For southern gospel star Mark Lowry, new album of “American Songbook” standards Unforgettable Classics is a “bucket list project,” not to mention “the best thing I’ve ever done.”
“Kevin Williams found the sweet spot of my voice–where I’m not straining,” says Lowry, who leaves audiences both in tears from laughing at his comedic antics and from moving songs like his own classic “Mary, Did You Know.” He’s referring here–seriously–to Kevin Williams, who produced Unforgettable Classics and is also guitarist and band director for southern gospel legend Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Tour concerts and the Gaither Vocal Band—of which Lowry is a longtime member.
“He really stepped up to the plate and brought in some of the best players in Nashville, with orchestrations that are just so great,” Lowry continues. “Everybody gave 110 percent, and all because of those songs. If I came in with another 10 gospel songs, we wouldn’t have got what we got out of them!”
Not that he’s distancing himself from his home genre.
“I love so many of the gospel songs I sing—and the message of all of them—but the melodies of these songs are stunning. I wish gospel music melodies were as creative and unbelievable as ‘Stardust,’ which is on the album: I picked 12 of the best songs from the American Songbook that everybody knows, and for the first time I really like the sound of my voice. Most people are too critical of themselves, and I usually hear too many flaws in my voice!”
As for crossing Unforgettable Classics off his bucket list, Lowry reveals that his mother introduced him to the music of Nat King Cole when he was a youngster growing up in Texas.
“I love flat-footed singers,” he says, characterizing Cole’s generation of stand-up singers and adding that his family used to enjoy watching The Andy Williams Show every Sunday night.
When he was nine, Lowry played Little Jake in a production of Annie Get Your Gun with Kay Starr.
“I didn’t know who she was, but then I heard her sing and bought every record she had!” he says. He also sang in The Music Man with Hal March, and was scheduled to play the lead role in an ill-fated production of Oliver, but when the theater went bankrupt, Lowry, now 10, sang instead at a national quartet convention, then began recording gospel music.
“I loved The Rambos and the Happy Goodman Family, and fell in love with gospel music—and eventually started believing it, which makes it even better!” he says. “We went to church every Sunday, of course. But my older brother was listening to The Beatles, while I was listening to Perry Como! I thought guitars were noisy, and The Beatles couldn’t sing! Just because you can write great songs doesn’t mean you can sing! I hated Hank Williams, too, but I loved his songs.”
But seeing Tony Bennett left an outstanding impression.
“I saw him with my brother, and on Unforgettable Classics, I’m trying to copy him on ‘Fly Me To The Moon’—even doing the first verse. I just wish I could do a duet with him!”
Other noteworthy cuts on the album, which is available at Lowry’s newly redesigned website while he explores label release possibilities, feature Joyce Martin Sanders of The Martins, on “Our Love Is Here To Stay” (“When she comes in, magic starts happening!”), and the Mills Brothers’ “Glow Worm,” which stars Sanders again, with The Martins.
“The Mills Brothers, oh my God!” exclaims Lowry. “I’d have come close to killing to get to see them! Well, I wouldn’t kill—but I’d beat somebody up really bad!”
Meanwhile, including longtime employer Bill Gaither—along with southern gospel trio the Booth Brothers—on “Nevertheless” was more than a professional obligation. The pop standard, which was recorded by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée in 1931, and in 1951, by artists including the Mills Brothers, was perfect for Gaither, “a great bass singer for that type of soft, easy song,” says Lowry.
“I had so much fun doing the album,” he continues. “How could I get so lucky? You invite these people to sing on your record—and they end up thanking you!”
Lowry, who performs his own shows when not singing with Gaither, has already incorporated Unforgettable Classics’ lead track “The Very Thought Of You” into his set.
“I tell husbands to snuggle up with their wives when I sing it,” he relates. “I say, ‘You need to buy this CD and fire it up on the CD player–and light up a candle.’ Women love that romantical stuff!”
Joking, of course, he concludes: “Then I tell the men to dim the lights, ‘and the older you are, the more you have to dim them—and some of you all can leave the lights out. Don’t bother with the candles!’”
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