CD Review: Have You Heard? (Dixie Melody Boys)

Have You Heard? is perhaps the last thing you would expect from a group that has been on the road for fifty-one years—a breakout album.

A breakout album redefines what we can expect from a group. When we refer to an album as a breakout album, it’s usually for a group that has been in the national spotlight for a decade or less. Typically, when a group has been on the road for fifty-one years, you know what to expect!

The Dixie Melody Boys’ previous recording, their January 2011 release The Call is Still the Same, was a solid step in a new direction for the group, especially in the area of production quality. But Have You Heard? is a landmark recording that solidly exceeds its predecessor in two ways: While maintaining the same production quality, it takes steps forward in vocal performances and song selection.

This is is the strongest collection of vocal performances ever turned in on one Dixie Melody Boys’ recording. We think we know what to expect from Dixie Melody Boys vocals. Thanks to finds like Ernie Haase, Rodney Griffin, McCray Dove, Harold Reed, and Devin McGlamery, Ed O’Neal has gained a reputation for putting an incredible lineup on stage and training tomorrow’s superstars. But it’s still the case that most singers have a vocal maturity at 30-35 that they don’t have at 18-22. Many of the Dixie Melody Boys lineups of the last twenty or thirty years have had one or two (or three!) voices that hadn’t fully matured.

But this lineup is different: Josh Garner, Matt Felts, and Ed O’Neal have all spent years on quartet buses; Aaron Dishman is the only newcomer. It’s quite possibly the strongest vocal lineup the Dixie Melody Boys have ever put on stage; the lineups with Harold Reed on tenor, McCray Dove on lead, and assorted baritones are the only vocal lineups that might match this one. New lead singer Josh Garner is a perfect fit; the Dixie Melody Boys’ style is a brilliant fit for his voice type.

Second, Have You Heard? is the strongest collection of songs that the Dixie Melody Boys have put on any recording of new songs. Two new songs co-written by Joseph Habedank (“What I Lost in the Flood,” co-written with Lindsay Habedank, and “Valley of Tears,” co-written with Rodney Griffin) are distinct highlights.

Two more co-written by Lee Black also stand out; they’re both testimony songs, but “That Story is Mine” (co-written with David Moffitt and Sue C. Smith) is a three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust blazing quartet song, while “When I Called His Name” (co-written with Kenna Turner West) has chord progressions you would only expect to see on a Brian Free & Assurance or Karen Peck & New River recording. It works far better here than one might have expected.

Marty Funderburk and Jeff Pearles co-wrote two more highlights. “What Remains of Me” is an Ed O’Neal feature, with guest vocals from the Isaacs. “Haven Called Heaven” is a subdued song that will be familiar if you’ve heard The Hoppers’ 2006 recording The Ride. Both would be among the strongest tracks on most Dixie Melody Boys releases; they’re somewhere around #5-#7 here, which shows much stronger song selection is this time around.

All this is without even mentioning the projects’ strongest performance, “Death Has Died.” Nine years ago, in 2004, I had only barely heard of Southern Gospel. On a whim, I borrowed the Cathedrals’ recording High and Lifted Up from the library. This song, contained on that recording, was the song that won me over and made me a Southern Gospel fan. Needless to say, I’ve thought for years that this song was long overdue to be brought back. Now, twenty years after that original 1993 rendition, it finally resurfaces. Tenor Matt Felts turns lose and goes all-out on the final chorus of the song, delivering the sort of vocal performance this song deserves.

The graphic design also deserves special mention. Don’t let the straight-ahead cover fool you; the group photos throughout the layout show a lineup that has quite a bit of fun together. There’s a fun photo where Josh Garner is preparing to swing a guitar like a baseball bat at baritone singer Aaron Dishman (who, in turn, is being held down by Matt Felts); there’s also an impossibly cute photo on the back cover (reflecting the title, Have You Heard?) where a little girl is whispering a secret to Ed O’Neal as the other three group members look on in astonishment and dismay.

This isn’t just a five-star recording and one of the two or three strongest releases of the year. Have You Heard? is the strongest CD the Dixie Melody Boys have ever released.

Traditional or Progressive: Straight-ahead Southern Gospel vocals, with a mix of influences on the tracks.

Group Members: Matt Felts (tenor); Josh Garner (lead); Aaron Dishman (baritone/pianist); Ed O’Neal (bass); Steven Cooper (bass guitar).

Credits: Produced by David Staton and Dirk Johnson. Special guest vocals by The Isaacs on “What Remains of Me.” Tracking engineered by Anthony Johnson. Vocals engineered by Dirk Johnson, Anthony Johnson, Steve Chandler, and Steve Allen. Mixed by Dirk Johnson. Mastered by Anthony Johnson. Photography by Don Olea. Graphic design by Kris Poovey. Musicians: Dirk Johnson (keyboards), Jimmy Carter (bass guitar), Mark Fain (upright bass), Steve Brewster (drums, percussion), Kevin Williams (acoustic guitar), Kelly Back (lead guitar), Sonny Garrish (steel guitar, resophonic guitar, pedabro), Gail Johnson (fiddle), Anthony Johnson (orchestration); David Staton (background vocals).

Five-star songs: When I Called His Name; Valley of Tears; Muddy Water; Death Has Died; That Story is Mine; Haven Called Heaven.

Song List (songwriters in parentheses): Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, Amen (Ben Scraggs); What I Lost in the Flood (Joseph Habedank, Lindsay Habedank); Roll Back (David Staton, Matt Felts); When I Called His Name (Lee Black, Kenna Turner West); God’s Gonna Give You a Testimony (Michael Jason Frost); Valley of Tears (Rodney Griffin, Joseph Habedank); Muddy Water (Jesse Schwartz, Carma Schwartz Kelley); What Remains of Me (Marty Funderburk, Jeff Pearles); Rhythm of Heaven (Toni Clay, Jeff Ferguson); Death Has Died (Ernie Haase, Carolyn Cross English); That Story is Mine (Lee Black, David Moffitt, Sue C. Smith); Have Called Heaven (Marty Funderburk, Jeff Pearles); Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, Amen (encore).