The More Cowbell Award II


More Cowbell AwardYes, it’s another installment of Cerulean Sanctum’s “award that no one wants to win”—the More Cowbell Award!

This one deals with contemporary Christian music, so you know it’s going to be a doozy. I’m sure just about everyone reading this blog will agree that most modern Christian radio stations are deep wells filled with the music of mediocrity, but it was hard for me to believe what I was hearing on two of the stations in my local area (I listen for the one or two decent preachers they have on from time to time. None of the Christian music I like is ever played.) In the span of no more than fifteen minutes, I heard three instances of what wins my second award. Even I was caught off guard by this new CCM trend because I didn’t think it was possible to surpass a nadir.

And I still can’t scrub it out of my ears, so—

Our second More Cowbell Award goes to

Children’s Choirs in Adult Contemporary Christian Music

I don’t get it. What is the lure for adults singers to have children’s choirs backing them on what are essentially pop and rock tunes? One of the songs that sent me screaming into the night had the most inane backing, with little kids repeating ad nauseum, “I fall down and get back up.” If I were a kid singing that three hundred times over through the course of the song, I’d think I’d take a swing at the producer, or at least bite his ankle. Guessing the ages of the singers, it sounded to me that on that song not a single kid was past the concrete reasoning stage, leading me to believe that all of them were thinking, Grownups must be really clumsy.

Back in the Eighties and Nineties we had what I called “Sandi Patty (or is that “Sandi Patti” or “Sandy Patti” or…oh, never mind) Syndrome” where producers, especially on her albums, had to have four thousand cymbal crashes, a white pop choir, a black gospel choir, and a London Symphony Orchestra swell at song’s end, culminating in a sonic denouement I can best describe as “cataclysmic.” I developed a permanent tic after the Christian bookstore I worked for several years ago insisted on playing a loop of Patty/Patti’s album Morning Like This all day, every day for weeks. Now, some musical genius from the realms of 2005’s CCM is forcing real live human beings to endure the voices of cherubic children mouthing the words some Nashville-crossover songwriter thought would sound cute and/or serious coming out of the mouths of babes.

Give me a man or woman with a decent singing voice and a mastery of a guitar or piano, and just let them sing, fer cryin’ out loud! After all, it’s Christ-ianity, not Kitsch-ianity.

*For an in-depth explanation of the More Cowbell Award, please click here.

16 thoughts on “The More Cowbell Award II

  1. Sparrow

    I’m a new Christian (and have been enjoying your blog because it’s so many cuts above the pablum usually available for new Christians!) and one thing I hate is the music. I love the hymns, but it seems like no one is singing them and one church I went to for a while even made fun of anyone who wanted to sing traditional hymns.

    I don’t like the music in church and I don’t like the music on Christian radio. Is there good Christian music out there? Where can I find it?

    Thank you for putting your writing out into the world. I have been reading Cerulean Sanctum for a few months now and I love the way it makes me think about things.

  2. Wow, Dan. You�re getting into an area that�s been somewhat of a sore point with me lately. Not always, but sometimes the CCM in church is getting to be downright unsingable for most ordinary people, such as myself. And the lyrics�well, I�ll just let that go for now.

    By the way, I recommend Marva J. Dawn�s book �Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down�A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time�. It was written by in the 1990s, but it sure seems very relevant today.

  3. Sparrow,

    I am not the best person to ask about what’s good in today’s CCM. My taste in that genre is mired in the 1980s and early 1990s I fear.

    If there are two artists I can unhesitantly recommend, one old and one new, I would have to go with Keith Green and Derek Webb. Green is a pianist and Webb a guitarist.

    To say that Keith Green is a Christian musician is a lot like saying that John the Baptist liked to get people wet. His was a ministry that went far beyond music and if any person of the last half of the 20th century could be accurately called a prophet, it was Green. His life was a burning flame that was extinguished all too early; he was killed in a plane crash more than twenty years ago in what can only be viewed as one of the most tragic losses in CCM. Even after all that time, he’s still very popular. If you poll folks in their thirties and forties as to who was the most influential CCM singer/songwriter to come out of their era, Keith Green would top the list, I’m sure. I wrote one blog entry about Green and that entry still gets a ton of hits for people using search engines to look Green up.

