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Songs of Praise from Unlikely Artists, Part Three

Issue 114

In Part One and Part Two of this series (Issues 112 and 113), I noted that throughout the history of American music, the influence of the Christian church has been well documented and apparent. While some bands have been working in the Christian music genre from the beginning of their careers, others haven’t been as overt, yet have written and recorded Christian-faith songs – and you might be surprised at who some of them are. Yet, as mentioned in last issue, truth can often be stranger than fiction, and the following stories prove it:

Van Morrison

One of the most obsessively private rock stars to emerge from the 1970s and to remain an active artist, Belfast, Ireland-born Van Morrison has written over a half dozen albums’ worth of songs referencing Christian beliefs and his spiritual journey. Raised as a Protestant in religiously divided Belfast, Morrison was also exposed to his mother’s Jehovah’s Witness denomination, inspiring his own experiences which were chronicled in his song, “Kingdom Hall” from Wavelength (1978).

 

Morrison has called himself “a Christian mystic” in interviews, and his own pursuit for enlightenment has been documented throughout his extensive song catalog. His passion for the poetry and religious imagery of William Blake and John Donne (whose poems have been incorporated into some Catholic liturgies) and his flirtations with Scientology and other religions nevertheless have found Morrison inevitably circling back to Christianity, even though he has been contradictorily quoted by journalists that, he “wouldn’t touch religion with a ten foot pole.”

Throughout his career, his songs have put his spiritual quest front and center. “If I Ever Needed Someone” from His Band and the Street Choir (1970), “In the Garden” from No Guru, No Teacher, No Method (1986) which invoked the Holy Trinity, and “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” from Avalon Sunset (1989) are just a few examples.

Van Morrison’s 1989 “Whenever God Shines His Light” from Avalon Sunset reached #20 as a single on the UK charts. Recorded as a duet with UK pop star Cliff Richard, an Omnibus Press review described the song as “a testament of faith.”

 

“Have I Told You Lately,” which Morrison has said was composed as a prayer, would become a monster hit song for Rod Stewart in 1993.

 

Van Morrison’s Hymns to The Silence (1991) actually included traditional hymns, continuing the enigma about his views on religion, yet further demonstrating that his quest for enlightenment was an ongoing one. While more recent records have been comprised predominantly of jazz and R&B covers, Morrison likely will continue to surprise and mystify his audiences until he’s ready to call it quits.

Lenny Kravitz

One thing that can be said about retro rocker Lenny Kravitz – he literally wears his cross, which is unmistakably tattooed across his back. The biracial multiple Grammy Award winner is the son of a TV producer Jewish father and Bahamian-American actress mother who raised him in a neutrally religious household. The teenaged native New Yorker independently chose to become a Christian while attending high school.

Throughout his musical career, the multi-talented Kravitz (who also acts in film and TV, designs furniture, has partnered with Leica for photo exhibitions, and does residential/commercial interior design) has written and recorded songs that profess and promote his Christian faith.

One of his biggest hits, the hard rocking title track from Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993) was written from the perspective of Jesus speaking to his flock. The even more overtly Christian oriented “Believe,” couched in Beatlesque melodies, guitars, phase shifted vocals and George Martin-styled string arrangements, contains unequivocal declarations like:

The Son of God is in your face
Offering us eternal grace
If you want it you’ve got to believe
‘Cause being free is just a state of mind

 

On Circus (1995), Kravitz continued the Christian song themes of hope with “God Is Love”:

God is love/Through all your trials and tribulations
God is love/He’ll get you through all situations
God is love/And if you are ready He always is ready for you

“The Resurrection,” with its Jimmy Page-inspired guitars and “Kashmir”-styled dynamic build and Middle Eastern motifs, offered the fire and brimstone often found from the pulpit of the Baptist Church:

The resurrection is here to stay
That he’s coming back again
Look what he’s done to me
Now I am living in another space and time
He walked on the righteous path
To keep us from Satan’s wrath

 

Baptism (2004) contained a number of Christian-themed songs like “Baptized” and “Calling All Angels.” Both were slower-tempo rockers that recalled some of the soul vibe of Marvin Gaye – if he was singing with Ernie Isley or Shuggie Otis backing him on guitar.

“I’m A Believer” from Strut (2014) was a return to the hard rock Kravitz sound of his “American Woman” Guess Who cover, while his latest album, Raise Vibration (2018) invokes the funk rock of his friend Prince, with the praise song “The Majesty of Love” and repentant songs like “We Can Get It All Together”:

I thank you father
For giving me life beyond the grave
Blood is the Power
So now I don’t have to be afraid

 I hear the truth, I know the taste
I read your word, I feel your grace
I need to do an about face
Right into you so we can get it all together

 

Lenny Kravitz continues to produce records, tour, follow his faith, and hold prayer meetings before every show. The lack of pretense, humility and genuine spiritual sincerity from this superstar is refreshingly welcome and rare among celebrities of his caliber.

Dolly Parton

If there was any American artist who could qualify to be named the next National Treasure, Dolly Parton would certainly make many judges’ short lists. Her accomplishments, ranging from writing and performing hit records, acting in films, her Dollywood amusement park, her philanthropic foundation, and her television production company, are nothing short of phenomenal.

As a singer in the 1960s best known for her duets with Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton’s solo success was kickstarted by her compositions, which have since become standards: “Jolene” in 1973 and “I Will Always Love You” in 1974, which later became one of the late Whitney Houston’s biggest selling records. With the door opened thanks to those early successes, Parton channeled her formidable talents into crossing over to pop music, acting, returning to her bluegrass music roots, and then launching her business enterprises.

