Do you ever find an album that so inexplicably captures you for a season that it’s all you can listen to? That’s what has happened to me with a recent little EP I discovered by Thad Cockrell called “To Be Loved”. Thad is a Nashville transplant who writes songs that feel like modern day gospel hymns. His songs are part folk, part alt-country, part Americana, part gospel, and even part ambient, but in the end the songs always add up to more than the sum of the parts.
My first gut reaction was that it reminded me of a blend of Chris Isaak, Paul Simon, Martin Sexton, Daniel Lanois and Ryan Adams. There is a disarming simplicity to the songs. I’ve heard the ideas he sings about many times before, but the sentiments that ought to feel threadbare find a quiet revival in Cockrell’s unassuming voice. What I love about it is how comfortable he seems to be with himself and what he does. These songs aren’t trying too hard to be anything other than what they are – simple testaments to the truth, beauty, and longing that Cockrell has known.
I found this little record refreshingly earnest. Let me say that I usually recoil from earnestness in music – it distracts me and leads me to suspect that the artist probably takes themselves too seriously. This is especially true in Christian music. And yet, there’s no denying that Cockrell is earnest. However, there’s an invisibility to his earnestness that registers more as a winsome humble sincerity. It seems to be less about him and more about the truth of what he’s singing about and feels refreshingly devoid of an agenda.
If an overbearing earnestness is one of the ditches that runs along the well worn path of this kind of gospel music, then the ditch on the other side is what we hear when the performer doesn’t mean the song at all, but sings the songs he sings for aesthetic reasons, like: “Hey look, I’m singing old-timey gospel songs!” Cockrell manages to avoid both ditches.
It’s because of this that Cockrell’s music captured my attention. It did more than that: it made me present again to the goodness of the good news that I’ve all but grown too accustomed to. When he sings “There’s Going To Be A Great Rejoicing” I was brought to tears by the lyric:
“One day you will find me guarded in his fortress
Open heart and wings that never touch the ground
One day we will gather in a grand reunion
Debts to this old world are nowhere to be found…”
And it was like hearing it for the first time when he sang “O To Be Loved By Jesus”
“He knows the name of my sorrow…”
What a comfort to hear that thought and be given a chance to believe it again. I love, too, the simple clarity of “The Master’s Calling” with it’s Lanois like production of swamp gas ambient electric guitar tones set against the old-school country sensibilities of the melody and lyric.
“Listen while you still can hear
Listen while you still can hear the Master’s call…
Bow down while your knees still bend
Bow down while your knees still bend, the Master is calling…”
This track I think would appeal to anybody who loved Emmy Lou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball.”
My favorites are the first three tracks, starting off with “Pride”:
“Pride won’t get us where we’re going
It’s made a life of standing in the way
Of all the beauty this world has worth knowing
Pride won’t get us where we’re going…”
Next is the hymn-like “There’s Going To Be A Great Rejoicing” whose warm electric guitar tones wash over you like warm water, followed by “A Country Of My Own” with its Paul Simon-esque delivery of lyrics like:
“I’ve been looking for a country of my own
When I see her face I know I’ll finally be home
Full of mystery and kept surprises
A vast expanse where a rich man pays, but to me she sympathizes
I’m searching for a country of my own…”
I don’t know a lot about Thad Cockrell and I couldn’t find much on the internet, but I understand that he comes from a family of pastors in North Carolina and that he started playing coffee-houses while he was going to Liberty University. Somewhere I believe I read that he’s one of the only men in his family who didn’t become a preacher, but I think the truth of it is that his songs preach plenty and his winsome delivery is bound to win many converts.
While not all of his lyrics are self-consciously clever or ambitiously original (compared to some of the progenitors of the new folk movement like Sufjan Stevens, Damien Rice, etc.), I think in Cockrell’s case that would be a great detriment. The beauty of this record is in its unassuming and humble simplicity. In Thad Cockrell I was treated to sweet spirited anthems of truth and beauty that stirred my deeper waters and reminded a jaded music listener and world-weary Christian like myself not only of why the good news is good but also that it can still sound fresh to someone who thought they had heard it all before.
Besides, with a name like Thad Cockrell you know you’re going to get something good.
Listen to Thad or purchase his new record at www.myspace.com/thadcockrell
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".