About 15 years ago on a visit to Salt Lake City, I stopped in at a Deseret Book store and saw several shelves devoted to CDs by Mormon singers, songwriters, musicians, and composers.
Where the Tabernacle Choir had once had a corner on sacred music, there were now others offering instrumental and vocal interpretations of the standard repertoire of sacred music, and some of these were very good, indeed.
What caught my eye, though, was a relatively new group of Mormon vocalists who were trying to develop a distinctly LDS "pop" voice.
The last time I had heard such a thing attempted was when Marvin Payne first brought his gorgeous baritone voice to his own folk songs. Reaching for a chance at commercial success and with the help of some of the Osmonds, he released the single "Eliza," which I loved. It got radio airplay, but no other commercial releases followed.
There at the LDS music shelves, I thought: "Maybe some of these new singer-songwriters have picked up the torch."
I bought at least one CD from every Mormon pop singer on offer, and my kids and I listened to them as we drove home.
I'm afraid we weren't a very sympathetic audience.
Most of the singers sounded as if they were talking down to Primary children.
You know what I mean: that smiley, condescending tone that used to be heard, not just in Primary, but in Relief Society meetings as well. For many years, it was the oh-so-special accent of LDS women in public discourse.
(I think it ended the first time Sheri Dew spoke in general conference. It's as if LDS women heard her and thought: "Oh, now we can talk like grownups.")
That tone of voice did not translate very well to singing — it undercut the credibility of every word they sang. We called them "smile singers" and never played the CDs again.
I had noticed something else as well. Most of them had song after song that was intended to bear their testimony or teach a doctrine. They were trying to say something important. But there was no attention to the art of diction.
There are words that are weak or even ridiculous when sung, rhymes that make the listener wince — and, with all the fervor of their hearts, they used them regularly, arousing something between pity and embarrassment.
But I could understand it — these young Mormon singers were inventing a new genre, and had neither precedents nor standards.
Moral standards, of course, they had aplenty. But artistic standards, not so much.
Singers in the genre of Christian music have faced the same problem — and made the identical mistakes.
When the movie "Amazing Grace" came out, there were two albums — the soundtrack score, and an extra album consisting of the great old hymns of Victorian England, interpreted by contemporary artists — "Amazing Grace: Music Inspired by the Motion Picture."
The second album had time-tested favorite hymns, and the performers brought a powerful sensitivity to their interpretations. I had heard of almost none of them, so in order to hear more from them, I bought or downloaded their own albums.
When I listened to those from the Christian pop genre, they were, with few exceptions, awful. Because they were singing songs they wrote themselves.
Same voices, same instrumentation. But the music was barely serviceable and the words were embarrassing. Not because I didn't agree with their sentiments, but because they had simply taken no care. Any rhyme or rhythm would do. Sore-thumb words abounded.
In LDS music, things have improved since 1993. Here and there. Now and then.
Felicia Sorensen's wonderful "She Believes" album showed that someone, at least, knew when a song was ready to be recorded. Marvin Payne is still around, hopping from genre to genre and career to career.
Most of the best openly LDS albums have consisted of new interpretations of favorite old songs. For instance, Brett Raymond's "Primarily for Grownups," "Primarily for Christmas" and "Primarily for Grownups Again" are a constant delight.
Maybe the problem is simply that not every singer is a songwriter. And if the best LDS music continues to consist of new interpretations of standards, I'm fine with that.
Which is a long way around, I suppose, to calling your attention to a Shadow Mountain (i.e., Deseret Book in jeans) release called "Mary's Lullaby: Christmas Songs for Bedtime."
It's a compilation of familiar Christmas carols — time-tested, so there are no songwriting issues. Instead, producer Scott Wiley was able to hold everyone to an excellent concept: The carols really would be performed as lullabies.
The volume stays low, the rhythms gentle, the tempos slow. The singers do nothing to show off or decorate the music. They're intimate, as if being sung to a baby held in the singer's arms.
To me, this brings back my favorite memories of my earliest years of fatherhood. My firstborn had to be sung to in order to get him to sleep at all — and the voice he responded to was my baritone. (It all evens out: My voice terrified my youngest!)
And what song did he want, when he was old enough to express a preference? "Away in a Manger." Any version, but sung over and over, often for hours at a time, while he obediently lay in bed holding as still as if he were asleep.
I graded so many student papers and read so many books while mindlessly singing "Away in a Manger" that I still find it running through my mind like tinnitus — but the song contains my memory of that little boy.
So an album of lullabies was bound to touch my heart if it was done even halfway decently. Instead, "Mary's Lullaby" was, in a word, perfect.
I had already heard many of these singers doing their own music and, sadly, dismissed them — as performers, not just as songwriters. Why? Because they sang as if they were auditioning for American Idol — that over-wrought, over-decorated style that conceals every scrap of originality and character in the singer's voice.
Yeah, yeah, you can sing like Whitney. So what? Who are you?
On this album, every single voice emerged with individuality. I wanted whole albums of these singers singing like this.
Simplicity. Clarity. Good music. Strong and well-chosen words. Then their sincere message could touch my heart, because they had put up no barriers to my receiving it.
It's a lesson that applies to Mormons engaged in all the arts. Testimony does not substitute for craft and skill.
In sacrament meeting, we accept and enjoy even modestly talented singers because we know them, and — to put it bluntly — because it's free.
The moment you charge money for a performance, it has to meet a very different standard. "Mary's Lullaby" meets that standard. It joins only a handful of other LDS albums.
But they do exist. And so, when I contemplate those shelves in Deseret Book, I have a lot more hope.Comment on this story
Ultimately, the responsibility for the quality of Mormon music rests with the audience — the market, if you will. If there is no difference in sales between albums with good songs and albums whose song-writing awfulness suggests the Jonas Brothers, then nobody will learn anything — not the songwriters, not the singers, not the arrangers, not the producers and not the publishers.
Without a discerning audience, then the artists know that anything will do — or that nothing they try will make any difference.
So when you pay for an album like "Mary's Lullaby," you get two rewards: the album itself and the possibility of improvement in all LDS pop music.