A special American folk edition of our popular series exploring the spirituality found in today's mainstream music—featuring powerful new releases from Over the Rhine, eastmountainsouth, 16 Horsepower, and Rosie Thomas.

A funny thing happened when compiling the artists for this latest edition of Glimpses of God. Though all four artists are different stylistically, they're all profoundly influenced by American folk music. What's more, at least three of these artists are as vocal about their faith as any Christian artist, though not necessarily in their music. But the best part? Despite—or perhaps because of—their provocative expressions of faith, all four artists have been very well received by the music industry as a whole.

Over the Rhine

(Back Porch/Virgin)
Sophisticated country/folk/pop

"I wanna do better/I wanna try harder/I wanna believe down to the letter/Jesus and Mary, can you carry us across this ocean into the arms of forgiveness?" — from "Long Lost Brother"

Over the Rhine could be the most acclaimed "Christian artist" you've never heard of. Operating very much at an underground, grassroots level, the husband-wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have earned loyal followings in mainstream and Christian circles (though you won't likely find their music in Christian bookstores). They've opened for the Cowboy Junkies and played in bars, but they've also played the Cornerstone music festival and at Christian colleges. They were also featured on Squint's 2000 tribute album to Roaring Lamb artists.

Ohio, the duo's 10th album, is a 2-disc, 21-song career-defining masterpiece—their "White Album," if you will. Sort of a mix of Sixpence None the Richer, Sarah McLachlan, and Lucinda Williams, Over the Rhine has masterfully blended sophisticated pop with folk, country, and gospel on Ohio. Weaving together an array of folk instruments, the typically mellow duo keeps things impressively eclectic for 90 minutes of music. Bergquist, widely regarded as one of the finest vocalists alive, is dynamic throughout, and both she and Detweiler (who offers some of his richest piano work to date) paint each song differently through the emotions of the lyrics and melodies.

Over the Rhine isn't overtly Christian in their music, but the foundation is clearly there. They won't preach at you or necessarily even point you in the right direction, but they will offer you a fascinatingly poetic faith-based perspective. Part of the joy is discovering what their music means to you personally, but Ohio is perhaps their most spiritually expressive album yet, loosely tied together by themes centered on the lifelong journey to return home. "What I'll Remember Most" expresses the duality of human nature ("You are eighty percent angel, ten percent demon, the rest is hard to explain"), while "Anything at All" borrows from the book of Romans: "Sooner or later, things will all come around for good."

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There's only one reason (one word really) why Ohio hasn't been featured in our regular review coverage. Impassioned by the events in the Middle East and the fear of bringing a child into a fallen world, Bergquist uses one profanity in "Changes Come." Similar in tone to U2's "Wake Up, Dead Man," the bluesy lament pleads for Christ's return: "Changes come/Turn my world around … Jesus come/Bring the whole thing down … There is all this untouched beauty/The light the dark both running through me/Is there still redemption for anyone?" Similar emotions are expressed in "Long Lost Brother" (excerpted above), as well as the hidden track "Idea #21 (Not Too Late)," as Bergquist continually asks "how long" before all thing are made new.

Detweiler, the son of a minister, sees an intrinsic link between faith and art. "[Musician] Jane Siberry once said that all art was a form of prayer. I tend to agree. The music on Ohio is rooted in the gospel music we grew up with, but it's also splattered with the mud of real, everyday life. I feel a connection between many of the songs that tend to show up in my notebook and the Psalms that have woven themselves into the fabric of the faith. The Psalmist was all over the map—jubilant, thankful, unstoppable as well as pissed off, confused and downright glum. The Psalmist struggled with forgiveness, the tendency to want to hold a grudge, the desire to see one's enemies fry. But they are ultimately hopeful. I love how human the Psalms feel, and I hope our music feels much the same way—very human."

Human indeed, Ohio is one of 2003's most richly rewarding albums, sacred or secular.

16 Horsepower

"Country gothic"

"He's taken our stripes on his back on down to here/I cannot walk if you did not walk/I cannot breathe if you did not breathe" — from "Pure Clob Road"

The term "alternative" has long been overused to describe music, but Webster could well include 16 Horsepower in his definition. Multi-instrumentalist David E. Edwards formed the band in 1992, later signing with A&M in 1995 for their first EP. Their latest project, Olden, covers those three years, 1992-95. Consisting of two parts early demos and one part early live tracks, the album is intended for devout fans, but also serves as a fair introduction to a unique sounding band. Most of the material can be found on two of 16 Horsepower's most acclaimed albums, Low Estate and Sackcloth 'n' Ashes.

