Songs In the Spirit…
The Texas Collection
CD REVIEW BY DAVE PILOT.
The Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, verse 14, says this: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of God.” That’s how Mark’s version got translated by a bunch of English guys during King James’ reign a few odd centuries back. And of course you probably know it wasn’t Mark doing the talking anyway, but some sandal-clad long-haired hippie who went by the name of Jesus Christ. You remember him, the fella said he was the son of Almighty God come to walk among us and lead us to salvation through grace. Believed in his message enough to get nailed to a cross for it? Yeah. That guy. And what Jesus meant when he said the words above boils down pretty simple: The children are the best of us, the promise of our futures, and the opportunities for mankind to become something better than it’s been. Their faith, their goodness, their beauty; these are the things we’ve lost in our adult lives. And they’re the things which make Heaven, well, that make it Heaven.
Why’s that important here, in a music review on some website plugging outlaw artists with bare-knuckle dreams? Simple. Because a bunch of those very outlaws, the six-string heroes who haunt the neon nights in the beer-soaked back alley bars, got together and made a record. It’s called Songs In the Spirit, and nobody involved in making it took a dime of payment. What they did, see, was decide that a record of faith and purpose could move some copies. And while it moved copies, maybe it could move some hearts and change some lives. So they decided to donate every last penny to children’s charities in the state of Texas. Sorta go on ahead and lead by example, that kind of thing. So Van Lawrence, the man behind the scenes who put up the funds for studio time and such, felt like he had something special on his hands. As he spread the word, some true luminaries came out of the woodwork to contribute. Some others came, too, and for the far and away most part, everyone involved had a story to share. Brian Burns, long recognized as one of the Lone Star State’s truest artists and a world-class perfectionist, took care of the production and the artwork. Which means Songs In the Spirit both looks and sounds like one of the best musical collections you’re ever going to find. It also happens to just plain be one of the best around. And whether your personal experience leads you to big megachurches, small backwoods weatherbeaten chapels, or your local chapter of Atheists Anonymous, the values espoused here will resonate within whatever passes for your soul.
The musical range on the two-CD set is astounding. On one hand there’s a Kevin Deal, a man whose faith is always on display for the world, singing “I’ve Got to Believe.” The track, much like “Honky Tonks and Churches” from his Boomtown CD, fits just fine on both radio playlists and at back porch midnight services underneath a blanket of stars with friends and a flask. Then there’s Johnny Bush breaking out Willie Nelson’s timeless old autobiographical classic, “The Family Bible.” And so, so much more in between. Brian Burns found a way to pay homage both to one of his mentors and to Jesus’ saving grace by recording a jaw-dropping version of Rusty Wier’s transcendent “I Stood Up.” Van Lawrence wrote a poem about his boyhood growing up on Fort Worth’s North Side back when it was something much darker than the tourist trap and sanitized strip of honky-tonks it is today; then he got Dallas Cowboy legend Randy White to read it for the record.
Names you know if you’re around Texas music at all, like Tommy Alverson, Sonny Burgess, Walt Wilkins and Davin James, all contributed here. Astounding talents you’re likely unaware of and may never get to know if their personal demons get the best of them are here, too. Eric Beatty, for example. His original track, “Young Horses,” stands as a defining moment on this record for anyone who’s ever dealt with the babies in the equine family. In its own way this cut’s as true a cowboy song as any of the old ones Mike Murphy and Don Edwards keep alive for us. And it’s also as faithful and true as anything Johnny Cash ever rolled out in his later years when the topic of his own beliefs came up. In short, there’s a gem at every turn. Couple of speedbumps along the way, which won’t get called out here since at least the intent was honest when the contributions were made. You’ll recognize them quickly when you hear them. But you’ll just smile and shake your head and move on to the next slice of genuine goodness. They’re everywhere here. Take, for example, a few lines from Thomas Michael Riley’s standout track “Carryin’ A Cross.” You’ve seen these trucks on the road, and you’ve met truckers like Riley’s protagonist if you’ve ever stopped for gas on an interstate in the middle of some interminable night of driving:
Then he dimmed his headlights
And that cross shined bright through my window shield
I was blinded at the first
In the middle of cursing I bit my tongue
Grabbed a Jim Beam bottle from the middle of my lap
And screwed the cap back on
I woke up and dragged my charley horse leg
To his cab and lit a cigarette
And when I asked why the hell he had his lights so bright
He smiled and said
I’m carryin’ a cross
It’s the least I can do
He carried one for me
I can carry one, too
Down the darkest road
I’ll never get lost
Followin’ the light
Burnin’ in the night
I’m carryin’ a cross
The pervasive sense here, track to track, is that within each of us there’s still a glimmer of the promise we once held for mankind when we were the kids and that big ol’ adult world was still a long way away. The overwhelming majority of the songs contributed for Songs In the Spirit are anything but contrived; rather, they’re a tribute to the greater power which oversees our lives and attempts to help shepherd us through this world’s many pitfalls. But the message isn’t overbearing. This isn’t a Bible thumping contest, or an exercise in the didactic to make Cotton Mather proud. No, this is just simple honest stuff a certain hippie a couple of millennia back would have definitely understood. Christ himself would have appreciated the sentiment in “Killing Jesus Again,” the second disc’s leadoff offering from Austin Cunningham. No way to tell whether He would have liked the music, but the message? Yeah. He knew when He was hanging on that tree with a Roman spear in his side that we’d make our choices and kill Him over and over again. But He stayed up there for us anyway, and showed us firsthand what love and grace actually mean. The lesson must have taken root, because all these years and all these dark nights of the soul later, the beaten and battered among us have pulled together just to do something for the kids. And maybe remind each of us that within the walls of those old country churches a truth still resonates even if the talking heads and the uber-religious have done their best to bastardize it. But if the guy in the sandals could spill his life’s blood to save us, then these artists pouring their souls out on six-strings could do no less than combine their talents in an effort to preserve the most vulnerable and yet the very best among us.
Get Songs In the Spirit because you like the idea of helping kids. Pick up a copy because you want to hear some fantastic music written and recorded by immensely talented artists, and produced by one of the best studio men Texas has to offer. Enjoy the shimmering melodies, revel in the stories. And maybe along the way, find that these men and women have also reminded you that somewhere deep down there’s still a kid in you. And that the little boy or little girl you once were still knows who hung the stars, and that faith itself remains among the greatest gifts the Almighty has ever bestowed.
The best thing about that hippie back in the day? He was here for the honky-tonk dreamers. With Songs In the Spirit: The Texas Collection, a bunch of honky-tonk heroes who already make your workaday five-and-dime life better take a break and share some of what they’ve learned on the way to and from the roadhouses. The best top to bottom record you’re going to hear out of Texas this year. Somewhere up there in the Almighty’s dancehall, Rusty Wier’s tuning up. Down here, the echoes of lives like his are going to make a kid’s life better today. You get to be a part of it all, so pull up a chair. Info at www.brianburnsmusic.com
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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.
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