(editor’s note: this post was originally written about a year ago, and I”m just now getting around to posting it.)
Artist: Ashmont Hill
Album: Ashmont Hill
Song: “Blessed Be Your Name”
Despite being a worship leader (and thus, professional Christian) whose job includes assessing and incorporating popular praise-and-worship choruses into our weekly church music set, I don’t listen to much of that style of music at home.
There are many reasons for this, but most just have to do with the banality of most forms of evangelical church music. Much of it has sounded the same stylistically over the last decade: corporate pop-rock with other cultural expressions casually included in the fringes.
Also, because the ways that church musicians discover and implement music tends to be pretty self-contained and insular, many times it’s not just the same sound that you hear in churches all over, but the same actual songs.
There are many good reasons for this, actually, and I do not wish to elevate originality as the prime directive as to what makes for good worship music in churches. There is a lot to be said for helping people to feel comfortable, and few things are more comfortable than being able to sing a song that you know and like, particularly if you are in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable environment.
(Considering how generally unchurched the Pacific Northwest tends to be, I would guess that, in this region, many if not most people who find themselves in church on a Sunday morning consider church to be, to some degree, lacking in familiarity or comfort. Which is not such a bad thing, I guess… there are inherent dangers in churches becoming too much like coffee bars or health clubs. But I digress.)
Add to that the overarching trend of more popular Christian recording artists doing their own renditions of these songs, and my reasoning for not listening to much praise-and-worship at home becomes clearer. Because of overexposure and because of our heightened sense of musical appreciation, people in my position often come to regard certain popular praise-and-worship choruses with a certain level of disdain, which can range from bored disinterest to full-on visceral loathing.
(As a matter of fact, last summer I had the privilege of getting together with a group of similar musicians, praise-and-worship leaders at multiethnic churches. And one of the first icebreaker questions was something along the lines of, “what song do you hate the most right now?”)
All of this is necessary backstory for you to understand the significance of my choosing this song as my jam of the moment.
“Blessed Be Your Name,” by Matt Redman, is an insanely popular song in churches. Right now it’s listed at #3 of the Top 25 CCLI charts for the U.S., and it’s probably been somewhere in the top ten for the last five years or so.
Because of this, I’ve heard and sang this song many, many times.
But the first time I heard this recording from Ashmont Hill, the family quartet named for their Boston neighborhood origin, it was as if, forgive the cliche, I heard it again for the first time.
Anytime any artist covers an already enormously popular song, there is a dual challenge involved.
On the one hand, you want to make sure that you’re putting your own mark on the song. The last thing you want is to sound just like everyone else, especially the person who made the song famous. Otherwise, why would people want to listen to you? They can just listen to the original.
On the other hand, you don’t want to make it so different that the song is completely foreign and unrecognizable. You want to honor and pay respect to the songwriter by including some of the elements that made the song popular in the first place. You want the song to feel familiar, and yet distinctive all the same.
In Ashmont Hill’s cover of “Blessed Be Your Name,” this delicate balancing act is achieved in spades. It’s high-octane rock, but with a definite gospel feel to it; the perfect convergence of top shelf session players, textured chord structures, and electric vocal arrangements. Especially for people like me who appreciate gospel music and contemporary Christian music (which is the nicer way of saying Black church music and White church music), this recording is a great example of a bridge tune, something that can help draw people from disparate backgrounds together.
I’m not gonna lie… before I heard this arrangement two years ago, I was through with this song. Didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to sing it.
But afterward, it came alive in me again. And considering the message of the song, that as Christians we have an opportunity and a responsibility to honor God despite our circumstances… I am grateful for its resurgence in my spiritual life.
Big ups to Matt Redman, and the brothers and sisters of Ashmont Hill, for bringing today’s jam of the moment.