Tony Cummings charts the history of Atlanta's fondly remembered pop rockers JACOB'S TROUBLE
Long after the retro zany pop of Atlanta's Jacob's Trouble had disappeared from the CD racks the band were being eulogized on numerous fan websites. Even fellow Atlanta musicianaries Third Day paid tribute to them. Said Mac Powell, "There's a band originally from Atlanta called Jacob's Trouble. We were all fans of their music. Whenever they were in town we would always go and hear them play. They were always very encouraging to us. They were the band we would always go to see and say, 'Wow, I hope one day we can do what they do!' When we were able to go and make [the 'Offerings' album] we said that we were going to do a Jacob's Trouble song. 'These Thousand Hills' was a song they did that we always loved."
The Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music summed up Jacob's Trouble's appeal. "Their retro '60s sound was eminently likeable and yet quirky and eclectic enough to interest critics who would usually recoil at bands with such obvious commercial appeal."
The origins of the group go back to 1988 when Jerry Davison (drums), Mark Blackburn (guitar) and Steve Atwell (bass) formed a college band in Atlanta. Davison and Blackburn handled the vocals with their name coming from Jeremiah 30:7, a reference that the trio first heard in the Christian exploitation movie Image Of The Beast. In 1988 the band recorded a cassette EP 'Jacob's Trouble'. On the compilation 'Diggin' Up Bones' Jerry Davison spoke about recording 'Jacob's Trouble' in June 1988. "We recorded and mixed these first five songs in about three days at a little studio called Songbird in Atlanta. We only pressed 500 copies of this cassette-only release in November 1988 and sold them for $5.00 each at two of the four shows we played before we got a record deal."
The tape also contained a praise song, "Psalm 151". Said Jerry, "Steve, Mark and myself wrote 'Psalm' together one evening in the practise room at my mom's house. Mark played us the music, we started humming a melody and Steve and I began skimming through the Psalms for inspiration. The result is a simple, bare-bones song of praise for God. Some bright keyboard and breathy background vocals were added to the version on 'Door. . .' in the hopes of garnering some airplay on Christian radio. This version feels much more honest to me. You would be surprised at the number of people who attempt to look this up in the Bible. And some even say they found it!"
Jerry was working as an assistant manager for an Atlanta Record Bar Store when he sent a copy of their cassette to the chain's primary buyer to get his comments. He felt it showed great potential and passed it on to California's Frontline Records. The band were signed and put with Daniel Amos frontman and songwriter/producer Terry Taylor. It was a brilliant fit. Taylor emphasised the band's retro sounds which referenced the Beatles, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Monkees. In fact it was a Monkees song "Door Into Summer" which was the title track of Jacob's Trouble's full length debut on the Frontline subsidiary Alarma. 'Door Into Summer' wasn't' meant to be the title of the band's record label debut. Explained Davison, "The original title for 'Door Into Summer' was to be 'An Idea Of Autumn', a phrase culled from C S Lewis' autobiography Surprised By Joy. It was nixed by the record label, who thought it sounded too morose for a summer release."
As well as the Monkees cover "Door Into Summer" and a version of the Beatles' "Tell Me What You See" the album also included re-recordings of the songs originally on the cassette "If You Believe", "Psalm 151" and what was to be the album's most popular track, "Church Of Do What You Want To". The song, written by the three band members, had a melody that probably owed a little too much to Paul Revere & The Raiders' "Hungry" but over a country rock rhythm it was a clever denouncement of easy-believism with the same kind of wit Terry Taylor often showed in his lyrics ("Are you tired of religion that only seems to bring you down/Cramping your lifestyle like a certain thorny crown/Are you sick of being told that you can't make it on your own/If that's your case I've got a place that you can call a home!/It's the Church Of Do What You Want To Do/The Church Of Do What You Please/The Church Of Do What Feels Good Baby/And Believe What You Want To Believe/No absolutes, no wrong or right/Just ambiguities."
However, the best song on the album was a reflection on Proverbs 31: 10-31 where the qualities of a godly wife are transformed into a delicious piece of Cowsills-like jangly guitar, flower-power pop.
After the positive response that 'Door Into Summer' received with the growing CCM audience Jacob's Trouble were soon back in the studio with Terry Taylor. In fact it was a Taylor composition "There Goes My Heart Again" that was the album's standout with the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music calling it "a masterpiece of melody and harmony akin to 'Pet Sounds'-era Beach Boys." Certainly the clever way the lyric used romantic imagery to describe the experience of renewed devotion to Christ is masterly. The album also featured a deft, jangly guitar, Byrds-like "Beggars And Kings" written by Terry Taylor, Randy Stonehill and Jerry Davison; a song about Bible reading "Little Red Words" ("In the morning the first thing I see/Are little red words in a big black book"); a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Believe In You"; and a Davison, Blackburn, Atwell composition "Mr Hitler". The latter was a masterly tongue-in-cheek depiction of ultra-right mentality ("Hookers, lawyers, pimps, drug dealers/Bring my city to its knees/Pinko judge says 'Not guilty'/Freed on technicalities/I'm an ordinary man/I believe in wrong and right/If it were up to me/I would have them shot on sight").
