have,
O might it now be giv’n;
Thou canst, thou canst the sinner save,
And make me meet for heav’n.

Bound down with twice ten thousand ties,
Yet let me hear thy call;
My soul in confidence shall rise,
Shall rise and break through all.

Thou canst o’ercome this heart of mine,
Thou wilt victorious prove;
But everlasting strength is thine,
And everlasting love.

_____________________________________________________________________________

A reader wisely suggested that I post all of the hymns from the “New Songs, Old Tunes” project.  The two charts below identify hymns from the Baptist Hymnal (1991) and the Trinity Hymnal that are new to our congregation.  Since our congregation primarily uses the Baptist Hymnal, I have used that hymnal for referencing popular uses of tunes.

From the 1991 Baptist Hymnal

Number and Title Hymnist Other Instance of Tune Themes 
13, “From All that Dwell Beneath the Sky” Isaac Watts 587, “Jesus Shall Reign” Creation, General Praise
30, “Stand Up and Bless the Lord” James Montgomery 388, “Our God Has Made Us One” General Praise
36, “Praise the Lord! Ye Heavens Adore Him” Edward Osler 77, “Come, Thou, Long Expected Jesus” Creation, General Praise
70, “How Great Our God’s Majestic Name” Timothy Dudley-Smith 587, “Jesus Shall Reign” Creation
353, “Living Stones” Terry York 481, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross” The Church
358, “This Is the Day the Lord Has Made” Isaac Watts 481, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross” Resurrection, the Church
363, “Jesus, Our Lord and King” ??? 241, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God” Baptism
377, “Jesus, at Your Holy Table” Tom Allen 604, “Come All Christians Be Committed” Lord’s Supper
382, “God, the Father of Your People” Alfred Mulder, Ralph Parks, John Newton 379, “Brethren, We Have Meet to Worship” The Church
529, “Forever with the Lord” James Montgomery 43, “This Is My Father’s World” Eternal Life

 

