Album Review: Andy Gullahorn’s Beyond the Frame

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For four years now, Andy Gullahorn has hosted a weekly event called Bowling Lunch. It’s exactly what it sounds like: men gather in a bowling alley, eat lunch, and bowl. Andy keeps a spread sheet of everybody’s scores and sends out a weekly email showing the current standings and communicating any administrative issues. The regulars have nicknames, typically assigned by Andy (Frank the Killer, Beyonce, Smoothie, Patasaurus, etc.). And once a year Andy hosts an awards ceremony complete with speeches, trophies, and printed certificates.

About two hundred men have attended Bowling Lunch since its inception. It’s a funny mix of people–musicians, retirees, the self-employed, the under-employed, and even a few people with real jobs. When the Anglican Archbishop of Rwanda visited Nashville, Andy invited him to Bowling Lunch. His Grace had never bowled before; still, he beat Andrew Osenga.

Bowling Lunch is a laugh a minute. And why wouldn’t it be? You’re bowling in the middle of the day. You’re eating bowling alley food. You’re hanging out with some very interesting people.

But now I begin to come to my point. Yes, Bowling Lunch is a laugh a minute. And yes, the whole concept, like the American Idol Fantasy League that Andy operated a few years ago, seems like a big joke. But it’s more than that. Something quite important happens at Bowling Lunch. Grown men, a notoriously lonely lot, connect with one another over terrible hot dogs and two games of bowling. I don’t want to overstate the case; Bowling Lunch isn’t church. But it is a place where men from many walks of life feel that they belong. Recently my teenage son went right by himself and had a great time bowling with a couple of retirees, a singer-songwriter, and a property manager. If you were to scan the crowd at a Bowling Lunch, you’d be hard-pressed to guess what they share in common. What they share in common is that they all know Andy Gullahorn. And Andy seems to take quite seriously his role as the bringer-together of this rag-tag group of fellow pilgrims.

I tell the story of Bowling Lunch because I think it offers real insight into the rest of Andy Gullahorn’s work. Andy has a well-deserved reputation for being a hilarious guy–the kind of guy who would originate Bowling Lunch and the American Idol Fantasy League. If you’ve ever seen him perform live, you know that his patter between songs is on the level of a stand-up comic; you laugh even before he starts talking. His funniest songs are among his best-known songs. But underneath all that hilarity is real depth and spiritual sensitivity and a genuine interest in other people’s lives and struggles. At Hutchmoot last year, when Andy and I did a session called “The Gospel Uses of Comedy,” I asked him to play his song “I Haven’t Either.” Halfway through the song, people were crying laughing. By the end of the song, a few of them were crying crying, moved by the song’s honesty about the realities of living with a broken self.

Andy’s new album, Beyond the Frame, includes one of the funniest Gullahorn songs of all time. “Skinny Jeans” posits a theory that might explain why Andy isn’t as well-known as, say, Justin Bieber. The other day somebody remarked on Facebook that “Skinny Jeans” is reason enough to buy and listen to Beyond the Frame. That’s true as far as it goes, but the person who comes to this record in order to be amused is liable to get gobsmacked.

Consider the first words you hear when you listen to Beyond the Frame:

Nothing. All you hear is silence.
Feels like you’re alone and
Drifting off of the map.
But many souls have gone
Down this road you’re on.
At least I have.

Life isn’t all bowling and skinny jeans. Andy puts the listener on notice: this is going to be a record about hard things–marital trouble, the death of loved ones, addiction, persistent shame, the growing doubts of middle age. But even more importantly, this is a record about bearing one another’s burdens, acknowledging our common humanity and our shared need of a Savior. You’re not the only one who’s been down this road, Andy says. He’s been down it too.

