Written by Brian Newcomb
"Back to Love"
Beth Nielsen Chapman (BNC Records)
Although Beth Nielsen Chapman has been writing music and singing in Nashville for more than 20 years, I first encountered her at the Festival of Homiletics in 2007. In her home city this past May, she was back again, joined by Marcus Hummon and Ashley Cleveland to provide music throughout the Festival, and a couple of lovely evening performances of songwriters in the round.
Over the years, Nielsen Chapman has written a great bit hit song for Faith Hill, "This Kiss." Her songs have been recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and many more. As an artist in her own right, she had a number of songs climb Adult Contemporary radio charts, including a duet with Paul Carrack on "In the Time It Takes."
Although her recording career has been a footnote to the writing she's done for and with other artists, Nielsen Chapman has done significant work. Among it has been her 1997 response to her husband's death from cancer, "Sand and Water," a song that Elton John sang on tour during the year after Princess Diana's death.
And, given the place where I've most often encountered her music – a preaching/teaching seminar popular among mainline Protestants – it is not surprising that spirituality weaves through her songs, which often deal with her life experiences and struggles. "Deeper Still" was released in 2002, chronicling her treatment and recovery from breast cancer. "Hymns" (2004) explored the Latin songs of her Catholic up-bringing, and "Prism: The Human Family Songbook" (2007) explored a more eclectic spirituality. She gave it voice when singing the lyric written by Atoaji Radellent:
"My Religion - I am a Hindu-Buddhist-Jew-Islamic-Christian / Combining one soul, one vision / Living peacefully where music is the only divinity and sharing of art my sacred creed / My confession of faith is to struggle, go out of my way / And find love to the end of my days."
On "Prism," Nielsen Chapman sings "For the Beauty of the Earth," and with Hal David wrote "Thank You My Lord." But she also offers up "Prayers of an Atheist" and "God Is In (Goddess In)", and delivers works that honor Buddhist, Muslim, Sufi, Native American Navajo and other spiritual traditions. She has been a tourist on a vast musically and spiritually diverse planet, and the latter recording seeks to tap the interconnectivity.
Before the recording of "Back to Love," Nielsen Chapman found it challenging to write lyrics to complete songs; she learned that she had a benign brain tumor. After surgery, her creativity flowed, and the result is songs of life's sacred spaces and love's vitality. Two love songs celebrate her boyfriend-soon-to-be-husband, "I'll Give You My Heart," written with pianist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers; and "I Need Your Love," which celebrates the complexity and baggage that comes with caring for another.
"Back to Love," not surprisingly, is completely about love songs. "Hallelujah," the disc's opening romp with co-writer Darrell Scott along for the ride on harmony vocals and guitar. Best line: "If we could just remember kindness, would it matter who is right?" The disc is full of great lyrical moments and poetic reflections on life's absurd-yet-sublime ordinariness. From "Happiness:" "Happiness showed up today, drunk again and full of wit."
Five song titles contain the word "love," the remainder are about relationships of love with a capital L. "Shadows" looks at the hard times and echoes a response to Joni Mitchell's "Clouds," which sees the dark as well as the light. In the tender ballads "Peace" and "The Path of Love," Nielsen Chapman brings this fine collection to a prayerful conclusion, hoping for grace, seeking to follow in a way that gives life meaning in the face of the "endless things" that we experience. Some make us laugh, others leave us in tears. But all lead us home.
Pam Mark Hall (Maida Mark Music)
Pam Mark Hall is a veteran of the earliest, experimental days of the contemporary Christian music world, coming out of Discovery Arts Guild in Palo Alto, Calif., which also launched John Fischer. She released five albums between 1975 and 1986, mixing her folk rock roots with the more trendy flavors and influences of her producers, some jazzy, some more in the pop vein.
After some years away, Mark Hall returned in 1993 with a deeper, more artful recording, "Paler Shade," produced by Dave Perkins, a rock guitarist fresh from the recently dissolved band Chagall Guevara. (For a review of his latest blues release, see the Quincessential blog.) These days she is making music with guitarist Jerry Chamberlain (formerly of Daniel Amos) as Pamelita & Parker, and releasing this classic 17-year-old disc.
Mark Hall has a strong old school folk voice, in the vein of Judy Collins, Joan Baez and the New Christie Minstrels. Perkins has built arrangements that enrich the melodies and stories of the songs, whether by accordion, mandolin, violin or beautiful acoustic or soulful electric guitar solo. The sound and arrangements prove classic and timeless at the same time on great songs such as "Today Is All That I Have" and "Rock Me on the Water."
Mark Hall writes a moving love story in "Family Tree," sings of a "Paler Shade of You" over an elegant violin solo, and invites you to "See Me Grow." A divine lover is called upon to "Shine on Me."
It's a lovely disc, thankfully no longer lost to time. It's unclear what the future holds for Pamelita & Parker, but "Paler Shade of You" and an awareness of their individual musical pedigrees suggest there is promise in their union.
The Rev. Brian Q. Newcomb is Senior Minister at David's UCC in Kettering, Ohio, and a long-time music critic published in Billboard, CCM Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others. Additional content from Brian is available in his Quincessentials blog at myUCC.