From the Trinity Hymnal

Number and Title[Link:  Online Lyrics] Hymnist/Source Tune in Baptist Hymnal Themes 
16: Come, Let Us Sing unto the Lord Associate Reformed Presbyterian Psalter 587: Jesus Shall Reign Rejoicing in God; God | his perfections; Music; God | Sovereignty of
18: You Holy Angels Bright Richard Baxter 197: Rejoice, the Lord Is King God | his perfections; Angels; God | Praise of
56: When All Your Mercies, O My God Joseph Addison 414: O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire Anniversaries; God | His Goodness; Cheerfulness; God | Mercies of; Grace | Refreshing
59: Forever Settled in the Heavens The Psalter 587: Jesus Shall Reign Law of God; God | His Truth; God | Faithfulness of
64: God, the Lord, a King Remaineth John Keble 94: Angels, From the Realms of Glory Light; God | His Sovereignty; God | Power of; God | Praise of; God in Nature
70: With Glory Clad, with Strength Arrayed Tale and Brady’s New Version 574: Soldiers of Christ, in Truth Arrayed God | His Sovereignty; God | Eternity of; God | Immutability of; God in Nature
75: O Father, You Are Sovereign Margaret Clarkson 126: All Glory, Laud, and Honor God | His Sovereignty; Decrees of God; God in Nature; Seasons
154: Thou Art the Way George W. Doane 481: Am I a Soldier of the Cross Jesus Christ | The Only Mediator and Redeemer; Christ | The Way, Truth and Life
156: O Lord, How Shall I Meet You Paul Gerhardt 126: All Glory, Laud, and Honor Jesus Christ | The Only Mediator and Redeemer; Christ | Love and Grace of; Christ | Second Coming and Judgment of
169: My Heart Does Overflow The Psalter 339: Not What My Hands Have Done Jesus Christ | His Praise; Christ | Conqueror; Christ | Kingly Office of; Church | Bride of Christ
181: We Come, O Christ, to You E. Margaret Clarkson 197: Rejoice, the Lord Is King Worship; Jesus Christ | His Praise; Christ | Creator; Christ | Deity of; Christ | The Way, Truth and Life
286: Worship Christ, the Risen King! [Online Lyrics Unavailable] Jack W. Hayford 94: Angels, From the Realms of Glory Worship; Jesus Christ | His Resurrection; Christ | Death of; Church | Triumph of; Death | Conquered
289: A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing The Venerable Bede 27: All Creatures of Our God and King Jesus Christ | His Ascension; Christ | Praise of; Christ | Second Coming and Judgment of
301: Join All the Glorious Names Isaac Watts 197: Rejoice, the Lord Is King Jesus Christ | His Exaltation; Christ | Priestly Intercession of; Christ | Savior
311: Hail to the Lord’s Anointed James Montgomery 350: The Church’s One Foundation Jesus Christ | His Kingly Office; Christ | First Advent of; Christ | Son of David
316: The Mighty God, the Lord Scottish Psalter 161: Crown Him with Many Crowns Zion; Jesus Christ | His Second Coming and Judgment
337: O Spirit of the Living God James Montgomery 574: Soldiers of Christ, in Truth Arrayed Gospel | Triumph of; Holy Spirit | Baptism of; Holy Spirit | Prayers to; Holy Spirit | Regenerator; Ministry | Ordinations; Supplication | For Missions
342: Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation Latin, 7th cent 94: Angels, From the Realms of Glory The Church | The Church of Christ; Christ | Head of the Church; Church | Communion of Saints; Church | Cornerstone of; Church | Lord’s House; Holy Trinity
388: Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise John Ellerton 297: Search Me, O God The Church | The Close of Worship
409: Softly Now the Light of Day George W. Doane 306: Depth of Mercy The Church | Evening; Communion with Christ and God; God | Omniscience of; Life | Brevity of
427: Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands Charles H. Spurgeon 144: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross Christ | Bridegroom
439: Christ Shall Have Dominion The Psalter 493: Onward, Christian Soldiers Christ | Lord; Gospel | Triumph of
447: Christ for the World We Sing Samuel Wolcott 247: Come, Thou Almighty King Regeneration
458: What Tho’ I Cannot Break My Chain Augustus Montague Toplady 481: Am I a Soldier of the Cross The Way of Salvation | Salvation by Grace; Calling; God | Omnipotence of; Holy Spirit | Efficacious Grace of; Man | Depravity of
485: O Thou That Hear’st When Sinners Cry Isaac Watts 144: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross The Way of Salvation | Repentance; Forgiveness of Sins; Heart | Contrite; Heart | Pure; Longing for Christ and God
516: Jesus, I Live to Thee Henry Harbaugh 241: Breathe on Me, Breath of God Funerals; The Way of Salvation | Union with Christ; Abiding in Christ
518: Christ, of All My Hopes the Ground Ralph Wardlaw 277: Take My Life, and Let It Be Consecrated The Way of Salvation | Union with Christ; Death | Trusting God in; Faith | In Christ; Grace | Sanctifying; Love | For Christ of God; Post-Communion
524: Thy Works, Not Mine, O Christ Horatius Bonar 197: Rejoice, the Lord Is King The Way of Salvation | Justification; Christ | Refuge; Imputation of Righteousness
540: A Few More Years Shall Roll Horatius Bonar 339: Not What My Hands Have Done The Way of Salvation | The Resurrection and Everlasting Life; Forgiveness of Sins; Life | Brevity of; Opening and Closing of the Year
575: Soldiers of Christ, Arise Charles Wesley 161: Crown Him with Many Crowns The Christian Life | Christian Warfare; Christians | Triumph of; Temperance
607: Thy Loving-kindness, Lord is Good and Free The Psalter 297: Search Me, O God The Christian Life | Tribulation and Suffering; Christians | Example of; God | Love and Grace of
628: Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare John Newton 277: Take My Life, and Let It Be Consecrated Faith | Prayer for; Pilgrimage and Guidance; Prayer | Encouragement in
669: Commit Now All Your Griefs John Wesley 161: Crown Him with Many Crowns Waiting upon God; The Christian Life | Trust in God; Cast Out Fear; God | Sovereignty of; Works of Providence
692: To You, O Lord, I Fly The Psalter 339: Not What My Hands Have Done Trust in God; The Christian Life | Assurance; God | Abiding Presence
694: Lord, I Lift My Soul to Thee The Psalter 306: Depth of Mercy The Christian Life | Assurance; God | Goodness of; God | Mercies of; Supplication | For Blessings
713: Great King of Nations, Hear Our Prayer John H. Gurney 73: God Moves in a Mysterious Way Special Topics | The Nation; Chastisement; God | Faithfulness of; Supplication | For Mercy

