Pony Tail Preacher

   A lot of Christian rock can be off-putting — even to Christians — because of its narrow mindset, both musically and lyrically. There is a tremendous range of Christian experience, but so many of the genre’s songwriters are Pentecostals who stopped buying pop music in 1987 that it seems other points of view and musical tastes don’t find a comfortable listen in Christian rock. That’s been changing a lot in the last few years, however, and I’m pleased to say that John Knowlton is contributing to the movement.
   An erstwhile Methodist preacher, John’s been writing in a country-rock vein about the Christian life in community for a number of years, and his debut album, Pony Tail Preacher, is a well-focused snapshot of his talents and message. While he sometimes plays solo, for this disc he’s assembled a fine ensemble that helps him straddle the country-rock line. On the rock side, John’s own aggressive acoustic guitar powers the group in a Townshend-esque fashion (think of “I’m One” or “Pinball Wizard”), while drummer Tom Maher is a monster, delivering powerful, intricate rhythms (such as the polyrhythmic intro to “Into the Deep” or the quirky fills in “Show Me”.) The country side is supplied by keyboardist Jeff Johnston, whose Floyd Cramer stylings on “God Bless You” and gentle passing chords of “Highland Woman” provide richness to the arrangements. Some joker named Steve Knowlton plays bass — while his two-step rhythms are straight out of Nashville, he’s more harmonically adventurous, introducing unusual scale steps in the coda of “First Love” and some Brian Wilson-style non-root tones in “Mornings in Michigan.”
   John’s tunes are solid, as well. His melodies move along with a nice pace, fitting the conversational tone of the lyrics, and are catchy as all-get-out. I defy you to get “Plans Are Always Made for Rearranging” out of your head. And he’s got quite a voice, too. Singing in a high baritone/low tenor range, he’s got a smooth, rich delivery with just the right amount of passionate inflection, even if he does over-enunciate. The few times he multi-tracks harmonies are exquisite: “First Love” sounds just like the Oak Ridge Boys, while “In the Wilderness” has a spooky major-fourth shadowing the melody like an echo in the Negev.
   What sets John Knowlton’s music apart from the usual run of Christian rock is in his lyrical emphases. While most Christian songwriters emphasize the personal relationship with Jesus — which is important — Knowlton knows that the New Covenant is between God and the church, and he writes tellingly of the power of community faith to transform lives. In this way, he taps into centuries of orthodox Christian thought, a tradition which seems neglected by the most powerful Christian movements in the United States.
   ”Have You Heard the News” is a dramatic tale of the Word spreading through a community, while “Show Me” is a prayer for Jesus to enlighten the narrator’s path toward faith in action expressed as group effort. “Mornings in Michigan” is downright poetic, with its nature imagery (“last night the snow fell like feathers”) wrapping into a meditation on the power of faith to strengthen the smallest, yet most important Christian group, the family (“a three-fold chord isn’t quickly broken”). I love it also because it brings out the beauty of our humble state.
   ”God Bless You” is one of the most touching songs, with a lilting tune and the true story of how a gentle childhood bedtime ritual strengthened John’s faith throughout his life, and “Son of David” is a strong reminder of how a faith community can be easily divided by dischord.
   John doesn’t just focus on the themes of church and community, however; sometimes he retells Bible passages (I love how “Plans Are Always Made for Rearranging” puts the Sermon on the Mount into verse, and even makes a hook out of “Don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself”, and “In the Wilderness” takes a driving acoustic guitar hook and rephrases John the Baptist’s call for today’s listener), and talks of the personal faith experience (“First Love” tackles the skepticism of the educated classes who find no proof for faith in their studies, while “Highland Woman” reconciles the loneliness of a long-distance love affair with the spiritual longing of a faith seeker.)
   Pony Tail Preacher is a powerful, impressive album from a bright Christian who has clearly put a lot of thought and prayer into these songs. My only complaint is that it’s too short — it clocks in at less than half an hour, and that includes a joke song at the end.

Pony Tail Preacher can be ordered from Crabapple Tapes Co. on cassette or CD.

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