Category Archives: Other Genres

International Songwriting Contest, 2013: My Picks

I enjoy browsing the winners of large songwriting contests. It’s always fun to discover  brand new talent, and it reveals something about my own musical tastes when a large selection of completely new music is put in front of me. Most recently, I took a listen to some of the musicians who placed in the 2013 International Songwriting Contest. There are certain genres I just avoid altogether (electronica, hip-hop, etc.) and others where the genre isn’t what it used to be (Top 40, adult contemporary). And then, happily, there are the genres where good music is still being made. This year, I kept coming back to the Americana, folk/singer-songwriter, blues and country selections. I guess I prefer music that says something to “music” that exists merely to put a worm in your ear.

The wealth of untapped talent out there is incredible. I laughed and cried over several of the songs that placed in these categories. In several cases, I actually preferred the 2nd or 3rd place finishers to the category winner. Below are some of my favorites. Think of this sampler as a little slice of “coffeehouse cake,” or alternatively, “songs that are too good for radio.”

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Kickstart Something Good: Jean Watson

For those who are weary of the pablum now paraded as “music” on the airwaves of mainstream and Christian music alike, I offer an alternative: Jean Watson, a gifted singer/songwriter who also happens to be a dear friend of mine. Her style is clear, contemplative CCM, much like Fernando Ortega. She is a classically trained singer and violinist, and she enjoys an active ministry both in America and in the U.K. On her two latest projects—one Christmas and one original worship—she has teamed up with some of the best talent in Nashville, including producer Bill Smiley (WhiteHeart, Steven Curtis Chapman, Johnny Cash, Bebe & Cece Winans, Gaither Vocal Band, 4Him, and more), drummer Steve Brewster (Bob Seger, Chicago, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Richard Marx), and most excitingly, Phil Keaggy on a fresh arrangement of the carol “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Jean aims to help fund both records at once through a Kickstarter campaign she is calling “The Sound of Heaven.” She writes:

The greatest challenge for me in creating this project is simply financial. Whatever I have to pay towards the cost of production, manufacture, artwork, photography, travel, etc, etc, simply puts a burden on the ministry which provides the bulk of my income. I desire to be in a place where I am not hindered by any debt and can give away as much of my ministry proceeds as possible!

The total cost of ‘The Sound of Heaven Project’ is projected at approximately $40,000 which includes all expenses from start to finish. Kickstarter is a great way to raise funds for projects like this, but if I don’t raise the whole $14,000 that I am asking for to help me, I get nothing! Kickstarter will help me meet as many of those expenses as possible so I can focus on MINISTRY, not money! :)

Reading the numbers closely should impress upon us all just how difficult it is to be an independent artist in today’s economy. As you can see, this Kickstarter campaign won’t cover half of her costs even if it’s successful. But it will be a significant help. Click here to back her project, and if you want to hear her music, you should go to her website. The soundtrack to the promo video is music by Hillsong, not Jean. Here is one of her original songs:

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A Southern Hymn from Steven Curtis Chapman

It’s finally here—SCC’s first “proper” pop album since his daughter’s death. After the immediate, gut-wrenching lamentation of Beauty Will Rise, The Glorious Unfolding shows Chapman slowly returning to his old self–not the same, but healing. This is not going to be an album review, but I’ll just say very quickly that after listening through the whole thing last night, it’s encouraging to hear SCC in this mood again. Is the music as good as his glory days? Well, much of it follows the Speechless/Declaration template, which, for those of you who don’t have his entire album timeline memorized (grin) was the phase where he left the beaten path of MOR Christian pop and began adding rockier textures to his style. While that was creative and different then, each successive time he’s duplicated the formula feels like a progressively fading photocopy (and even then, truth be told, he’d already written a large chunk of his best songs in the late 80s/early 90s).

So, if I’m being honest, there were some tracks on here that didn’t grab or hold my attention. Musically speaking, that is. Most of the lyrics are excellent, and so far beyond anything else spinning on CCM radio right now it’s not even funny.  And, oh my, can this man still write a ballad! Here are just a few lines that particularly struck me. This one is from “Michael and Maria,” dedicated to his own daughter and another child lost by some close friends:

Michael and Maria

Someone said they thought they saw you

Giving names to babies this world never knew

I’m sure by now you’ve found your great grandparents

And some friends like Dave and Erin

I bet you’ve met Moses too…

Or this from the Five-for-Fighting-flavored “See You In a Little While,” a song dedicated to his grandmother:

And just one more thing before I let you go

Please tell my little girl I love her

Though I’m sure she already knows

And ask the Father to please tell the Son

That we’re ready and waiting for Him to come…

But my personal favorite is this closing, hymn-like track, “At the Feet of Jesus,” which feels like it could fit easily onto an Alison Krauss project. Enjoy:

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Country Singing Coal-Miner/Military Vet on America’s Got Talent

I think the pickings are pretty slim for America’s Got Talent this year, but there are a few acts  I’ve enjoyed. There’s a popera trio named Forte who’s easy on the eyes and reminds me of Il Divo. There’s a teenage magician who’s as good a showman as he is a magician. Perhaps most impressive is Anna Christine, a 10-year-old girl with an old soul who sang and played “House of the Rising Sun.” Let’s also not forget the black guy who came out and sang like… well I won’t spoil the surprise, but watch his audition here, and stick around after the performance for a great extra “Awwwww” moment.

However, as soon as I saw the audition I’m sharing with you today, I knew I’d instantly found a new favorite. The singer is Jimmy Rose. This video gives you some background about his life as a coal miner in Kentucky, then choosing to serve in the Marine Corps for four years. He is now 32, pursuing his dream of becoming a country singer. But he’s not just another country singer. He’s a singer/songwriter, and for this audition, he made the daring choice of performing an original song dedicated to the coal miners of his hometown. Continue reading

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Recently Added: Billy Joel

Since he turned 64 the other day (cue the Beatles!) it seemed appropriate to showcase some Billy Joel songs I’ve been enjoying recently (which you may or may not recognize) and to try to capture in one humble little blog post why I’m such a fan.