In the liner notes, every song is dedicated to somebody, usually a person or persons whose story inspired the song. Those little headnotes make the songs feel more personal and intimate even than songs of straight self-revelation would. It’s no rare thing for a singer-songwriter to explore his own suffering in his music. The most striking thing about Beyond the Frame is Andy’s willingness to explore the suffering of his friends, to dive into that suffering and to find hope like a glimmering pearl in its depths–not the false hope of easy answers, but hard-won hope.

Beyond the Frame is a deeply compassionate album. Like a good friend, these songs enter into the world of a hurting fellow pilgrim and feel his pain, but they also take a step back to speak words of wisdom that the sufferer may not be able to speak to himself. I especially love “Favor Is a Foreign Tongue,” which addresses a person too bound up in shame and addiction to receive proffered grace:

You’ve got friends trying to help, reaching out to you,
But it’s not adding up with the little you think you deserve.
You’re content with a loss ’cause you’ve got nothing left to lose,
So you burn every bridge ’til they can’t reach you anymore.

I hate to imagine what happened to that little child
That convinced you that goodness was too good to be true.
Who knows what it was; maybe drugs had the final say
When you took any trust and pawned it like a wedding ring.
Oh but there’s so much more that I wish you would steal away,
Like the mercy and peace and forgiveness you can have for free.

The hope of Beyond the Frame revolves around the truth that we don’t have all the answers; we cannot see what God sees. That’s what the album title means. The refrain from the title track is haunting and a beautiful end to an album that has looked at hard things without blinking:

I took a picture of the Grand Canyon
So I could remember that day.
But the beauty of the Grand Canyon
Stretches way beyond the frame.

The person in the midst of hardship can’t see the whole picture. But neither can the person who hopes to offer comfort. We speak the truth to one another, we remind one another of the big picture as best we can, but the more important thing is to come alongside one another and bear one another’s burdens.

I hope I haven’t portrayed Beyond the Frame as grim. It isn’t. Yes, it addresses hardship and suffering, but it does so in a way that brings the hope of the gospel to bear. Maybe this will help: Imagine if the coolest kid you knew in school also happened to be among the most compassionate and wisest and most generous-hearted. Wouldn’t you want to hear his record?

[Beyond the Frame is available in the Rabbit Room store.]

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


14 Comments

  1. Peter B

    Thank you again, Jonathan. I can’t wait to hear this record — and I’m thankful beyond words for the peculiar set of gifts that God has given to the founder of Bowling Lunch.

  2. Jud

    I think I just got mentioned in a Rabbit Room article. Yay! I’m thoroughly looking forward to being gobsmacked . . .

  3. Carrie

    “When the Anglican Archbishop of Rwanda visited Nashville, Andy invited him to Bowling Lunch. His Grace had never bowled before; still, he beat Andrew Osenga.”

    From what I saw in Andrew Osenga’s Kickstarter video, that doesn’t seem to hard.

  4. redheadkate

    I have long thought it should be called “Lunch ‘n Bowl” or “Luncheon Bowl”. Choose your preferred spelling.

    Humor & music can squirm their way into the deep things unlike anything else. Andy combines the two unlike anyone else I’ve seen. Those things stick with you.

  5. MGA

    First things first:

    Why are you waiting to get this album? $ 12 and five minutes at the Rabbit Room store and you’d be listening to it. And you should.

    You should because it’ll encourage Andy to keep writing.

    You should because it’ll encourage you to hear the astonishing honesty of his words.

    You should because it’s the right reward this kind of rare artistry mandates.

    Buy it now, listen to it and share it. Admit it: you’ll spend a lot more on a lot less worthwhile stuff this year. Click the “add to cart” button you silly monkey.

    With that said, Beyond The Frame is exactly what I feared and hoped it would be. It’s ‘typical’ Andy in that he consistently takes aim at your failings and vulnerabilities and cuts so deeply that you wince. But he does it with such grace and wit and humour that you find yourself somehow grateful for the wound.

