New Harmony: New spin on Mormon hymns from the heart

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 28 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Sabre Rattlers

www.sabre-rattlers.com

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For some time, there has been a game afoot among LDS musicians.

They keep trying to come up with new and fresh settings for LDS hymns.

We've heard the frontier instrumental versions of hymns from Enoch Train, the lush orchestrations of Lex de Azevedo and the grand, roof-raising renditions of Mack Wilberg.

Jenny Oaks Baker runs them through a violin, Paul Cardall and others pump them through a piano.

Now a new band — The Sabre Rattlers — has given its own spin to the tradition. Their CD, "Twixt Me and the Peaceful Rest," takes hymns cherished by folks in the Wasatch Mountains and gives them the twang and tang of the Ozark Mountains.

And the group, fronted by Mark Abernathy, has a way of making cherished Mormon hymns sound like the stylings of hardshell Tennessee Baptists from 80 years ago.

I like the CD.

And I like it because it's not just an attempt to do something novel.

It is not about the singers, it is about the songs. The music on the CD comes from the heart.

And when music feels real and deeply felt, it's hard to resist.

Song after song here fills the bill.

Some hymns, "Now Let Us Rejoice" and "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me," for example, are treated like straight ahead mountain music. Others, such as "Israel, Israel, God Is Calling" sound like roadhouse anthems, while "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" feels like the last song sung by a man of constant sorrow. And since most — if not all — the tunes behind the Mormon words in these hymns were fashioned in Protestant churches, the plaintive, almost pleading, vocals feel natural and ancestral.

In fact, you could make a case that this kind of music is true "white soul" music. (Think of Ricky Skaggs, or those tortured tenor solos by Ralph Stanley on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack).

Rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues spring from black history. And it's such powerful music it has become the sound of America.

But for many European Americans, their own "family history" of "soul music" stretches back to the British Isles and the church choirs and wandering minstrels who sang folk songs about Barbara Allen, roving gamblers and how "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet."

Abernathy and his troupe of troubadours have captured the painful, heart-rending style of American mountain music and laid it over LDS hymns, filling them with longing.

Does it work?

Let me just say The Sabre Rattlers now sit atop the stack of CDs I reach for first.

Check out the group and their history at www.sabre-rattlers.com.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in Mormon Times.

Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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