Throughout her cumulative successes, music has always been Parton’s artistic anchor. As the granddaughter of a pastor, the church has been a constant spiritual inspiration.

She has been a prolific songwriter, and the majority of songs she has written with Christian themes have been in the country or bluegrass music genres. Her “Hello God” from Halos and Horns (2002) had more of a gospel flavor to it, a sign that she was looking to push her musical boundaries within her faith-based compositions:

 

Written in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Parton described “Hello God” in an interview in Dollymania.net: “I realized just how fragile we really are, and how small life is, and how everything can change in the blink of an eye. I hope everything comes across as I meant it. It’s like everybody believes that God is their God. But God belongs to everybody.”

In 2019, Dolly Parton spoke with People magazine, stating that at age 73, she felt that God was calling her to give a ministerial message of hope through music. Deciding to reach a wider audience she made three collaborations with new artists:

  • ”God Only Knows” with for KING & COUNTRY (Christian alt-rock duo from Australia)
  • “There Was Jesus” with Zach Williams (Christian singer-songwriter)
  • “Faith” with Galantis featuring Mr. Probz (Swedish EDM)

“God Only Knows” had previously been a hit on the Christian music charts but fortuitously, the Smallbone brothers from for KING & COUNTRY managed to get the attention of Dolly Parton and did a remix with her added vocal track. The new single cracked the Billboard 100 charts – a milestone for the Aussie duo. The song’s reassuring refrain of comfort was simpatico with the message Parton felt called to spread:

God only knows what you’ve been through
God only knows what they say about you
God only knows how it’s killing you
But there’s a kind of love that God only knows

 

“There Was Jesus” was written by Christian singer-songwriter Zach Williams, who also has a prison ministry and is known for his hit song “Chain Breaker.” His southern rock-influenced band is reminiscent of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Williams and Dolly Parton performed the song at the 2019 CMA Awards.

 

“Faith” is a modified version of the John Hiatt song, “Have A Little Faith in Me” rearranged by Swedish DJ Galantis and sung by Dutch rapper Mr. Probz and Dolly Parton. Parton modified some parts from the original Galantis track to focus on the message elements. While EDM is a music genre far out in left field from Parton’s country base, it is not her first experiment, as she had tried her hand at dance music in the post-disco period with “Baby I’m Burning” in 1978.

 

Dolly Parton is a living testament to indomitable spirit, and her calling to create additional songs of faith should yield even more unusual collaborations in the future.

Marty Stuart

In 1994, producers Tony Brown and Don Was oversaw the recording and release of Country, Rhythm and Blues, a collection of duets featuring country and R&B stars demonstrating just how much the two genres actually had in common and why Nashville and Memphis were a lot closer musically than they were geographically.

Some of the pairings included Al Green and Lyle Lovett on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Vince Gill and Gladys Knight on the Ashford & Simpson hit “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight” performed by The Staple Singers and Marty Stuart.

The last duet fortuitously forged a deep friendship that would motivate Marty Stuart, a multi- instrumentalist prodigy, country music star and vanguard point man for the preservation of traditional American music, to create a band dedicated to old time gospel music, the backbone of which has led to contemporary country, R&B, and rock and roll.

Wielding both the original Clarence White B-Bender Telecaster guitar used with The Byrds on their groundbreaking country rock recordings, and a Telecaster formerly owned by Roebuck “Pops” Staples (a gift), Marty Stuart led his new group, His Fabulous Superlatives, through a series of landmark recordings and concerts that have resurrected many gospel music classics. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Stuart included The Staple Singers and other guests, such as wife Connie Smith, dobro master Josh Graves and ex-boss and former father-in-law Johnny Cash on the records and penned some new songs to add to the repertoire. The albums include:

Souls’ Chapel (2005), Live at the Ryman (2006), The Gospel Music of Marty Stuart (Live) (2014), Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (2014) and Way Out West (2017).

As every one of these albums is superb, here are just some samplings:

“99-1/2 Won’t Do” – The Gospel Music of Marty Stuart

 

“It’s Time to Go Home” – Souls’ Chapel

 

“Heaven” – Saturday Night/Sunday Morning

 

With trademark tremolo-laden arpeggiated guitar, plaintive lyrics and harmonies that meet at the crossroads between Africa, Appalachia and England, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives bring the music home full circle, both thematically and sonically. The Saturday night carousing and Sunday morning piety is synonymous to the sinner/saint walk that is an inescapable part of the human condition, and many artists. The songs cover a major portion of the roots of American music.

Interviewed by the Grand Prairie Daily Herald Tribune in 2006, Stuart disclosed that although he was raised in the church, he reached a low point in his life in the early 2000s when he was arrested on a DUI. Already depressed over the recent death of his close friend and former father-in-law Johnny Cash, Stuart credited his Christian faith, bolstered by the gift of a guitar from “Pops” Staples, for  inspiring his personal comeback and calling to reintroduce inspirational gospel music to the public again.

“(Making Souls’ Chapel) It was a joy, it was pure joy. I like gospel music that inspires and doesn’t point fingers or condemn. I was forced to look around at the face of gospel music and there is a difference between people who are called to do it and music that’s just product.”

As the other artists and songs listed here can evidence, truer words have never been spoken.

 

Header image of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/cp_thornton.

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