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Vinyl Record Review: The Hemphills Pt. 2

The Hemphills – The Country Gospel Style of Joel & LaBreeska (1967), In Gospel Country (1968) & Take Us Home with You (1969)

Long before the Hinsons made country gospel cool, there was Joel and LaBreeska Hemphill, paving the way for them!  From a historical perspective, country gospel hadn’t been a foreign concept for Southern Gospel Music, as the Blackwood Brothers had recorded a few hugely popular albums with country star, Porter Wagoner by this point, and the Chuck Wagon Gang incorporated that old-fashioned country style into their very traditional sound as well.  Also, the Rambos incorporated country gospel in their music, but that was merely a layer to their overarching style.  But Joel and LaBreeska (and later, the Hemphills) were exclusively country gospel, especially during their earlier years.  

As I mentioned in my last article, Joel had started writing songs in the mid-60s, and the Happy Goodman Family (Rusty, Sam, Bobby, and Howard were LaBreeska’s uncles) were the first group to record his songs.  The first songs they recorded were “Not in a Million Years” and “Point of No Return” on their 1967 album, “Bigger N Better”.  The Goodmans had invited Joel and LaBreeska to attend that particular recording session, and LaBreeska, who was amazed at all the goings on in the studio, was caught up in the excitement of it all, and made an off-the-cuff prediction to Marvin Norcross (who was the producer for the Goodmans and was president of Canaan Records) that he would be recording the Hemphills very soon!  As her prophecy began to unfold, within a few short months, Joel and LaBreeska were indeed signed to Canaan Records and found themselves right back in the same recording studio and with the same musicians, but this time Joel and LaBreeska were recording their very first album, “The Country Gospel Style of Joel & LaBreeska”.

Produced by Rusty Goodman, “The Country Gospel Style of Joel & LaBreeska”, which was released in 1967, was pure country gospel at its finest!  This first album featured many of Joel’s earliest tunes including “He Filled a Longing”, “Point of No Return”, “Crying in the Garden”, “Not in a Million Years”, “The Eyes of Jesus”, “It Might as Well Be Me” and “There’s Been a lot of Changes”; many of which went on to be recorded by such artists as the Happy Goodman Family, Hinsons, Chonda Pierce, Galileans, Florida Boys, Dixie Echoes, Hal Kennedy, Bishops, Greater Vision, McKeithens, Booth Brothers, Heirloom, Freemans, Blackwood Brothers, and many others.  The album also featured Joel’s first attempt at songwriting, a song entitled, “A Way is Made”, as well as LaBreeska’s first songwriting endeavor, which was a stirring ballad called, “Life Evermore”, that was inspired by a deeply troubling dream she had about an elderly man who was dying and trying to carry on his wealth through his grandson.  The Goodmans recorded LaBreeska’s song on their “Good N Happy” album, which was released right after Joel and LaBreeska’s first album came out.  Also on this album, Joel and LaBreeska tenured their own rendition of a couple of popular tunes including Rusty’s, “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now” and the quartet classic, “Let Out of Bondage”.  With just Joel and LaBreeska providing vocals, it truly was a duet recording, as no other vocals are present.  This was straight country gospel, filled with steel guitar, Floyd Cramer-style piano licks, guitars, and a strong country beat, and it was a wonderful introduction to the music of Joel and LaBreeska Hemphill.  

In 1968, their second album, “In Gospel Country”, was released and it had a very similar feel to their first album, and was a good mix of songs written by Joel and LaBreeska, along with Joel’s brother, David Hemphill, such as “I’m Willing”, “Angels to Carry Me Home”, “Satan Has No Claim on Me” and “The Courage to Try Again” (which was later recorded by the Hinsons), as well as a couple of camp meeting favorites such as “Gonna Shout, Gonna Shine” and “It’s Gonna Rain”.  

This album also features the original version of “Pity the Man”, which the Happy Goodmans went on to record on their 1968 Grammy Award-winning album, “The Happy Gospel of the Happy Goodmans”.  The song also went on to be nominated for a Dove Award for “Song of the Year” in 1969 as well.  A unique story about this song…Joel and LaBreeska were scheduled to sing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for an outdoor event that was a fundraiser for a gentleman running for public office.  The organization was selling BBQ plates and Joel and LaBreeska sang in the heat all day until nightfall, without eating or being offered a plate.  But after inquiring about eating, they were finally fed before they left for home.  They were not paid for singing at the event either, but they were content to be able to present the gospel to those who were in attendance.  On the way home, a statement was made regarding feeling sorry for those who don’t live for God.  As they continued down the road, with that thought in mind, Joel had written the chorus for “Pity the Man” in 5 minutes, adding the verses a short time later.  Though they were never paid for singing at that particular event, every time Joel gets a royalty check for that song, he thanks God that he is still being paid for that long, hot day in Hattiesburg!

One other song found on this recording is one of my personal favorite Joel Hemphill tunes, a unique tune called, “The Ballad of the Watchman”, which is a song Joel wrote specifically for and about the local pastor.  I always loved the message in the song, as well as its Johnny Cash vibe.  Jerry Bennett recorded a wonderful tribute to Joel and LaBreeska several years ago and included this song on that recording and did a wonderful job with it.

