CD Review: I’d Rather Have Jesus (Dixie Echoes)

Probably, the best adjective to describe the Dixie Echoes is “consistent.” For ten or fifteen years after lead singer Dale Shelnut’s sudden 1983 death, they experimented with different styles in an attempt to find their niche. Not too long after they added Stewart Varnado as their pianist over ten years ago, they found that niche in the traditional style. They have maintained consistency since, despite several changes at the tenor and bass positions.

This is the third overall and second studio recording made with the Shelnut/Shelnut/Varnado lineup with Wesley Smith at tenor and Pat Barker at bass. It’s the first time they’ve had two consecutive studio recordings with the same lineup for six or seven years, and the first time they’ve had three consecutive recordings with the same lineup for over a decade.

Since it takes any lineup time to gel and fully utilize each member’s strengths, it can also be said that this lineup is the best the Dixie Echoes have been in years. Several of their lineups—the Rogers/Crouch pairing particularly comes to mind—had the same level of potential, but today’s lineup has stayed together for long enough to start realizing that potential.

As always, the Dixie Echoes have a few uptemo convention songs. Wesley Smith takes the lead on a rousing rendition of “He’ll Pilot Me,” and Pat Barker is featured on “I’ll Have a New Life.”

All ten songs are classics, and most of them were written before any of the members except Randy were born. Two exceptions come from the mid-80s, the Florida Boys’ signature song “When He Was On the Cross” (featuring Wesley Smith), and the Cathedrals’ classic “Plan of Salvation” (featuring Pat Barker).

Speaking of “Plan of Salvation,” I simply have to digress somewhat. They first sang the song on March 7. I was in attendance and posted a review here. Here’s what I said about the song:

A personal highlight was their rendition of  the Cathedrals classic “Plan of Salvation.” Knowing that I would be there, and how much I love Cathedrals music, they worked up the arrangement that afternoon. It was the first time they had ever sung the song on stage; I found out after the fact that Stewart Varnado pulled up the song on YouTube a few minutes before the concert to learn the Cathedrals’ piano licks.

It went over so well that they ended up staging it in other concerts, and ultimately put it on the CD. Thank you, Stewart, Pat, and the rest of the Dixie Echoes!

Barker is also featured on what may be the best rendition of “I’d Rather Have Jesus” recorded since the composer, George Beverly Shea’s, original rendition.

One other standout song was Scoot Shelnut’s rendition of a song his grandfather Dale used to sing, “Now I Have Everything.” Scoot’s unadorned straight tones bring out a delightful simplicity in the lyric.

Several production elements played a role in the overall rating being bumped up a full star from the average song rating. One is the excellent graphic design, which has a classic and classy look that fits the group’s sound well. The other is the extent to which the final result reflects group members’ own talents. Unlike other groups, which have a producer, hired studio musicians, and auto-tuning to make them sound good, much of what you hear on this project was recorded by the group members themselves. Stewart Varnado provided the piano parts; Scoot Shelnut Jr. played the bass guitar and drums. Two members of the Primitive Quartet, Mike Riddle and Jeff Tolbert, provided the guitars and specialty instruments (fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, banjo). But between producing, arranging, engineering, playing the instruments, and recording quality vocals that don’t need auto-tuning, the Dixie Echoes’ recordings reflect their own considerable talents. It’s an angle other genres stress more than ours, but it’s just another reason the Dixie Echoes’ name is synonymous with quality Southern Gospel.

Rating: 5 stars. ♦ Average song rating: 4 stars. ♦ Group members: Wesley Smith, Randy Shelnut Sr., Randy “Scoot” Shelnut Jr., Pat Barker, Stewart Varnado. ♦ Produced by: Randy Shelnut, Randy Shelnut Jr., Stewart Varnado. ♦ Available from: Artist. Review copy provided. ♦ Song list: Until Then; Wings of a Dove; When He Was On the Cross; I’ll Have a New Life; Now I Have Everything; He Keeps Me Singing; Plan of Salvation; Peace In the Valley; He’ll Pilot Me; I’d Rather Have Jesus.