Influential Albums: 926-932
Thu., Nov. 24. 2022 12:03am EST
Here are the latest entries in the "albums that influenced me" series I started writing in May 2020. Rather than listing the albums in order of preference or excellence, I'd been listing them in chronological order of when they influenced me, as best as I recall.
Beginning with this week's entries, things are about to get very interesting. Now comes the moment we've all been waiting for:
926. Straight Ahead - Amy Grant
On January 31, 1988, I did something almost nonchalantly that turned out to have a monumental effect on my life. I excused myself from a Super Bowl party (Redskins vs. Broncos) at my girlfriend's apartment at IUP and went into an empty church next door and poured my heart out to God. I've told this story in great detail in other places, but since I'm pressed for space here, I'll just say this: In retrospect, the church wasn't empty; I was ... but I wasn't when I walked out. However, I still didn't realize how much my life was about to change. One of the first things that happened afterward was I read the Bible the whole way through for the first time (I'd started it a year earlier but had become discouraged and had totally abandoned ship — the Bible, church, etc.) and it finally made sense to me, so I read it through again. And I've never stopped since. Another thing was that I felt a great hunger to be closer to God, so I dug out my old Amy Grant cassette of The Collection, which I'd purchased the year before. But I wanted more Christian music, and our local National Record Mart had a pretty narrow selection, so I bought her 1984 release, Straight Ahead. It was a safe bet, because I knew some of the songs already from The Collection: "Angels" (I talked about that song and that album earlier on this list), "Thy Word," and "Where Do You Hide Your Heart." I was also familiar with the song "Jehovah" from a singing group I'd been in at the church during my senior year in college. Among the other six songs on this cassette, my favorites were and still are: "Straight Ahead," "Doubly Good to You," and "The Now and the Not Yet." Beginning with these baby steps, my music collection and musical direction would never be the same.
927. Unguarded - Amy Grant
As I mentioned previously, I was in a singing ensemble called Oremus at our campus church during my senior year in college in the spring of 1986. We did a bunch of songs from something called The Amy Grant Choral Collection. Seven of the 12 songs from the Choral Collection wound up on Amy's first compilation LP, The Collection, which came out in the summer of '86. Three others were only available on her 1985 album, Unguarded: "Love of Another Kind," "The Prodigal (I'll Be Waiting)," and "Wise Up." For the Oremus show, I was asked to sing lead on the song "Wise Up," so our director made me a copy of the Unguarded album to practice with. I didn't listen to the rest of it that much at the time, although I did buy the 45 of her duet with Peter Cetera, "The Next Time I Fall," when it hit #1 in the fall of '86. Fast forward to February '88 ... I was enjoying The Collection and her '84 album, Straight Ahead, so much that I went looking for my old copy of Unguarded and started playing that one, too. Hearing those three songs from the Oremus show brought back some great memories. Unguarded also included two songs that made it onto The Collection: "Everywhere I Go" and "Find a Way," which had become Amy's first Top 40 hit, reaching #29. I'd heard the latter on the radio a time or two in '85, but I never realized that "Wise Up" had been released as a second single and had actually gone to #66. I wasn't really concerned with chart positions in 1988, though. I liked Straight Ahead better than Unguarded, but it was still nice to have more Amy Grant music. Of the tracks I hadn't heard previously, my favorites were "Sharaya" and "I Love You." However, I now felt ready to expand my horizons in contemporary Christian music (CCM) beyond that genre's leading lady. And unbeknownst to me, God had already put a friend in my life who could help me with that.
928. Benny from Here - Benny Hester
When I was growing up, my dad was part-owner and general manager of a four-color printing company called Foothills Litho with about 40 employees. He'd been there in that position since two years before I was born, and I wound up working there on Saturdays in junior high and summers in high school and on all my breaks in college. Although I'd gotten a journalism degree at IUP, I returned to Foothills and started a full-time job as assistant production manager in the fall of '86. One of my responsibilities was to purchase the various types, weights, and sizes of paper necessary for the jobs that would be going on press. We used three main vendors and three supplementary ones, and the salesman for our #2 supplier was a guy named Tim Hart, who was only five years older than I. Everybody in our shop liked him, and he called me on the phone regularly to see if I had any new orders. One day in February '88, he stopped at Foothills and saw the Amy Grant cassettes I'd been listening to on my desk and commented on them. Much to my surprise, he was quite familiar with her music. Although he played it cool, I could tell he knew a lot more than he was letting on, so I started pumping him for information about Christian music, and he promised to bring in some from his collection I could borrow. Soon after, he dropped off several cassettes and albums, including the 1985 LP Benny from Here by Benny Hester (not to be confused with televangelist Benny Hinn). "He's a rocker," Tim said, which turned out be a bit of an exaggeration, especially when you consider the fact that Tim had grown up listening to and attending concerts by bands like Humble Pie, The Faces, and Led Zeppelin. Tim and I grew to be close friends — we still are today — but I've never let him forget the "He's a rocker" statement. Nevertheless, I did enjoy Benny from Here. That album's best-known track was the ballad "When God Ran," which became one of the biggest hits in the history of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), topping the charts for 13 weeks. It's a touching, clever song, but my favorites were actually "Back to Basics," "Can I Get to You from Here," "Whoever Touches You," "To Fill Our Empty Hearts," and "Susie Said, Yeah!"