[This post appeared originally on the blog, Standing on Shoulders, and inspired The Persistence of Song project.]

Undertaking a history of anything contemporary often is an exercise in futility.  The events of tomorrow could easily render this undertaking irrelevant.  Recently, though, I was reflecting on the state contemporary Christian music (CCM), and I realized what this music says about the art evangelical Christians are creating and consuming these days.  The state of CCM is a reflection of two trends, which may have evolved from consumer-driven trends to consumer-shaping trends.

Baptizing the Mainstream

In 1995, DC Talk released its Jesus Freak album, and the album met much commercial success.  Jesus Freak climbed to 16 on the Billboard 200, which was the highest initial debut for a “Christian” album, and eventually sold two million copies. 

If you asked a twenty-something or thirty-something CCM-listener to identify a favorite CCM song, the odds are pretty good that the album’s title track would be the reply.

However, for every Jesus Freak album purchased, ForeFront Records should cut a royalty check to the estate of Kurt Cobain.  His band, Nirvana, created the market for Jesus Freak, and DC Talk essentially pirated the sounds and themes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”    

Undoubtedly, Nirvana was the most influential rock band since the British invasion.  If not for Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl, we would all still be listening to big-hair 80s rock bands.  The band’s biggest commercial success, the album Nevermind, toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the peak of the Billboard 200 in 1992. 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” made the Seattle sound commercial.  Distortion, screaming vocals, and the mosh pit—all distinctive of “grunge”—were now here to stay.  DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” capitalized on the popularity of Seattle rock.  However much the trio tried to infuse its hip-hop stylings into the track, “Jesus Freak” was artistically indebted to Nirvana.

Probably what’s more interesting is that the two songs are so thematically similar.  Both tracks touch heavily upon the idea of identity.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” critiques the features of late 80s and early 90s young adults:  violence (“load up on guns”), apathy (“here we are now, entertain us”), and independence (“our little group has always been”). 

“Jesus Freak,” though less sarcastic, is no less fascinated with identity.  The title is a moniker wielded by the world, but gladly embraced by the song’s speaker.  “Jesus Freak” identity is largely understood by the way of negation.  Repentance (“all the me I’ve divorced”) and resolve (“I won’t live and die for the power they seek”) are key elements of this identify.  The street preacher and John the Baptist serve as emblems of this identity. 

The more immediate observation from the DC Talk and Nirvana parallels concerns the CCM industry.  DC Talk and ForeFront records showed that Christian musicians could peddle rock and pop trends to Christian audiences with Christian themes and produce commercial success. 

Jesus Freak debuted approximately four years after Nevermind debuted and three years after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reached number one.  This scenario should sound all too familiar to anyone who has listened to a Christian music radio station in the last ten years. 

CCM record labels have since improved how quickly they respond to secular radio success.  A good example is Evanescence (2003) and BarlowGirl (2004). 

