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VINYL RECORD REVIEW:The Kingsmen – Just a Little Closer Home (1977)

The year 1977 would usher in a whole new era for the Kingsmen.  Jim Hamill had returned by December 1976 after a 6-month hiatus, and in January of 1977, Johnny Parrack decided to come off the road.  Johnny would later join the Heismen Quartet and would eventually venture into a solo singing and preaching ministry, as well as pastoring and evangelism, which keeps him active still today.  With Johnny’s departure, the search was on to find the right tenor for the Kingsmen…enter the little giant, Ernie Phillips.  While Ernie was a different type of singer than Johnny Parrack was, Ernie allowed the Kingsmen to continue with that powerhouse singing they were known for.  With utmost respect to all the other vocal iterations of the Kingsmen, this is my favorite version of the group with Ernie, Hamill, Squire, and Ray.  I am sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that this was the version of the group I first became familiar with, and sadly, though outside of a brief recollection of them being on stage when I was about 5 years old (I slept through most of their performance), I never got to see this iteration of the group perform live.

In the months leading up to recording “Just a Little Closer Home”, the Kingsmen had signed with Heartwarming Records in October 1976, a subsidiary of the Benson Company, where they joined ranks with such groups as the Speers, Hemphills, Rambos and others.  The Kingsmen had previously been a part of Heartwarming Records during the mid to late 60’s, where they recorded 5 albums for the label.  When they signed with Heartwarming again in October 1976, they were originally slated to record a live album in November 1976, but those plans were scrapped for the time being, and production began for a new studio album instead.  By the time Johnny Parrack left in January, part of the production work had already begun for “Just a Little Closer Home”, and after Ernie joined, he quickly began learning the songs, as the Kingsmen were ushered into the studio to complete the album by February for an early Spring release.

Marvin Norcross has produced the Kingsmen while with Canaan, but after signing with Heartwarming, they began working with a new producer, Joe Huffman.  Having a very different background than Norcross, Joe was a musician and guitarist (who also played guitar for this album), and he gave the Kingsmen a lot of leeway to do what they do best.  Once again, Kingsmen pianist, Nick Bruno played piano while also providing string arrangements for the album.  Much like “Just in Time”, this new album had a nice country feel to it and the vibe of the album matched exceptionally well with the casual outdoor shot of the Kingsmen on the cover, which was taken on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

The album kicks off with the Squire Parsons penned anthem, “He Did Not Fail”, which features an outstanding performance by Squire.  Nicely accented by strings, the song follows a similar pattern to “It Made News in Heaven”, where they slowed down the final line of the chorus at the end, allowing Ernie to bring it home for the dramatic final tag of the song.  It was something a little different for the Kingsmen, but it has remained one of my favorite songs from this album.

Featuring nice steel guitar and piano highlights, along with a heavy acoustic bass track, the title song, “Just a Little Closer Home”, features both Squire and Ernie.  Published through the Kingsmen’s publishing company, this was a fabulous tune written by a wonderful songwriter named Gerald Sweatman, who went on to pen other classic tunes for the Kingsmen including “Look What’s Waiting for Me”, “God Can Save Anybody, Anywhere, Anytime” and others.  With its country gospel feel, the song was a popular tune and concert favorite for the Kingsmen, charting for a few months, eventually cresting at #28 in November 1977.  With its comforting message of Heaven, the song flows perfectly into another excellent song about Heaven entitled, “I Just Can’t Wait”, which features Eldridge Fox and was written by Squire.

Next, we come to the unique novelty type tune entitled, “I Went to an Old Campmeeting with the Devil”, which was a song Jim Hamill found specifically for the Kingsmen.  Written by Buford Abner, with its lone guitar accompaniment, the song has a very distinct Swanee River Boys vibe and was a hugely popular song for the Kingsmen, spending several months in the charts, peaking at #4 in October 1977.  I have to admit though, when I first heard it as a kid back in the early 80’s, I never really liked the song.  As I grew older, and especially after discovering the music of the Swanee River Boys (with whom Buford Abner was an integral part of), I found a deeper appreciation and love for the song, and it has become one of my favorite Kingsmen classics!

Rounding out the first side, we come to the up-tempo classic, “We Do Not Die”.  Written by Shirley Cantrell (writer of such favorites as “I’m Gonna Live Forever” and “Romans 8:28”), since most of the songs were chosen for the album while Johnny Parrack was with the Kingsmen, this song was picked specifically for Ernie and was his big introduction to the most Kingsmen audiences.  While this version of the song did not chart (the version from their “Chattanooga Live” album did chart briefly), this was a huge concert favorite for the Kingsmen and is a true Kingsmen “Klassic”.  I first became acquainted with the song from their aforementioned live album and didn’t obtain “Just a Little Closer Home” until a couple years later and was disappointed they didn’t slow down the second verse like they did on the live album!  Nonetheless, it’s a classic tune and was an Ernie Phillips sugar stick for years to come!  Interesting tidbit…I remember when Harold Reed first joined the Dixie Melody Boys as their new tenor back in 1993 (Reed later sang tenor for the Kingsmen in the late 2000’s), they began singing this song as a way of introducing him to audiences across the country and they would tear the place apart with it!

