Reimagining the Hymns
What is it about the old hymns that connect so deeply with people? Is it merely nostalgia for the music that we grew up on? Perhaps a love of heritage? Or are they simply better written songs of worship? Whatever the case, Bart Millard knows that the hymns are a timeless part of the Christian church—his past, present, and future. Back in 2005, the MercyMe frontman recorded Hymned No. 1 in honor of his grandmother. Now he's released Hymned Again for his children, who can't seem to get enough of singing the hymns from the first album. We sat with Millard while he was in Chicago to talk about his reasons for recording hymns and his unique approach of adapting them to different styles of music.
So, Bart, you've been "hymned again"—what led you to return to the well, so to speak?
Bart Millard The first record I did as a promise to my grandmother to do a hymns record before she passed away, so wanted to fulfill that. I think it was after hearing my kids singing these old songs and ask to hear "The Old Rugged Cross" that I realized my church doesn't sing old hymns like they used to. It's such a big part of my upbringing and I want it to be a big part of my kids' lives too, even if it means I have to record them myself to make that happen.
Maybe it's because of your grandmother's hymnbook, but the first album seemed somewhat more varied, whereas this second album feels a little more Southern.
Millard I don't know if I did it on purpose. I grew up in East Texas in a little country church, and at the same time, my dad was a huge fan of everything from Willie Nelson to big band stuff like Louie Prima. For whatever reason, I love those two styles—country and big band—so I wanted to keep an old soul to these records. They somehow work together and it's something I could never do with MercyMe.
That's interesting, since MercyMe has done its share of country or unplugged sets in concert. It seems like this sort of music wouldn't be that much of a stretch for the band.
Millard Well, it's probably my fault that MercyMe does the country breakdowns in concert (laughter). Most of the other guys are big into Brit rock—I am too, but they're always dogging me because I'd rather listen to Frank Sinatra than Coldplay. So they only let me go so far with it, other than the fact I have kind of a country twang [to my voice].
As far as hymns go, MercyMe's always performed hymns from 1994 to 2000 when we were independent. We did songs like "I Stand Amazed" on a regular basis. So I actually went to the guys in the band and asked, "Do we have plans of doing this song anytime soon? Because I'd actually like to put it on my next record."
None of it is too far of a musical stretch for me personally. I just didn't want to sabotage MercyMe by doing big band stuff, so I've kept it separate and the band has let me get this out of my system.
You mentioned how these hymns are meant to give your kids more to sing. Do you feel like there was a different approach to the hymns to make it more reachable to youth—more kid-friendly?
Millard My three kids are 6, 3, and 2, and I don't think they're musically biased in any sense of the word. They like Louie Prima from Jungle Book just as much as they like anything else. I probably wouldn't have made an album with such an old spirit if I had teenagers in mind—it would have probably been more pop.
It's funny because some people have said there's a lack of reverence to the way I did these songs [for example, referring to the Dixieland sound]. But I look at it the opposite way—there's a sense of reverence just in keeping an old spirit about them. If these arrangements are irreverent, then maybe we I guess we lacked reverence in my church growing up because we were about as honky-tonk as you could get. For that matter, we sang "I Saw the Light" in church all my life, and I had no idea until I was a teenager that Hank Williams wrote it!