Regarding Christian rock, the philosopher Hank Hill once stated, “You people aren’t making Christianity better. You’re just making rock & roll worse.” Hill must never have heard the Sacred Shakers, because unlike anemic contemporary Christian artists—or worse, faux-edgy Christian hardcore bands—the Shakers manage to do what so many other religious artists out there can’t: create music that has both style and substance.
The first inkling into the Sacred Shakers’ unique brand of Americana gospel can be gathered from the ubiquitous band photo in the liner notes; while archtop electric guitars line the walls, the black-clad band is crowded around a table containing maracas, a Bible, and a fifth of Knob Creek bourbon. Their lyrics may be fit for Sunday morning, but the music is straight up Saturday night.
The Sacred Shakers starts off with an alt-country version of “I’m Gonna Do My Best” before quickly segueing into one of the record’s strongest songs, “Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel”, a Carl Perkins-ish rockabilly number with a thumping bass line that could have come straight out of any roadhouse south of the Mason-Dixon. Token girl singer Eilen Jewell (who normally fronts the Eilen Jewell Band) lends her voice—reminiscent of Laura Cantrell’s imperfect but expressive soprano—to “Ready to Go Home.”
“Straighten ‘Em” is a catchy, fun, honkytonk singalong, at least until the lyrics begin to register: “Death’s gonna straighten out all you sinners when he comes”. “John the Revelator” sees the band putting on their Gillian Welch and David Rawlings oldtime revival hats, but in a reversal of Gillian and David’s instantly recognizable sound, the song sees drummer Jason Beek taking the lead vocals while Jewell sings harmony. One of the most lyrically interesting songs on the album is “Titanic”, which blues fans may recognize as a variation of “God Moves on the Water”, a song made famous by Blind Willie Johnson some 80 years ago. Either way, it’s 99% shorter and a helluva lot more enjoyable than the James Cameron film, thanks to lead singer Greg Glassman, who may be a long lost, melanin-deprived member of the Staples clan.
While eleven of the album’s 14 tracks are public domain and/or traditional gospel songs, the Sacred Shakers do perform a few songs penned by country music’s holy duo, Hank Williams and George Jones. Jones’s “Taggin’ Along with Jesus” is lyrically rather vapid (let’s face it: songwriting has never been the Possum’s strongest suit), but the Shakers’ fast-paced rockabilly beat and catchy chorus more than make up for it. Meanwhile, the two Williams covers (the aforementioned “Ready to Go Home” as well as “Are You Walking & A’ Talking With the Lord”) are simply wonderful, keeping close to the late 1940s/early 1950s country sound without sounding stale.
Though the lyrical content of the songs may appeal primarily to Christians and gospel fans, it’s hard to imagine that fans of Americana won’t be drawn to the Sacred Shakers’ infectious sound. Because the members of this supergroup are all involved in their own musical projects, Shakers gigs are few and far between. So until they make their way to your town, you’ll have to settle for the next best thing: fill a flask and head to your nearest tent revival. It’s what Jerry Lee Lewis would do.