The resultant state of CCM has been something very similar to the 80s hair-band trend.  Record labels and producers imposed certain musical and cultural norms on rock bands:  hair styles, wardrobes, ballads with predicable harmonies, synthesizers.  Instead of big hair and ballads, the CCM labels are selling whatever was big last year in secular markets. 

The Worship Music Movement

One movement has enervated this trend in CCM:  the worship music movement.  Labels realized an even more profitable angle:  have famous artists sing worship songs that Passion and other movements popularized.  The audience will attach to these songs as spiritually beneficial and fork over big dollars. 

The early 2000s were inundated with commercially successful worship albums.  Third Day’s Offerings (2000) and Michael W. Smith’s Worship (2001) both sold over 1,000,000 copies.  Smith went on to release Worship Again (2002), which sold an additional 500,000 copies. 

Commercially Successful Worship Albums

What’s interesting about Smith’s worship albums is that, although he is an acclaimed songwriter, he wrote so few of the tracks.  Christian radio was peddling “new” Michael W. Smith material that youth groups and contemporary-oriented churches had been singing for years.  Now, the worship cover has become all too common.

After the commercial success of Offerings, Worship, and Worship Again, the commercial worship music movement soon followed.  Caedmon’s Call (2001, 2006), Rebecca St. James (2002), and Newsboys (2003) entered the foray.

The commercial success of worship music generated a new genre of CCM artists.  Worship artists and bands such as Sonicflood, MercyMe, Jeremy Camp, Big Daddy Weave, and Todd Agnew kept the CCM airways humming with new worship material.  MercyMe, in particular, dominated the industry by selling 2,000,000 copies of Almost There

CCM radio stations, in the 2000s, have largely moved toward continuous rotations of worship music.  The dramatic shift of the market has not necessarily been a positive development for the genre of worship music.  Radio-friendly unit-shifters are becoming a-theological, non-confessional love songs, of which the listener’s romantic interest could very well be the subject.  (See the Girl of God? series for some examples.) 

The Art of Evangelicals

Musician Derek Webb has described the relationship between art, commerce, and religion as a dysfunctional marriage.  The CCM industry has emphasized business in its approach.  As secular music trends fluctuate, CCM responds with its “Christian versions.”  When contemporary worship music had become deeply entrenched in the youth, college, and contemporary scene, CCM responded with a myriad of worship-oriented artists and albums.

As creators of art, many CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, creativity and innovation.  CCM sounds increasingly aged, either imitating the sounds of secular radio from yesteryear or the praise songs of conferences from yesteryear.

As confessors of truth, many CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, regard for doctrine.  CCM sounds increasingly hallow, speaking to God as lover, rather than lord. 

The most damaging analysis of these trends is the influence CCM exerts upon contemporary church life.  While CCM’s worship music movement may have been consumer initiated, the movement is deeply impacting the worship of the church.  Now, church “worship leaders” strive to be current and “fresh,” which entails imitating the newest praise chorus peddled by CCM radio.

We must be on our guard, even in the midst of music labeled “Christian.”  Remember that the industry is not only offering its listeners “family-friendly,” “upbeat,” “encouraging” music; it’s selling records, as well.  And when zeroes and ones are as important as chapter and verse, we might be better off sounding like the nineteenth century than worshipping like its 1999.

As one of the pastors of Auburndale Baptist Church, I assist in the planning of worship services.  A couple of months ago, I had the desire to expand our worship repertoire, but adding new songs can be a challenge for any congregation.

I had an idea for an easier way to introduce some new hymns to the congregation.  I would find solid but unfamiliar hymn texts set to hymn tunes with which our church is familiar.  First, I scoured the index of tunes in our pew hymnal (The Baptist Hymnal, 1991).  When I found a tune used in multiple hymns, I recorded the hymn numbers and titles.

Next, I compared the list of tunes from our pew hymnal with another solid hymnal’s index of tunes (in this case, The Trinity Hymnal).  I recorded hymn numbers and titles in the Trinity Hymnal that corresponded with tunes in our pew hymnal.

