Thirty Years of “Freedom” – Celebrating Whiteheart’s Landmark Album
Freedom has been my favorite album for the majority of my life. It is the perfect chemical mix of the sounds that made the 80s so great. It is big and bold and unafraid of great production. At the same time, it is meticulously conceived and created, takes left turns when you expect it to go right, and is completely willing and able to take chances. It features one of the most talented lineups in Christian music history. It is produced by one of the great musical minds of the CCM world. It is full of momentum, ambition, beauty, poetry, and most of all, heart. It is criminally underrated. It is fiercely loved by those who have given it a chance. It is one of the best representations of the sounds of the era yet still retains a transcendent timelessness.
Complete objectivity is not something I can muster when talking about this album. I am powerless to its charms. Even so, I believe it stands as one of the great albums of all time – Christian or otherwise. This is my ode to Whiteheart and their greatest album. This is my attempt to pay homage to an album I have literally listened to for thousands of hours throughout my life. This is my celebration of Freedom.
The first real glimmers…
Whiteheart had been working towards this moment for a long time. What started out as a back-up band for The Bill Gaither Trio, Whiteheart slowly established itself as one of the most popular bands of the CCM world. Yet if you listen to their earliest output, when Steve Green was still handling most of their lead vocals, you would never guess they were capable of an album of this scope and quality. As I said, though, there were signs.
The first real glimmers of just how good this band could be came on their third album, Hotline. Original founders, Mark Gersmehl (keyboards, vocals, writer) and Billy Smiley (guitars, vocals, writer), were hard at work, transitioning the band from its early style all while refining and developing their skills as songwriters. While Hotline was still firmly fixed in the sounds of the time, borrowing ideas, riffs, and song structure from some of the biggest hitters in the secular world, there was an obvious skill and talent on display. Songs like “You Gotta Be a Believer”, “Heroes”, and the title track had an energy – a precise and unmistakable push towards something greater. New member Gordon Kennedy (guitars, vocals, writer) contributed to the new-found energy on the album with his technically sound yet adventurous guitar playing.
From their very earliest, Whiteheart developed a synergistic style – incorporating multiple vocalists throughout their musical output. The blending of distinct vocal sounds and styles was something they would carry with them to the end. It served them well in the early stages, but it became one of their biggest calling cards as they truly discovered and honed in on what their sound would eventually become. Whiteheart also featured a three-part harmony that was a defining element of their sound from the very beginning. Those things and their general dedication to artistic excellence would push them to even greater heights after Hotline.
The band had not fully come into their own but they were on their way.
Don’t Wait for the Movie was the next forward leap in the band’s evolution. It was clear from the opening track, the thundering “Read the Book (Don’t Wait for the Movie)”, the band had turned a corner. They had left behind the confines of the soft-rock, adult contemporary world and had both feet firmly planted in a rock-and-roll sound space, never to look back. Bannister’s input helped them create their most ambitious and consistent album to date. Don’t Wait for the Movie is a wonderful blend of pop rock aesthetics and hard rock sounds. Chris McHugh (drums, vocals) joined the band as their new drummer moving their sound light years into the rock world. Don’t Wait for the Movie also featured long-time lead vocalist Rick Florian in his debut album. The band had not fully come into their own, but they were on their way.
Emergency Broadcast came next, and while it was not a leap forward in the same way Don’t Wait for the Movie had been, it did do a few things for the band. First, it brought together the lineup that would go on to create their masterpiece two years later. Tommy Sims (bass, vocals, writer) joined the band during the tour prior to this album. As usual, Whiteheart only brought in the best musicians available, though even for their standards, Sims was a homerun. Second, while the album itself felt rushed, it did have a few great moments, and it gave the band time to discover their sound – the sound of this particular collection of musicians. These six men would stay together for only one more album, but that was enough time to create an album which will be remembered forever.
This was their moment…they did not disappoint.
