I have updated and re-released an album I put together with some friends ten years ago, POPLAR TENT MEMORIES. The name of the album comes from the road where I lived after I was born, Poplar Tent Road, in Concord, NC. There was no Interstate 85 roaring through, moonshiners lived down the road and my grandpa and grandma were two houses away. I attended Poplar Grove Baptist Church before I could walk. My Grandpa Price led the music, and I have memories of the singing from pre-age five.
Poplar Tent Memories is sixteen songs from the 2011 album and some I have added in recent years. It features several friends, including Michaela Bundon (Take a listen to her on “Tell Me the Story of Jesus”!), Nancy McLemore, Melanie Rodgers and Beth McGinnis among others.
I still have my grandfather’s old Broadman hymnal, a shaped note edition from 1940. The church musicians of Baptist life gave us a rich heritage of hymn singing. My grandfather led music in revivals, every Sunday in church, and sang in a quartet that included my mother. So I grew up, as so many Baptists then did, with an affordable upright piano in the house and a piano bench full of gospel music.
Regrettably, I resisted and won on giving up on the piano, but the guitar found me at nine or ten, and the hymns continued to be a great source of personal devotion for me in all the years that followed. I love hymns because they taught me the basics of my faith. “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and dozens of others were my first instruction in the faith. We sang every time we came together, over and over we recited and sang them until we knew them by heart.
I miss that part of life. I wonder if part of why we’re so messed up now is that we don’t sing together like we used to. I know people sing in arenas to the latest pop microhit, but that’s not the same. Moreover, it’s how we learned the faith. Sermons, other than the really scary ones at revivals, I remember almost nothing. But hymns, I have emblazoned all over my brain. They bubble up all the time.
When I sing, somehow the crazy part of my brain shuts off for a bit and I touch a deep place again, where Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Beethoven and Lowell Mason speak to me. The hymns give voice to longings, pain, sorrow and hope, and above all, to Jesus, who is always better than most of Christianity. When I keep looking at that beautiful life, I don’t feel as lost.
I once opened for rocker and contemporary Christian singer Ashley Cleveland at the old Moonlight on the Mountain music venue. Like so many in the music world, addiction overtook her life for a while. It was part of her journey back to her childhood faith. During that harrowing time, she said, it was the old hymns that came back to her and carried her through.
I hope you enjoy these hymns, whether you are a church person or not. There is something universal and accessible to anyone in them.