Prime Cuts: Happiness is the Lord, God on the Mountain, The End Down Here
The old adage that age isn't anything but a number applies here like a pair of fitting gloves. Despite being only 21 years of age, there's a seasoned and Godly maturity in Bates that far belies his age. Possessing a sturdy tenor with a gravitas that searches the depth of the words he sings, Bates has that unction that recalls a younger version of Mike Bowling or Bill Gaither. Sonically, "Freedom Sure Ain't Free" is a country-tilted Christian record. However, in these day and age where country music is used synonymously with Taylor Swift, the Band Perry and Florida Georgia Line, the word "country" needs qualification here. The type of country Bates espouses is spit and sawdust where banjos, fiddles and steel are used not decoratively. Rather, they are what carry the tune bringing us back to the rustic times of the Hinsons and the Kingsmen. And fans who are really enjoy the western tag of country music would be delighted to even hear Bates yodel.
Out of the 11 songs on "Freedom Sure Ain't Free," Bates gets to contribute two of his own compositions, both of which bookend the record. Starting off the proceedings is the title cut "Freedom Sure Ain't Free," this is Bates' patriotic nod to the red, white and blue. Avoiding the jingoistic route often traversed by Hank Williams Jr. or most notoriously by Toby Keith, "Freedom Sure Ain't Free" doesn't have that crass in your face persona. Rather, couched within the story of farm boy who felt the calling to fight the war in Iraq, this is a song that nudges at the heart as it warmly explores the complex emotions of serving one's country and the pain of seeing a family member going into war. The other Bates copyright "The End Down Here" closes off the album on a somber and a searching note. Getting beyond the niceties, "The End Down Here" challenges us to think about death, afterlife and eternity. Issues Jesus himself would want each of us to ponder.
The rest of the record contains all covers. One high point of these covers is that Bates has brought in a whole class of veterans in the offering of backing support. Among the notables include Brian Sutton, Darin Vincent, Ben Isaacs, Andy Leftwich and the Whites. But Bates isn't the type to bore us with yet another regurgitation of the overtly familiar. His choice of material is judicious balancing some of the more familiar songs from the Southern Gospel canon with lesser known (or at least forgotten) chestnuts. The Kyla Rowland-penned "Where is God" is a potent piece. For those of us going through life's tsunami of pain and hurts, this piece of theological apology is refreshing to the soul. The omnipresence of God has never been more poetically and graphically depicted than the moving "God on the Mountain."
Giving a youthful vigor that is so appropriate of the song's message about shinning for the Lord is Bates' rendition of the Hinsons' signature tune "The Lighthouse." And for those of us who have grown up in the church as kids "Happiness is the Lord" brings back such memories. Here Bates gives "Happiness is the Lord" a western makeover that even comes with some yodelling to boot. On the whole, there's not a dull moment on this disc. Invigorating, heartfelt and challenging; and if your taste leans towards country-Gospel, this is definitely an album to get hold of.