Though Joel and LaBreeska sometimes had his brother David (or someone else if David wasn’t available) travel to help play guitar, eventually Joel saw the need to expand what he and LaBreeska were doing, and thus, the “Singing Hemphills” was born.  The original group consisted of Joel and LaBreeska, Tim (vocals and guitar) and Dixie McKeithen (piano and vocals), and Bill Tharp, playing bass guitar.  In 1969, they released their very first album as a group entitled, “Take Us Home with You”, on Canaan Records.  Along with seeing them perform on the Gospel Singing Jubilee in the late 70s, this was the album that introduced me to the music of the Hemphills.  Produced by Rusty Goodman, the album featured the Hemphills’ unique country blend, which truly set them apart from just about every other group on the Southern Gospel circuit at the time and was a fantastic first album for the group.

With its bright steel guitar intro, LaBreeska kicks things off with the up-tempo testimonial, “That’s What Calvary Means to Me”, which was a perfect lead-off song before Tim and Joel both take a verse for the Rusty Goodman classic, “Had it Not Been”.  Though it was already a hit for the Happy Goodmans, it was also one of the first chart songs for the Hemphills, which charted briefly for the group in 1970.

I love the folk feel of “It Shall Be Well with the Righteous”, which features LaBreeska along with Dixie providing some beautiful harmony throughout the song.  The song would have been right at home on some of the Rambos albums from this era before the tempo kicks into high gear for the fun, novelty tune, “I Took a Look”.  As a kid, this was one of my favorite songs from this album and I would entertain myself by listening to it over and over again.  In fact, the song still brings me great joy when listening to it today and still ranks as one of my favorites from this album.

The first side concludes with 2 songs written by James McFall.  Joel was friends with McFall, who was a fellow pastor and a struggling songwriter.  On this album, the group published and introduced 2 of his songs…the heartfelt, sentimental, “Mother Prayed for Me”, and the now classic, “Thank God I’m Free”.  The story goes that McFall approached Joel and asked him to “buy” the song “Thank God I’m Free”, which Joel initially turned down, trying to convince McFall to keep it because he believed in the song and that it had the potential to be a hit.  Joel eventually did buy the rights to the song from McFall, but in time he gave it back to him.  The Hemphills enjoyed great success with the song, as did the Happy Goodman Family, who took the song all the way to #1 in the Singing News chart in 1970.  The song is still quite popular on the camp meeting circuit and has been recorded by tons of artists over the years including JD Sumner & the Stamps, Inspirations, Hinsons, Sego Brothers & Naomi, Downings, Bishops, Karen Peck & New River, and many others.

Side 2 begins with another one of my favorite Joel Hemphill tunes, “I Found a Better Way”, which features Joel.  The Goodmans recorded this song on their 1969 album, “This Happy House”, and it became a big concert favorite for both groups.  Both versions are unique to each group’s style, but my pick is the Goodmans’ rendition, as it’s one of my favorite Vestal features.

Slowing the tempo down, LaBreeska and Joel both share lead duties on “Incomparable God”, before the tempo picks back up for the organ-infused, gospel/blues feel of “Faith Gets the Job Done”.  Featuring some nice electric guitar embellishments, it’s a fun sermon in song before the tempo slows back down as Joel sings the prophetic, “Small Men Cast Long Shadows”.  Featuring some vocal embellishments by Dixie on the second verse, which gives it a haunting feel, the song is a uniquely written poetic sermon in a song about the end times.  Inspired by the old saying “When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set”, the song is a warning that the return of Christ is eminent…“when small men cast long shadows, the sun is sinking fast, when wrong is enthroned and the truth is in shackles, the day is almost past”.  Though written over 50 years ago, its timeless message rings more true today than ever…maybe someone needs to take the mantle and record this song again!  My vote is the Inspirations, as they could really nail this one perfectly!

Featuring some nice guitar work, LaBreeska steps up next as she takes the lead on the chorus of the heartwarming title song, “Take Us Home with You”, which also features Joel delivering the 2-part recitation, before the album finishes out with the exciting “I’m Traveling On”.  This was an early concert favorite for the Hemphills, and with its unique dynamic, changing melody, and shifting tempos, it just adds to the excitement of the song and was no doubt a fun and rousing song to sing in concert.  Though Joel didn’t write this one, it remains one of my favorite Hemphill tunes from this era.

I always loved the cover shot for “Take Us Home with You”; and no, that was not Joel and LaBreeska’s house!  The house belongs to an acquaintance of theirs who allowed them to do the photo shoot in their front yard.  Given the title of the album, it was the perfect cover shot (along with the obligatory shot of the bus) and was the first glimpse into a future powerhouse group for our genre!  As a newly formed singing group, I felt this was a strong recording featuring their distinct country/folk style.  The album had a very cohesive and genuine feel to it, showcasing the group’s unique sound and Joel’s adept songwriting skills.  Of their early records on Canaan, this is my favorite, as I felt it was the most original and was most true to who they were as artists, singers, and musicians.

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James Hales

James Hales, from Durham, North Carolina, has been a writer for since 2000. James is our featured reviewer and also contributes to monthly features periodically.
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