There’s a gloomy backstory to this disc: singer-songwriter Johnnie Frierson had a difficult life. But that’s not the reason to listen to Have You Been Good to Yourself. The music itself is. The raw spirit on these seven self-penned gospel tunes reveal a man who questioned the purpose of life. He fought for meaning, despite a professed faith in a higher power. He performed to discover the god within himself. Despite surface-level conviction, Frierson’s voice betrays him. It strains for certainty. His raspy vocals suggest a deep pain at not really being sure about God’s plan. Even his “hallelujahs” sound forced.
One man in a garage, singing holy songs to himself and selling them at local stores in Memphis during the last decade of the 20th century. This may sound like prosaic fare, but in a certain way, its ordinariness makes it distinctive. Frierson sings of his mother, the people on the street selling and using drugs, sleeping and eating healthily, and the kind of things that go through a person’s head when just thinking about the day and the meaning of it all — through the lens of belief in the lord. Are you taking drugs or have you been following the 10 commandments, he asks. The words of the Bible connect to the way one treats oneself and others on the most mundane levels of everyday life. That means even what you had for breakfast.
Frierson gets downright passionate about the whole thing. A troubled being will always ask “why me, lord”, but Frierson goes further and thanks the lord for the good things in life. But you can tell he’s uncertain when he starts to moan. So when he sings a song about a modern miracle and it turns out to be about a guy nicknamed “Spaceman” who started his own car-customizing company, you have to wonder if that’s really God’s handiwork. The lord does work in mysterious ways, and when you think about it, it’s kind of cool: compared to parting the Red Sea or raising Lazarus, starting one’s own business without financial resources seems like a greater miracle. Praise the… well, this is not meant to be snarky. Only a fool would deny faith can make miracles happen.
“Everybody was sent to this world. There is a reason you were born. There is a purpose for everyone. You were not born by accident. There is a reason why you sent,” Frierson declares on “You Were Sent to This World” in a throaty baritone while he rhythmically strums an acoustic guitar. He begins with a hint of joy, but then a military cadence takes over, and shortly afterward the song just ends. Frierson started by proselytizing that we were all put here for a reason, but then had to convince himself of that fact. The abrupt ending reveals that he doesn’t want to backslide.
The more bluesy “Woke up This Morning” looks at the what-ifs: one could be living in sin, be addicted to drugs, or even dead in one’s grave. What would life mean then? Frierson appreciates his blessings, but a sense of despondency pervades the song, which ends with a serious litany of “I could have been…” with the different possibilities named.
But the disc is programmed correctly, and the last song, “Trust in the Lord”, lifts one up. That’s because, according to the lyrics, Frierson’s conviction in the lord comes from hearing his mother sing God’s praises when he was a child. He begins by noting how the world has gotten worse in terms of crime and poverty, then gets sweetly nostalgic for the past and his mother’s voice. He thanks her for singing the old gospel tunes in a voice reminiscent of Leon Bridges in his tribute to his own mother, “Lisa Sawyer”. It’s lovely. There’s no questioning the love that Frierson has for the woman that raised him.