By Brian Q. Newcomb, UCC News…
Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us (Various Artists, Produced by Phil Madeira)
Mark Heard once wrote a song about being “Stuck in the Middle,” between the religious pieties of conservative Christian expressions and the stark reality of secularism. “Funny world we live in, it’s funny every day, half the world prays like a preacher, the other half don’t even pray,” he wrote. “So no one understands you if you pray in your own way.”
Heard concluded, “I’m too sacred for the sinners, and the saints wish I would leave. . . . No one seems to want me, only God will take me like I am.”
That song describes the spiritual journey of so very many people whose acquaintance I’ve made over the years, and some like Heard who started out in the world of contemporary Christian music but whose art and experience soon found that label too limiting personally and professionally.
Phil Madeira is one such soul. His first recording was with the celebrated Phil Keaggy Band, who went on to record a couple of albums for the CCM market and a couple of indie albums that were less “sacred,” so to speak. Mr. Madeira has had his biggest successes producing records and writing songs for others, including Toby Keith, Alison Krauss, Garth Brooks, Bruce Hornsby, Cindy Morgan and Shawn Mullins. Since 2008, he has played keyboards for Emmylou Harris as part of her Red Dirt Boys alongside the likes of Buddy Miller.
Mercyland is a labor of love, with Mr. Madeira collaborating and collecting contributions from friends and acquaintances around the music industry—who are comfortable expressing a spiritual side, but perhaps also feel stuck somewhere in the middle between culture warriors on both sides of the many divides.
If there’s a theological theme, it’s one of inclusion, including those who aren’t sure what they can believe in except that the God who comes as good news in the life and teaching of Jesus excludes no one. On the inside of the CD cover it states, simply: “There are those who hope, like I do, that God is love, and what is love but a mother holding up a lantern waiting for her children to come home?”
Of course, the idea is incredibly laudable, but the real draw here is the music, and performances from a variety of some old favorites like Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Shawn Mullins and Dan Tyminski (the singing voice of George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a member of Alison Krauss’ Union Station), and a host of up-and-comers and lesser known artists like The Civil Wars, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Mat Kearney.
Mr. Madeira writes most of these songs with a host of collaborators. He’s the principle performer on “Mercyland” and plays on many of the other tracks, organ or slide guitar or whatever’s called for. He also sings harmony here and there, and has a lovely duet with Cindy Morgan on “Leaning on You.”
While there’s a clear alt-country/roots bent to the songs, each one is given shape by the singer. Highlights include Mr. Miller’s rendition of “I Believe in You,” “From the Valley” by Civil Wars, Mr. Kearney’s “Walking Over the Water” and, perhaps the most fun here, Mr. Mullins doing “Give God the Blues.”
If you’re beginning to wonder what kind of songs we’ll be singing in progressive expressions of worship that lean toward contemporary musical tastes, Mercyland is a great place to start.
The Rev. Newcomb is senior minister at David’s United Church of Christ in Kettering, Ohio, and a longtime music critic. He blogs at http://quincessentials.wordpress.com This review is reprinted with permission from United Church News (www.ucc.org/news).