It’s funny how Bart Millard charted as the top selling new Christian artist in the year that his first solo album, Hymned No. 1, was released. The man better known as the voice of multi-platinum band MercyMe (“I Can Only Imagine”) was foremost aiming to fulfill a promise made to his late grandmother to record the church songs she’d led him to love as a boy. Popular success as a singular act was an afterthought, though much appreciated.
Christianity Today gave the unexpectedly soulful, Deep South gospel-meets-pop, rock, and country set a five-star review, calling it “one of the most enjoyable and varied hymns albums ever recorded. You may have heard it all before, but you haven’t heard Hymned.”
Having had such a great experience all around with that first effort, Millard is back with Hymned Again, this time specifically honoring the wishes of his three children who enjoyed their dad’s record so much they wanted another one.
“Our six-year-old son, Sam, would fall asleep listening to it and then be singing ‘In the Sweet By and By’ at breakfast the next morning,” says Bart. “There were more songs that my wife and I wanted him and Gracie and Charlie to know. Now they’re singing along to these new takes on ‘I Stand Amazed’ and ‘Victory in Jesus’ at the top of their lungs, and we’re so happy about how that affirms the decision to do this again.”
Hymned Again re-teams Millard with award winning producer Brown Bannister. Together they handpicked hymns of an evangelistic nature mostly from the 1800s, setting an outward-then-upward spiritual tone for the album.
“I’ve learned the lyrics of that era were more horizontal than vertical,” explains Bart. “A lot of songs from the 1700s were direct praises to Jesus, and that’s reflected on the first Hymned record. But in the 1800s the message was often person-to-person, an ‘I’ve got to get my brother or sister saved’ way of expressing faith.”
Such a unified theme perfectly balances the increasingly diversified styles that make Hymned Again, indeed again, a true rarity among modern Christian music albums. Acute listeners have rightfully lauded gamut-running efforts before (David Crowder*Band’s A Collision for example), but it’s safe to say they haven’t encountered many projects—from a contemporary pop-based artist—that open with a Dixieland banjo, proceed deeper into New Orleans flavored horn-led marches and stomping Texas guitar blues, or let a ukulele do the driving at one point without altogether ignoring commercial sensibilities.
“Brown and I decided to go to extremes,” admits Bart. “If the song was upbeat, we’d get out a funky Harry Connick, Jr. album, some Louis Prima big band, or a Bob Wills swing record for inspiration and swing for the fence, hoping to get that ‘soundtrack to your life’ vibe. And if it was a slow song, we’d go the other way and really make it worshipful.”
There’s certainly a contagious jubilance running through the faster paced selections on Hymned Again. “Stand Up for Jesus” will have soldiers of the cross clapping and dancing along with a banjo that manages to pluck and slide through heavy jazz and swing grooves. “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” finds an ever brighter path in its 1970s funk-soul arrangement. “I Saw the Light” shakes off all darkness with the swampy strut of steel-stringed boondocks rock. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is a full-tilt Crescent City musical tribute with brass jams that sound like joyful laughter.
The gentle side of Hymned Again is equally effective. The lesser known “Brethren We Have Met to Worship” becomes a meditative bluegrass shuffle. “Grace That Is Greater” highlights the simple charm of Millard’s voice accompanied only by the ukulele’s nylon chords in a way that compares nicely to late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s popularized rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The album’s first single, “I Stand Amazed,” explores a deeply emotive modern worship setting with help from Passion and Watermark vocalist Christy Nockels.
Also joining Bart on Hymned Again is Grammy winner Vince Gill whose high lonesome delivery briefly graced Hymned No. 1 and more substantially helps turn the rising and falling melody of new song “Jesus Cares for Me” into an unforgettable duet.
“He’s the nicest guy on the planet, but it still makes me nervous to call him up,” says Bart. “I asked his wife, Amy Grant—who I know better—if she’d ask him to sing with me again. But she made me do it. I got his voicemail and acted shy and apologetic. He called back and said, ‘Man, I’ll do anything you want. You don’t have to be the way.’”
Such anecdotes are a testament to Bart Millard’s everyman personality. For all of his success in and out of MercyMe, there’s nothing really “famous” about him. He makes music to honor God and his family, still gets star struck, and hopes that all who hear Hymned Again will find his cross-genre performances to be, quote, “authentic.”
And they should. Bart was born and raised and still lives in the east Texas town of Greenville where his father’s radio played western swing and old country favorites; and places thriving on delta blues, gospel, and jazz were always within easy driving distance.
“I grew up in the church, and hymns influence the way I write lyrics. But this is the music that made a lasting impression on me outside the church,” he says.
Bart is also humorously genuine about his solo efforts in relation to his main gig, humbly knowing his side projects have their time and place in relation to MercyMe’s formidable success. (Each of the band’s albums has achieved gold or platinum sales status).
“To do a record like this with MercyMe—to break out the banjoes and horns and dobroes—would be a bust. That’s not what we do. But this gives me another creative outlet that in turn helps me have more to offer going back into whatever we do next.”
As for here and now, it’s clearly time to be Hymned Again.