Prime Cuts: Mercy Now, How It Feels to be Free, The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow
Fending off stiff competition from T. Graham Brown, Tim Menzies, The Martins and Gaither Vocal Band, Mike Farris became the first recipient of the inaugural Best Gospel Roots album award at this year's Grammy Awards. After a careful listen to "Shine for All the People," the choice became apparent why Farris came up as the champion. This is because "Shine for All the People" is an exquisite record sublimely crafted with a myriad of influences from Stax-styled soul to brassy New Orleans jazz to the deeply spiritual grimes of Southern black spirituals to the flourishes of old-fashioned Americana country. And Farris himself who hails from the South is himself a Soul man. He has the vocal range to fill any note with feelings and gravitas. And calling to mind the vocal grit of Otis Redding, the swampy blues of Keb'Mo, and the soul-stirring Southern charm of Marty Stuart, Farris simply has a voice that commands attention.
Add to all of that, Farris has a personal (and spiritual) investment in "Shine for All the People." These 10 songs are anecdotes of his own personal struggles from being an addict to pain killers to become someone set free by the grace of Jesus Christ. Thus, this album is more than just a phone-in affair. Rather, breathing through the stories of these songs is Farris' own personal sojourn as he too seeks to find redemption via these sonic entries. The album opens with "River Jordan," originally written and performed by Blind Willie McTell. Featuring a taut bassline with lots of airy notes by a host of brassy instruments, "River Jordan" is a Cuban/St. Louis blues number at its best.
On the track that is economically titled "Sparrow," Farris goes to church with his rendition of the hymn "His Eye is On the Sparrow." Featuring the free flowing arpeggios of a jazzy piano and Farris' spirited vocal liberties, "Sparrow" owes its fealty to an old black spirituals being performed live in a small country church with its walls rattling with praise. Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now" is the album's highlight. With careful attention paid to the various scenarios of our lives that need God's mercy, this spirited ballad is a song that drives us to the foot of the Cross in dependence. Rev. C.J. Johnson's "Something Keeps on Telling Me" and "How It Feels to Be Free," on the other hand, are spirituals done with a touch of rock n' roll.
Most familiar amongst the covers is "This Little Light of Mine." Farris has such an infectious take on this ditty that you can't help but want to sing along clapping to its rhythms. "Shine for All the People" is a record that defies categorizations. With lots of influences combusting together with creativity and heart, it's no wonder why "Shine" topples all its competitors to garner not just a Grammy but a favourite place in many hearts.