A Red Guitar, Four Chords, and the Truth

Okay, well, Bob Dylan's original lyrics in "All Along the Watchtower" had it at three chords and the truth.

I just finished a long day of driving and, as I sometimes do, I hit "scan" on the radio. I landed on a Christian station and stuck with it for about an hour.

First, a confession. I haven't really listened to contemporary Christian music in decades. Why? For the same reason I turned off the radio today. One hour was enough for another long while. (And since my sample size in what I'm about to say is admittedly small, take whatever number of grains of salt you wish. I won't mind.)

The CCM industry tweaked Dylan's lyric plus-one and then took it way too seriously.

Let me say something positive: the production values were stellar. I mean, really, really good. Unfortunately, like the pop and country worlds generally, most of it sounds like it was produced in the same studio, churning out the hits with a cookie-cutter recipe. If the songs weren't performed by the exact same musicians (and with studio musicians, they very well might have been), they were certainly produced to match a certain desirable sound.

But the creative range (I'm strictly talking music here, not lyrics) revolved around exactly four chords. I wish that was a joke, but no. You know the chords I'm talking about? I'll let the Axis of Awesome explain. (Brief language warning at the beginning)

That really is awesome. I wish it weren't so much of a joke.

Look. I've got nothing fundamentally against those chords. They sound great. There's something just "right" about them. But music should be all about creativity, not just slapping new lyrics on the same old tune. And this isn't just an hour on the radio. I helped play for the worship band last night at the ministry I was serving and I heard it again and again. And then, again.

So my hour of CCM got me to wondering. Way back when, during the long lost days when I was a little chap and loved everything Petra, was the music this predictable and boring? I mean, the very first rock-and-roll show I ever saw was Petra during their Beat The System tour. I was nine years old. Maybe I just don't remember that it's always been this way.

Well, I happen to have Beat The System on my iPad. And in my cool new-model rental car I could plug it straight in through USB and listen to it. So I fired up the old album to give it a listen.

Guess what? I don't think I heard those four chords in the entire album. In fact, listening to it immediately after a full hour of today's CCM, I was blown away at the musical creativity. The credit, of course, goes to a guy who might just be the most unsung musician of his generation, Bob Hartman. (Now that I think about it, there's a very good argument to be made there.) Hartman had a knack for the unexpected chords and the unexpected key changes that really worked. Sure, the album was made in the heyday of the synthesizer era (which makes it sound a bit dated), but it doesn't matter. Change the instrumentation and you've still got really, really interesting music. (Aside from the one real stinker on the album, "Computer Brains.")

This confirms for me my suspicion: CCM has regressed quite a bit, not progressed.

And that's too bad, because they've got their red guitars and certainly they have the truth. But Dylan was wrong by more than a factor of one: you need more than four chords, generally, to elevate your music above boring.

Finally, I was pleasantly reminded that Greg X. Volz could really sing. Man, could he ever sing.

Brian Mattson