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Many have described the music as "country gothic" and "alternative folk." Edwards and company combine the folk/country instrumentation with dark and brooding melodies, akin to the Violent Femmes or, oddly enough, Radiohead if they went Americana. Edwards's despairing cracked tenor sounds like Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love) crossed with Thom Yorke (Radiohead). You know you're in for something unusual when the album opens with a distorted mouth harp and Edwards's trademark bandoneon (similar to an accordion) on "American Wheeze."

16 Horsepower's audience is primarily secular, yet many of its lyrics are inspired by Scripture. The band hasn't really impacted Christian media and retail, but Edwards, the grandson of a Nazarene preacher and raised Baptist, did play at the 2002 Cornerstone Christian music festival with his side band, Woven Hand.

He's certainly not shy about his faith, saying, "I am a Christian. God the Father is everything to me. I can do nothing worth anything without him. The music I make is given to me to make for him—for his glory, for his honor, and for all who hear it. For he loves all, and has sent his Son for all to be reconciled to him. He and the things of him—his Word, his Spirit, his grace and rod—are my inspiration. Nothing else."

So why isn't 16 Horsepower bigger in Christian music? They're the sonic opposite of what you normally hear on AC pop radio, with several songs that seem to wrestle with resisting temptation, often resorting to the fervor of a religious fanatic. Like the most cryptic Beatles songs, Edwards seems to be more about emotion than message, coloring his music with religious imagery and Scriptural quotes. It's not exactly uplifting music with its haunting sounds and dark lyrics—including a couple of profanities on Olden.

My favorite lyric on the album comes from "Pure Clob Road" (excerpted above), with Edwards testifying to Christ's redemptive sacrifice. He paints a picture of Judgment Day using a two-step polka-rock in "Coal Black Horses," singing, "The sky will open up an' an angel blow his horn/An' down come Jesus lookin' so fine." In the rockabilly flavored "My Narrow Mind," Edwards confesses, "Wicked, wicked from the mouth I spout/O Lord, don' let these thoughts come out." And with the country rock of "Shametown," Edwards shares the hope we have through Jesus: "Today is the day of salvation/Ain't gonna tell no lie/Some through the water, some through the flood/Some by the fire, but all through his blood."

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Some might see 16 Horsepower's music as weird and bizarre, or as a truly innovative spin on traditional gospel and spirituals. But say this much for 16 Horsepower—there's absolutely nothing quite like them.


Modern folk-pop

"Dark clouds a'risin'/Thunder bolts a'rollin'/Master Jesus ridin' around/With a rainbow 'round his shoulders/Seek on, oh, seeker/Come go to glory with me/And you shall wear a starry crown/Come join the band of angels" — from "Rain Come Down"

Kat Maslich and Peter Adams—the duo known as eastmountainsouth—are multi-talented singer/songwriters who both hail from the South and met in Los Angeles. Maslich comes from a musical family in Virginia where her mother, a retired music teacher, regularly performed in church. Though Kat played in some hardcore bands as a teen, she maintained a love for bluegrass. At 21, she moved to L.A. to pursue a music career. Taking odd jobs to support her endeavor—including hairstylist and (brace yourself) porn store employee—Maslich struck out musically and considered returning to Virginia like a Prodigal Daughter.

Enter Alabama-raised Peter Adams, also from a musical family. Adams studied piano and keyboard from an early age, leading to competitions and advanced studies as an undergrad and at the post-graduate level, even studying abroad in Germany. On the side, Adams played in an R&B band. Unsure of his future as a music scholar, he moved to L.A. to study film scoring, eventually meeting Maslich and discovering that their voices and musical tastes blended extremely well.

The result is an intriguing mix of folk/bluegrass with some decidedly modern production. Imagine if the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was produced by Peter Gabriel, or if Cliff and Danielle Young (Caedmon's Call) released an edgy folk-pop project. Fans of Rickie Lee Jones, Nickel Creek, and Over the Rhine are sure to eat this up. The great Robbie Robertson also liked what he heard, enough to help sign them to DreamWorks. The self-titled debut was recorded at the project studio of whiz producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Crowded House).

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The album opens with Stephen Foster's classic "Hard Times," covered by many Christian folk and gospel artists over the years. An expression of our need for God's grace and mercy, the arrangement features acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, mandola, and harmonium, mixed into something altogether modern. "Still Runnin," inspired by Annie Dillard's essay "God in the Doorway," has Maslich singing, "For you meant only love and love, and I felt only fear and pain/So once in Israel love came, and we were all afraid." Then comes "All the Stars," a tribute to a deceased loved one that could be interpreted as a nod to Christ's sacrifice.

