The spiritual legacy that led to The Vespers

Throughout most of the history of contemporary Christian music there have been artists of faith who wished they didn’t have to eat at the cultural “kids table” all the time. Just because they came from a particular spiritual perspective didn’t mean they only wanted to sing for people of that same ilk. Most of the time, however, that was their only option. Either preach to the choir or become something like secret agents in the mainstream - keeping their spiritual heads down.

Americana music, that wonderful blend of all things rootsy (mainly blues, country, folk and gospel), has been forging a path in the wilderness of pop culture for the last 20 years or so. Somewhere to the right of alternative rock and to the left of country, artists like Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller and Jayhawks earned fans one by one and stubbornly wielded their banjos, Telecasters and upright basses in the face of the mainstream. Those progenitors’ field plowing has ushered in a bumper crop of amazing music over the last few years - music that is kicking the stuffing out of the mainstream and making household names of bands like Mumford and Sons and The Civil Wars. This genre’s unique willingness to tolerate people of faith and their worldview - no doubt forced by its own roots in the very spiritual sounds of gospel, string music, blues and country - sets it apart. It makes me wonder if today’s music fans would react as harshly to Bob Dylan’s late ’70s gospel transition as his baby boomer fans did.

The second independent release by Nashville sibling act The Vespers would never work in rock, alternative or pop music and would likely have been dismissed disdainfully as a CCM album by cultural gatekeepers if it had been released 20 years ago. Their music is a fresh and inventive blend of pop and country elements delivered in a distinctly Americana way. Sisters Callie and Phoebe Cryar sing like only siblings can and are quite adept on just about any old-fashioned stringed instrument. They pick and strum banjos, ukuleles, accordions, mandolins and guitars while brothers Taylor and Bruno Jones provide the perfect rhythm on bass and percussion.

Unlike many string bands, The Vespers deliver song after amazing song that doesn’t rely on instrumental pyrotechnics to work. Powerful melodies and haunting and evocative lyrics are framed perfectly by simple instrumental arrangements. On songs like the slow-jam “Lawdy” they may sound a little too much like a Civil Wars tribute, but these moments are dispersed among wistful, romantic and undeniably uplifting ditties that articulate a mature and yet youthful perspective on faith and life. Their spin on the old Son House blues romp “Grinnin' in Your Face” is buttery smooth and sweet.

The album, appropriately entitled The Fourth Wall, feels like a conscious attempt to deconstruct any barrier between the band’s musical and spiritual core and the audience on the other side of the speakers. The entire project is recorded in a crisp and clean way with little artifice or studio trickery. In fact the whole things sounds like it could have been recorded live. The mix is worthy of a good pair of speakers and if this project is on vinyl you’d better believe I’ll be picking it up. The band’s extensive live work is obvious in their arrangements and song selection. You can imagine every one of these songs having been significantly road tested. There’s not a barker in the bunch.

And for the punch line: Callie and Phoebe’s father was a CCM artist (Morgan Cryar) who scored a major hit in the Christian radio world with his 1986 song and music video “Pray in the USA.” “Pray” was based on a song written by a member of Cryar’s live band. That band would later split off and become King’s X, one of the most innovative and progressive mainstream rock acts of the 1990s. Looks like Morgan Cryar’s impact on the music world isn’t over yet. It’s so cool that his daughters don’t face the same market limitations he did. Despite a clear articulation of their own well-formed faith, The Vespers’ The Fourth Wall is definitely not a CCM record in all the right ways.

What Do You Think?

  • How would you describe The Vespers' music?
  • Why is Americana music more open to acts with spiritual roots?
  • Would something like Dylan's transition to gospel be an easier move today?

 

Comments (4)

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While I have enjoyed the Vesper’s new album and agree that Americana music is decidedly open to people of faith, I would not go so far as to say that it is the singular music form that allows for this kind of thing. Rock & roll, hip-hop, and country music all make for fertile ground to present one’s faith and, contrary to popular belief, have often been welcomed with open arms. Whether it will sell as well in the general market is a different question, but given the fact that Christian hip-hop acts like Lecrae and Trip Lee have broken the Billboard Top 100 & 200 and the fact that acts like Sixpence None The Richer and The Civil Wars have graced the stage of The Tonight Show and the fact that Carson Daly told Sonny of P.O.D. live on-air that his testimony of Christ was “dope,” lets me know that these forms of music are not necessarily hostile to the message of Christ, rather they are waiting for authentic people of faith to speak.

Good point, Mr. Manifesto, and those moments were all high-points in this ongoing experience, but I do believe they tend to be the exceptions that support the rule. With the exception of the Civil Wars, who came from this same Americana mindset, those “crossover” moments were all marked as unique and special circumstances - both by those of us inside the circle and by the gatekeepers of the culture. It was odd and remarkable for these rock or pop acts to reflect a position of faith in the “real world” - whereas within the Americana realm it is not even noteworthy anymore. It’s perfectly common for Christian ideas to be explored right alongside every other subject matter.

I didn’t mean to denigrate the other genres, and I sure hope people of faith keep rattling those cages, but I do think there is something different about the Americana scene - and country music by extension.

John,

I see your point and raise you specifically “hip-hop,” which is my area of expertise. LOL. Hip-hop, to begin with, is religious in its roots and in its nature. African-Americans often take “the gospel” for granted, so a person can listen to Tupac on Saturday and pass the plate on Sunday with no problem. A hip-hop artist at the GRAMMYs can give a “Shout out to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!” and while Bono is dismissive of those shout outs, those in the African-American community (such as myself) and hip-hop community understand these thankful send ups to be legitimate. Hip-hop is a derivative art form, birthed out of sampling and turntabilism, borrowing heavily from gospel, jazz, and the blues—all spiritual art forms to be sure. As such, those who are Christian in hip hop are welcomed with open arms and even thanked for their presence. I think it seems like an anomaly because 1) most people assume hip-hop is hostile to the gospel (when, really, their music says the same things pop music does…but I digress) and 2) the AA church is ALSO steeped in moralism that for a very long time demonized secular music, especially hip-hop. However, this outlook of hip-hop did not diminish what hip-hop was. So, yes, Christians breaking into the Billboard hip-hop charts is viewed as something novel, because it is. But, there’s always been ROOM for it within the genre. We’ve simply kept ourselves out of it or created a lackluster alternative—as with CCM—for so long that now everyone is surprised.

I know you didn’t mean to diminish other genres, but given my love for and study of hip-hop, its spiritual roots, and its continuing growth, I’d suggest books like “The Soul of Hip-Hop: rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology” as well as “Hip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme.”

Hip hop may be an anomoly, C, but I’ve been around that scene for a long time too and I can say that there is a very big difference between when someone gives God lip service - sincere though it may be to them - and when they start living that out. I also have been amazed at how slow the Gospel world has been to embrace hip hop and rap. LeCrae is certainly changing things right now, but I’m curious if his numbers on the chart are really about connecting with the mainstream culture, or generating a passionate following among believers. Casting Crowns shows up on the Soundscan chart too, but that doesn’t mean mainstream pop music is embracing them. I hope LeCrae really does do that. I do think that the “lip service” folks will probably line up to support him if his music is amazing (which it is) and maybe he can make an impact from there. He’s a champ. I do remember several legit hip hop acts getting bumped to the Christian music world, though. But good points. Maybe a full-blown exploration of the Gospel and Hip Hop is in order here ;)

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