As the Rex Nelon Singers were becoming a major force within the industry, they started ramping things up a bit with their music and creativity. While “Expressions of Love” was a bit more on the traditional side, “One Step Closer” picks up where “Feelings” left off and was the group’s most ambitious recording to date. This was a trend the group would cycle through…they would do one or two traditional sounding recordings, and then come back and do one or two progressive (ish) recordings, and that seemed to work very well for the group and their fans. Of course, they would still dabble in the opposite style on each recording, but the overall feel of their albums was either traditional or progressive, depending on what their focus was for that particular recording.
Though I grew up watching the Rex Nelon Singers on the Gospel Singing Jubilee in the late 70’s and early 80’s, this was the first record I ever owned by the group. I bought this album through the Canaan Record and Tape Club back when the album was released, and it ranks as one of my all-time favorite recordings by the group. I love the overall feel and dynamics of the album, the production quality, the songs, the arrangements…all just made this such a succulent album to listen to.
Once again, Ken Harding is at the helm in the producer’s chair, and Kristen Wilkinson is once again brought in to handle strings arrangements. As I mentioned a bit ago, they took things up a notch with this album and this is the first recording that the group began utilizing horns, and Don Hart is brought in to handle the horn arrangements. The album features 11 musicians (including a young Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and fiddle) as well as 16 others playing strings and brass, totaling 27 musicians playing on this album! Much like their “Feelings” album, it appears no expense was spared as the group released one of their best and most progressive albums to date. Whereas groups like the Rambos, Downings, Speers and others laid the progressive groundwork in the 70’s, “One Step Closer” was one of the most diverse albums on the Southern Gospel market at the time and truly showed that the Rex Nelon Singers could sing anything!
The album starts out with the Betty Jean Robinson penned, “Jesus is Alive and Well”. With blaring horns and a thumping bass track, I love the funky feel of the song and it’s one of my favorite songs by the group. I love the turn around with the drums, and Rex does a super job on the verses and it’s just a really fun song to listen to and sing along with. This was the first single from the recording, and while it was a concert favorite for several years, it never broke the Top 20, but remained in the Top 40 for several months in 1982.
Janet steps up next to sing the Andrae Crouch penned, “All That I Have”. Featuring some nice guitar work and a nice jazz feel, this song really showed Janet’s lower range and the deep, rich tones of her alto register. The song was a contemporary and soulful inclusion for the album and one I originally did not appreciate when I first heard the album as a 9 and 10-year-old kid. At that age, I just wasn’t all that into it, but as my musical tastes widened over time, I found a new appreciation for the song. In retrospect, it sounds like something Reba Rambo would have sung, and Janet does a phenomenal job on it.
With fiddles and steel guitar, Rodney sings the country feel of the upbeat, “Turn to Jesus”. I love the country hoedown feel of the song and it’s one of my favorites from the recording, before Kelly sings another one of my personal favorites, “I’ll Just Lay it Down”, written by Dee Gaskin and published through Rex Nelon Music. The song was the second single release from the album, and much like “Jesus is Alive and Well”, the song never broke the Top 20, but the song remained in the Top 40 for several months during the latter part of 1982. As Kelly grew as a singer and communicator, it seems emphasis was placed on finding her at least one song on each album she could really sink her teeth into, and this was “her” song from this album and it was a fantastic song that fit Kelly like a glove! The Hayes Family (a group very much influenced by the Rex Nelon Singers) did an excellent cover of the song several years later on their 1990 “Live” recording.
Picking up the pace, this side concludes with the bluegrass feel of the George Shuffler penned, “Lights of Heaven”. Always on the lookout for new songs and writers, Rex found some great songs and songwriters over the years, George Shuffler being one of them, and the group ended up recording a couple of tunes written by him over the years. With some nice bass lines by Rex, it’s a happy tune that leaves the listener tapping their feet to the tempo of the song.
My absolute favorite song from this album is this pop infused tune from the pen of Nancy Harmon entitled, “Hide Me, Sweet Rock of Ages”. Featuring a dynamic performance by Janet, I would listen to this song incessantly as a kid, never wanting the song to end. I loved everything about this song…the horns, the energy, the dynamics, how the song builds with intensity to its final climax…even today I still can’t get enough of this energetic and electrifying song. The song wasn’t a chart song for the group (I wonder if it was a contender as a third single from the album, but then Janet left the group), but imagine my thrill when Janet re-recorded it on her 2008 “Treasure” recording and took the song all the way to #1 in the Singing News chart in August 2009! Someone really needs to bring this song back today…maybe the Hoppers, Collingsworth Family or maybe even the current Nelons!
After coming off the high from that song, the pace slows down as Jerry sings the warm feel of “Headed for Glory”. Featuring nice string, electric keyboard and steel guitar accents, written by Ruby Moody (writer of the classic song, “My Real Home”, recorded by the Dixie Echoes), this is one of my personal favorites from this recording and Jerry sings it beautifully, before we come to the contemporary feel of “Sail for the Other Side”. Featuring both Jerry and Kelly, the song features some really nice harmony by the group and is another one of my personal favorites from this album. This is another song Janet brought back on her “Treasure” recording, where she is joined by Ivan Parker.
Keeping things in slow mode, Kelly steps up to sing her own composition, “He Cared For Me” before the tempo finally picks back up as Rodney sings the Southern Gospel feel of “Stepping in the Steps”. Written by Nancy McGinnis and published through Rex Nelon Music, it’s a fun, bouncy tune and I always loved the ending of the song as each member sang “I’m wanna reach…” before hitting the final high note of the song. It’s an enjoyable number and another one of my favorites from this recording.
The album closes out with one of my all-time favorite Janet Paschal features, “If You Had Known Me”, a beautiful ballad written by a brilliant songwriter, Joan Ewing. Beautifully orchestrated and delicately sung, it took me years to fully appreciate the beauty of this lyric and this performance. In fact, Janet recorded the song on her 2004 solo recording, “Home Again”, and it was this particular performance from that recording that re-introduced me to this truly magnificent song.
One significant change in the group was made with this album, Todd Nelon, Rex’s son and Kelly’s brother, joined the group as their bass guitar player. Todd would remain an integral part of the group for the next 10 years and within a few years, he would start singing specialty numbers and would also eventually become one of the front-line singers. Rex’s dream of having his children on stage with him was finally complete!
This album pretty much set the standard for the group going forward, and despite not producing any chart-topping hits, “One Step Closer” won SG Album of the Year at the 1982 Dove Awards. The group also won Favorite Mixed Group at the 1981 Singing News Fan Awards, with Kelly taking home Favorite Female Singer as well. The group was enjoying immense success, but change was coming, as by the following year, Janet had left the group to join the Jimmy Swaggart organization where she remained for several years before embarking on her own solo ministry. The group rebounded beautifully with the acquisition of a very young, Karen Peck to sing soprano, and the group didn’t miss a beat as they continued putting out great music!
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