929. Michael W. Smith 2 - Michael W. Smith
This was another cassette Tim Hart brought in his initial batch for me to borrow in early '88. He didn't bother to try and sell Michael W. Smith as a rocker, and there's no way I would have believed him after seeing that cover photo! I'd actually heard of Michael W. Smith before, when I was in that Oremus choral ensemble. Although I'd graduated in 1986, I still returned to IUP to visit friends and girlfriends on weekends afterward, so I wound up being a part of Oremus again in '87, and we'd done a couple songs from Michael's first album, "Great Is the Lord" and "Friends." Come to think of it, we may have done "Hosanna," too, which is the last track on Michael W. Smith 2, released in 1984. I also knew he'd played keyboards for Amy Grant, who sang backing vocals on two songs on this album, most noticeably on "Restless Heart." Although I could appreciate Michael's skills as a songwriter, and he did actually rock things up as his career went on, this particular project was a little mellow and cheesy for my tastes at the time. Ironically, my favorite tracks may be the ones that are arguably the most mellow ("Glorious Grace") and cheesy ("I'm Up"). I also liked the instrumental "Musical Instruments." Like Amy Grant, Smitty would eventually enjoy crossover success on the mainstream charts, with "Place in This World" (#6 pop, #5 adult contemporary), "I Will Be Here for You" (#27 pop, #1 AC), "For You" (#60 pop, #20 AC), "Somebody Love Me" (#71 pop, #10 AC), "Love Me Good" (#61 pop), "The Love of My Life" with Jim Brickman (#9 AC), "This Is Your Time" (#25 AC), "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (#28 AC), "Christmas Day" with Mandisa (#18 AC), and "A Million Lights" (#24 AC).
930. Saved - Bob Dylan
Among the initial batch of albums Tim Hart lent me was this 1980 release from an artist I knew and loved, Bob Dylan. I owned scads of Dylan albums, but the cover art and title of Saved seemed so overtly religious that I'd never had a desire to hear it before. Now I was in a different frame of mind. I'd heard of Dylan's own spiritual awakening in the late '70s and that he'd lost a number of fans as a result. It was time to see what all the hullabaloo was about. A lot of famous people have claimed that they experienced revelatory moments listening to Dylan classics such as "Blowin' in the Wind," and "Like a Rolling Stone." Well, that was about to happen to me. The opening number, "A Satisfied Mind" (a cover of Porter Waggoner's #1 country hit from 1955), had barely finished when Dylan launched into the driving title track, laying his soul bare for all to see. The third verse hit me the hardest: "Nobody to rescue me, nobody would dare. I was going down for the last time, but by His mercy I've been spared. Not by works — by faith in Him who called. For so long I've been hindered, for so long I've been stalled. I've been saved — by the blood of the lamb. Saved — by the blood of the lamb, Saved. Saved." I got goosebumps on my arms listening to it then and tears in my eyes writing about it now. In the previous weeks of February '88, I'd been trying to understand what exactly had happened to me since Super Bowl Sunday. Listening to that song was the moment where I finally figured it out. "Ohhh, this must be what those born-again Christians I thought were so kooky were all talking about!" Anyway, the album had plenty of tracks that became personal favorites of mine, and I've sung at least six of them in public settings at one point or another: "Solid Rock," "Pressing On," "Are You Ready," "In the Garden," "A Satisfied Mind," and, of course, "Saved." There's great video footage of me singing "Saved" with the band and choir from my old church on YouTube. They did a phenomenal job, and we had a blast. I'm so glad my friend Matthew Mann filmed it. If you'd like to check it out, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S33u4cRI29E. First, we do the ApologetiX parody "Child of God" (with Tom Tincha and Jimmy "Vegas" Tanner sitting in) and then we do "Saved." If you just want to see that, scroll to 4:56. It's really worth the watch.
