In shelter there is hope, and in churches across many generations, inspiring Christian hymns have been the expressions of strength and courage enabled by faith's sanctuary. New life is being breathed into these treasures today, stirring hope for people who've never known, or may have misplaced, their value.
With her landmark 20th project, Amy Grant's distinguished musical legacy moves ahead on Rock of Ages: Hymns & Faith, a Brown Bannister-Vince Gill production finding the Grammy Award-winning signer/songwriter continuing to be a leader in the essential rediscovery of these timeless works.
Since she grew up in the church, there was no shortage of material. "The list of hymns worth doing is a lot longer than one or two or even three records worth," Grant says. "My parents took us to church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. I've never thought about hymns as being anything except foundational. They are just life tools." It's from a place of rich personal stability that Grant was inspired to make her second hymns collection in three years.
"I feel this record is springing off a sturdier foundation," she says, contrasting Rock of Ages with 2002's RIAA gold-certified Legacy...Hymns & Faith. "Legacy was a much more vulnerable time for me emotionally and physically. I had just had a baby at 40, and I think that personally I was in a slightly more reclusive time in my life. Vulnerability is great, but I think this record is more reflective of right now." She draws an image from a Rock of Ages track, the classic "O Master Let Me Walk With Thee."
"My mind's eye pictures a grandfather with sea salt clinging to his face and wind in his hair. He's saying, 'I know the companionship of my Creator. This is not new territory for me.'
"You know what? The fact is, I do, too. I know that kind of companionship," Grant continues. "There have been times that my own choices have made me cower a little bit and feel less confident. But it just so happens that the way the last few years have played out I'm much more aware of God's faithfulness, especially in light of my own life."
For Rock of Ages, Grant thumbed through several hymnals, creating a lengthy list. With collaborator/studio musician John Hobbs, she sat at the piano in her living room with a cassette recorder trying out songs. From that workshop, Gill pared the list from a producer's point of view and began imagining the album's fresh musical direction. That collaborative spirit carried into the studio sessions which, at times, were "magical," Amy says.
"The great thing about how this was recorded is that on a majority of these tracks there are six, seven, eight musicians in the room at the same time. You hear people listening to each other and reacting to what the others are playing." The result is a creative work that's as bold musically as it is lyrically.
Grant's signature vocal style confidently transports these inspiring historical texts into the modern day without being trendy, thanks to Bannister and Gill's deft use of blues, Americana, gospel and folk influences. The record kicks off with a sense of gathering community through the declarative "Anywhere With Jesus," an energizing, foot-tapping reinterpretation of the standard, textured with spunky blues licks. Testifying to God's enduring strength for his people, the celebration unfolds on tracks like the delightful and warm mid-tempo "Carry You" and the jangly "Joyful, Joyful."
Midway, the project turns inward for personal examination and reaffirmation of God's sovereignty. Highlights include the title track-a beautiful duet pairing of Grant and Gill with backing from the legendary Fairfield Four gospel quartet-and a contemplative instrumental rendition of "God Moves In a Mysterious Way," which transitions elegantly into Grant's reverent interpretation of "The Lord Is In His Holy Temple." Expressing joyful gratitude for worshiping in God's presence turns the project's tempo up again on "I Surrender All." "O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go" aptly closes Rock of Ages. As though joining the community hand-in-hand one more time, a soaring sax solo by Jim Horn (Rolling Stones, Garth Brooks) lifts listeners out of their pews, moving them into the world in compassionate service.
Several distinctive touches positions Rock of Ages among Grant's most personal albums. The first verse of "Sweet Will of God" features an actual track from a home recording Amy made in 1986 of herself singing a dozen hymns a cappella as a special Christmas present for her parents. Also connecting present to past-Grant rerecords the Michael Card/John Thompson-penned "El Shaddai," from her classic1982 Age to Age project.
Another selection was inspired by Grant's fans. At their request, she's recorded "The Jesus Medley" for the first time. An affirmation to Christian service, the track uniquely blends "Jesus Loves Me," "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" and "Helping Hand," a reprise of the Tommy Sims, Amy Grant and Beverly Darnall cut from Grant's 1994 House of Love album.
With family central to Amy's life today, it followed that members should participate in this recording. Gathered around a mic singing in unison, and with a tip of the hat to the great Carter Family, Grant, her sisters and parents tracked "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus." Grant's father also adds a moving spoken word moment on "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus."
"Brown and Vince have both lost their dads, and they just keep saying, 'Trust me, you're going to want to hear your dad," Amy shares. "It's like my Dad's saying, 'Hey, this should be as natural as breathing. Times get tough? This is what you do: Turn your eyes on Jesus.' That's especially meaningful for me and my family because someday I can say, 'This is your grandfather, this is your great-grandfather, just speaking those words to you.'"
It's with such confidence that Grant breaths in deeply herself, compassionately engaging life. As portrayed in Rock of Ages, the singer's experience of God reaffirms the church's own ancient witness. Is God among us? Indeed, Christ is risen! Healing is at hand.
"Everybody is just muddling through life," Amy observes. "For me, I want to raise the bar in the way that I live out this spiritual life in the context of a very earthy, carnal setting. This record reflects that. I hope people feel revived. I don't want them to feel alone, but rather energized in their own life."
For the truth of these songs is hope-hope that lights the way to a peace only God is able to provide.