'Knock, Breathe, Shine' also contained "About Sex (Part II)" which consisted of a series of arresting statistics ("In the next 24 hours, 7,742 teenagers become sexually active/2,989 children see their parents get divorced," etc, etc). Jerry Davison explained how there was a Part 1 to "About Sex", which only finally emerged on the 'Diggin' Up Bones' compilation. "'About Sex' was the Greatest Hit We Never Had. People used to drive from all over to hear us play this song in concert. It was, without question, the show stopper in our early live sets. It was originally intended for 'Door Into Summer' but was passed on when the final song selection was made. We re-recorded it in its present form, intending it for 'Knock, Breathe, Shine', but Terry Taylor declined to produce it. He felt the lyrics sounded too 'moral majority' and that it clashed with the musical and artistic direction the record was taking. Unfortunately, Frontline was already sold on the song and pressured Terry to include it. So Terry and the band created a song, literally from thin air, and called it 'About Sex, Part II', which is what you hear on the finished version of 'Knock'."
On their first two albums the trio had simply over-dubbed any extra guitar and vocal parts but then found that, to their increasing frustration, they could not duplicate those parts onstage. So in September of 1990 Davison, Atwell and Blackburn recruited second guitarist Keith Johnston while the addition of drummer Ron Cochran in January 1991 allowed Davison to step out from behind his kit and let what he spoke about to Contemporary Christian Music magazine as his "natural kind of ham-type obnoxiousness" shine forth. Davison also admitted that leaving the security of his drum set was at first a bit overwhelming. "I felt kinda naked. But the most important thing I've learned about being frontman is that you have to be willing to make a total, absolute, unmitigated idiot of yourself - which I generally have no trouble doing!" Atwell added that "the confidence level has gone up considerably since we were a three-piece. It was hard as a trio to play our parts well and be exciting visually. But with five of us, we've all gotten more confident in our abilities and I think that translates to a fun show."
That extra confidence also motivated Jacob's Trouble to change producers for 'Let The Truth Run Wild', enlisting the services of Mark Heard, the legendary studio man from Macon, Georgia whose Fingerprint Studios were bringing to the public some of the most cutting edge Christian music of the '90s. Davison spoke about the decision to make the change from Terry Taylor. "At the time we started working with Terry, we really didn't have a firm musical direction. Terry kind of helped us hone in what we were after. But we started realising that because Terry did the Swirling Eddies and other things like that, we were being perceived in the press and by some of the public as just another 'side project' of his. We felt it was important this time out to break out of Terry's shadow and establish ourselves. Mark Heard shares a lot of common influences with Terry, but Mark was more 'hands-off' as a producer. He let us kinda run wild with things and only stepped in if we were about to do something really stupid. We wrote 10 our of 13 songs ourselves, one of the covers being Daniel Amos' 'Walls Of Doubt', which is our way of thanking Terry for all he's done for us."
The Heard-produced 'Let The Truth Run Wild' was again well received by the fans and the critics. Wrote the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music, "This time the masterpiece is Ron Cochran's song 'Mornin' Light', a country pop tune that hearkens back to Richie Furay's work with Buffalo Springfield and Poco."
Almost as attention-grabbing was a rocked-up version of George Beverly Shea's "I'd Rather Have Jesus" while "You Scare The Hell Out Of Me" had a particularly memorable Jerry Davison lyric ("It's not the thunder and fire, it's not the smoke and the lightening/It's not the power of your hand that I find so frightening/It's the mercy so deep it swallows justice alive/It's the love so strong not even death can survive").
The tracks "You Scare The Hell Out Of Me" and "Icicle Face" threw off any hint of retro nostalgia in favour of an up-to-date '90s rock sound with hints of INXS and U2. And it was that sound that dominated their 1993 release, which rather peculiarly for a fourth album was called 'Jacob's Trouble'. By that time the group had trimmed back to four members (Davison, Johnston, Atwell and Cochran) and had taken on the production of the album themselves. Wrote Mark Allan Powell, "The sound is much more aggressive, capturing the energy of live performance in the studio. The disc kicks off with 'Wild, Wild Ride', a galloping, guitar-driven number that leaves former Monkee comparisons in the dust. 'Lovehouse' follows, insuring the band's new reputation as a first-rate rock and roll outfit on the same order as groups like Cheap Trick. 'Desiree' is sung with strangely distorted vocals that must have seemed hip at the time. 'Better Days' takes the group deep into U2 territory, complete with anthemic Bono-esque vocals."
As usual, Davison's lyrics are top notch, "Way Of The Cross" declaring "He gave the keys of the Kingdom to the meek and the mild/He told the self-righteous grown-ups to act like a child." But after the band had toured with 'Jacob's Trouble' the band called it a day. The following year Frontline Records released a retrospective, the compilation of demos and rarities 'Diggin' Up Bones'. The group reunited briefly in 1998 to record a new song "Step By Step" for a Best Of compilation 'Jacob's Trouble Sampler Pak'.
After that Steve Atwell, Ron Cochran and Keith Johnston continued to gig and record together under the name Janah. Jerry Davison recorded one CD under the name sideways8 in 1998 and today occasionally releases songs via such internet music sites as garageband.com and IUMA.com. He currently resides in Atlanta, where he serves as Creative Arts Pastor for Church at the Ridge in Hiram, Georgia.
Mark Blackburn released two solo CDs 'Flowerchild' (1996) and 'The Continuing Adventures Of. . .' (1997) which are available from CD Baby as well as Mark's web site. He is worship leader/director of media for Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Powder Springs, Georgia and leads a contemporary worship service called The Gathering.
The final words of the Jacob's Trouble legacy go to Jerry Davison, "No matter what guitars we played or what clothes we wore or what image we projected, the true legacy of Jacob's Trouble has always been the songs. We strove to communicate what we felt 'implicitly to be God's truth' and to give expression to that which has been 'dumbly struggling' in us all. And judging from the response we've gotten, both live and from our records, we were able to pass it on to more than a few folks."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.