Gabriel Wilson has channeled his natural creative and reflective talents into a variety of eclectic musical pursuits for well over a decade. He crafted one of the more impressive mainstream club bands in the Pacific Northwest before an African mission trip re-directed him completely. He then put together The Rock and Roll Worship Circus, a glam-tinted, spiritually focused rock experience that set songs designed for congregational worship to rhythms cribbed from The Rolling Stones, Big Star, Cheap Trick and The Who. That ensemble evolved into a more introspective, ambient band called, appropriately, The Listening. He has rocked clubs, headlined European festivals, led thousands in worship and even became the staff worship pastor at a 3,000 member church in Folsom, California. But where Wilson has successfully channeled the power of Scripture and the essence of rock and roll to such great effect, he has never been as personal, vulnerable and transparent as on his debut full-length solo project, The McGuire Side.
“As these songs started to come together,” Wilson remembers, “I knew this was going to be a completely different, and somewhat unnerving, project for me.” The songs he speaks of are essentially journal entries from a painful, confusing and ultimately deeply redemptive time in his personal life. Wilson was born Gabriel Solomon McGuire, the son of young parents who couldn’t quite make their little family work. His parents divorced when he was just a toddler and he didn’t see much of his birth father for another sixteen years. “My mom remarried a wonderful man and I took his name. He has been a fantastic dad and a close friend to me, but there was always a part of my life that was a question mark. There was an entire side of my identity I had never really embraced and experienced.”
Don’t expect a downer set of navel-gazing self-pity ballads here, though. Through the fascinating story of the side of his family he first experienced as an adult at his biological grandfather’s funeral, Wilson finds beauty in the ashes. Only as a young adult did he find out that he was kin to some of the most influential and celebrated artists and songwriters in Gospel music history. “It blew my mind to find out that my father’s brother – my Uncle Dony – and his wife Reba – were Southern Gospel legends. My grandfather Cornelius was a travelling minister, singer and songwriter who has had several Southern Gospel groups cover his songs. My Aunt Reba’s parents (Buck and Dottie Rambo) are practically Southern Gospel royalty. And here I was, this rock and roll kid up in Oregon with no idea at all where this music in me had come from.”
Wilson’s musical and spiritual pedigree came as a shock and left him with mixed feelings of lost years, unrealized relationships and yet a profound sense of belonging. “There I was at this massive family funeral for my grandpa, hearing his life story and seeing it demonstrated throughout the service. We celebrated his life by singing his songs, and person after person shared stories of his huge impact in their lives. I was just completely overwhelmed. Even though I had never known the McGuire side of my family, I had been giving my entire life to the same things all of the McGuire’s had: ministry and music. It all started making sense. For the first time in my life, I was proud to have been born a McGuire.” Wilson crafted The McGuire Side, complete with all of the related feelings of missed opportunities and abandonment, hope and belonging into his own family tree. He processed the associated thoughts and emotions in journal entries. Those entries became songs that he co-mingled with some songs that had been written by his biological father and grandfather as much as fifty years ago. “I started to see this story emerging,” he adds. “It was like a tapestry, with pieces from me, my dad and my grandfather. It was all about redemption, reconciliation, and embracing a lost family heritage.”
It’s probably not surprising that the musical backdrop to these journal songs is remarkably different from any of Wilson’s previous work. Where The Worship Circus was all about raucous, celebratory rock and roll and The Listening was about neo-psychedelic vibe, The McGuire Side strips it all back down, appropriately, to Wilson’s musical DNA. “I guess they call it Americana,” he explains of the country / blues / rock / gospel hybrid style. “But this just felt like the right tone for these songs.” Considering the fact that all of his musical heroes – including the Stones, The Beatles and even The Who, have acknowledged the primal power and influence of American roots music, the shift is not terribly surprising for Wilson. “This style of music is raw and without pretense. It’s the perfect frame for telling a gritty, honest story. It came very naturally as I began to write and sing about this experience without over-thinking it.” Wilson even re-visits an old Worship Circus favorite “Glorify the Son,” a song his father asked him to sing at the funeral, in a more laid-back country style.
The McGuire Side, for all of its structural simplicity, benefits from Wilson’s considerable studio prowess and commitment to excellence. From the top-drawer production techniques to the deluxe 12” vinyl and extensive liner notes it feels like an album in the classic sense of the word. Its heft speaks of an era before MP3s and iPhones, before downloading and earbuds and before people listened to music on computers. In many ways the project looks, and sounds, like something that could have been in his father’s record collection 30 years ago or his grandfather’s 50 years ago, but also feels right at home alongside recent projects by Ryan Adams, The Decemberists or Jakob Dylan. “It’s got a very analog spirit to it,” Wilson adds. “It’s acoustic guitars, old tube amps, strings, drums, vintage organs, piano and the human voice. I’m actually more excited about this project than anything I’ve been a part of. Making this record felt like climbing up into the attic and finding an old photo album, or a long lost family portrait in an antique frame. It’s been in me for a long time and I’m just now discovering it.”
Unlike many introspective concept albums, the personal nature of Wilson’s songs on this collection is nearly universal in its tone and spirit. “I know I’m not the only one out there from a broken family,” he says. “We all can identify with these feelings in one way or another. But I really wanted to explore this in a different way than I have heard before. Instead of focusing on the pain I really took it to a joyful, hopeful and healing place. I hope and pray this record will inspire reconciliation–fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and beyond. And I hope that anyone dealing with feelings of loss or abandonment will hear that good old fashioned Gospel message here; God is real, His love is perfect and when we find our identity and peace in Him we can then extend grace and mercy to those around us – even as they extend the same to us.”