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Vinyl Record Review: The Hemphills – Make Mine Gospel (1972)

“Make Mine Gospel” was the first album the Hemphills released in 2 years, as the group did not release a new album in 1971.  When looking over the Hemphills discography, I’ve noticed that every few years they would skip a year releasing new music.  Despite not releasing a new album in 1971, they continued to remain very busy touring across the country appearing on stages at churches and various venues from coast to coast.  It was during this hiatus from recording that the group decided it was time to make the big move to Nashville, Tennessee.  After 10 fruitful and faithful years pastoring their church, they resigned, sold their house in Louisiana, and made the bold move to Nashville, where they could be more centrally located, thus easing some of the burden of traveling.  Once they made the move and got settled in, they started work on this latest album, which was released in 1972.

Produced by Rusty Goodman and recorded once again at Goodman Sound Studios, “Make Mine Gospel” had more of a mainstream Southern Gospel sound to it.  The album also had more of a “slick” feel to it than their last album, but still featured a lot of the country undertones that identified the Hemphills’ trademark style.  This album was also a bit of a step-up production-wise, as strings are added on some of the songs, which I assume were arranged by the Goodmans’ piano player, Eddie Crook.  There is no credit given as to who played on the recording, but I would assume at least part of the Goodman’s band played on the album.

The recording starts off with the classic Lawrence Reynolds penned tune, “If God is Dead”, which features a nice performance by LaBreeska.  The song was highly popular during the early ’70s and was recorded by numerous artists including Vestal Goodman, “Big” John Hall, Teddy Huffam & the Gems, Hinsons, and Blackwood Brothers.  Backed by a string section, LaBreeska turns in an excellent performance on the song, before the tempo picks up for Joel’s hit song, “I’ll Soon Be Gone”, featuring the classic strains of the steel guitar.  Though the Hemphills charted the song for a few months, peaking at #7 in June 1973 in the Singing News chart, it was the Downings who made it a bona fide hit, taking the song all the way to #2 in March 1973.  This became one of Joel’s most recorded songs, as in addition to the Downings, groups such as the Happy Goodmans, Blackwood Brothers, LeFevres, Hinsons, Hoppers, and many others recorded the song as well; most recently by Les Butler’s Old Time Preachers Quartet back in 2019.  

Keeping things in an upbeat mood and featuring the strains of the dobro, Tim steps up next to sing the enjoyable little ditty, “I Wanna Do Right”, before Joel slows things down with the thought-provoking testimony song, “And He Did”, which also features a nice string section and steel guitar accents.  LaBreeska’s uncle, Bobby Goodman, recorded the song a couple of years later, on his 1974 solo album, “That’ll Be Big”, and did a great job with his version of the song.  In fact, Uncle Bobby would eventually play bass guitar for the Hemphills.  By 1972, Bobby had left the Happy Goodman Family, but later joined up with the Hemphills for a brief time in 1973/1974.

LaBreeska and Tim round out this side as they sing the Dad Speer classic, “I Never Shall Forget the Day”.  The song was enjoying a huge resurgence around this time by both the Speers and the Hinsons, and here the Hemphills put their own stamp on the song and do a good job with it.

Kicking off the second side, LaBreeska takes the lead on the verses, with Joel and Dixie providing some step-out lines on the chorus of the highly enjoyable, “Only Jesus”.  Featuring fun fiddle and guitar accents along with some nice duet work with LaBreeska and Dixie on the verses, it’s a highly enjoyable number and one of my personal favorites from this album.

Next, we come to the classic Billy Dale Sexton penned tune, “I Want to See Jesus”, which was published through Hemphill Music.  Sexton traveled with the Hemphills for a short time as their bass guitarist (and sometimes vocalist) and was obviously with the group when they started work on this album, but had left to join the Dixie Echoes before the album was finished, as there is no mention of him in the liner notes, nor is he pictured on the cover.  This would eventually become one of Tim’s signature songs during his time with the Hemphills, as Tim soon picked up the mantle, taking the lead on the song in their concerts.  The Hemphills were the first group to record the song, and eventually, the Dixie Echoes recorded it after Sexton joined them, and both groups enjoyed success with the song during the early 70s.  The song still pops up from time to time, and along with the Hemphills and Dixie Echoes, has been recorded over the years by such groups as the Cathedrals, Down East Boys, Thrasher Brothers, and others.  As an aside, not taking anything away from the Hemphills version, if you’ve never heard the Dixie Echoes’ exciting live performance of the song from their 1973 live album with Billy Dale Sexton singing the song, you’ve missed a real treat and blessing!  On a personal note, this song ranks as one of my all-time favorite songs…ever!

Picking up the tempo, “A Preacher’s Boy”, is Joel’s personal recollection of growing up the son of a preacher’s kid.  Featuring nice fiddle and guitar accents, it was a highly popular song for the group, charting for a few months in mid-1972, but never quite making it into the Top 20.  Due to the life Joel’s dad lived as a Christian, father, and preacher, he had a strong, positive influence on Joel, and inspired several songs over the years, this being one of my personal favorites.

Slowing the pace back down and featuring a nice steel guitar intro, LaBreeska takes the lead on the emotionally tinged, “The Heart That Was Broken for Me” before Joel closes out the album with the poignant and reflective tune, “If I Could Talk with the Lord”.  In Joel’s honest and down-to-earth way, he reflects on what he would say to the Lord if he could talk to Him face to face, as he so eloquently writes, “We’d stroll hand in hand, in the cool of the day, my heart would thrill to each word He would say, He’d tell me who I am, and why I am, what I’ll ever be, why I feel what I feel in the heart of me…If I could only talk with the Lord”.  The song has always resonated with me and is one of my favorites from this album.  I love the musical flourishes in the song, and it was the perfect closing number for the album.

I love the title of this album…“Make Mine Gospel”…it appears as though the Hemphills were making a statement that they would be true to who they were and would always preach and sing the gospel.  The Hemphills were never overly preachy in their concerts, but they let their music and songs do the preaching for them.  From a musical standpoint, while “Old Brush Arbor Days” offered some unique sounds and styles for the Hemphills, I felt “Make Mine Gospel” was a bit more streamlined and (for lack of a better word)…safe.  Don’t misunderstand, it’s a great album and it does make some truly wonderful musical and lyrical statements, but I always felt the group lost some of their “uniqueness” with this album.  

The Hemphills were still a very young group (only 3 years old at this point) and they were working at spreading their wings and finding their footing in a very unique, and still predominantly male quartet-dominated industry.  It would still be a couple of years before they truly began to come into their own.  I love the Hemphills during this period, as they were still full of raw talent and potential and weren’t yet overly influenced by the music scene and by the rigors of life in general.  Truthfully, you can’t underestimate the music from their Canaan years, as they recorded some pretty remarkable stuff within the grooves of those albums that are still being sung today!

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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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