The Lost Dogs have a new album out, and it’s got me thinking about faith and religion.
Part of what I’ve been thinking about concerns that pained little sigh that many of you probably just let out upon reading that first sentence. We don’t like it when people talk to us about spiritual matters – it raises images of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on our doors like pushy telemarketers, or obnoxious people on street corners handing out tracts. Whether or not we believe in some higher power, we prefer to maintain an ironic distance from matters of faith, lest we be considered one of those religious freaks.
That level of discomfort extends to the realm of music, I’ve discovered. Some of my favorite musicians, including the Lost Dogs, are on Christian labels and sing about spiritual matters. I’ve written about Christian music and musicians before in this column, many times, and I’ve tried to turn friends on to their albums, many of which rank with the best I’ve ever heard. Time and time again, I’ve received the same response: “I don’t like Jesus music.”
Which would be fine, if the perception of the “Jesus music” proffered by the Lost Dogs and their contemporaries weren’t so off base. I think the primary difference between most people’s idea of Christian music and the deeply beautiful work of the Dogs is the same difference between religion and faith, and people get those confused quite often as well. And understandably so, as organized religions have labored endlessly since their inception to make the two synonymous.
When most people think of God, they think of church. It’s natural, since church is where most people first hear about God, or Allah, or whatever you want to call the higher force that binds people together and gives them purpose. And from the very first time most of us enter a church, we hear it referred to as “God’s house,” the place where our ties to the spiritual world live. When we seek God out, most of us instinctively go to a church, as we did after September 11, in record numbers. It makes sense, and it’s exactly what the people running those churches hope that we do.
I have a jaundiced view of organized religion, as anyone who knows me can attest, and a lot of that negativity comes from the notion that you can’t have God without church. Religions have done more to turn people away from the idea of God than just about anything else, and it’s during times of political crisis within religious organizations that the synonym idea backfires.
Take the ongoing child molestation issue within the Catholic Church, a severe problem which has limited the church’s ability to draw new members. If the church is synonymous in people’s minds with God and matters of spiritual connection, and the priest is the most visible symbol of that church and those connections, then one cannot help but feel the same disgust and revulsion towards God that one feels towards the church because of that priest.
And if you don’t think that the church wants you to consider them on par with God, then witness their attempts to cover the issue up and remain blameless and trusted in people’s eyes. Shuffling potentially dangerous priests from one parish to another is not forgiveness. True penance involves confessing one’s sins, not sweeping them under the rug. It involves facing one’s actions and accepting the consequences, and most importantly, it involves not actually expecting forgiveness when you ask for it.
These issues are volatile and enraging, no doubt, and they often end up with people rejecting the notion of God all together. I know that I did for a while – I was raised Protestant Congregationalist, in a church full of self-righteous people. That same church has seen two senior pastors resign in disgrace after having affairs with congregation members. I haven’t been back since I was 16 or so, except for the occasional holiday, but those visits are more for my mother than anything else. The last time I set foot within those walls was for my grandmother’s funeral two years ago.
It was a while before I started looking for God again, and much to my surprise, I found him in moments and ways I never would have in church. It took me a while to figure it out, but I finally realized my guiding philosophy about God and religion: it’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans. Put simply, religion is not God, it’s religion. People do all kinds of crazy things in God’s name, and the important thing I’ve tried to remember is that God is not actively participating in any of them.
Faith, on the other hand, is between a person and his or her higher power, and that’s it. It’s a quiet, personal thing that rejects comparisons between people – faith never condemns another for being less than devout, for example. That, to me, is religion – concerned with the outward appearance of holiness at least as much as the actual presence of it. It doesn’t matter what religion you choose, or if you choose one at all – religions are just suits your faith tries on, and so far, none of them have fit for me.
In the same vein, faith has never been the cause of a war, or a crusade, or a slaughter. Religions often don’t even follow their own rules – one of the first recorded instances in the bible of God speaking to anyone was to Moses on Mt. Sinai, when God basically said “don’t kill anyone.” How the Catholics got from that to the crusades is completely beyond me. Faith is not about changing other people, it’s about changing yourself. Faith is also about being okay with the idea that people aren’t going to agree with you.
I’ve come to many of these conclusions with the help of some of the most beautiful music I know of, made by people who embrace their own spiritual sides and document them with unflinching candor. The first album I heard that mixed the spiritual and the human with perfect grace was called Circle Slide, by a little band called the Choir. I’ve mentioned them before – they’re one of the best bands in the world. They taught me that the religious music I’d been subjected to for years was just that – religious. You can’t fake honesty, and you can’t disguise music designed to give off a holy appearance.
Basically, religion preaches, and faith shares.
