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Vinyl Record Review: The Hemphills – Old Brush Arbor Days (1970)

The Hemphills – Old Brush Arbor Days (1970)

The Hemphills enjoyed a good measure of success with their first album, and when it came time to record their second one, instead of recording in Nashville, they headed up to Madisonville, Kentucky to the newly minted, Goodman Sound Studios.  Produced by Rusty Goodman, “Old Brush Arbor Days” offered some unique styles that highlighted the musical diversity that the group.  The album featured mostly songs written by Joel (6 total) but also featured songs written by a couple of other writers from their publishing company (Hemphill Music), as well as a couple of classic tunes thrown in for good measure.  It was a well-rounded album that had a bit of a rustic feel to it when compared to their first one.  There are no other credits in the liner notes as to who played on the recording, but the Goodmans’ iconic band from the early and mid-70s hadn’t quite been put into place yet, but I am assuming Eddie Crook played piano and probably Rick Goodman played drums, but unsure who else played.

I love the cover shot for the album, which seemed to match the earthiness of the title song and the overall feel of the album.  With this album, we are introduced to a couple of new faces on the cover, as Joel and LaBreeska’s son, Joey, joined the group as their drummer and David Robbins joined to play steel guitar, thus giving the Hemphills a full 6-piece band which also included Dixie on piano, Joel and Tim playing guitars and Bill Tharpe on bass.  This entourage was the start of something truly fantastic for the Hemphills, as the group always had a wonderful stage band backing them.

Starting with the solemn strains of an old church organ, guitars quickly chime in as the tempo picks up for the rustic, acoustically driven title song, “Old Brush Arbor Days”, which recalls the days of those old camp meetings and brush arbor meetings.  Featuring both Tim and Joel, the song is almost a precursor to the Hemphill’s later popular hit, “Sing the Glory Down”, which also took us back to the days of brush arbors, fiery revivals, and all-day singings.  The inspiration for the song stemmed from the fact that Joel’s dad and grandfather started a church in 1920 and the song was inspired by Joel’s early days growing up in church and taking part in those old brush arbor meetings.  The Hemphills were highly influential in the early days of the Hinsons, and they had also recorded the song on their 1972 album, “He Pilots My Ship”, and did a really good job with their arrangement.

With the haunting strains of the electric guitar, LaBreeska steps up to deliver a fantastic performance of her signature song, “An Unfinished Task”, which was written by Ruth Munsey and published by the Hemphills.  Ruth and her husband, Frank, pastored a church in Chicago and came to Joel and LaBreeska’s church to minister, which is where the Hemphills first heard the song.  The song charted briefly for the Hemphills but never broke into the Top 20, and yet it still remains one of the Hemphills most popular recorded songs.  The song is forever identified with LaBreeska and is one of my all-time favorite LaBreeska features.  Ironically, it wasn’t the Hemphills version of this song I grew up hearing, but rather by popular North Carolina group, the Gethsemane Quartet, as sung by Floyd and Penny Andrews’ son, Mark.  I enjoyed the version by the Gethsemane Quartet, but once I heard LaBreeska belt out the lyrics of this wonderful song, I was smitten!

The tempo picks back up for an invigorating, guitar infested rendition of the classic, “Shoutin’ on the Hills”, which feature both LaBreeska and Tim.  The song fit the Hemphills like a glove, which also includes a chorus of the old Dad Speer tune, “Heaven’s Jubilee”, before the tempo slows back down for the haunting sermon in song, “God’s Gonna Shake This World Again”.  The song was partially inspired by the events that took place in New England on May 19, 1780, which is referred to as “New England’s Dark Day”, where the sun appeared to go dark in the middle of day.  It got so dark that barn animals went into the barn and roosters went to roost because they thought it was nighttime.  The event frightened the New Englanders immensely, causing people to repent as they thought it was the end of the world.  Historians have since determined that the event stemmed from a massive forest fire somewhere near Ontario, Canada.  It’s a very striking recitation, that actually resembles a mini-sermon more than a recitation, warning the listener of Christ’s imminent return, and is one of Joel’s most unique songs.  Interesting story connected with this song…in an article I read several years ago, LaBreeska was sharing about Joel’s unique positive perspective on things and shared a story about the time the Hemphills were singing at their first National Quartet Convention in 1970 or 1971.  It was the last night of the convention and for various reasons, being the new kids on the block, their performance time kept getting pushed back later and later, and they ended up being the final performance for the evening.  It was late, after midnight, and as the Hemphills came to the end of their set, they closed with “God’s Gonna Shake This World Again”, and thereafter that performance, Joel would remark when introducing the song, that the Hemphills closed out the National Quartet Convention with “God’s Gonna Shake this World Again”!

