In the winter of 2001 I was sitting in the San Francisco Sunset LDS Chapel holding my new Visor PDA with its impressive 8MG’s of memory and green/grey LED screen. In my right hand was the stylus and I was busy at work assembling a list of hymns that would comprise an album that I was planning on recording someday soon.
At this point in my life I was coming to grips with who I was and where I came from. I had just read an excellent biography of my great-great grandfather Henry Lunt who was a pioneer and early leader and settler of the Mormon Church in Southern Utah. I was also heavily influenced by the music of composer John Zorn and his Masada chamber ensembles. I was impressed that Zorn had embraced his Jewish culture and turned to it for artistic inspiration. At one point I came to grips that I was a Mormon and this was something that most definitely made me unique in my musical circles so I decided that I should not only own it, but exploit it for whatever it was worth.
My original concept was to employ my non-Mormon musician colleagues/friends to take a stab at these sacred hymns. I figured that there might be some interesting results and that I just might hear something new in these very familiar melodies given this unique juxtaposition. Growing up in a musical LDS home these hymns were sometimes regarded as wallpaper as other musics received the spotlight. They were just always around and having someone take a stab at them could breathe new life into them. Deep down I knew that they were important, but at this point they didn’t seem to resonate within.
As time marched on this album grew with me and evolved with the changing landscape that was my life. In the summer of 2001 I moved back to Salt Lake City and my dream of hearing non-LDS types taking their turn at these hymns faded. Instead I became more and more curious about how these hymns would have sounded somewhere in the middle of Iowa in 1856. I researched what instruments may have been available on the Plains and began plotting what musicians I’d like to employ to make this happen. One thing I was adamant about was making sure that this album was recorded live as I just couldn’t shake the vision I had of a nightly campfire celebration after a long days journey.
I was dealt a blow by my good friend Shawn Foster as he shared with me a copy of an album by The Beehive Band, which is a group of local musicians and ethnomusicologists who had taken on the historical burdon of documenting early Pioneer music. After listening I was happy to know that someone had taken the lead and did a fine job of documenting these musics that define my culture. Sadly, this left me without a concept and I tossed the idea aside.
A while later I encountered the Cold Mountain soundtrack and was deeply impressed. Somewhere between the shape note singing of the Sacred Harp Singers and Jack White’s claw hammer banjo fueled take on I’m A Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger I was inspired. Sometime after that I heard Sufjan Stevens version of Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing and felt as though there was an audience for this music.
Then I had a conversation with Scott Wiley …
I don’t recall when I shared this idea with Scott, but I do remember one night at Slow Train Records in Salt Lake City when Scott shared with me that this album was going to happen. We were packing up after playing with Paul Jacobsen and Scott had either found some financing or had the time or figured out a good concept. Regardless, I was happy to have Scott aboard as 1) I love Scott and love working with him 2) I’d never get it done by myself and 3) Scott is deeply connected to the talent that would make this happen.
From this point it took a couple of years, but the e-mail finally came about scheduling studio time. Scott had enlisted the help of Paul Jacobsen and Ryan Tanner to shoulder the burdon of this project. Either by fate, or by circumstance I wasn’t able to participate as much as I had intended (who needs a drummer when dealing with sacred music anyway). But I was relieved and happy to know that something so dear to me was entrusted to three of my favorite like-minded musicians/colleagues/friends. I knew that they would deliver a superior product and that the experience would be fantastic.
Then came those inspired days in October of 2009. We assembled at June Audio (or whatever it’s called these days) and began the process of carving out and recording these hymns. Scott had wisely employed the talents of photographer and videographer Jed Wells to document the session. There was a palpable feeling in the air. It was special and I can only imagine that it was the spirit of our Heavenly Father blessing us with a portion of His Spirit. It was Zion, where the pure in heart dwelled. I have never had an experience quite like it.
There were several stars of the session, but for my money nothing comes close to our stable of vocalists: Debra Fatheringham, Paul Jacobsen, Ryan Tanner, Dustin Christensen, Sarah Sample, amongst others. They sang and sang and sang take after take. Rehearsal after rehearsal. They kept delivering superior performances. It was amazing to watch. This album would be nothing without them.
One of my most cherished moments came when we were tracking All Creatures Of Our God And King. For whatever reason I ended up playing the electric piano and sitting next to me was a man that I had never met. After one of the takes I looked over at him and saw tears streaming down his face. “It’s so beautiful” he said. My heart melted and I began to hear with new ears. Each take he got more emotional and I felt the beauty that he heard.
I believe that the total harvest was 43 songs. I hope most of them see the light of day. Sadly the two that I championed didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped (for those of you keeping score those would be Hank Williams’ House of Gold and Calling You).
Now, in now way, shape or form am I taking credit for The Lower Lights. This project was the culmination of multiple personalities, talents and communal vision shared by like-minded people. I’m grateful that Scott Wiley had the perseverance to carry on and make this what it is. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t have that much to do with the band right now as my schedule simply won’t allow. I’m happy to be included in the e-mail threads and play a few live shows when I can. I love this project with all my heart and am deeply humbled that it has seen the light of day. To me it is a success as I drive down the road and see my kids in the rear view mirror singing along. They especially love Ye Elders Of Israel and ask for it (or demand it really) by barking out “Babylon” or “the hand clap song”.
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