This work yielded 10 new songs in the Baptist Hymnal and 36 new hymns from the Trinity Hymnal, many of which are doctrinally rich.

This Sunday, we plan to sing the John Newton hymn “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare.”  It’s set to the tune (“Hendon”) that our church knows from “Take My Life, and Let It Be Consecrated.”  This Newton hymn features a strong prayer-themed text.  It reminds of the significance of prayer (“Thou art coming to a King”), while assuring us that Christ has summoned us to prayer.   My favorite lines of the text describe our hearts as Christ’s “blood-bought right” and adjure Christ, “without a rival reign.”

I recorded a low-quality version (you’ve been warned!) and have also included the lyrics below.  Enjoy this well-written Newton hymn.

 

1 Come, my soul, thy suit prepare:
Jesus loves to answer prayer;
He himself has bid thee pray,
Therefore will not say thee nay,
Therefore will not say thee nay.

2 Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and pow’r are such,
None can ever ask too much,
None can ever ask too much.

3 With my burden I begin:
“Lord, remove this load of sin;
Let thy blood, for sinners spilt,
Set my conscience free from guilt,
Set my conscience free from guilt.

4 Lord, I come to thee for rest,
Take possession of my breast;
There thy blood-bought right maintain,
And without a rival reign,
And without a rival reign.

5 “While I am a pilgrim here,
Let thy love my spirit cheer;
As my Guide, my Guard, my Friend,
Lead me to my journey’s end,
Lead me to my journey’s end.

6 Show me what I have to do,
Ev’ry hour my strength renew:
Let me live a life of faith,
Let me die thy people’s death,
Let me die thy people’s death.”

Last week, I made a few mid-year predictions—maybe more prescriptions than predictions—for the 54th Grammy Awards.  Award-predictions are a way of recapping the year and noticing trends in popular music. 

This week, I want to accomplish something similar in the Contemporary Christian Music industry.  But prognosticating the 43rd Dove Awards doesn’t have the appeal of Grammy-predictions.

Instead, I analyzed the Billboard Top Christian Albums chart from three different points over the past year.  Noting a few trends from this analysis provides some insight into the state of Contemporary Christian music.

The three data points of this experiment are these Billboard Top Christian Albums lists: 

Trends of Note

The Persistence of Albums.  For the week of June 26, 2011, Skillet’s Awake was the top Christian album according to Billboard.  In two months, the album turns two years old.  Three other albums from the Billboard chart from a year ago (June 25, 2010)—Mercy Me, The Generous Mr. Lovewell; tobyMac, Tonight; Casting Crowns, Until the Whole World Hears—still retained Billboard status a year later.  If one year is a long shelf-life for an album on a Billboard list, then two years is a non-perishable good.

In popular music, albums rarely have that kind of staying power.  Really popular albums stay afloat in the Billboard 200, but normally do not compete for top tier status.  A seemingly endless succession of pop stars abdicates their top-album throne for the new releases of other pop stars.  When this trend does not hold, we know we have a special pop album (e.g., Adele, 21).

This phenomenon in Contemporary Christian Music can be due to the smaller marketplace.  Fewer “big ticket” acts make explicitly Christian music. Yet, some of the responsibility belongs to the popular Christian music radio stations, which rarely deviate from their standard air-lists.  Maybe, we, the consumers, have tolerated the mundane for too long. 

The Success of the Compilation Album.  The WOW brand is the most successful commercial force in Christian music.  The WOW compilation albums—including the annual Hits release and the Worship releases—regularly reside in the top ten of Christian albums and occasionally peak at number one (as happened on January 1, 2011). 

WOW is a joint venture of the record labels EMI and Sony.  The labels launched the series in the mid 90s, and they obviously emulated the Now That’s What I Call Music model (which dates back to the 80s).  Now also involved major record companies (EMI, Sony, Universal, Virgin).  Accordingly, the WOW album covers resemble their forerunners.

