Goin' Up to the Spirits in the Sky

Holy Cowgirl (Independent)

Heidi Howe

The Mighty Jeremiahs (ear X-tacy Records)

The Mighty Jeremiahs

By Tim Roberts

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing, it says in Psalm 30, verses 11-12. "Thou hast put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness; to the end that my glory may sing praise to thee and not be silent." Throughout the entire history of music, faith has moved musicians to write and sing of their joys, redemptions, sorrows, lamentations and personal experiences of the Almighty, from Vedic hymns to Gregorian Chorals and from four-part harmony Gospel to Norman Greenbaum's fuzzed-out, psychedelic testimony Spirit in the Sky. Regardless of the era in which the music was composed, there is a single common element: Praise.

Two area performers take different musical and thematic approaches in their recent releases of praise: Heidi Howe makes some inward reflections and expresses her gratitude to the Almighty with Holy Cowgirl: Spiritual Songs about the Human Experience, while The Mighty Jeremiahs from central Kentucky talk and testify, backed by some Southern-style roots rock in their self-titled recording.

From 1999's The Nature of My Wrongs to last year's Give a Hootennanny, Louisville's Heidi Howe has explored soured relationships, crashed-and-burned dreams, eco-awareness, good eating habits and the fantasy of being a punk rocker. Known throughout the region for her trademark twang, red guitar and wiseacre lyrics, Howe has decided to turn inward for Holy Cowgirl and in it we find songs that express a lot of the common themes that run through the history of religious music: the search for peace ("Angels"), acceptance ("Enough Already"), charity ("Fabulous") and atonement (Howe's rendition of the traditional "Down by the Riverside"). All of these are performed with traditional instrumentation and are deliberately under-produced to heighten the themes and lyrical simplicity so that the production does not overwhelm the message - one that also comes courtesy of the many local musicians Howe has helping her, including Nate Thumas, Bryan Hurst, Steve Cooley, Tim Brothers and Howe's husband, Neal Cox.

Two selections on Holy Cowgirl deserve special attention. "Rejoice" takes the melody of the medieval Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and weaves in updated lyrics. The original version, sung in monasteries during Advent, has a challenging minor-chord melody and a chorus that contains demanding harmonies. In this version, Howe, Brigid Kaelin and Melba Harris blend melody and harmony into an electrifying, modern rendition of the original. And Howe's "John Denver" pays tribute to that late singer-songwriter who thrived in the era when we were supposed to eat our granola and wear Earth Shoes (or is that the other way around?) and sign up for est, whose songs were, as Howe claims, about "dumb stuff like flowers and trees." Truth to tell, Denver's songs were about wholesome things, plus he was never regarded as a sex symbol along the lines of Nick Lachey and that makes Howe's song more of a lament than a tribute: a lament for the lack of lyrical simplicity in a lot of music and the lack of soul in how it is presented to its audience.

For a performer whose work up to now has been largely reactive to crappy stuff that has happened to her or others she's known, Holy Cowgirl is Howe's refusal to let those moments define who she is. It is her testimony to the power of feeling that one is loved and can love. Her testimony is intimate, one that might come about after a series of spiritual retreats and be shared intimately with a few people at a time. The flipside of that is bold, open testimony, shared with an entire congregation from a pulpit or with a community from a street corner. It is that kind of testimony that is packed into more than an hour's worth of Sunday-go-to-meetin'-old-time religion infused with southern blues and roots rock. It is the testimony from The Mighty Jeremiahs.

Consisting of Kentucky Headhunters guitarist Greg Martin, Jeff Beck's vocalist Jimmy Hall and bassist Mark Hendricks and Jon McGee from Lexington's Taildragger, The Mighty Jeremiahs' self-titled release is a testimonial dynamite that exalts God with more than just a mere joyful noise. This is ballistic exaltation. This is a street corner testimonial amped up in surround-sound. This is the major prophets rumbling into town on Harleys, John the Baptist pulling up to the church in a monster truck. And you'd better listen up, pal or gal, 'cause your soul is now up for bids and both sides have come with deep pockets.

The Jeremiahs (and a number of friends that include Bonnie Bramlett, Phil Keagy and Verlon Dale Grissom) slam and growl through originals and reworks of traditional Gospel songs. From the surreal, radio-tuning static and guitar rumble of the "Revelator Intro" opening track, to the smoky "It's Been a Good Day" that finishes the recording, not since Bach has praising the Lord sounded so good or been so gritty. Along the way we get a soft, all acoustic version of "Amazing Grace," covers of the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself," and Otis Redding's "That's How Strong My Love Is," along with a host of growly, bluesy originals like "Ain't No Room in this House for Hell," "Walk With me, Jesus," and "Revelator," an instrumental that sounds like a forgotten track from the Allman Brothers performance at Fillmore East.

While the music from The Mighty Jeremiahs is potent, there isn't a judgmental intention in any of it. Listening to it won't encourage snake handling or persuade you to start preaching the Gospel to the Goth kids down the street. It is more of an admonishment to change your life, sort of along the lines of what Christ said in John 8:11: "Go and sin no more."

In the history of music (as an art and a business), religious works are among some of the best pieces ever composed and those who are open to religious experiences come away feeling blessed by what they hear. As Heidi Howe and The Mighty Jeremiahs show in their respective releases, musicians indeed are, as William Butler Yeats wrote, "blessed and could bless."

Find out more of the gospel at www.heidihowe.com and at www.mightyjeremiahs.com.