50. Hand to the Plow – Paul Clark
HAND TO THE PLOW (1977)
When conversation inevitably move to discussions revolving around the formation of CCM and the Jesus Movements “Jesus Music” world, many names take center stage. Larry Norman, Barry McGuire, Annie Herring and Randy Stonehill tend to be the focal point of conversations with the list of artists that were birthed at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa like Love Songs, Mustard Seed Faith and Daniel Amos.
But when conversing with the artists mentioned above, the name most often brought up is that of musician extraordinaire, Paul Clark. Noted as one of the finest (possibly the finest) songwriter of the time and a world class musician of his own, Clark was instrumental in bring CCM to a whole new level of quality and acceptance.
After four very well received and reviewed projects, Clark nearly single-handedly raised the bar to a whole new stratosphere with “Hand to the Plow.” Putting down his acoustic guitar and worship framed lyrical and musical focus, Clark joined forces with some of the finest musicians to ever grace a CCM project and invented the first real “classic rock” Christian album.
Seven minute jams featuring precise piano, swinging sax and grooving guitars, the album is brilliant from the opening piano interlude to the fading final string note. While the rest of the Jesus Music world was still peddling relatively safe and “dated” country rock and folk, Clark was piercing the speakers with R&B/Soul rhythms and progressive rock prowess unforeseen at time.
From the grainy cover of a wrinkled, weathered and worn hand of old man grasping a wooden plow to the stellar production quality, there is very little that was not groundbreaking. Clark’s voice was never this edgy or passionate in his previous releases. There is more Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Steely Dan here than in the rest of CCM at the time combined.
Even listening to this album as I write this review I am in awe of just how much I feel like I am listening to any other classic rock album of note during the same time period. Bobby Cotton’s production is so rich and textured and the songs are not watered down for Sunday Morning consumption. This was real, contemporary and utterly relevant; well before those words lost their meaning in the modern Church movement.
The album features what would later become the bedrock of the amazing jazz group, Koinonia. Hadley Hockensmith, Harlan Rogers and Bill Maxwell were joined by unheralded and uber-guitarist Curt Bartlett. But it would be Jim Hochanadel’s amazing saxophone work that would stick with listeners over three decades later.
The album kicks off with the seven minute title track that simply rocks. It would easily rank among the great Christian classic rock tunes if there were any that were even in its category. Borrowing from the Biblical image of the need to keep moving forward in our work for the Lord and not looking back to our former lives, Clark pounds his way through this epic. Here the guitar and saxophone work simply steal the show. But it is all based around Clark’s killer piano work.
Before this time the thought of an seven minute epic rock song that featured more instrumental time than lyrical time was simply unheard of. This was entering into the domain of bands like the Moody Blues and even the Allman Brothers with long instrumental breaks and, for lack of a better term , “jamming.” This was done live by the likes of Phil Keaggy, but was a real rarity on a studio recording. Clark’s ability to keep the musical interest with such a long instrumental song (especially to lead the album) is proof of his musical genius and great songwriting and arranging.
Things slow down immediately with the classical guitar tinged, “Spring of Life.” nearly liturgical in its feel and arrangement, this beautiful songs works as a perfect interlude between the two rock numbers that make up two of the first three songs on the project. This style would soon become the centerpiece musical expressions for artists like John Michael and terry Talbot.
“All I Need” is pure Jazz/R&B genius. The funk driven female backing vocals would sound like Riki Michelle of Adam Again 20 years before. In fact, every listen to this song reminds me of just how much Gene Eugene was influenced by the same music that Clark delivers here. Everything from the funky keyboard rhythm (think early Stevie Wonder) and great Hammond organ solo to the funky guitar solo and thumping bass are pure funk/soul magic.
Another brilliant and more progressive rock sounding classic is “Shipwrecked.” Introduced by a beautiful orchestral arrangement, the song soon moves into something akin to the best from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Slow and passionate like “Comfortably Numb,” Clark’s strong higher register is accompanied by, of all things, the harmonica. what would seem out of place, works perfectly here as the song turn more inspirational than dirge-like.
The smooth jazz many remember Clark for is most evident on “Love You So.” Clark’s voice rangers from a Phil Keaggy quality to almost a Stephen Bishop quality. The organ again finds itself the central driving force to this beautiful ballad before the amazing sax work takes center stage as the more jazz influence is delivered.
“Help Me to See” would have fit on any Glass Harp album and is the most Keaggy-like on the project. The song is a slow build rocker that features some of the finer blues-influenced guitar solo work for the time. Moody and darker than most CCM at the time, the song is a Psalmists plea for direction and security.
Before the world of CCM discovered that automatic radio airplay that “wedding songs” provided an artist, Paul Clark wrote one of the finest wedding songs ever written. Ever.
The medley, “Woman…The Man That I Love” is six minutes long and features two separate songs that are merged to create a cohesive single expression. The duet, sung with Kelly Willard, is written from the perspective of both the woman and the man as the song changes musical expressions as each sings their glorious parts. The songs do blend in the final chorus as both sing simultaneously this stunning song.
“Now and Forevermore” shows Clark’s growth in the use of orchestral arrangements. here, not only does the orchestra support the melody, it carries the entire song. More classical than most ballads, the song is a worshipful reminder for communion and an expression of the covenantal faithfulness of God that is remembered in the sacrament.
The album closes with “One Final Word,” introduced with a harp and orchestra. the sound would later be more consistently applied by the like of Jeff Johnson.
This is as nearly flawless an album as any from the Jesus Music era. It is also gives reason why many of Clark’s peers hold him in such high regard. Not constrained to the parameters of common Jesus Music or CCM at the time, Clark’s innovative and original musical expressions made him a favorite among fans and artists.
He, for some reason, never received the long-term recognition he so richly deserved, as this album plainly presents. If there is an expression greater than “An Album You Should Own,” this album would deserve that classification. Though other Jesus Music albums will be ranked higher based on historical significance, very few can compete with this album.