Another highlight is "Show Me the River," a plaintive cry of homesickness and confession that resembles the work of Caedmon's Call: "I've been a traveler of far away lands/I've got love on my mind, but death on these hands/Come homeward angel, show me the way/Or will fate leave me dead in the tracks where I lay?" Based on a traditional folk song, "Rain Come Down" (excerpted above) offers the most clear-cut example of spirituality, and "Mark's Song" offers a bittersweet benediction to a lost loved one: "There's no more harm in your savior's arms/See you fly away in the sky/Did you hear the call of angels one and all/May you find your way in peace."

Gospel is historically intertwined with American folk and bluegrass, so it's hard to tell if these songs are personal to Maslich and Adams. Many artists sing gospel more for the sake of history and nostalgia rather than as a personal expression of faith. Nevertheless, Maslich and Adams apparently come from religious families, and they now sing songs sprinkled with Christianity. For believers, eastmountainsouth offers plenty to savor.

Rosie Thomas
Only With Laughter Can You Win

Quiet, contemplative folk-pop

"How am I to define what faith is to a child when the only explanation lies within?/How am I to tell them if they never follow Christ that heaven doesn't hold a place for them?/Tell me how when I'm no better than them?" — from "Tell Me How"

There's a lot of sweetness permeating Rosie Thomas's personality and music. She regularly incorporates family and faith into her words. She also has a silly sense of humor, partly expressed in the title of her new release, as well as through her comedic alter ego "Sheila," a pizza delivery woman with Coke-bottle glasses, an arm sling and a neck brace—reminiscent of Gilda Radner and Andy Kaufman. In concert, you're bound to see both sides of Thomas.

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She also has a sweet naïveté about the Christian music industry (though she did briefly sing with Christian alternative pop band Velour 100) and perhaps that's been for the best. Focusing on the music business at large has afforded Thomas some incredible opportunities and much acclaim from media and audiences alike. Her 2002 debut, When We Were Small, earned strong endorsements from Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, and NPR to name a few.

So it's time for Christians to become acquainted with this talented and devout songwriter. Raised by a musical family in Detroit, Thomas learned piano and guitar early, performing with her parents and siblings at social functions. Though raised in a Christian home, her faith didn't catch fire till she was 20, when she attended California's Calvary Chapel Bible College for a year.

That was five years ago. Since then, Thomas has regularly sought God's will. She went on to Cornish College, a performance arts school in Seattle, where she developed her loves for music, theater, and comedy. She never finished, however, since her music career took off and she signed with Sub-Pop to release her first album.

The new album title not only reflects Thomas' outlook, but as a lyric from the Joni Mitchell song "Roses Blue," it reveals her chief musical influence. One could also compare her to Sarah McLachlan, Sara Groves, and Ani DiFranco because of her beautifully angelic folk voice. Her delicate folk-pop is also rich in vocal harmonies, sometimes relying on multi-tracking her own voice, and in other cases employing the talents of her family. Her mother sings along on the reverberation-drenched opener, "Let Myself Fall," recorded in Detroit's oldest church.

Most of the songs center around themes of life's uncertainties and growing older, alluding to the importance of love and family. In "You and Me," she credits her mother for helping her understand God's love, and does the same for her boyfriend in "All My Life." With "One More Day," Thomas offers hope to a hurting friend. Her whole family contributes to "I Play Music," recorded at her father's house, which chronicles her journey into adulthood: "When I was young, I did it my way/I did it my way and I still do/Held my head up high/Asking God for answers and begging him to tell me what to do." The song also points to God's impact on her life: "Never thought that I would ever find you/Or that you'd be looking for me too."

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But perhaps the album's most challenging track is the Joni Mitchell-styled "Tell Me How" (excerpted above). Some might think Thomas is questioning her faith, when she's really just asking the hard questions, expressing unworthiness and uncertainty about being a light unto the world. But there's no doubting Thomas's beliefs. In a recent interview, she told us that when she writes songs, "The most important thing to me is to write what God puts on my heart and to leave hope in it. I try to make [my songs] like conversation pieces, going through the sorrow to find the bright side, to encourage people to run the race and that everything will turn out all right. It's really all about hope through faith, the foundation of what I do."

Do you have a current "Glimpse of God," an example of perceived spirituality in popular music? Drop us an e-mail with your suggestion, and we'll consider it for future editions.

Glimpses of God (Vol. 1), featuring 2003 Grammy-Award winners Coldplay and Bruce Springsteen.

Glimpses of God (Vol. 2), featuring best-sellers Linkin Park and Evanescence.

Glimpses of God (Vol. 3), featuring Train, Live, and Daniel Bedingfield.