The band had put in the time, work-shopping and rehearsing various songs to find the perfect arrangement and then entered the studio with Brown Bannister behind the console. This was the first creative collaboration between the band and the famed CCM producer (14 time Grammy winner, Member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame). It was a match made in heaven.This was their moment, their chance to show the world how good Whiteheart could be. They did not disappoint. From the first seconds of the album, you can feel that Freedom is something different. There is an impetus behind every note, every melody, every drum beat. Beginning with the blisteringly propulsive “Bye Bye Babylon” and ending with the bittersweet ballad “I’ll Meet You There”, the album is entirely sure of itself, an obvious confidence on display. Each song is precisely structured, showcasing the vision and writing ability of the band, yet with enough room to explore, highlighting the impressive talents of each member. Thematically, the songs are rich and varied, speaking to issues of forgiveness, self-worth, the subjugation of our pride, God’s mercy, grace, and love, and the ability to live victoriously by aligning ourselves with God’s plan for us.
I doubt I have heard too many songs I would consider perfect. To be clear, I don’t mean technically perfect, as I am unqualified to make that sort of assessment. I mean perfect in the sense that to me there is nothing I would change about the song. Freedom is full of songs that do exactly what they set out to and do it in the best manner possible. “Sing Your Freedom” with its explosive chorus and surprise-ending jam session. “Let the Kingdom Come” with its passionate Gersmehl vocals and its bring-the-house-down, anthemic conclusion. The aforementioned opener and closer to the album, each exhibiting another weapon in the band’s arsenal. “Let It Go” with Florian singing at the peak of his talent and the rousing final minute with the guitars giving us something we didn’t even know we wanted or needed. The album is filled with songs where I would not change a thing.
If I am completely honest, my love for Freedom hinges on two songs. Without these two songs, it would still be a great album; I have no doubt of that, yet what these two songs do for an already great album is immeasurable to me. They are the beating heart. The very soul of the thing. “Over Me” and “The River Will Flow” are songs I have returned to countless times, not just because I think they are great songs but because they continually speak to me in every stage of my life. They are a well I always run to when I need a reminder of God’s love and His work on my behalf. “Over Me” is the simpler song, with a borderline power ballad structure, yet pushing so hard against those boundaries it barely qualifies. In a perfect world, this song would have been massive. It has every element you need: emotion, powerful vocals, top-notch musicianship. Instead of taking the easy road with a big rock-and-roll guitar solo, the band downshifts into a gentle guitar bridge leading to the final chorus. And the dénouement is probably the one thing I point to most when talking about this album. They could have easily ended the song at the 3:50 minute mark, and it would have been amazing. Instead, they build to a beautiful, refashioned rendition of the chorus with Gordon Kennedy handling the lead vocals. It is inventive and courageous and adds just the right touch to complete the song.
“The River Will Flow” has been my life song for a long time. I honestly do not remember when I finally realized it was my favorite song, but since that day, I revisit it often. Epic is the best word for it. Every instrument, every note is precise and intentional. From the opening bass line all the way through the magnificent closing chorus, the passion builds. Mark Gersmehl handles lead vocals and does some of his best work, his voice soaked with emotion. He is joined at the end with a bevy of singers including Dave Perkins, Margaret Becker, Eddie DeGarmo, and Steven Curtis Chapman, each adding their own touch to the grand conclusion. I could go on, but that is enough. The song speaks my language better than any other song. It is uplifting, encouraging, and endlessly rewarding.
Freedom was the final album with this collection of musicians. I have always wondered what they could have created had they stayed together longer. Whiteheart carried on for a number of years after the departure of three of their members. (A few of the departing members of the band went on to win a Grammy for song of the year with Eric Clapton, toured with Bruce Springsteen, and many other accolades.) Whiteheart released many other great albums, though none reached the highs of Freedom. Even though I will never know what else this specific iteration of the band could have done, I am eternally thankful for what they did. They poured their hearts and souls into this record and it would be greedy to ask for more. So, to Gersh, Billy, Rick, Gordon, Tommy, Chris, and Brown, thank you. Thank you for giving me and so many others an album we will cherish for the rest of our lives.
Postscript: On June 29th at The New Hope Community Church in Brentwood Tennessee, my two brothers and I will be attending the Freedom 30th Anniversary Concert. Many of the members of the band will be there to perform along with some special guests. I am beyond excited.