Side 2 kicks off with the wildly popular tune, “One Way Flight”, which was a song that just about everybody was singing and recording during this time, including the Dixie Echoes, Jerry & the Goffs, Hoppers, Blue Ridge Quartet, Singing Cookes, LeFevres and many others.  Popularized by the Telestials, who charted the song for over a year from late 1976 through early 1978, I have to say the Kingsmen’s version is my personal favorite, and it’s probably due to the fact that their version is the first one I remember hearing as a kid.  Featuring Ray, I always loved how they modulated into the chorus after Ray’s verse, adding to the overall excitement to the song.  Speaking of Ray, he is featured on several step out lines on the Conrad Cook penned, “Walkin’ and Talkin’ with Jesus”, which is a highly enjoyable song with a slight spiritual feel to it and is a highlight of the album.  This was such a cool song and along with Ray, it also features step out lines by Squire, Ernie, and Jim on the chorus, and I love the unique way they end the song as well.  Mississippi based group, Paid in Full did a fantastic job reviving the song on their 1998 recording, “In All I Do”, and thanks to Mike Speck, the song has gone on to become a popular choral favorite, with its updated arrangement and often shortened title, “Walking with Jesus”, the song has been sung by church choirs across the country for the last 20+ years!

With this album (and just about every studio album going forward), the Kingsmen started including some big ballad or some other type of song allowing Jim Hamill to sink his teeth into, and one of my all-time favorite Hamill features is the Del Delamont (writer of the Oak Ridge Boys’ classic tune, “King Jesus”) penned masterpiece, “I Owe it All to Him”.  Featuring some nice guitar work and beautifully highlighted with strings (masterfully arranged by Nick Bruno), it’s a marvelous song that perfectly highlighted Hamill’s ability to deliver a delicate and vulnerable lyric.  In fact, I remember the Kingsmen bringing this song back during the late 80’s/early 90’s in their concerts, and it was always a favorite moment for me when they’d perform the song.

Picking up the tempo, Ronny Hinson penned the exciting, fiddle infested tune, “Hungry for the Meal”, which has that exciting Kingsmen feel to it.  Featuring Eldridge Fox, the song also features a cool bridge of “Come and Dine”, led by Hamill, which takes the song to a new level (I would have loved to have heard the Hinsons’ take on this song!).  Someone should dust this song off and breathe new life into it, because it’s a great song.  I love the steel guitar and fiddle on the song and it’s a fantastic song leading perfectly into the final tune for this album, “Calm the Storm”, which features some nice low notes from Ray.  When I got this album as a kid, I listened to this song constantly and loved how they slowed it down midway through final chorus for its climactic finish.  I felt it was an excellent song to finish out the recording and it’s definitely one of my favorites from the album.  The Florida Boys eventually recorded this song a few years later, on their 1981 album, “On the Right Track”, and I enjoyed their version of the song as well.

I bought this album sometime in the early 80’s from the “Record Bar” in our local mall, but my copy was actually released on Heartwarming’s discount label, Vista Records.  I’ve never been able to determine why the album was originally released on Heartwarming and then re-released on Vista shortly thereafter, but nonetheless, this has always been one of my personal favorite studio albums by the Kingsmen, and I have always loved the overall warm, country feel of this recording.  Since Ernie was so new to the Kingsmen at the time (barely a month in his nearly 7-year tenure), there aren’t a lot of songs that feature him outside of his one big feature song, but you definitely hear him chiming in on those high notes in various places throughout the recording.

I’ve always appreciated how both sides of this album contrasted each other, as the first side is pretty laid back, but the second side features a lot of great up-tempo songs.  Despite the changes that had occurred in the group, with Hamill’s return and Ernie joining the group, “Just a Little Closer Home” is just a fantastic album that showed the sheer level of professionalism the Kingsmen had and their ability to pull it together and gel as nicely as they did.  I have a concert of the Kingsmen from February 1977 where they staged 3 songs from this album, as well as several classics and favorites from the previous few years.  They sounded just as good live as they did in the studio, which just further demonstrates that despite all the changes they had endured over the previous year, they were on top of their game and were indeed deserving of being labeled the MIGHTY Kingsmen!

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James Hales

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