This review comes to us from Daniel Melvill Jones.

Several dozen children were gathered around an upright piano in our church’s basement. They were loudly singing a song that succinctly describes the life of Christ with melody and words so well fitted that they could pierce the listener’s heart. The children performed the song at our annual Christmas concert and since then, I’ve lost track of the number of parents who’ve told me how it’s impacted their family and have asked for more details.

The song came from a collection of old-time hymns written by Portland, Oregon’s Wesley Randolph Eader and featured on his 2012 album ‘Of Old It Was Recorded.’ It’s a humble album, recorded with a simple, bare-bones quality that recalls old-time country music. But the lyrics startle with their depth and simplicity. They describe salvation in words that surprise with their originality, but also feel torn out of some long-lost hymnal. Here are some examples: “The law of Moses, it was roaring in the face of sinful man”; “we will fix our wandering eyes on the wonders of our Lord”; “though impossible to enter in the hands of labour try, the grace of Christ must pull them through the needle’s narrow eye.”

Wesley’s words recall the seriousness of sin, eclipsed by the reality of a costly grace. This grace gives the album its persistent joy, as if surprised by the wonders of a new life in the Gospel. Wesley’s album has become a favourite of my family and friends and his songs a fixture in our congregation’s liturgy. Eager to learn more about the roots of these hymns, I traveled to Portland to talk to their source, who suggested that we meet at a small brewery just up the street from his house. Wesley spoke slowly and quietly, and while he often hesitated in his answers, his words conveyed a faith and a thought-life just as real as his long blond hair and wire-framed eyeglasses.

Our conversation often returned to the intense time of spiritual growth that took place during the early days of his church, Door of Hope. “I wrote all of ‘Of Old It Was Recorded’ in a two-month period. They just came to me because I was at a place spiritually where I was very in tune with what God had been doing in my life and in the people around me.” The church’s pastor, also a songwriter, brought home the importance of Christ’s forgiveness and encouraged the congregation to serve their community. “I got immersed in a pretty amazing group of people.” Wesley and his friends spent hours in prayer and music as well as on the streets serving Portland’s homeless. But they eventually ran out of songs to sing. Inspired by his pastor’s songwriting, Wesley tried his hand at writing his own.

It is clear that these new songs articulate a faith that became very real to Wesley during that period. As a result, he is careful in choosing his lyrics. “I’m really conscious of being overly poetic because I don’t want to be misleading,” he confesses. But he also seeks to avoid the well-worn descriptions that so often accompany songs of faith. “The challenge with writing gospel music for me is that there’s so much stuff that sounds too familiar. I don’t need to say that again. Familiarity breeds contempt.” If he can’t express it in ways that do justice to the power and simplicity of the doctrine, he doesn’t write it.

Wesley credits the rich language and rhythm of his songwriting to his immersion in literature, stories and old records, along with his upbringing. “I have a sense of hymnody and its history because I grew up singing them.” He describes his dad as “very southern and Tennessee-raised,” who pastored a Southern Baptist church in a small Washington town. “Dad was in charge of the tent revival in the region. He had a huge truck with a tent in the back. Going with him as a kid to set it up was the best thing ever.” That old-time-religion experience is “so much a part of who I am, but there are also parts of it that I’m not proud of. The pressures of morality as a young kid left a guilt complex.” His song ‘Victory in the Lamb’ articulates the freedom from this guilt that the gospel brings and Wesley thinks that is why it is one of his more popular hymns. “So many in the church deal with that guilt complex, which is totally an unbiblical thing. We’re supposed to feel guilty when we sin against God and other people, but we are also covered by the blood of the Lamb and live in its freedom.”

Wesley is a man who lives amongst words. He studied English in college, has a part-time job at the legendary Powell’s Books, and his room is overflowing with stacks of volumes. “I read a lot. I think more like a poet because I read a lot of poetry and write it, too.” He describes his favourite stories by John Steinbeck (To a God Unknown, “which has a lot of Christ imagery in it”) and the multiple times he’s read his favourite Flannery O’Conner book (six in the past three years). “I think a lot of writers approach the idea of writing songs as short stories, just even shorter, like getting a story across in four to six verses.” He collects old folk, bluegrass, and old time country records, preferring to listen to those who are “further away from the music marketing mentality and who write out of really genuine place.”

So it shouldn’t surprise his listeners that his 2016 sophomore album, ‘Highway Winds’ is a very different record. Its sound and production quality has matured significantly, and the songs are more varied. Stories and ballads are its staple, describing bad-timing, regrets, failures, depression, and a world-weary hopelessness. Yet despite the heaviness, there is a healing in its wings, a hope in the face of honest reality. “If you were to hear the majority of the songs I’ve written, they are more filled with sadness than hope and joy. I’ve often been labeled a realist. I’ve often been labeled a sort of pessimist too. I’m someone who’s often been more in tune with the sadder side of life.” He resists music that doesn’t acknowledge the fullness of the world including its sorrow, a sorrow he is well acquainted with.

“Right after I put out my first record, my release show was postponed because I had two collapsed lungs, resulting in two ten-day stints in the hospital. I didn’t know what was going on with me. I felt the overwhelmingness of life and the struggle and trying to make sense of things. A lot of that comes out on this new record, in which I try to tell stories about fictional characters that are probably more a picture of me than I might even know.”

‘Highway Winds’ confronts the mistakes of life, the subsequent feelings of meaninglessness, and the discouragement that accompanies such experiences. As a young man who has recently had to seriously reckon for the first time with many of these feelings, Wesley’s music gives me permission to process my own feelings. His songs confirm that wrestling through these thoughts is a normal part of the Christian walk. I explain to Wesley their impact, and he tells why this encourages him:

“As a believer I’m not afraid to try and encounter the fallenness of the world. Scripture has things like Ecclesiastes, things like Lamentations, things like Job, where it’s dealing with the real intense things. If the scriptures are not all just hopeful, happy, Jesus-is-going-to-give-you-a-hug, why are we as artists and creatives only presenting sentimental and happy things?”

Taken together, the albums offer a full picture of the Christian life, one filled with sorrow, yet always rejoicing. The redemption of his hymns are born out of the world of weariness described in his folk songs. It’s in light of this reality that the joy found in ‘Of Old It Was Recorded’ is worth pursuing. As Wesley sings on ‘Highway Winds’:

You’ve heard rumours of a foreign kingdom
Where other tortured souls found freedom
You’ll never make it there by wind or sail.
It’s built upon a will so broken
Surrender is its royal welcome.
Come and trade your sorrows for a song.