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Great River Road - Click to view!Jason Upton never ceases to amaze me. From passionate ballads to insightful praise choruses, his artistic sensibilities combine with genuine forms of worship. I first heard about this artist from Faith, Upton's first album to be distributed on a major record label. If I had not been able to find him in the worship music section of my local music store, I might have never heard of his ministry.

Some of you might be in the same place as I was several years ago. You might read these reviews and wonder why I make such a big deal of this no-name musician. Here is your chance to walk into your local music store, head over to the worship music section, and sample Upton's work. TobyMac's Gotee Records has chosen to distribute the seventh CD from this simple worship leader. Great River Road takes four new songs, five remixes, and the Keith Green classic "You Are the One," and mixes them together for an audience who might otherwise never embrace Upton's sound.

In remixing some older melodies, Upton introduces them in a way that enhances the original recordings. "The Road to Emmaus," taken from Dying Star, once stood as a piano-dominated song. It now incorporates a subtle pop-rock beat, maracas, mandolins, and an upright bass to add a bit of movement. Those who remember the initial recording might be too distracted by the music to focus on the lyrics, but for you first-time listeners, the words will cut deep into touchy issues: "Have you ever been distracted by the homeless / Have you ever thrown your dollar with disgust / Have you ever thought the Great Commission's just too great a cost / Have you ever played the fool?"

The original rendition of "Run Baby Run" maintains the piano/guitar/drum combination that feels so traditionally Upton. Jason's wife Rachel also lends background vocals, as is common in many of his early records. It is a bit more up-beat than other classics, but it sounds almost bland when compared to the Great River Road adaptation. The piano, once the lead instrument, has become background filler for the steady drumbeat and acoustic guitar work.

"When You Were a Child" was originally recorded at a live event and featured on Remember. Here on Great River Road it enters the studio for the first time, similar in sound to songs like "Whistle in Your Will" and "Wait Upon the Wind." The violins and flutes return, along with Upton's piano, to maintain a connection to his earlier work.

Perhaps Gotee provided additional musicians to enhance the flavor of this recording. But no matter the cause, the musical diversity doesn't detract from Upton's hard-hitting lyrics. The four new tracks remain lyrical masterpieces. "Chop Down the Tree" documents the truth of no kingdom rising above Christ through the metaphor of a tall tree. "The King's Way" sounds like a medieval hymn in both music and lyrical meter: "There is not today a more holy way / Than the steps that lead me to the cross / Where my will can't be the priority / And these crowns I've gained I count as loss." "Trust Once More" calls for people to trust God: "I don't know where you come from / I don't know where you're going / I only know the healing starts when we stop running." Perhaps the most heart-breaking track, "Return to Me," has God asking the prodigal child why they have walked away from Him. Upton sings, "What have I done wrong that you would leave Me / What have I done wrong that you would walk away?" It's a song that is more evangelistic than most Christian CDs on the shelves.

There is so much more that can be said about this musical creation. Grammy Award winner Bill Miller, a Native American musician, contributes flutes, chants, and a spoken prayer at the end of "Chop Down the Tree" that brings chills. Each CD contains about four hours of Upton explaining the history behind the songs. It offers a unique glimpse into the delicate work needed for every composition. Great River Road is more radio friendly than his previous works (perhaps to help engage a wider audience), but it still holds the same raw, passionate worship heard on his six other albums. I hope this album will introduce people to the wide world of wonder God has poured through Jason Upton.
- Hollie Stewart
April 2005
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