Sure, there’s a division between church and state, and prayers are no longer said in schools — but Paul Brandt wants to know who took the gospel out of country?
There was a time when virtually all country artists — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams — would regularly put out inspirational albums of religious music. Now a division seems to be appearing between the two genres.
More and more artists tend to be considered either country or Christian. But Brandt doesn’t want to have to pick sides. He has decided to put the Christian back into country with his latest bluegrass-flavoured album, Just As I Am.
“I don’t believe in a separation between musical genres. I don’t understand why that should be,” said Brandt, who performs a soldout show on Wednesday at CrossRoads Church in Red Deer County.
He has noticed that the ideas of tolerance and political correctness don’t always intersect. In fact, some supposedly broad-minded folks only want what’s not objectionable to anybody — hence Christmas concerts being converted into religious-free winter celebrations.
But Brandt revealed, “I can’t make music in a vacuum.” Since his faith is interwoven in all of his decisions, Brandt figured it was high time he tried recording faith-based music.
“I figured it would be OK, as long as you don’t take a message and try to cram it down anyone’s throat, but deliver it with respect and gentleness attached to it.”
The Calgary native, who was initially raised in a “old school” Brethren church that banned musical instruments and dancing, reached back into his childhood for many of the songs on Just As I Am — which includes duets with Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, Dan Tyminski, The Whites, High Valley and others.
The most personal tune on the album is probably the least known. Brandt said his grandparents, who emigrated to Canada from Eastern Europe, used to sing Free As a Bird to him when he was a boy. The meaningful gospel song “is an interesting piece of music that sounds like it’s from Eastern Europe. It even seems like it would rhyme in Russian. It has that kind of feel to it,” he added.
Tyminski, who provided the singing voice for George Clooney’s character in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (remember the Soggy Bottom Boys?) croons with him on the tune. “It has a real bluegrassy feel, so he was the perfect choice.”
Brandt really wanted Loveless as a duet partner on Amazing Grace. He left a message through her management company asking if she wanted to be part of his gospel project and was surprised and excited when he saw a Georgia area code pop up on his phone.
“When she agreed to be on the one song, I just about fell off my chair!”
Their recording of Amazing Grace has a retro-Appalachian sound, complete with harmonies and a call-and-answer chorus. Brandt hopes he gave this cherished old chestnut a fresh presentation.
I’ll Fly Away was recorded with John Anderson, “who has a great voice,” said Brandt, while Skaggs contributed his pipes to Life’s Railway to Heaven.
Brandt admitted to conferring a lot with family and friends on which songs should be included on the album, “because I didn’t want to screw this up … this, more than any other project, has been a labour of love.”
So far, he’s been pleased with the feedback — particularly with one Internet comment his CD received from a country music fan. “He said, ‘I don’t care what you believe, if you love country music, you should get this album.’ ”
Since Brandt has always thought that the music should stand up, regardless of the message, “I thought that was a great pat on the back.”
The former pediatric nurse-turned-musician credits his parent’s firm stance against television, and the wonderful language he discovered in the Bible, for spurring his early interest in writing. “There’s no way I would be writing poetry at eight years old if it wasn’t for King James Bible English.”
Once his family switched to a slightly more liberal church in his early teens, Brandt seized the opportunity to learn to play the guitar.
At age 21, he was signed to Warner Records. By 1996, he became the first Canadian male artist to reach the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S. since Hank Snow in 1974 with his meteoric single, My Heart Has a History.
Brandt later started his own Brand-T Records in order to gain more creative freedom. The award-wining singer has carried on recording such popular songs such as Leavin’, Alberta Bound, Didn’t Even See the Dust and his remake of the C.W. McCall classic, Convoy.
Now that he’s a married father of two young children, age two and a half and five, Brandt admitted that it’s harder getting things done at home. “You have to become more focused on what you do. I’ve learned to take advantage of short bursts of creativity.”
Half the proceeds from the 7 p.m. concert, with opening act Gordon Mote, will go towards local church projects and the other half will go towards Brandt’s foundation, which is rebuilding a church and creating a soccer field and playground in Haiti.