We can never forget that Contemporary Christian Music is a business.  WOW and NOW are record labels’ second passes at profit from some of their notable products.  The awkward relationship among art, commerce, and faith makes it difficult to decipher between ministry and marketing.      

Prepositional Phrases Are the Artistic Expression Du Jour.  Whether it’s Chris Tomlin (And If Our God Is For Us; HT-The Apostle Paul), Blindside (With Shivering Hearts We Wait), or the continuance-to-a-specified-time tendencies of Casting Crowns (Until the Whole World Hears) and Red (Until We Have Faces), the prepositional phrase is challenging the terse one-word album title as the dominate naming convention in Christian music.  Congratulations to Mandisa for her successful variation on this theme (What If We Were Real?).    

The Labels

A cliché of hipster, musical connoisseurs everywhere is to rail on the influence of record labels on modern music.  At the onset of this analysis, I expected to find fodder for the antiestablishment crowd of CCM listeners.  And, yes, much of popular Christian music has some connection to the record labels of EMI, Sony, and Warner.

However, a distinctive feature of the CCM market is the ability of artists to generate interest and impact apart from the resources of these large labels.  The label INO—and its parent company Integrity Media—has facilitated significant commercial success for acts such as MercyMe, Blindside, and Sara Groves.  Newsboys releases its albums through the INPOP label.  Christian rappers favor the LeCrae-sustained label Reach (although this label has a distribution agreement with a larger label).

This information gave me a different level of appreciation for MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine.”  I’ll disclaim that I’m not a huge fan of the song.  But its success—which included some radio play on secular stations—seems all the more noteworthy, considering MercyMe’s label.  The band did not have the vast resources of EMI, Sony, or Warner, which could manufacture some secular radio attention for a band on one of its Christian music subsidiary labels.  “I Can Only Imagine”—much like Jars of Clay’s “Flood” before Essential was a Sony label—obtained a popularity beyond its means.  I think I’m starting to like that song more.

The Producers

I once envisioned the Christian music industry as the product of a handful of labels and producers.  This vision was a convenient explanation for the shared production elements and sounds of the CCM industry.  In reality, there are many hands in the pie.              

Yet, a handful of names are prevalent in the production notes of Christian albums.  Brown Bannister, Ed Cash, Nathan Nockels, Paul Moak, and Dan Muckala had significant influence over the past year on Billboard’s top Christian albums.

The name receiving the most production credit in Contemporary Christian music is Terry Hemmings. He is the president and CEO of Provident Label Group and receives “Executive Producer” credit on a swath of albums.  The movies Facing the Giants and Fireproof also feature his executive production.  Suffice it to say, if you’re a consumer of Christian sub-culture products, then you’ve felt the influence of Hemmings.

Synopsis of the State of the Art

Contemporary Christian music shows an unhealthy indebtedness to a handful of popular albums and the WOW compilation series.  These unit-shifters may keep the market afloat, but they also seem to suffocate opportunities for lesser known artists.

Record labels and producers have some sway on the art of Christian musicians.  But the relative competitiveness of smaller labels and the diversity of producers in the marketplace have staved off the clichéd idea of the musical machine.

I’ve failed to note several trends over the past year, including the legitimization of Christian rap and hard rock.  These genres are no longer in the hard to find places of the Christian bookstore.  I have the suspicion that next year’s state of the art address will devote much more attention to the institutionalization of these genres in CCM marketplace.

And when next year’s state of the are address rolls around, I hope we won’t be singing “Happy Birthday” to Skillet’s Awake and Casting Crowns’ Until the Whole World Hears, as they blow out three candles on their respective birthday cakes.

When calendars flip from June to July, many music critics mark the occasion with a “best-of-the-year” discussion.  My favorite mid-year recap is from NPR’s All Songs Considered.

