Rating: 4.5 stars (of 5)

About two and a half years ago, Bill Gaither hosted two video tapings on consecutive days. One day was a hymns taping; three DVDs/CDs resulted (Rock of Ages, How Great Thou Art, and the Grammy®-nominated Amazing Grace). The other day featured a more familiar Homecoming mixture of new songs and classics. These resulted in two DVDs released this week, Nashville Homecoming and Joy in My Heart.

Let’s take a look at Nashville Homecoming.

  • The Hallelujah Side. This is a nice up-tempo song to kick the project off. A trio of Charlotte Ritchie, Wesley Pritchard, and TaRanda Greene sing the first chorus and the second verse and chorus; Chris Freeman offers a soulful solo on the first verse.
  • I Wish I Could Have Been There. Unlike most recent Homecoming tapings, where the artist could deliver the song either to a live audience or a semi-circle of artists which they could face while singing, this Homecoming setup places the audience of artists behind the singers, leaving the artists to play only to the cameras. Especially for artists new to the Homecoming video tapings (such as Perrys lead singer Joseph Habedank, featured on this song), this would only serve to compound the already jarring experience of singing to a sterile audience of high-definition cameras. So, perhaps understandably, Habedank started the first verse a little tentatively. But this wore off by the end of the first chorus, and the audience of artists stood for the encore. A second encore was called as the Perrys were walking off center stage; the video cuts away from this to a video of Bill Gaither talking with Duane Allen.
  • Try a Little Kindness. This familiar song, featuring Tim Surrett, is a nice mid-tempo change of pace.
  • I Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now. Songwriter Mosie Lister had recently produced a project called Mosie’s Men, a project featuring about 50 male voices. He directs all the male voices in the Homecoming choir on this classic. The choir’s sound is so pleasant and distinctive that one wonders if this song’s success might spur Gaither to do more songs featuring just the male voices in the choir. Gene McDonald and Glenn Dustin are featured on the verses. McDonald is stellar (as always); Dustin’s solo is one of his career best. He has been a great bass vocalist from day one, but this song is one of several recent solos showing his growth as a singer.
  • God is In the Shadows. This song is sung by a female trio of Kim, Brooklyn, and Courtney Collingsworth. Younger sister Courtney has the solo. Of all the vocal configurations the Collingsworth Family uses in any given concert, this female trio is possibly their best and certainly their most distinctive. The Collingsworth ladies are Southern Gospel’s female Booth Brothers. They match their enunciation and vocal placement more precisely than any other group in the genre (besides, perhaps, the Booth Brothers, the Isaacs, and Voices Won).
  • Over and Over. This song, sung by Jeff & Sheri Easter (featuring Jeff), is Charlotte Ritchie’s final Homecoming appearance as part of the group.
  • I Don’t Regret a Mile. This song features Johnny Minick playing piano and singing the lead; Guy Penrod and Sheri Easter added the trio harmony parts. As the first verse finishes, the video and audio both transition to Howard Goodmans’ narration from the Happy Goodmans’ 50 Faithful Years video. As the final chorus fades back in, the cameras cut between the 50 Faithful Years rendition and the live taping, and the Homecoming Choir’s voices were mixed in with Howard and Vestal’s vocals.
  • Child of the King. In another video montage, Mike Allen kicks the song off before the video cuts to an earlier version of the song by Brock Speer (from Moments to Remember). Tim Duncan sings the entire second verse. Halfway through the second chorus, the video fades back to Brock Speer, and the audio mixes the classic and current Homecoming choirs.
  • I’m So Glad. Practically every Homecoming video has its soul Gospel moment, and fans of those moments will appreciate this solo by Jessy Dixon and Alicia Williamson. Williamson’s verse is particularly enjoyable.
  • The Dearest Friend I Ever Had. The first verse of the song is a musical background to a video clip of Kelly Nelon Clark and Janet Paschal trading memories of their days with the Nelons. The second features the Homecoming Choir. (The complete song may be on the CD, which I do not have as of the time I write the review.)
  • Feet on the Ground. This song features Dallas Holm. Though his roots in contemporary music are evident, the song selection fits the rest of the project well.
  • Bill Gaither reminisces with Jimmy Blackwood about James Blackwood’s role in the first few videos.
  • O Happy Day. This song features Lillie Knauls, who was in the Edwin Hawkins Singers when this song became a big contemporary hit. The Talley Trio sings backup vocals. The look of shock on Knauls’ face when the encore kicked off was priceless, but she recovered instantly and turned in a strong encore.
  • Jonah, Job & Moses. This song, featuring the Oak Ridge Boys, is introduced by a clip of their lead singer, Duane Allen, reminiscing with Bill Gaither about the great voices in Southern Gospel music, past and present.
  • I Just Came to Talk With You Lord. This was Dottie Rambo’s final Homecoming performance; a brief tribute before the song honored her memory…but no tribute could be better than seeing her singing one of her classics. Fortunately for history, Gaither had a chance to capture her in high definition before her passing.
  • The Promise. The Martins, who have come back together for occasional tour dates, sang this song, from their final release (Above it All, 2003).
  • Ain’t Gonna Give Up on God. This song featured Gordon Mote singing and playing organ.
  • Meeting in the Air. After a few less traditional songs, Gaither nods to aficionados of classic quartets by including a Joshua Pope piano solo. Pope, now 16, was 14 at the time of the taping. He is as good a showman as he is a pianist, looking up and smiling at the (nonexistent) audience at appropriate points in the song.
  • Strike Up the Band. Legacy Five sings the opening track from what was a current release at the time of the taping, Live at Music City.
  • In the Upper Room. Larry Gatlin said that one of the greatest honors one songwriter can pay another is recording their song. He thanked the Gaither Vocal Band for giving them that honor when they cut “Heartbreak Ridge and New Hope Road,” and said they would return the honor by singing this early Gaither composition.
  • Bill Gaither reminisces with Lily Weatherford about the classic recording In the Garden.
  • The One I’m Dying For. This song is performed by the Isaacs, featuring Becky Isaacs Bowman.
  • It Won’t Rain Always. Bill Gaither introduced Janet Paschal by asking her to give an update on her cancer. (The update is slightly jarring to someone who follows Southern Gospel headlines closely, with the videos being recorded over two years ago.) Backup vocals were provided by Sheri Easter and Charlotte Ritchie.
  • Make it Real. Mark Lowry sings this classic Gaither Vocal Band song. (More thoughts later.)
  • I Need Thee Every Hour. Bill Gaither leads the Homecoming choir in this classic hymn, as a segue from the thoughts in the closing chorus of “Make it Real.”
  • Yaweh. The Hopper’s powerful rendition of this Paula Stefanovich classic-in-the-making helps bring the project to a strong close.
  • Send it On Down. This song features solos from Reggie Smith and TaRanda Greene. In an odd coincidence of history, the DVD’s actual release date (this past Tuesday) was the same day TaRanda was in surgery, donating a kidney to her husband Tony.