As a child, I never listened to secular radio, and my knowledge of popular secular music was shaky beyond the 1940s. So my earliest memory of hearing Billy Joel’s music goes back a mere 5-7 years. I was hanging out with a neo-classical composer friend at a university roadhouse. We took turns making fun of the songs on the radio. Then the first few bars of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” started playing. My friend paused, listening intently. “This…” he said, pointing to the speaker. “This is a great song.”  Continue reading

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SG vs. CCM Smackdown: “Your Love Broke Through” and “Love Was in the Room”

Pitting southern gospel songs against similar songs from the world of contemporary Christian music. I think I’ve done precisely one of these so far. High time for another installment.

Both of these songs use some of the same language and imagery to refer to God’s redemptive love. But stylistically, they couldn’t possibly be more different. Keith Green’s “Your Love Broke Through” may be a blast from the past for some of you. It’s the epitome of light 70s pop. Karen Carpenter could have sung this one and it would have been a perfect fit. “Love Was In the Room” is a warm, country-styled harmony vehicle, done to perfection by the Booth Brothers.

This might come down to a matter of taste, but surely some objective comparisons could be made. I’ll just say, to kick things off, that a big strength of both songs is melodic richness. Let’s see what y’all think:

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Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World: Sisters and The Andrews Sisters

This one occurred to me the other day, and my instant thought was “Duh! Of course!” So here’s a family harmony installment of Southern Gospel vs. The Rest of the World.

First, The Andrews Sisters. I have a special fondness for these gals because I grew up on them. My folks gave me a greatest hits collection and a double-disc collection of their duets with Bing Crosby for Christmas one year when I was a little girl. That was around the same time they put The Great Gershwin Decca Songbook in my hands. For months on end, I was in jazz heaven, honing my Patti Andrews, Judy Garland, and Ella Fitzgerald impressions to perfection. (I also tried to mimic Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, with mixed success.) Continue reading

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Phil Vischer On Christian Music

Well, I tried and tried to embed this video, but it looks like I’ll need to consult the wordpress.com embed code gurus again because Godtube’s code is defying me. However, I strongly encourage my readers to hop over to this link to hear VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer’s take on this (awful) article. The topic is Christian music, specifically CCM. The author of this article lays out five reasons to “kill” it. In this 18-minute clip from his podcast, Vischer pretty much nails it as he systematically breaks down this writer’s arguments and why they’re flawed. His two co-hosts play devil’s advocate to some extent, but by the time he’s done making his case, one of them says  that she has done a 180 after initially being impressed by the article. He makes many points that I have frequently made myself in discussion with friends and family, and I think it is well worth a listen. (Note: The author of the article includes a rather frightening image of two heathen metal musicians, so be prepared for that if you choose to read it, though Phil reads the most relevant portions verbatim as he rebuts them.)

I am personally very alarmed by this spirit of destruction that I see among certain liberal Christians when it comes to things bearing the “Christian” label. People like Steve Taylor, Derek Webb and this Catholic writer are not afraid to say in so many words that they want Christian music, movies, etc. to “die,” be “killed,” and other charming sentiments. It’s hateful, it’s bitter, it’s self-righteous, and it’s not building up the body of Christ. Combine all that with shallow reasoning and false claims, and you have a lethal combination.

I’m thankful to Vischer for popping that bubble. Although, there was a bit at the end of this podcast, not included in this clip, where I definitely found myself in disagreement with him. He said that although he supports Christians who make art for the church, they shouldn’t expect to reach any non-believers with that art, be it music, film, or whatever. I wanted to say, really? None? Well, tell that to the people who still hold tent revival meetings. Tell that to the people who got dragged to a Christian rock concert by their church friends and made a choice for Christ. Tell that to the thousands of non-Christians who saw The Passion of the Christ. Such people do exist. It’s a needless exaggeration to say that no unchurched folk will ever hear/see/be affected by a piece of contemporary, explicitly Christian media.

But I still agree with virtually all of Phil’s points. If you have a chance to listen to the clip, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Or if you don’t have time but still have a thought, feel free to share it.

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Play It, Piano Kid!

This story has been exploding all over the news for the past week or so, and I think it’ll warm the cockles of the hearts of any pianists among my readership.

First, the background: One of the nicer things about legendary rock musician Billy Joel is his passion for music education. For decades, he’s held seminars, master classes and Q & A sessions where he shares his personal knowledge and experience in a relaxed audience setting.

Recently, he visited Vanderbilt University, and one lucky college kid in the audience was itching for a chance to fulfill a life-long dream. Continue reading

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Two Articles for Retuned

Interested readers can read two more pieces I’ve posted at the site The Retuned since I was invited to be a guest contributor there. One of them examines the biblical symbolism of justice and mercy in a song from Les Miserables entitled “Who Am I?” The other discusses secular love songs that are beautifully written but offer a vision of romantic love/passion that their authors themselves feel is too good to be true. I view the songs from the biblical framework of our longing for Eden and the joyful fulfillment of that longing in God’s perfect design for marriage and sexuality.

So, unless you hate Les Miserables (or musicals in general), Simon & Garfunkel, or Marc Cohn (or secular love songs in general), I hope you can take something good away from my thoughts on all of the above.

“Who Am I?”: Harmonizing Grace and Justice in Les Miserables

Whenever I May Find Her: A Song for Paradise Lost (Note: The image for this post depicts the creation of Eve. If a Dore engraving of Eve in her original created state would bother you… then don’t click on the post.)

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