I’ll join the mid-year music foray with some premature Grammy predictions.  I’m only prognosticating for categories I care about (sorry).  Note: the eligibility period for the 54th Grammy Awards, to be held February 12, 2012, is October 1, 2010, through September 30, 2011.

Album of the Year:  Adele, 21.

I’m tempted to exaggerate this year’s Album of the Year competition as a battle for the soul of the music industry.  Lady Gaga’s Born this Way will garner some consideration; it’s had too much publicity and radio play to avoid a nomination.

But if Gaga can meat-dress her way to Album of the Year, it will be at the expense of a truly great album.  Adele (who happens to share my last name) has the voice of an old-soul, and 21 is a great production, with, imagine this, real instruments!

I’m hopeful that The Recording Academy will get this one right.  They were brave enough to give Album of the Year in 2009 to Allison Kraus and Robert Plant and in 2011 to Arcade Fire.  It will take less courage in 2012 to get it right. [More of Adele’s music at Amazon]

Alternative Rock Album of the Year:  My Morning Jacket, Circuital

It’s time to make things right.  MMJ has been making great records for years, and I cannot write coherently about Circuital without teenage-girl gushing.  Perhaps, some hometown karma (figuratively speaking) is what their Grammy candidacy needed.  Much of the album was recorded in a church gymnasium—air condition-less, mind you—in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Alternative Rock Album of the Year” is a strange Grammy category.  One would think that the moniker “Alternative” would imply experimentation or innovation in the music.  But, no, it essentially means “less well-known.”  So, I guess MMJ gets the nod for Alternative Rock Album of the Year and holds off competition from Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Lonely Forest.  I’m prepared to shrug my shoulders if All Time Low or Foo Fighters walks away with award.

My Morning Jacket’s Circuital deserves the token obscure-nomination for Album of the Year (e.g., Arcade Fire last year), but since the token obscure-nomination actually won last year, the Academy may discontinue that practice!  [More My Morning Jacket music at Amazon]

Awards that The Civil Wars Should Win:  Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album

Theoretically, I love The Civil Wars; in reality, I acknowledge and respect them.  I understand how so many aficionados gravitate toward their music, but they’re not for me.  It’s me, The Civil Wars, not you.  Caveat aside, they deserve some hardware.  If anything, we should all rally behind them to keep Bon Iver (pronounce that like your French) and their prating falsettos at bay in the Folk Album category. [More The Civil Wars music at Amazon]

Best Bluegrass Album:  Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest

Eight years have passed since Gillian Welch and musical partner Dave Rawlings released Soul Journey, and those eight years of sowing yielded one spectacular crop of songs.  The Harrow & the Harvest is ten tracks of minimalist, newgrass excellence.  What’s amazing about the album is that Welch and Rawlings left some good material on the cutting floor. For instance, this clever and catchy tune, presumably entitled, “Knuckleball Catcher” did not make the album.

Bluegrass Album of the Year is notoriously difficult to land.  The Academy has neither confirmed nor denied plans to rename the category the “Allison Kraus Award for Excellence in Bluegrass.”  And, each year, larger country acts like to swoop in with a bluegrass effort (this year:  Dierks Bentley).  My choice of Welch is probably less of a prediction and more of a prescription, but here’s to hoping![More Gillian Welch music on Amazon]

Lesser-knowns that I’m Pulling For

Here are some under-the-radar types that deserve the acknowledgement of a nomination.

  • The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart, for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  Just beautiful music.  It’s a reissued album, so I’m not sure if it will be eligible.  [More The Head and the Heart music at Amazon]
  • King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine, for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  This album is the best I’ve heard this year, but it certainly will not get a nomination for Album of the Year.  It would be an accomplishment to even get a Folk Album nomination.  But there’s no more significant album for me in 2011:  I will always associate it with my dad, who passed away in March.  [More King Creosote & Jon Hopkins music at Amazon]

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