“We’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do, but we’re going to fill the studio with a bunch of instruments and would love for everyone to come.”
So began the hymn project and musical group now known as The Lower Lights, according to singer and guitarist Ryan Tanner.
As Tanner puts it, “depending on who you talk to any given day,” the exact origin story changes a bit. But the general consensus is that musician Patrick Campbell and producer/engineer Scott Wiley had wanted to do some kind of hymn album for years.
Wiley has served as the glue of the group — the one everyone knew even if they didn’t happen to know each other so well at first. They pulled together a talented group for a party at Tanner’s house and formed The Lower Lights in 2009.
Since then, the project has involved many favorite local and not-so-local artists, including Cherie Call, Ryan Shupe, Mindy Gledhill, Neon Trees' Branden Campbell, Stuart Maxfield, Jay William Henderson, Stephanie Mabey, Ryan Tilby, Brooke White, Sarah Sample and Aaron Anderson and Robbie Connolly of the band Fictionist.
Just to name a few.
While conflicting schedules keep some members from participating in every album recording, all of the musicians enjoy participating when they can.
“It’s like an extended musical family,” said vocalist Debra Fotheringham. “I’m always excited when I get to do anything with The Lower Lights.”
Bluegrass, folk, gospel, Americana and “roots-y” are just a few words that could be used to describe The Lower Lights’ sound. The band’s name comes from the hymn “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” and listeners are just as likely to hear a tender, soulful rendition of “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” as they are a knee-slapping version of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.”
In five short years, the band has created two albums with collections of hymns and gospel standards, plus two Christmas albums. The Lower Lights released their fifth album, titled “A Hymn Revival Volume 3,” on Dec. 2, and it includes beloved songs such as “Be Still My Soul” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” The group is now gearing up for seven Christmas concerts Dec. 13-20 at the Salt Lake City Masonic Temple auditorium.
“It’s kind of grown in ways I don’t think any of us expected when we started,” said Paul Jacobsen, a guitar player, vocalist and frequent songwriter for the group. He shared stories of sold-out Christmas shows and how the turnout has doubled every year. “The initial impetus was just to record these songs in a way that resonates with us. I never saw it growing into what it is.”
Tanner agreed, saying that there was no intent to create music for the purpose of selling it.
“We just wanted to sing,” he said.
The group’s style, rather than giving the hymns a modern musical treatment, revives some very traditional musical roots. Tanner pointed to old greats such as Johnny Cash and how normal it used to be for popular artists to sing gospel music.
“It’s just part of the fabric of American music,” he said. “You could make an argument that it’s almost criminally ignored in popular music today.”
The group combs through many hymnals and songbooks to find melodies and lyrics that “pull at them,” he said.
Jacobsen explained that there is a diversity of spirituality in the group with different religions and ideals represented.
“I think it’s important to (all of) them, but it’s important to them for different reasons,” he said.
Fortheringham offered her take on the genre: “I love how universal it is — how it brings people together in ways that other kinds of music can’t. I love that people of all Christian faiths can find meaning in the songs.”
For Tanner, hymns in particular are very personal.
“They’re absolutely essential to my spiritual welfare,” he said. “It means the world to me.”
Each artist detailed how the band just “clicked” even at the very first recordings.
“There was this energy about it,” Jacobsen said. “These songs just kind of worked for us. They fell under our fingers and our voices in a way that didn’t feel forced at all.”
Both Jacobsen and Tanner talked about how they felt guided through the process— how it’s really kind of miraculous that such a large group of artists from such a wide variety of backgrounds could come together so well. Setting aside egos has something to do with it, Jacobsen said.
“It’s super inspiring to see these people who have all the talent in the world and every reason to be self-centered that decide instead to say, ‘Well, I think, for the group, this might be better if so-and-so played it rather than me,’ ” he said. “Everyone kind of gets that the song comes first.”
The songs and their sacred messages have a uniting power to them, Tanner said.
“When we raise our voices together ... you can kind of forget your troubles, and by the end of it, everyone is dancing to ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ ” he said.
He laughed as he described their first experience doing a fireside and trying to get people to clap along. For a lot of people, hymns have become a little slow and sleepy, Tanner said. To some people, they may have even become an afterthought. The Lower Lights intend to make these songs important again.
“We walk a pretty fine line between reverence and irreverence, I think,” Tanner said. “But hopefully when people listen to the records and come to the shows, they know that this is pretty serious business for us.”
The Lower Lights are in the business of breathing new life into the sacred hymns and gospel tunes audiences may already know and sharing the meaningful messages of some songs that have been forgotten over the years.
The performances are meant to be a more interactive experience by allowing large crowds to share in a meaningful moment and establish a tradition that audiences are loving. Band members said they are “floored by” and “very, very grateful” for the audience response and the way things have grown.
“There’s so much garbage in the world, but there’s so much good,” Tanner said. “To be able to do something like this, where you get up and you get to sing these beautiful songs, is a real blessing.”
If you go ...
What: 5th annual Lower Lights Christmas Concerts
When: Dec. 13-20, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake Masonic Temple, 650 E. South Temple
How much: $15
Note: Each evening's performance features a different special guest: Dec. 13, Fictionist; Dec. 15, Stephanie Mabey; Dec. 16, Peter Breinholt; Dec. 17, The National Parks; Dec. 18, Jamen Brooks; Dec. 19, Jay William Henderson; and Dec. 20, The Christmas Trees.
Email: [email protected]