Music, as the world well knows, is a powerful force. With the simple strains of an instrument, made even more compelling when joined by others, the force of music is enough to conjure up mighty emotions within even the mightiest of men. The swelling of strings may evoke thoughts and memories of love while another arrangement will cause the blood to rise as in a blockbuster movie soundtrack, inciting us to action. Even other attempts will cause us to remember, while others we delve into to forget. And through it all, perhaps the most telling of music’s great devices, is the fact that, through a song, music can help us to give us a voice when we’ve no voice left to give.
Joshua Messick and Erin Rogers are two walking testimonies to this sheer power of music. Messick took to music at an early age, taking up the hammer dulcimer at the age of nine and taking lessons over a number of years. Gifted with the ability to play by ear, Messick is drawn to the emotion of music and how it relates to people. In his own words, “Music is the sound of the human spirit and for me is prayer without words.” And Messick’s road to this album has found him needing that expression of unspoken prayer as he has shared of this album being born through a period of grief and healing. Messick is the 2003 National Hammer Dulcimer Champion.
Rogers, as well, began her musical journey at an early age, beginning with the piano at the age of five. Yet, inspired by her father and sister’s musical leanings, and based upon some simple logistics, the artist soon found herself handed a mountain dulcimer and, through the course of lessons and practice, her skills grew until she found herself as the youngest champion ever at the National Mountain Dulcimer Contest in 2004 at the age of 17. For Rogers, school would follow her championship and music came alongside, fueling and strengthening Rogers’ journey.
And that strength became even more needed when the artist was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2007. Six months of chemotherapy followed alongside all of the expected time in hospital beds and recovering. However, not one to be cowed by life’s setbacks, Rogers clung to her dulcimer, often playing it for simple inspiration, offering up the same sort of unspoken prayers that Messick so eloquently speaks of.
Honest: Songs of Hope is this duo’s simple offering of those unspoken prayers. Each brings their respective dulcimer to the table and is joined by some very simple accompaniments, seeing Max Dyer provide some cello support, Uilleann pipes provided by Tim Britton, and some choice fiddle fills from Amber Rogers. It’s simple, stark, and, as the title would lead you to believe, altogether honest.
All of the compositions, save for “Honest,” written by Messick, are essentially old hymns and the album opens up with the stunning Appalachian-feeling “What Wondrous Love Is This?,” which is full-flavored, enhanced richly by Britton’s Uilleann pipes. It’s the sort of track that is cinematic in its delivery and feels like something out of a movie and is a promising start. That promise continues through, although in a more Spartan way, through “Be Thou My Vision,” finding Amber Rogers’ fiddle offering contrast while Messick’s “Honest” is a pure and powerful offering, Dyer’s cello providing an emotive note accented by the hammer dulcimer’s almost keyboard-like quality this time out.
“How Can I Keep From Singing?” is another sparse, contemplative song that Rogers plays with ease and “I Will Arise” provides a mystical flavor to the set list, Messick’s percussive work on the hammer dulcimer setting the tone while Dyer’s cello and Roger’s mountain dulcimer fill in the holes with emotion. “It Is Well” is a classic dulcimer track and Messick delivers it as well as anyone while “I’d Rather Have Jesus” really allows the cello to provide some nice accompaniment, keeping the track flowing.
“Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” takes things back to the mountains with its rousing waltz before Rogers offers up a sublimely simple take on “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” That same feeling continues on the duo’s take on “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” before “God Will Take Care of You” ends things out on a hopeful and resonant note.
Clearly, dulcimer tunes aren’t going to be every listener’s bread and butter but for those with ears to hear, Joshua Messick and Erin Rogers’ Honest: Songs of Hope is a beautiful album well worth the listening. Providing stunning performances alongside heartfelt and truly honest arrangements, this is an album well worth your time.
Reviewed by Andrew Greenhalgh