As a perfect follow-up, the Hemphills’ bass player, Bill Tharpe, steps up to take the lead on the popular, “Jesus is Coming Soon”, which also features some step out lines by Tim and Dixie on the chorus, before we come to the groovy, folk sounding, “You’re a Living Soul”, which rounds out the first side.  With its rockabilly feel, guitar driven track and strong beat, it’s a unique song communicating the message that each soul is precious to God and each person is accountable for the life they lived…“you’re a living a soul brother, have you been told brother, God gave man the breath of life, a heart for love and not for strife, you are not another, an answer you’ll give for the life you live”.  The song’s musical style, stacked vocals and messaging was pretty progressive for the Hemphills at the time, but they pull it off flawlessly and is a highlight of the album.

Keeping things in a happy mood with its dancing fiddle and “ragtime” style piano playing, side 2 starts off with the country feel of the up-tempo, “Sing Me a Happy Song”, before the tempo slows down for the poetic expression, “Through Faith, I Still Believe”, which was written by James McFall and published by the Hemphills.  Featuring Joel, the song has the feel of a 50’s rock-n-roll ballad, highlighted by a unique ending as Dixie provides her falsetto soprano vocal to deliver the last line of the song.  If you’re casually listening to the song and not expecting it, it will catch you off-guard!

LaBreeska picks up the tempo with another Ruth Munsey penned tune, “Hallelujah Anyhow”, which ironically, somehow made its way down to Central and South America and was a popular song for the Hemphills way down in that area on the radio back in the day.  Featuring some nice guitar work, this song is one of those tunes that sticks in your head and is one my favorites from the recording.

Keeping the tempo in high hear, Joel and Tim are featured on the exciting, “Move Up a Little Closer”.  This was a popular song during the mid to late 60’s, previously recorded by such groups as the Happy Goodmans, Inspirations, Blue Ridge Quartet and others.  It was a nice inclusion for this album as they did a good job with their rendition of the song.

With a nice steel guitar intro, Tim slows the pace back down with the song, “No Disappointments in Jesus”, before the recording closes out with the invigorating ¾ time of “On the Way Up, which features Joel.  This was one of Joel’s early popular songs, which saw a bit of resurgence a few years ago when it was brought back by popular trio HisSong, back in the mid-2000’s.  Interesting personal tidbit…I first heard the song back in the late 80’s on an old cassette by the McKameys from the 70’s where they had recorded it and I fell in love with it, but never realized that it was written by Joel until a few years later.

Though this album didn’t generate any chart-topping hits, it was an important album in the Hemphills’ repertoire, as this album explored some different sounds and styles for the Hemphills, but still with a solid country delivery.  Growing up with “Take Us Home with You” firmly ingrained on my brain, this album took a while to grow on me.  I started collecting records in the 90’s, and this was one of many records I bought from local dealer, Harold Dickerson back in the early and mid-90s.  I actually heard the album in the late 80’s, as I had borrowed it from a friend for a radio special I was doing where I was highlighting the music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  Of course, I fell in love with “Unfinished Task” (which was a song I was already familiar with) and a couple of others, but when I finally got my own copy of the album and was able to soak it all in, it took some time for me to latch on to what this album offered musically, but it has since become my favorite album by the group from their Canaan Record days, after “Take Us Home with You”.  Though “Take Us Home with You” boasted a country/folk feel, it had a bit more polish to it compared with “Old Brush Arbor Days”, which, as I stated earlier, had a more rustic appeal to it.  Looking back on it now, it was a pretty forward-thinking album for the group at the time, which also showed growth in Joel’s songwriting as well.  Through Joel’s pen, “Old Brush Arbor Days” offered his unique perspective on growing up, this journey of life, Christ’s eminent return, the importance each life is to God and that though life has disappointments, we can still live a happy life; and through the writings of others, we learn such things as how to live a faith filled life, rejoicing in our troubles, fulfilling our duties as Christians and drawing closer to Christ.  It truly was a fantastic album that was very well-rounded, nicely paced and was a uniquely creative piece of work.

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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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