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.
Americana'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.
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?