For several years, the Mark Trammell Trio has been the sort of group that gets to hear a songwriter’s fourth- or fifth-best song of the year. Now, given that we’re talking professional songwriters here, that’s still going to be a decently strong tune. But there is a slight difference; both are good tunes, but the better one is just a little more powerful.

Well, with this project, the Mark Trammell Trio has broken out of that mold. There are several songs on this project that were probably their respective songwriters’ strongest efforts of the year…and when we’re talking songwriters like Kyla Rowland, Marty Funderburk, Dianne Wilkinson, and Rodney Griffin, that is really saying something. (Okay, okay, Rodney’s isn’t his best song of the year. As Roger Bennett says, he saves those for Greater Vision. But back to topic.)

The Mark Trammell Trio has assembled its strongest collection of songs to date. Though liner notes are often be hyperbole, the notes on this project aren’t stretching the truth much if at all:

Eric Phillips, Distin Sweatman, Steve Hurst and Mark Trammell have made a covenant, one with the other, to deliver their best effort to date…. It seems that Mark’s Cathedral Quartet schooling is resurfacing in the area of song selection and arrangement, and all who know him are excited to hear what’s next. Mark states, “In over thirty years of singing, I’ve never been more pleased with the finished project than I am with this one. I still believe that it’s about the message and not so much the messenger.”

The project starts off with a Dianne Wilkinson / G.L. Nipper / Mike Richards song, “Even Thomas Couldn’t Doubt it.” This song features Mark Trammell. It’s not the strongest tune on the project (or even Wilkinson’s strongest number), but I actually like its placement here. It’s a good, solid song and sets the pace for the project. While a project that starts with its best song builds momentum which it typically loses by the end, over the first five or six songs this project just keeps getting better and better.

The second song on the project, a 1999 Chris Allman song called “Won’t it Be Wonderful There,” is probably Eric Phillips’ strongest solo. The Celtic feel of the song is something the Mark Trammell Trio hasn’t tried before, but they pull it off well. The first time I heard this song, I wondered why it had a built-in turnaround. But the second time, I paid a little closer attention and tried to picture Eric singing it live. This song should go over very well in that setting, and I think most audiences’ response will, indeed, demand an encore.

Kyla Rowland is easily one of the finest songwriters in Southern Gospel, so when someone says that a song is quite possibly her best effort in the past year, that’s not something to take lightly. Yet that is exactly the case with “Moving the Hand of God,” the third selection on the project. It sounds like it could have come off a Perrys project–and I mean that as a high compliment.

The fourth song on the project is the title song, “Once Upon a Cross” (by Marty Funderburk and Gina Boe). This song is good enough that I won’t try to spoil it for you by capturing it in words first. Might it suffice to say that I voted for this song for song of the year after only hearing it once? (If not, let me add that it is now #2 on my iTunes top 25 most-played list.)

The fifth song, “However I Go” (by Mark Mathes) features Dustin. The song might not leave a first impression of being a standout song. However, this song will probably become a highlight of the trio’s live program. I consider it one of the best songs onthe CD.

I Still Believe is written by Chris Allman, who also wrote “Won’t it Be Wonderful There.” It is a good song that features some interesting chord progressions in the chorus. (I must admit that I haven’t taken the time to figure out just what they are yet.)

Dianne Wilkinson’s contribution to the album, “Let Me Bring Your Children Home,” has some of the strongest lyrics she has written in recently years. Mark Trammell is featured on the song.

Joseph Habedank and Matthew Holt contribute “Weary at the Well.” It’s a good song, but not one that jumps out and grabs your attention to the extent of some of the others on the project.

“You Can’t Hold Back the Flood” is Rodney Griffin’s song on the project. As Roger Bennett said on Legacy Five’s Live in Music City live project, Rodney saves the best songs for Greater Vision, and there is more than a little truth to that. There are, of course, exceptions, like when he sent “He’d Still Been God” to the Freemans and the more recent “Don’t Let the Sandals Fool Ya” (done by Triumphant). Don’t misunderstand me, though; all kidding aside, this song is good. In fact, it may have been one of those songs that just barely didn’t make the cut onto a Greater Vision album.
The project closes with a song written by Steve Hurst, “Heaven Can’t Be Far Away.” It was originally recorded by Greater Vision in 1993, back when Mark Trammell was with that group.

* * *

As I mentioned toward the beginning of this review, many observers of the Mark Trammell Trio have said that they have the vocal ability to be one of the best groups out there, but they have been handicapped by having less-than-first-rate material.

Probably any group with Mark Trammell would be among the top twenty Southern Gospel groups, but the trio hasn’t yet had a breakout project that would place them solidly in the top five or ten. Is this the project?

I don’t know. The vocals are good enough, as are the soundtracks. The material is breakout quality. I suppose it all comes down to one thing. Is the time right? Are the fans ready to view this group as one of the top five groups out there…or even the best?

If the fans are ready, the material is here in this project, which could well go down as one of the strongest Southern Gospel projects to be released this decade.

(EDIT: Rating: 5 stars of 5)