The video ends with a brief tribute to Dottie Rambo.

The Gaither team’s cinematography is excellent, as always. Overall, the Homecoming video crews have handled the transition to widescreen seamlessly, though there are a few minor glitches (such as a close-up shot of Kim Hopper toward the beginning of “Yaweh” where the bottom half of Dean Hopper’s head is a little too prominently in the frame for a little too long). But overall, the video quality shines; one can only hope that a Blu-Ray release may be in the works.

A bonus feature includes Bill Gaither discussing alligator hunting with Joel Hemphill (complete with photos of Hemphill with successfully hunted alligators). Before any controversy starts, in all fairness to Gaither, it must be said that this was taped well over a year before there was any public controversy over Hemphill’s doctrinal views.

In a slightly odd editing choice—I say “slightly odd” because I don’t see any particular connection between the two—the Hemphill interview segment segued into a bonus track from the Lewis Family, “A Step Away.” Most Gaither videos have included bonus segments as separate menu options.

Though a few deserving groups got their first Homecoming solos, or their first in quite some time, probably the most noteworthy part of the lineup is what isn’t there. There is no song featuring the Gaither Vocal Band on the entire project. Now it’s not like Gaither is trying to erase the memory of that lineup—after all, the companion DVD, Joy in My Heart, features the Hampton/Penrod/Hall lineup singing “Bread Upon the Water.” Yet this video will still probably go down as an anomaly in the series. I don’t know if I can definitively say whether this is the only Homecoming video without a Gaither Vocal Band song. (Do any readers know of others?)

Interestingly, the closest the video comes to a GVB song is “Make it Real,” a song featuring Mark Lowry, with backup vocals by Guy Penrod and Marshall Hampton Hall.

The taping that produced these two DVDs, and the Hymns DVDs, was the first Homecoming taping in four or five years featuring a fairly full, 150 to 200-voice choir. That makes these the first two DVDs of new songs taped in the classic format in a number of years—in fact, since legends like George Younce, Jake Hess, James Blackwood, and Vestal Goodman were still in the Homecoming Choir.

It’s not quite the same. It’s a little different—as it would have to be. But it’s quite good in its own way. There is really no other product out there (except maybe the NQC Live projects) that comes anywhere near to providing as broad a taste of the best Southern Gospel has to offer, in high-definition video and audio quality. Nobody knows how much longer we will have Bill Gaither preserving these moments for us. But it’s a privilege more or less unique to our genre—one it’s worth recognizing for the blessing it is while we still have it.