    There are two 2-CD sets that encompass all his music on four discs—Keith Green: The Ministry Years I & II. His best album, and what I consider to be the finest CCM recording ever made, is No Compromise—all of which is on Ministry Years I. There’s a tribute CD of other artists doing covers of Green’s work that is also called No Compromise: The Songs of Keith Green so be careful. Lastly, everything he’s done is available from Apple at iTunes Music Store.

    Derek Webb is relatively recent, having gone solo after many years with Caedmon’s Call. Many think that his album She Must and Shall Go Free is the best Christian album to come out in ages. Webb is also unusual in that you’ll get agreement across the different flavors of Christianity in America that Webb is the real deal.

    Those two are a great place to start. If I knew what kind of music you like to listen to, I could even recommend others.

    Blessings to you on your new life in Christ!

  4. Oengus,

    You nailed it with the unsingability of a lot of today’s worship songs. Many are musically adept, and while I admire the style, the chord progressions, keys selected, reliance on diminished chords, and key changes make it hard for many people to sing along.

    When I jumped out to the iTunes Music Store to see if Keith Green was out there (YES) and to see if they’d finally added one of my favorite Christian songs, Mark Heard’s rendition of his “Strong Hand of Love” (NO and I’m beginning to lose hope on that one), I saw that Ray Repp was listed. I pulled up his list of songs there and it was extensive. Many consider Repp, even though he was RCC, to be the father of the modern Evangelical and charismatic worship music. But the one thing that Repp has in those old songs from the 60s and 70s is a melody line that anyone can follow. I sang a lot of those songs in my Lutheran youth group in the 1970s and can remember every tune even today. How we ever got so far away from that is beyond me.

    BTW, just the other day I wanted to comment on that worship post you had on your site, but no commenting? Mr. Moonbones, let thy readers speak!

    All I can say is that being a musician myself has led me to appreciate many different genres of music. I listen to everything from Pavarotti to Flatt & Scruggs. I’m not sure any one type of worship music is best for me, though I know that I have a deep appreciation for acoustic worship done with just a few players in a troubador style. That said, I quite enjoyed it a few years ago when some young guys from the Vineyard’s Burn Service led a real rock worship at a worship conference I attended. And I love to hear a mighty church organ blasting out something soul-stirring, too. Nor am I against children’s choirs. The Harlem Boys Choir backing Kathleen Battle on her excellent Christmas album are superb. It’s all about wisely using resources.

    The old hymns do it to me, too. I love my new church, but I wish they did a whole lot less of Top 40 Christian for worship and a whole lot more hymns. Such is the state of worship music, though. Time will bring it all back around one day.

  5. Rob

    You could try and trace it back through pop-songs…

    POD’s Youth Of the Nation (released Sep-11 2001) had one. What came before that? (although to some degree.. a childrens chorus singing “we are the youth of the nation” sounds more appropriate than what you just heard.

  6. Rich Mullins. If I had to pick only two CCM artists it would be Kieth Green and Rich Mullins.

    Yeah, a lot of it out there is pretty ‘eh’. But I do have a few favorites that encompase all genres and sub genres.

    Shane and Shane – Worship. I’ve just recently been introduced to them, and don’t really know any albums of theirs, but they are so good.

    Relient K – pop/rock. Say what you will, but listen to ‘Less is more’ or ‘In the moments I feel faint’. Even ‘Faliure to Excommunicate’ has some real truth behind it.

    Andy Hunter – techno. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. His songs ‘Amazing’ and ‘The Wonders Ofyou’ give me chills (and you can dance to them!)

    The aforementioned Rich Mullins – Worship. Everytime I hear ‘If I Stand’ I just have to worship.

  7. I take it the award goes to the music, not the essay, because that guy writes on a Cerulean Sanctum level! I tried hard in the early 1980s to like CCM, but most of it just wasn’t very thick (K. Green had pithy lyrics but the production left me cold, Wayne Watson had the music but clumsy lyrics, Michael Card hadn’t quite gotten his stride, and J.M. Talbot couldn’t even in good conscience be called CCM). Although he can be a little over-produced at times, Michael Card’s best work (“The Final Word”, “Celebrate the Child”) is some of the best ever.

