When Southern Gospel artists record table projects, hymns are a natural choice. The renditions are frequently straight out of the hymnal, just switching the soprano part down an octave for the lead singer. While there’s nothing wrong with that, a hymn arrangement and a creative arrangement don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Here are a few Southern Gospel hymn arrangements that use the hymn as a starting place for creativity:
- I Bowed On My Knees (Michael English). English’s iconic rendition of the hymn, recorded with every group he has been part of since the Goodmans in the early 1980s, is one of the most instantly recognizable tracks in Southern Gospel—oft copied since, but never surpassed.
- Love Lifted Me (Kingsmen, Live . . . Naturally, 1981). The Kingsmen recorded this arrangement on several projects, first on 1973’s Big and Live. But this one is probably the best. Hamill on the verses, audience singing on the straight-ahead chorus, the band kicking into double-time, and Little Ernie Phillips going through the rafters . . . it just doesn’t get better than this. Until the encore, that is.
- Love Lifted Me (Florida Boys, The Many Moods of the Florida Boys, 1970). Speaking of arrangements of “Love Lifted Me,” there is no question that the Florida Boys’ 1970 rendition deserves a mention on this list. Though tenor Tommy Atwood’s distinctive delivery has been compared by certain skeptical fans who shall go unnamed hearing the song for the first time to a sick cat and a police siren, one thing all can agree on: This arrangement is unique. And I, for one, love it.
- O Holy Night (Greater Vision, A Greater Vision Christmas, 1999). Gerald Wolfe and Lari Goss’s arrangement was so good that, for all intents and purposes, Wolfe has owned the song since, for our genre at least—and several top-tier singers who have done it since (Mark Trammell, TaRanda Greene) have used this track.
- Onward Christian Soldiers (Florida Boy, Up in the Sky, 1964). Especially at the time, but even still today, this rendition stands out as unique. The snare drum and bass solo aren’t exactly what one might expect, but they fit the lyric and melody perfectly.
- Wonderful Grace of Jesus (Cathedral Quartet, Voices in Praise Acapella, 1983). This arrangement became iconic over the years; the Cathedrals continued staging it through their final year on the road.
- Jesus Saves (Liberty Quartet, Timeless Treasured Hymns 2, 2007). How many hymn arrangements have you heard where the song shifts time signatures, from 3/4 to 4/4? Yet Liberty pulls it off so flawlessly here that, as I said here, “…after hearing Liberty Quartet sail effortlessly through more chord, time signature, and tempo changes than a typical mainstream group on a major label release, I found myself hoping that their projects of new songs could measure up.”
- O Worship the King (Janet Paschal, Sounds Like Sunday, 2007). Though there is only so much one can do with a vocal arrangement for a soloist, the track’s smooth transition from major to minor and back to major—in a song so majestic that most people wouldn’t even contemplate a minor key—earns this song its place on the list.
- Battle Hymn (Liberty Quartet, Timeless Treasured Hymns 2, 2007). Though there have been a number of decent renditions, it took a group of Yankees based in Idaho to pull off the definitive version of this song. The martial arrangement and creative harmonies earn this song its place in the top ten.
- O Happy Day (Florida Boys, Brotherhood, date unknown but probably late ’50s or early ’60s). This song is most frequently rendered as a repetitive to the point of pushing boring spiritual. Who would have thought it could become a convention song with energetic counterpoint?
- I Sing the Mighty Power of God / Canon in D (The Browns, Heritage Hymn Collection 1, 2009). The only reason this creative instrumental piece didn’t make the top ten is that there were too many good choices!
- I’d Rather Have Jesus (Crabb Family, Blur the Lines, 2006). Jason Crabb added another signature song to his repertoire with this rendition. The studio version doesn’t quite capture the power of the live rendition, though.
- Wonderful Grace of Jesus (The Browns, Heritage Hymn Collection Vol. 1, 2009). Practically every group that has cut this song since the Cathedrals trademarked their arrangement has more or less copied the Cathedrals’ rendition. But when the Browns cut it, they had a problem to encounter: They didn’t have a bass singer to hold down the bass part. They compensated by making the harmonies even a little more complex, and the delightful result would easily place this in a top 20 list.
- Near To the Heart of God (Ball Brothers, Simplified, 2008). The Ball Brothers’ vocal arrangements are so creative that it would be hard to narrow the list down to their most creative hymn arrangement. Though not a showstopper, this track is quite creative in a subdued, understated sort of way.
- My Savior’s Love / And Can It Be Medley (Liberty Quartet, Timeless Treasured Hymns 2, 2007). Yes, no less than three tracks from this project make a top 20 list.
- At the Cross (Gaither Vocal Band, Lovin’ God Lovin’ Each Other, 1997). This track starts out so slow that you might be inclined to write it off as the Vocal Band’s most boring song selection ever. Then Guy Penrod takes a solo on the verse and turns it into a power ballad. The slide from the third interval down to the root at the end of the verse is particularly unforgettable.
Surely I missed a few. Other honorable mentions—or songs you thought should have been in the top ten?