Steven Curtis Chapman’s album Deep Roots brings a warmth of its own during these chilly days, with its emphasis on faith, family, and tradition. Bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs and three generations of Chapman men collaborate on the unplugged project, which is a collection of hymns and other songs all arranged in fine bluegrass style.
Chapman, a five-time Grammy winner, is known largely for his contributions to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), having garnered 57 Dove awards—the most of any artist in history—with his catchy brand of pop rock. But for this album, Chapman decided it was time for a musical homecoming. He grew up in Paducah, Ky., where his father, Herb Chapman Sr., taught guitar. “It all begins with bluegrass,” Chapman told Billboard. “That was the first music I heard as a kid. Folk, bluegrass, banjos, mandolins, and dobros. Those are the instruments that define the music of my earliest childhood.”
It’s easy to see why Deep Roots shot right to No. 1 on the Bluegrass charts—taking the No. 2 spot on the CCM chart—and has stayed near the top since its release a year ago. Chapman settles into the bluegrass vibe as comfortably as an old rocking chair and from there tells us the old truths.
“Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” is rendered fresh and appealing through strong acoustic rhythms and a sweetness in Chapman’s voice, accentuated by the lifting strains of the fiddle. It’s not a cloying sweetness, but time-worn and mellow.
“How Great Thou Art” features dexterous fingerpicking, which echoes the twinkling stars the hymn speaks about. Daughter-in-law Jillian Edwards, meanwhile, brings an ethereal, Allison Krause-like voice that helps us hear “the birds sing sweetly in the trees.” Nimble, interweaving banjo and mandolin licks illustrate streams and forest glades, showing the beauty of creation rather than just telling about it. The song’s confession is rendered all the more dramatic by a choice use of minor chords that introduce a satisfying melancholy more reflective of life’s bitter and sweet strains.
The album is a family affair: Chapman’s father, Herb Sr., and brother, Herb Jr., join him for some joyous harmonies on “Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad” and the Gaither classic “He Touched Me,” which Chapman says he sang with his family “about a hundred times” while growing up. Son Caleb Chapman is featured in the brooding but illuminating “Be Still and Know.” And his late daughter Maria looms large in the poignant final track “Cinderella,” about a father who dances with his daughter as she grows up and gets married. Maria died in a driveway accident at their home in 2008, when she was five years old.
Chapman told Billboard he has wanted to do this album for a long time, though it seems clear that now was the right time: He leans into the truths after having tested them. When Chapman sings about proving Jesus’ faithfulness “o’er and o’er,” it’s evident he knows whereof he speaks. This makes his duet with Ricky Scaggs in “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” all the more satisfying: “Can we find a friend so faithful / who will all our sorrows bear / Jesus knows our every weakness / take it to the Lord in prayer.”