The Civil Wars, Mat Kearney, EmmyLou Harris, and Shawn Mullins; these artists don’t appear to have a great deal in common. As it turns though, they share something quite meaningful - they all believe that God is love. Not only do they believe it, they all sing about it on the new album Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, a soul-stirring collection of original and traditional songs performed by a variety of artists.
The album was co-written, produced, and brought to life by Nashville writer and performer Phil Madeira, It began way back when Madeira was a child growing up during the civil rights movement. His parents raised him in a small conservative church, but one that believed strongly in the power and importance of social justice. Echoing their church, his parents supported the movement not just in their actions but in the music they listened to. “When I was a young boy, my mother played me the music of Mahalia Jackson, which introduced me to the reality of a bone chilling, soul-stirring music that made everything else pale in comparison,” says Madeira.” These were joyous odes that sang of the love and the dignity of all humanity.”
The musical and religious influence of his upbringing shaped Madeira immensely, giving him a strong faith and a dedication to his musical craft that would carry him to stages all over the world as a member of numerous bands. It also made him a songwriter for such noted artists as Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, and Toby Keith. Madeira became known as one of the top “behind the scenes” musicians in Nashville, but just a few years ago his passionate beliefs finally caught up with his career. Hymns For the Rest of Us is the result.
“During the last election I just felt like the voice of religion was so negative, so mean-spirited, that I just couldn’t take it,” Phil told Beliefnet, “I had this idea of this record, I didn’t have a title, I just knew that I wanted to do a record that was inclusive, that pondered the idea of that simple, old idea that God is love.” Feeling like he had the start of something great, he went to EmmyLou Harris, whose band he currently plays in, with the idea. The vision for the project hit her as strongly as it had hit Madeira, and with her support and a small band of others, he was able to get the idea of the project to the minds and hearts of artists The Civil Wars, John Scofield, Christian artist Cindy Morgan, and others.
All around him he was finding opportunities for his project. The goodwill surrounding his idea even extended to random circumstances, including meeting pop singer Mat Kearney: “We met at this party that I didn’t want to be at,” Phil laughingly recalls, “I knew Matt as a “pop guy,” but instantly Mat knew that Phil played with Buddy Miller. The recognition shook Phil’s preconceived notions about Kearney as an artist and Phil added him to his exceptional group of talented friends. Eventually he had a host of e-mail addresses to pitch the idea of playing on the album to, and he only had one person turn him down.
The inclusive nature of the album’s theme didn’t just end with the endearing mix of bluegrass and the blues, it also came from the artists that he ultimately asked to join him: “I wasn’t thinking “Oh I need to find Christians,” that was the last thing I was thinking about. I don’t think of it as a Christian record, I think of it as something that is trying to get to the heart of what Christianity is supposed to be about.” The artists on this album wouldn’t be in ultimate agreement about religion, and certainly not about music, but here they all are bringing voice to an absolutely beautiful theme. That accomplishment alone captures the theme as well as any of the songs do.
Phil would spend the next three years writing and recording songs with his wily mix of music veterans and newcomers, funding the project on his own. In the end he had an album of spiritual songs, that he interestingly dubbed “hymns.” The word can bring up a number of powerful ideas, from choirs, to organs, to small back country churches. This album takes the idea of a hymn and broadens it in a surprising way – by making the songs personal. Phil reflected on this idea “Certainly Cyndi Morgan’s tune, “Leanin’ on You”, that one, and even the Chocolate Drops’ song are the two closest things to actual hymns, The rest is very personal, but I felt like the congregation that I assembled on this thing is really individuals singing their own personal hymns, trying to give a voice to everybody who is tired of this fundamentalist sort of paradigm.”