The Choir made (and still makes) music that comes from the soul, that takes an honest look at the world and spirituality’s place in it. That same sense carries over into Choir singer Derri Daugherty’s other band, the Lost Dogs, which also includes like-minded musicians Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos and Michael Roe of the 77s. (The fourth member of the Dogs, the late great Gene Eugene, died in 2000.) These guys do what any great songwriter does – they filter the world through their own experiences. They’re not about making you believe what they believe, they’re about examining their own beliefs and telling stories about their discoveries.
And that’s why their new one, Nazarene Crying Towel, is such a beautiful thing. The Dogs have long been about digging up the spiritual roots of American music, and here they’ve made a down-home, old-fashioned gospel record, the kind Johnny Cash used to make before he started covering Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. They use the words Jesus, God and Lord on this record more than they ever have before, and they stick to simple songs of solace and praise. It’s the kind of thing that usually turns me off – even Choir drummer Steve Hindalong has upset me lately with his City on a Hill series, because praise and worship music usually overlooks the humanity that I’m most interested in.
I can’t lie to you, though. I love every second of Nazarene Crying Towel. All 2063 of them.
Maybe it’s because the Dogs have done everything possible to make this sound like an old-time gospel record. Songs like “Moses in the Desert” are simple singalongs that would be ruined by modern production, so the Dogs just play them on acoustic guitars and sing them sweetly. There are very few bursts of electric guitar on this album, the most notable exception being Mike Roe’s roaring blues piece “Cry Out Loud,” and in some cases drums and bass are omitted. The production gives the album an earthy, deep feeling, one for which the Dogs have been striving for several albums now.
Or maybe it’s because the trio has learned over time how best to integrate their voices. They make their best use yet of high-toned Derri Daugherty here, especially on the glorious closer “Darkest Night.” Taylor shines on the Beatlesque “Mercy Again,” and Roe does his usual superb job on “Come Down Here.” But it’s when all three sing together, like on the lovely “Be My Hiding Place,” that they show their growth.
But most likely it’s because this is an album of honest and sweet songs, the very antithesis of the big, orchestrated modern worship album. It’s the simplest and most direct record they’ve ever done, and yet its heart is the humanity upon which they’ve always based their spiritual yearnings. Where most worship albums are concentrated on how much you – yes, you – need God, Nazarene Crying Towel is entirely about how much the Dogs themselves crave mercy and forgiveness.
Take these lines from Mike Roe’s “Come Down Here”: “There lies inside of me a heart that’s dark, come down here, won’t you come down here? Can’t take the fire but I’ll take a spark, if you come down here, we can chase that dark.” Or these, from Terry Taylor’s “Mercy Again”: “Lord are you still hiding? Where have you been? Show me, I’m still waiting, show me, my heart’s breaking, show me your mercy again.” Or these, from Taylor’s “Crushing Hand”: “Do what you must and save me, I am in the dust now, raise me, help my unbelief to go gently.”
Best of all, lyrically, is “The Yearning,” a poem about how God waits for us to come find him, sung from his point of view: “I was in the fields you would not reap, I was in the faith you failed to keep, in every arrow shot that never found its mark, I am in the words of this new song, in the love that draws you on, I am in the yearning of your lonely broken heart.” The theme of the album is present in these verses, and it’s a theme that infuses just about all of the Lost Dogs’ work. We are lonely, we crave, we yearn, but God is always there, waiting to embrace us.
In his accompanying essay, Taylor explains the album’s title – his grandmother had a ritual of crying out to the heavens while whipping her own back with a soft towel and rocking back and forth in her chair. Taylor believes these episodes were partially for the family’s benefit – “There was something of the Victorian actress in my grandmother,” he says – but he also sees the spiritual metaphor. “Could it be,” he says, “that Someone or Something is whispering to us through our brokenness and telling us that there is indeed a place where sadness turns to song, worry to wonder, burden to bliss, a place that we were always meant to inhabit, a place where a thing like Grandma’s perpetually broken heart is at last mended and we are all of us together again, healed and home?”
Nazarene Crying Towel uses its simple framework to get to the heart of all gospel music, the honest reflection on hope and healing. If such naked expressions of faith make you uncomfortable, then perhaps this album is not for you, but it’s important to realize where this is coming from, and how it differs from the usual Christian fare. It is far less important that you believe what the Lost Dogs are saying here, and more important that you feel their belief. Like all of their work, Nazarene Crying Towel is honest and personal, and it doesn’t drag you anywhere you don’t want to go. Rather, it softly offers you a window into the hearts and lives of Roe, Taylor and Daugherty, with the hope that you might see some of your own spiritual yearning within.
It probably has taken you longer to read this review than it would to listen to Nazarene Crying Towel and make up your own mind. You can do so at www.thelostdogs.com. If you’ve never heard the Lost Dogs before, I would probably not recommend starting with this one, beautiful as it is. Get Gift Horse or The Green Room Serenade Part One first, so you can see what they’re all about. Eventually, though, work your way to this simple, delightful gem. Like Taylor sings of God, it will be waiting for you to find it when you’re ready.
See you in line Tuesday morning.