931. Slow Train Coming - Bob Dylan
I enjoyed Bob Dylan's Saved LP so much, I decided I should check out its predecessor, Slow Train Coming. I didn't have to go far ... I had purchased the cassette the previous year so it could be in my Dylan collection, even though I'd never had the inclination to listen to it, despite the fact that it contained a hit single, "Gotta Serve Somebody" (#24), which won a Grammy for best male rock vocal performance. The album had caused all sorts of controversy upon its release in 1979 but had still made it to #3 on the Hot 100. Overall, Slow Train Coming is a much smoother musical ride than Saved. The musical performances (including lead guitar by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits) were polished to perfection, as were the lyrics ... although what Dylan had to say was anything but smooth. It's definitely the most evangelical of his albums, especially on tracks like "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Precious Angel," "Slow Train," "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," and "When You Gonna Wake Up." Two heartfelt Gospel numbers, "I Believe in You" and "When He Returns" are especially moving, and I used to perform them both at Bible study groups and informal gatherings. Even the seemingly simple "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" has a subtle but powerful message waiting at the end. Overall, I think the Slow Train Coming album features some of Dylan's finest writing — Christian or otherwise — and some of his most memorable, quotable lines. A few of my favorites are: "I don't care about economy. I don't care about astronomy. But it sure does bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets" (from "Slow Train"), "How long can you falsify and deny what is real? How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?" (from "When He Returns"), "Now there's spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down. Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground" (from "Precious Angel"), and "Do you ever wonder just what God requires? You think He's just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires?" (from "When You Gonna Wake Up"). Powerful stuff.
932. The Prodigal Son - Keith Green
My friend Tim Hart had a profound impact on my life. Not only did he help me expand my horizons in Christian music beyond Amy Grant, he also told me about an interdenominational Bible study he'd recently been attending at the Christian Resource Center, located in downtown Pittsburgh on Liberty Avenue (a street known far more for vice than virtue at the time). I was living and working about an hour away in Latrobe (a town known for Arnold Palmer and Mr. Rogers) at the time but was so eager to meet other people who were equally excited about the Bible that I practically begged him to take me. Considering the fact that I was the buyer for his biggest customer, it was a big risk for him to take. If I'd been turned off by the experience, he had no guarantee how it might negatively affect sales for him. In fact, he warned me: "Buddy, these people are hard core." He didn't mean they were Bible-thumpers; he just meant they believed it truly was the Word of God. But that was exactly how I felt, and those were the kind of people I wanted to hang out with. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and started going there every Tuesday night with him. I also started attending Sunday services at his church, First Presbyterian Church, a 200-year-old church right in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh. Tim and I quickly became best friends and we fed off each's faith. I could go on and on about all the myriad great things God did in my life through Tim — my son, T.J. (the T. stands for Timothy), is named after him — but one of them was that he introduced me to the music of the late Keith Green, who became one of the most influential Christian songwriters and performers in my life. By the time I first heard Keith's music in 1988, he'd already been dead for six years, the victim of a tragic plane crash at age 28. However, he'd written and recorded an amazing amount of songs in his short life, putting out five albums from 1977-82, plus much more music that followed on posthumous releases. Tim brought me a number of Keith Green albums in the early days of my newfound faith, and I think the first was The Prodigal Son, originally released in '83, a year after Keith's death. Tim was eager for me to hear the album's centerpiece, "The Prodigal Son Suite," a beautiful 12-minute epic retelling of the famous biblical parable from the perspective of the Prodigal Son himself. That alone was worth the price of admission, but my other favorites were "Keep All That Junk to Yourself," "Song for Josiah," and "I Can't Wait to Get to Heaven." Some of the tracks were recorded live and included spoken-word intros from Keith that were very inspirational to me. Many ApologetiX fans like the spoken intro I did on our 2004 live recording of "Wherever You Will Sow," and even though it was spontaneous, I can hear the influence of Keith Green in it. Meanwhile, "The Prodigal Son Suite" was one of a number of his songs that retold Bible stories and parables from the perspective of the people in them, and you can definitely hear that in many of the parodies I've written, including "Hurry Home, Wayward Son," which tells the story of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of his father.