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Word Gold: Five Decades of Hits
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Word Records (2001)
Length: 35 Tracks (144:43 minutes)

As implausible as it may seem in the current era of rapidly-disappearing Christian record labels, Word Records' history winds back some 50 years to its starting point in east central Texas.  Word was founded in the spring of 1951 by Jarrell McCracken, a 23 year-old radio sportscaster for Waco's KWTX, and two of McCracken's fellow Baylor University graduates.  The label's first release was the 1951 single "The Game of Life," which featured McCracken's narration of an imaginary football contest between the forces of good and evil.  In the decades that followed, Word formed a host of auxiliary labels to cover particular subsections of the expanding sacred music genre, including Southern gospel, contemporary Christian music and black gospel.  In 1984, largely as a result of Amy Grant's enormous success in the Christian music arena, Word inked a pioneering deal with A&M Records for distribution of Word product in the general market.  The company formed a similar alliance with Epic/Sony in 1990.  In 1992, Word Records was bought by Thomas Nelson Publishers and moved to Nashville.

Beginning with a clip of McCracken's "The Game of Life," Word Gold features 35 tracks culled from the label's massive back catalog.  As much anything else, the double-disc compilation bears testimony to the overall commercial success enjoyed by Word's stable of artists.  First Call's engaging blend of acapella-styled vocals and pop-minded compositions has placed 19 of the trio's songs, including Gold's "Undivided," in the Top 20 since the group's formation in the early 1980s.  Likewise, the heart-wrenching 1993 anthem "I Will Be Free" serves as a souvenir of the year that Cindy Morgan garnered five Dove nominations and an equal number of Top Five singles.  "Circle of Friends" is one of an unprecedented string of 21 consecutive Number One hits for Point of Grace.  And, of course, Amy Grant, whose worship classic "Thy Word" now appears in church hymnbooks nationwide, has amassed accolades and awards far too numerous to count during her two and a half decades as Christian music's most successful artist.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the collection serves as an invaluable timeline of religious music, tracking its stylistic metamorphoses and highlighting many of its most important artists.  The austere, folky atmosphere and spiritually direct lyrics of former coffeehouse singer Honeytree's wonderfully minimalist "Clean Before My Lord" hark back to the blossoming stages of the early '70s Jesus movement.  Swedish pop singer Evie's "Special Delivery," on the other hand, is fitted with the glossier soft rock textures that filled adult contemporary radio during the latter part of the decade.  "Praise the Lord" marks the Imperials' infusion of contemporary pop elements into their trademark Southern gospel textures at the onset of the '80s.  Bruce Carroll's "Who Will Be Jesus" and Petra's "Beyond Belief" serve as worthy tokens of Christian radio's full-on embracing of country and arena rock by the early 1990s.  And "Heaven," from the 1995 Live ... He Will Come release, bears witness to Shirley Caesar's unrelenting vitality some 40 years after her career start with the Southern gospel ensemble the Caravans.

Of course, it goes without saying that anyone other than the album's compilers would probably have chosen a different array of songs for the Gold collection.  Such potential divergence is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that, while 144 minutes is certainly a hefty running time for the two disc anthology, a musical logbook as extensive and diverse as the Word Records catalog arguably warrants a full-blown boxed set in order to cover it effectively.  The compilation does lean a bit heavily on newer artists, too, pulling over half of its tracks from the from the 1990s and 2000.  But given the relatively recent upsurge in the popularity of Christian music, such a choice of songs, while somewhat lacking in its chronological breadth, is at least representative of the genre's proliferation over the last decade and a half.  All in all, Word Gold strikes an amicable compromise between length and listenability, and its extensive, well-written liner notes add nicely to the set's already solid sense of organization.  For casual listeners, Gold offers a generous serving of familiar favorites together with a nominal sampling of older songs to pique their interest.  For the well-seasoned devotee, though, the Gold compilation is an indispensable historical guide which faithfully maps the important and intriguing course that popular Christian music has navigated over its first fifty years.

Bert Gangl 4/29/2001

It’s hard to believe that Word Records is fifty years old, but it’s true. It was in 1950 that Baylor University student Jarrell McCracken recorded “The Game of Life” on vinyl records and made copies for friends who requested them.  Since that first project, Word has continued to produce quality music and over time has become the premiere record company in the Christian music space.  Celebrating old and new hits over the past five decades, Word Gold is a two-disc compilation that captures a well-rounded sampling of its artists’ music.  The overall picture is an interesting cross-section of the evolution of contemporary Christian and gospel music, similar to an archeological dig where the various strata represent different time periods of history.  All of the songs were released on Word Records or one of its now-defunct sub-labels, Myrrh and Dayspring.

Opening Disc One is a short excerpt of Jarrell McCracken’s recording of “The Game of Life,” an analogy of the struggle between good and evil in the context of a football game sports broadcast.  From there, the tracks follow a reverse chronological order, touching on various tempos and styles, such as Anointed’s “Revive Us” sandwiched between “Redeemer” by Nicole C. Mullen and “Breathe” by Sixpence None the Richer.  Almost all of the songs on the compilation will be familiar to listeners of Christian radio’s adult contemporary and inspirational formats and the few exceptions will be from southern gospel or black gospel.  A refreshing, yet very familiar tune that makes the disc is “Oh, How He Loves You And Me,” offered by Kurt Kaiser and Wanda Geddie Brickner.  It is a very short rendition, but is a reminder of the ministry focus Word has always represented.  It also happens to be the most-performed song of all time in the Word Music catalog.

The liner notes offer a glimpse into the history of Word, including the founding of the company and a timeline showcasing the various artists’ album covers over the years.  Veteran writer/editor Thom Granger compiled a short blurb on each song to put it into its context in the constellation of great music.

Collectors will enjoy the history represented in Word Gold and may find a few new gems to love in the compilation, especially some of the older songs that were around before Christian radio.  The overall feel of the project is a reverent yet satisfying reflection on many of the great songs released by this iconic company.  Multi-artist compilations have been quite popular in recent years, especially with the success of the WoW series.  The similarities are so strong, this collection could be called “WoW, Word sure
has made a lot of music in the past fifty years!”

Zik Jackson 5/26/2001
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