The question was raised at a Northern California music festival in May 2011. Would Elizabeth Cook be willing to play the Strawbery Music Festival’s Gospel Brunch bright and early that Sunday morning? She admits there was some reluctance. Gospel’s a genre she doesn’t often pull from, but she agreed and sat down with two of her band members for a chilly morning set. What transpired during those 20 minutes was a fantastic surprise as she connected deeply with the material, her childhood growing up surrounded by church music and later, during the recording of the Gospel Plow EP, her late father’s passing.
Gospel Plow is a seven-song collection, due in stores June 12, that finds its home somewhere between the dusty highways of Americana and the grassy knolls that surround Southern steeples. The arrangements are extremely loose, placing more importance on the vibe of a song than meticulous detail. The opening tune “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down,” (originally by 1920s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson) sets the mood with handclaps and three-part harmony before dropping into a smoky, groove-filled tale of Samson with simple percussion, fat acoustic bass and electric piano. Elizabeth’s unique and natural vocal timbre creates an immediate connection with the music.
Elizabeth notes that singing these songs transports her back to a childhood where she witnessed the emotions tied to Southern Gospel music through the church. On “Hear Jerusalem Calling,” Elizabeth offers her own take with an amped-up bluegrass tune full of banjo and distorted guitars. Pulling every ounce out of lines like, Did you ever know that the Son of God was walkin’ on your shore?, her delivery and approach seem totally at ease among the galloping percussion and rhythmic mandolin.
“It all speaks to the telling of a story, the hunger for hope and salvation,” she says of the collection. These feelings seem magnified in the ¾-time “The Other Side Of Life,” which anchors the project halfway through. Praise God, I feel like singing / I’m on the other side of life now, she sings with a bluesy and soulful touch over classic church organ. The song, about meeting your maker, touches on the joy of salvation but also carries a greater understanding of the moment. In some ways, Gospel Plow seems to be about Elizabeth dealing with the loss of her father, and these themes resonate strongly in that context.
The project takes pride in its gospel foundation, with elements such as sparkling harmonies jumping to life. “These Men Of God,” made popular by the Stanley Brothers, features a striking web of voices while speaking to the power of God and his command over such figures as Moses, Lazarus and Abraham. On “Every Humble Knee Must Bow,” Elizabeth drops her voice into its lowest gear amidst a layered bed of harmony in a poignant chorus.
The EP’s most intimate recording is its closing song, “Jesus,” which is an earnest prayer asking guidance. Help me in my weakness, ‘cause I’m falling out of grace, Elizabeth sings candidly. And while the album gets its name from a steady-rollin’ number that comes earlier in the set, the courage of this last song speaks to the greater feel of the collection through its unflinching honesty. Gospel Plow is a reinterpretation of classic Southern Gospel with a unique point of view, yet its universal emotional center can offer something different for everyone.
Key Tracks – “The Other Side of Life,” “Jesus,” “These Men of God,” “Hear Jerusalem Calling”