|True To His Roots | Posted March 26, 2013
It's no news when 57-time Dove Award winner Steven Curtis Chapman debuts at No. 1 on the charts. But perhaps it is news when it's Billboard's Bluegrass Albums chart we're talking about. Deep Roots, Chapman's latest offering (in partnership with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store), is an homage to his roots--his Kentucky birthplace, his Christian faith, and his family.
From the opening fiddle strains on "Tis So Sweet To Trust in Jesus," it's clear this album is going to be a special experience. What a refreshingly bright, happy sound! It's one of my favorite hymns and a great way to begin a record thematically focused on trusting God and leaning on faith to endure hardship and loss.
A gorgeous rendition of "How Great Thou Art" follows, centered on acoustic guitars and banjo rather than the usual piano or organ. Steven's joined on the track by daughter-in-law Jillian Edwards Chapman, wife of son Will. A solo performer in her own right, and also one-third of the family venture, The In-Laws (with her husband and Caleb Chapman), Jillian has a sweet tone reminiscent of Leigh Nash. The music gently envelops and caresses the singers in their vocal performances as they trade lines and sing together.
The legendary Ricky Skaggs adds his voice and mandolin to "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Steven has done a great job of choosing melodic hymns, and this is no exception. I particularly like the fade out where Steven and Ricky simultaneously sing different parts.
Many of the hymns chosen for the record are songs inspired by tragedy or written by those who suffered great loss. "Blessed Assurance" owes its lyrics to the great Fanny J. Crosby who, like Chapman, experienced the loss of a child. This is Steven's renewed declaration of faith.
Father Herb Sr., and big brother, Herb Jr., join Steven as the pace picks up for the "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad." After his early lead, and some perfect harmonies, Steven sits back and lets dad and brother have the spotlight. This is a sure-fire album highlight, full of foot-tapping energy, and I wouldn't doubt that the family turned some heads when they recently performed this song on the Grand Ole Opry. Casual listeners may be disappointed to find that these guys aren't a touring band!
I'm completely taken with "He Touched Me." It's the knock-out encore performance for the two Herbs. Herb Sr., honored with the lead vocal, proves to have a robust resonance and strength that sounds more youthful than his 73 years. This is hands down my favorite moment on the album, and if Herb Chapman should ever release a solo record, I'd be first in line to get it!
Since the latter half of the record is dominated by revisions of some of Steven's past works, I'll skip ahead to the final hymn, and the oldest one on the disc, "Rock of Ages." Steven shines as he turns in a terrific, emotionally stirring performance. The highest praise I can give is that when he sings, "let me hide myself in thee," I understand the song and its lyrical message better than ever before.
As mentioned, the remainder of the record consists of new versions of old SCC songs. He chooses primarily early works dating back to the late 1980s. First up is a favorite of mine, "Hiding Place." In live shows it's often part of an acoustic medley that Steven does alone. I'm grateful for this recording as it gives the song a treatment that is its lyrical birthright. The song deserved a stronger musical accompaniment than the original recording offered, and this rendering gives it a timeless feel.
Steven treats us to another family duet on "Be Still and Know," as his eldest son joins him. Caleb Chapman's voice is more tender than I've ever heard it, and he blends in smoothly with his father. The re-visioned tune takes a simpler approach than the original, which boasted grand orchestration. And less is more, for there's a peace in this measured, intimate approach.
"His Eyes" and "My Redeemer is Faithful and True" also receive the respect of an update with these new recordings. On the latter, we are blessed to have the Herbs return on background vocals. Like "Hiding Place," both classics are improved and kept vital while remaining faithful to their history.
It's not surprising that Steven concludes this intimate album with one of his most personal songs, "Cinderella." Rather than ending after the final lyric as in the original, an extended instrumental follows the line, "but I know / the truth is / the dance will go on." What better way to close the record than by reminding us of the eternal life that awaits us in Jesus?
The out-of-time aspect of bluegrass is delightful. Of all the types of American roots music, bluegrass remains perhaps the most unchanged by modern music. So these are fitting clothes for century-old hymns, and a nice way to marry Chapman's songwriting to the tradition that preceded him. On the other side of personal tragedy, Steven chose from his own catalog simple songs that, refined by grief, now speak even more powerfully about faith and trust. It doesn't feel like a stretch to say that Chapman has elevated these hits to the status of modern hymns. But Deep Roots
is more than just another hymns record – it's an artist reconnecting with his past and reminding us that hope and light are found in a deep-rooted faith.
Song to Download Now:
"Hiding Place" (Get it from iTunes here
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