    There was a game we used to play as kids at summer camp – you and your opponent stood atop milk crates each holding one end of a rope; the first one off the milk crate lost. The trick to winning the game was to get your opponent off balance by pulling when he expected you to be slack or slackening your grip when he expected you to pull. And that’s exactly what Andy does time and again – he’ll get you ‘leaning’ in a certain direction, sure of where his song is taking you and what’s it really about – and then suddenly he’s gone another way you didn’t see coming. “I Haven’t Either” is typical but this album features something similar in “Nowhere To Be Found” and a few other ‘gotcha’ moments.

    Along with “Nowhere”, standouts include “Favour Is A Foreign Tongue”, “The Surface of Things” (I’m now looking for all the hidden cameras Andy must have installed in my home), “Sleeping Sound” (which will destroy all Dads among us) and “Grand Canyon.” Talk to me in another month and I’ll have added more to that list because this stuff grows on you like aggressive mold – once you appreciate the depth of Andy’s writing, it’s hard to shake what he’s written.

    And while there is much of the lyrically familiar twists in Andy’s writing on this album, it’s also to my ear a musical progression from him. Beyond The Frame is far lusher than its predecessors in points – there are subtle flourishes and tones that dot the album and add a depth that is a beautiful adornment to the words. At the same time, if you liked Andy’s earlier work, this is not a musical departure that you’ll find frustrating but rather a continuation and maturing that is consistent with what has gone before.

    Did I mention you should buy this? You should. I can’t believe you dawdled reading through this mummery of a review when you could have been listening instead. There are an embarrassing number of tunes on this record that are worth the admission price on their own. $ 12? That’s like skipping two Starbucks stops.

    Can’t wait for the Northern leg of the tour Andy.

  6. Captain Crayon

    Hello,

    Looking forward to hearing this album. 🙂 And sharing it with friends.

    Thanks.

  7. Dan

    Great review! I’m excited to get my hands (and ears) onto this. He’s playing in Grove City PA on August 23rd (plug, no shame). That’s my purchase date.

  8. Other Dan

    I haven’t even read this yet, but the fact that I’m also planning on being at the Grove City show must have some significance.

    Also, I have listened to this, once, and there is some really good stuff in there! But what did you expect? (“… if you choose to listen to a brand new song.”)

  9. Shane Werlinger

    Andy Gullahorn is one of those rare artists that when they release a new album, I buy it without having hearing it. My confidence level is that high it will be more than worth the price of admission. It seems like most of the artists on the “Buy Before I Hear” list are sold in the Rabbit Room, including Andy’s wife and two other Andys along with a Mr. Peters and Shive. How blessed are we to have such a talented group here. (Very)

  10. MGA

    Wow Shane, you and I are on the same ugly course.

    Personally, I think Andrew Peterson is the gateway drug:

    You stumble across him one day because someone gave you your first mp3 “free”. You give him a try, you think it’s just recreational and – blam – suddenly you’re buying box sets and unreleased live tracks. But it’s not enough, it’s never enough.

    After you burn through the books, the chord charts, the backing tracks, you gravitate into the hard stuff always seeking the elusive rush: Gullahorn, Gray, Shive, Peters… The family MP3 player is jammed with Rabbit Room material. One day you find yourself getting the sweats and feeling clammy because product has been constrained and you haven’t made a new buy lately. Your wife keeps hearing you mutter things like “when’s the stinkin’ pre-release Gully??!!!”. In the final stages, you travel ridiculous distances to see live shows. People begin to mutter that your work is being affected…

    Ok, maybe the analogy isn’t the most exalted. But I’m beginning to think I have a problem. Maybe we should start a 7 step group…

  11. Dan R. ("other Dan")

    Please start the line for best comments of 2013 here.

    Once you’re through there, please proceed to ‘Recovering Rabbit Room Readers, Record-buyers, and Alliteraters.’

  12. Nick

    For several years Andy and Jill’s music has been soul fool for my family and friends. They have made me laugh and cry more times than I can count.

    Buy this CD. And all the other ones too.

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