TURN TO JESUS
Dave Adkins Trio
Mountain Fever Records
As far as Deep Roots is concerned, Dave Adkins can do no wrong. His 2013 debut album with Republik Steel, That’s Just the Way I Roll, was an Album of the Week selection here; his second solo album, self-titled, checked in at #44 on our Elite Half Hundred of 2016. In between these two efforts he released his first solo album and a duo album with Edgar Loudermilk that earned raves across the board in the bluegrass world. What we learned from these four projects was twofold: Adkins is simply one of roots music’s finest vocalists, blessed not only with a powerful, emotionally gripping style but also a sense of the moment that allows him to shape his approach to a lyric in such a way as to heighten the import of each song’s message. And the message delivered with heart has always been paramount in Dave Adkins’s art.
Which brings us to yet another Adkins project in yet another configuration. This one is so purely a product of the modern age it’s almost ridiculous. As legend has it, Adkins and two of his eastern Kentucky gospel loving buddies (Richie Rose and David Taylor) got together in church and made two cell phone recordings of themselves wailing that old-time religion accompanied only by Dave’s guitar. When the cell phone videos were posted on the Adkins Facebook page, the response was overwhelming—more than 700,000 views in three months’ time.
One of the cell phone videos that begat the Dave Adkins Trio: Dave (guitar) with Richie Rose and David Taylor, in church, singing ‘House of Gold,’ later recorded for Turn to Jesus
Meanwhile, back at Mountain Fever Records, company president Mark Hodges, having long harbored a dream of producing an all-gospel album he describes as “a simplified acoustic version of music that draws strength from the heart and means a lot to me and a lot of other people,” took note of the response to those cell phone videos Adkins posted. Soon enough, he was in the studio producing the newly minted Dave Adkins Trio (with instrumental support by Aaron Ramsey on guitar and mandolin, and Jeff Partin on dobro and bass) on a dozen mostly vintage gospel tunes.
Released on April 7, Turn to Jesus is not an Easter album per se but its songs are focused on the fulfillment a life in Christ promises, and in this way it celebrates the Resurrection, Christianity’s animating event. This idea is better articulated in a 2009 Easter Sunday sermon, “Steadfast and Immovable,” by John M. Buchanan, Pastor of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. Pastor Buchanan cited Serene Jones, the then-new President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City “and a very distinguished academic,” who claimed “Easter is not, finally, about ideas, theories, or even creedal affirmation, hypotheses about possibilities of resurrection; it is about our personal relationship with God. She writes, ‘Like Mary we long to be known by God, to be held in God’s gaze, to be seen by God as the object of God’s love and care.’ The astonishing news of Easter is that it is exactly how he comes—not only to introduce God’s new creation into history, but to you and me, to call us by name and to invite us to live lives that know that death has been overcome, that because he lives, we shall live also.”
“To call us by name”: That’s the rub of Turn to Jesus. It seems no accident that the first tune is the Bill and Gloria Gaither standard, “He Touched Me” (one of Elvis’s most powerful gospel recordings too, by the way), with its key lyric, “Something happened/He touched me and made me whole.” Throughout the album the Trio offers evidence of being made whole by their personal experiences with Jesus. Adkins’s earth voice carries the load, of course, but the harmonies provided by Taylor and Rose are exquisite and moving in their own right. Appropriately, this is a quiet album, with minimal instrumental support (in fact, one of the strongest numbers here is a cappella—a bluesy rendition of “Where Could I Go But To The Lord,” another gospel tune associated with Elvis, who featured it on his 1968 comeback special), but that’s not to say it’s lacking in energy. Guitarist Ramsey sets a blistering pace for the singers on “Honey In the Rock” just as his guitar and mandolin and Partin’s dobro spark a furious, urgent take on “Crying Holy Unto the Lord”; on the soaring “Working On a Building,” Ramsey and Partin (on bass) weave sprightly solo moments in between the verses.
But when things turn inward, reflective and philosophical, Turn to Jesus hits you where you live. The title track, penned by Adkins with the great Brink Brinkman, is the gentlest and most persuasive kind of altar call, with Adkins’s restrained but gripping vocal making the case for the title sentiment in penetrating lyrics such as “if sorrow brings you to your knees/you’re right where you need to be/turn to Jesus…” It’s Adkins channeling John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” counseling, in the Adkins way, what the poet meant when he wrote, “let us walk through that door.” A rustic vocal-and-guitar version of “Old Rugged Cross” makes manifest the triumph of the cross by dint of the near-palpable emotion in Adkins’s lead vocal and his partners’ sensitive harmonies.
At the end the exuberance of “Working on a Building” leads to a knockout one-two punch of soaring renditions of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” that might well leave listeners speechless. But in the quiet encircling you when the music stops, you will be known by God, be held in God’s gaze and be “right where you need to be.”
Happy Easter! –By David McGee