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Jimmy Swaggart: You Don't Need to Understand

Jimmy Swaggart was still mainly a radio preacher known for his fiery opposition to rock 'n' rollers like his first cousin Jerry Lee Lewis in 1972 when You Don't Need to Understand was released on his private-label JIM Records. He made his first TV appearance the next year in Nashville - the initial step on his infamous road to TV preacher mega-stardom - so this is probably the final album of more than 50 he's made on which it was still mostly about the music and his considerable gifts as a piano-playing gospel song interpreter.

jimmy_swaggart3.jpgHere, Swaggart has his musical formula honed to an ultra-fine sheen: It was a now-overlooked and crucial part of his rise to glory in the '70s and '80s. He forged a dependable melange of rhythm and blues, honky-tonk piano (the "Golden Gospel Piano') and traditional country music with a Pentecostal "Jesus saves" message, and put it over so well with his smooth baritone voice that it had appeal well beyond religious communities. On this album, for instance, he chooses a mix of songs from then-contemporary gospel songwriters like Dottie Rambo ("Remind Me Dear Lord") and classic hymns from Johnson Oatman Jr. ("The Last Mile of the Way") and Stuart K. Hine ("How Great Thou Art"), which are given secular shoves.

Jimmy Swaggart Ministries claims it has sold 13 million gospel music albums worldwide, and although that assertion is impossible to verify because JIM Records, as a private label, isn't audited by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), there's no doubt Swaggart's popularity as a musician is immense and has changed the face of gospel music forever. And of course, his musical formula, much like his personal life, is overflowing with hypocrisy, so much so that despite his status as probably the biggest-selling gospel artist of all time, he's nowhere to be found in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. The fact that he viciously denounced rock 'n' roll in fire-and-brimstone sermons from his Assemblies of God pulpit, but at the same time was so intimately connected to it and applied some of its techniques to gospel music, was beyond the pale even for many church-goers willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But even after his much-publicized dalliances with prostitutes in 1988 and 1991 put an end to his credibility as a preacher, his musical legacy lives on. You Don't Need to Understand is a fine example of what got him to the top. The Golden Gospel Piano is evident throughout - Swaggart's honky-tonk style is eerily reminiscent of cousin Jerry Lee's seminal rock 'n' roll bashing - and is probably the closest thing linking his gospel stylings to their secular roots. Also typical of his music here is the glossy production sheen he achieved at Columbia Records' Nashville studios with legendary recording engineer Selby Coffeen (Patsy Cline's "Crazy"; Baez Sings Dylan) at the controls.

On background vocals are the Anita Kerr Singers (performing here as The Sounds of Nashville), a top-notch studio session group that helped define country and pop music sounds in the post-war years. They provide the most "sacred" aspect of Swaggart's sound with their church choir-like contributions.

To a roots rock fan such as myself, the two most interesting tracks on You Don't Need to Understand are "He Accepted Me," which is credited to "Wethering" (couldn't find any more info on this person), and "Something Within Me." "He Accepted Me" is about as honky-tonk as a Swaggart song can get . . . a rollicking number in which Swaggart displays some extremely dextrous ivory tickling and trades nice call-and-response lyrics with the Anita Kerr clan. It also features a very tasty and country-ish dobro solo from Grand Ol' Opry veteran guitarist Joe Edwards.

"Something Within Me," credited to "unknown" also sounds like it came straight from Swaggart's Louisiana home turf, specifically from New Orleans. If it weren't for the lyrics extolling God Almighty for His power to "take away pain," it could be a honky-tonk shuffle worthy of Willie Nelson himself.

And of course, no review of a Jimmy Swaggart album would be complete without an irony-meter lyrical check. We hit paydirt in that respect on "Remind Me Dear Lord:"

Roll back the curtain of memory now and then
Show me, Lord, where you brought me from
And without you, where I could have been

And remember, Lord, we're all human
And sometimes we forget,
So remind me, remind me dear Lord.

*

From Tommy Cash to Blue Oyster Cult, Bin Dive reveals rock's secret history. Send comments, suggestions, distortion and feedback to Don. You must include a real name to be considered for publication.




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Posted on June 25, 2007


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