Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Gospel at the Opry

Click pic to see the series

On Sunday I met up with a few friends to enjoy a TV taping at the Opry House. Various country artists performed songs from the new CD "How Great Thou Art: Gospel Favorites Live From The Grand Ole Opry." The CD will be released on Feb. 5 and the TV special will air on GAC Feb. 9.

Some artists made more of an impression on me than others; some were more enthusiastically received. As it happens in many live-performance TV tapings I've attended in town, most did their songs more than once, due to various technical or performance-related glitches. This was where the studio audience became actors in the show, giving an equally raucous welcome to the artist each time.

A cynic might see in all this an effort to cash in on the growing popularity of Christian music (and entertainment in general targeted to the Christian audience). I'd say that pragmatic element of exploitation of "the Truth as product" is always lurking in the background (or sometimes not so much in the background) of any commercial project; the CCM industry would not exist as we know it otherwise (whether that would be such a bad thing might be a topic for discussion elsewhere). But then the traditional church has often been a home base for the music, the artists and the listeners, and few escape the influence of that experience. Closing a show with a "Gospel number" is a long-established showbiz standard. Even in modern country music, those core beliefs and values are often under the surface even if the participants' lifestyles and song choices often don't reflect it. Some, on the other hand, continue to maintain a vibrant faith and are not shy to live it or sing about it.

It's pretty tough to see how real anyone's faith is to them in any moment; it's even tougher to see past the p.r.-created image of a celebrity to make that call. And given the fact that even trying to evaluate another person's walk with God is a delicate matter even when it's necessary (as it seldom is), I found it best to listen to each person's offering of song on its own merits, and fight the tendency to compare the message the artists presented Sunday night with the "message" they might offer in any other given day. I would hope others do the same for me!

That said, here are my random recollections and opinions about the evening.

Some performances were "just there." Ronnie Milsap got the evening started with a fairly standard version of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"; I was confused as to why he wasn't rocking it out. Sara Evans did a nearly-lifeless rendition of "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" that make me wish it were at least a jog. (I wonder if they'll include Little Jimmy Dickens' version of the church camp parody--"Just a Bowl of Butter Beans"--as a bonus track. Probably not.).

Dierks Bentley did a couple of Hank, Sr. tunes: "A House Of Gold" and "I Saw the Light." He did get points for dressing up; I think the suit and skinny tie were as much a tribute to Hank as the songs were.

Loretta Lynn did a good job with a Mosie Lister tune called "Where No One Stands Alone." Not earthshaking, but, hey, it's Loretta! She got a laugh with (apparently) a self-deprecating comment I didn't quite hear when she told everyone she'd be doing the song one more time.

The high points included Trace Adkins' soulful rendition of "Wayfaring Stranger." Made me think "this oughta be on the radio"--if not mainstream country, then at least the country Gospel shows you might hear on Sunday mornings.

Vince Gill, the most natural & relaxed entertainer I've seen at any Opry show, put his unique stamp on a spiritual called "Give Me Jesus" in an understated piano-vocal arrangement. He gave credit to CCM artist Fernando Ortega for recommending the song. A standout performance. Between takes a lady called out "I love you, Vince!" and he immediately responded "I love you too, sir!" and said he liked men with high voices. A standard stage joke of his, but always effective with the adoring audience he attracts.

Charlie Daniels, still excited about his induction into the Grand Ole Opry the night before, still had plenty of energy to put into "I'll Fly Away." He and the house band got some signals crossed at some point and the train came to a grinding halt, but of course it was up and running again before long. I'm not sure if he was singing the same lyrics I learned long ago, but that was a minor issue at most for any sensible listener; besides, the way some of these songs have been passed along, minor modifications are bound to happen.

Carrie Underwood closed the show with an ambitious version of "How Great Thou Art"; I would like to have heard it about a step lower, given her range. On the first try she started into the wrong verse about halfway through and stopped with a "dadgummit!" and a laugh at her own expense. The second try wasn't quite there either. As she shuffled back to the side stage to be introduced yet again, she displayed the difficulty of hurrying in high heels, to sympathetic giggles in the audience. But she proved the old adage about the third time being a charm, as that one was a keeper.

I don't think I'll be buying the CD, but I hope to see the special; since I just lost my free cable and don't plan to restore more than the "limited basic" range of channels, you may be hearing from me about a viewing party--volunteer hosts/hostesses needed!

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