  8. A few comments on the comments:

    Mullins is up there, too. I actually knew Rich Mullins (though we didn’t hang out. He was still a small fry just starting out his career and had just scored big hits writing for Amy Grant and Debbie Boone.) He went to a church I went to for a couple years. Funny story: Rich once told me that if he hadn’t accepted Christ he probably would have accepted Bono (of U2) as his “personal savior.” Rich had a real black sense of humor that doesn’t really come out in his music and I think would surprise many of his fans. That we lost both him and Green in senseless accidents (Green by being in an obviously overloaded plane and Mullins by not wearing a seatbelt) really hurt CCM. I suspect, though, that Mullins was heading down the same path that John Michael Talbot took, and there was talk that he was considering going RCC. Not sure how I felt about that, but we’ll never know since he was taken from us far too early.

    My joke about Christian radio stations is that they’ve colluded to ensure that Mullins’s “Awesome God” is always playing at some time on some station somewhere. 😉

    Your comment about Green’s production values is interesting because when Keith was with Sparrow they spared no expense to ensure that the production values and the studio musicians chosen were of A-1 quality. Green had guys like Abe Laboriel (bass) who played with The Crusaders, Burt Bachrach, Stevie Wonder, Dave Grusin, Elton John, Chick Corea and on and on. Alex Acuna, considered by many to be the world’s greatest percussionist also played on Green’s albums. Bill Maxwell played drums (Andrae Crouch, The Alpha Band, Koinonia, 2nd Chapter of Acts, The Winans) and Hadley Hockensmith was on guitar (Neil Diamond, Arlo Guthrie, America, The Winans, Gordon Lightfoot, Koinonia, Phil Keaggy.) Heck, Bob Dylan played on Green’s album So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt. These are all A-1 musicians.

    I’ve always thought that one of the reasons people still listen to Green is that the music has held up along with the impassioned message. If the production weren’t great, I’m not sure I could be saying that. I recently listened to some 70s era CCM and it just doesn’t stand up. I don’t think that was the case with Green. Sure, he had a tighter studio sound on his earlier albums and didn’t have that spacious sound that became popular when Van Halen hit the scene at the same time as when Green was popular, but you do see his last studio album, Songs for the Shepherd start to open up. Some people think that that album even started the modern worship music craze (though I think it goes back to the Christian folk era of the 1960s.)

    As for Wayne Watson, I agree on everything you said, though some of his old classics like “The Sacrifice” and “People of God” have good lyrics.

    I liked Michael Card the most when he was doing his trilogy on the life of Christ. I think that Known by the Scars and Scandalon are two of the top 100 CCM recordings of all time. I also think they were the pinnacle of his career. I saw Card in concert one time and he was so fussy during the whole thing that I lost interest in his music afterwards.

    I always liked Terry Talbot more than I liked John Michael, but I did have Come to the Quiet on LP and still have JM’s two worship CDs, both of which are good—save for his insistance on talking through some of the best songs. As for Terry, I absolutely loved his album A Time to Laugh, a Time to Sing which came out right before CDs hit. Someone told me they made a CD of that album, but I’ve never seen it anywhere. Would pay good money to hear “Bibleland,” “The Lamplighter,” and “Father Break Me”—a song I used to sing in those few times when I did coffeehouse shows.

    Anyway, thanks for the input.

    Thanks for the link!

  9. Mike,

    I forgot to answer your question.

    The image is a loop from a Saturday Night Live skit that featured Will Farrell as the hapless cowbell player. If you follow the tiny link at the end of the post, it will take you to my original explanation of the award and you will find links there to a video of the skit. Very funny.

  10. Randy

    Try Kathy Troccoli’s new release “Draw Me Close: Songs of Worship”. It has a great style musically and demonstrates what more Christian artists should be striving for.

  11. You’re probably right about Keith Green’s production quality. I’m remembering what I heard more than 20 years ago. At that time my main problem was that Green’s voice was too up-front over the music. But I guess that was the point.

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