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Vinyl Record Review: The Hemphills – Sweet Zion’s Song (1972)

The Hemphills – Sweet Zion’s Song (1972)

Though the Hemphills did not release a new album in 1971, they made up for it by releasing 2 albums in 1972, and their second album for the year, “Sweet Zion’s Song”, would also be their last with Canaan Records, as they would eventually sign with Heartwarming Records in 1973.  This would also be the last album that Dixie (Tim’s wife) recorded with the group, as she began transitioning herself out of the group.  Though she is pictured on the cover, I don’t really hear her on this album as much as I did on their first 3 albums.  Dixie wasn’t known for singing many solos while with the group, but her voice was definitely heard and she enhanced their sound tremendously.  Around this time, she and Tim were starting their family, and when she became pregnant, she came off the road and settled into the life of a homemaker and mommy.  Eventually, Tim would depart the group as well, as he and Dixie would start their own group, the McKeithens in 1976…but I’m getting a few years ahead of myself…

“Sweet Zion’s Song” was produced once again by Rusty Goodman and recorded at Goodman Sound Studios.  Credit is given to Eddie Crook for music arrangements, and while no credit is given as to who played on the album, my assumption is the Goodman band (at least in part) played on the recording, with a couple of hired studio musicians supplementing the rest.  Like their last recording, this latest album includes strings on select songs, and musically and stylistically, the album is a cross between “Old Brush Arbor Days” and “Make Mine Gospel”.  I also want to point out the cover shot, as it’s a very happy and vibrant (and somewhat tropical) picture of the Hemphills, donning the best in 70’s casual wear, and I love it!

The recording starts off with the medium ¾ time of the title song, “Sweet Zion’s Song”, which stylistically, was characteristic of several of Joel’s most popular songs.  Featuring an electric guitar and a wailing harmonica, the song charted briefly for the group in early 1973 but never made it into the Top 20.  Paralleling Psalm 137 with what the last days would be like, this sermon in song is a challenge and a stark reminder for the church to remain vigilant and aware of the times, and not lose our song.

In the early ’70s, “Put Your Hand in the Hand” was a popular cross-over hit and just about everybody was singing the song, including the Hemphills.  With its country feel featuring the fiddle and dobro, LaBreeska and Tim tackle the verses on this fun tune, which goes into double time for the final choruses.  I don’t think it completely fit the Hemphills style, but I felt they pulled it off pretty well, nonetheless.

Inspired by the need to make Calvary real in his own life and to be stirred by the cross, Joel penned and sings the thought-provoking, “Make Calvary Real to Me”.  Featuring a nice string section and sound effects of the hammer striking the nail on the chorus, it’s one of my all-time favorite Joel Hemphill songs, as it too is my own personal daily prayer…“let me see each struggling footstep, as the heavy cross is borne, let me hear the hammer ringing as the tender flesh is torn, hear Him cry Father forgive them, or hast thou forsaken me, oh Lord, dear Lord, make calvary real to me!”.  I would love for someone to pick up this song again and record it today, as it’s such an emotionally poignant lyric that is worth singing again!

With its bluesy feel, LaBreeska belts out the lyric to “Lifting Up Jesus”, which was a very different type of song for LaBreeska, where she is backed by a group of background vocalists instead of the group.  I love LaBreeska’s “growl” in the song and in fact, the song charted briefly in the Top 40 for the Hemphills in mid-1973.  I would have loved to have heard LaBreeska tear into this song live back in the day, as it’s a magnificent song allowing her to shine as a vocalist, showcasing her expressive alto tones.  While it’s not a Dottie Rambo tune, with its soulful feel, the song is one I could have easily heard Dottie tackle on her 1968 solo album, “It’s the Soul of Me”.

Picking up the pace, the first side concludes with the popular classic, “Turn Your Radio On”.  Much like “Put Your Hand…”, the song was a highly popular tune many groups were singing at the time, but I don’t think it completely embodies the Hemphills’ style, but they did a really good job covering the song, which features LaBreeska and Dixie’s sultry tones backing up Tim on the verses.

Side 2 begins with LaBreeska singing her own composition, “Home Sweet Home”, as she belts out the deepest sentiment of her heart.  Featuring the strains of the steel guitar, harmonica, and strings in the background and without any assistance from the group or background vocalists, LaBreeska sings the song as a solo and it’s a fantastic performance before the tempo kicks into high gear for the bluegrass classic, done up “Hemphill style” called, “Way Up on the Mountain”, which features both Joel and Tim.  I’ve never been a big bluegrass fan, but this has always been such a fun song to me, no matter who was singing it, and is a highlight of the recording.

With its mournful harmonica and steel guitar strains, “Sing Me a Song” slows the pace back down as the lead shifts back and forth between Joel and LaBreeska.  The song makes a statement, “I hear songs that leave me feeling various ways, some make me wonder what they’re trying to say, others stir me and move me, or leave my heart cold…but sing me a song that blesses my soul!”, and in fact, the lyric for the entire song is actually printed on the backside of the cover.  The song was an excellent mantra for the Hemphills, before the tempo picks back up for the exciting LaVerne Tripp classic, “That Day is Almost Here”, which features Tim.  This was a hugely popular song for the Blue Ridge Quartet, making it all the way to #1 in the Singing News chart from December 1971 through February 1972.  The Hemphills do a great job making this song their own and while a couple of the cover tunes on this album doesn’t exactly fit the Hemphills, this song was right up their alley and Tim does a fantastic job belting out the joyful proclamation, “that day is almost here!”.

One of Joel’s most unusual writings is the final song from this album entitled, “Thirty Minutes of Silence”.  Revelations 8:1 speaks about there being thirty minutes of silence after the opening of the 7th seal, and this was Joel’s attempt to address that scripture as a time to mourn for the lost souls.  It’s a poignant lyric from a unique perspective, that paints a sad and grim picture, but was perfectly placed as the last song, as no song could follow it.

While I enjoy this album very much, as I alluded to earlier, I think a couple of the cover tunes could have been replaced with songs that would have been a better fit for the Hemphills’ style and messaging, but I realize sometimes the record company interferes with the creative process and many times dictates certain songs need to be recorded.  For this album, Joel contributed 5 songs and LaBreeska contributed one, and they are all very good songs.  Like I said at the beginning, this album was a mix between their previous 2 albums, as it had some of the rustic undertones to it like “Old Brush Arbor Days”, but with the added strings and background vocals, it was a step up, production-wise, giving a nod to their release from earlier in the year, “Make Mine Gospel”.  Like all their albums so far, the album is paced nicely and doesn’t drag, but moves along nicely with varying tempos and messages, and showcases the group very well overall!

As previously mentioned, this would be their last album with Canaan Records, as eventually they would sign with Heartwarming Records, under the Benson umbrella.  For a short period, while they were between labels, the group was independent and eventually re-released their Canaan albums on their own “Hemphill” label before signing with Heartwarming towards the end of 1973, which would mark a pivotal point in the Hemphills career.

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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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