CD Review: “Having Church” – Bethel McGrew

by | Jan 13, 2017 | CD Reviews, Reviews

Having Church
Produced by Bethel McGrew
Format: Digital (iTunes, Spotify)

Tune-O-Meter: None

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)

SONG TITLES: He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions (Thomas Chisholm/Merrill Dunlop) – There is a Hill (Bethel McGrew/Traditional Irish Tune) – Like a River Glorious (Bethel McGrew/Frances Havergal) – Deep River (Traditional) – There’ll Be No Dark Valley (Ira Sankey) – There Is A Fountain [instrumental] (Traditional) – The Battle Will Be Won (Bethel McGrew) – Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone? (George Allen/Thomas Shepherd/unknown) – Were You There (Traditional) – Somebody Say Amen (Bethel McGrew)

I received an email from Bethel McGrew recently asking me to review a project she had just completed. Bethel is a talented singer/songwriter with influences that span multiple genres both sacred and secular. This is her debut album, entirely self-recorded with nothing but piano and vocals.

The title of the album, Having Church, is in reference to (as she puts it), “a love letter to church music.” The song selection is a mix of older hymns and new material. In some instances, Bethel adds her own work to existing material (such as with “There Is A Hill” and “Like A River Glorious”), while others are entirely new compositions.

McGrew’s voice is a strong, confident, classically-trained soprano, which is backed by her own piano playing. The majority of the piano tracks were done using a digital keyboard, while a couple cuts are done with an acoustic piano. I like the artistic approach of the acoustic piano; I just wish it was a bit more in tune, as it became a bit of a distraction at times. Bethel’s singing is solid, but a bit too stiff at times. She is what I would call a “legalistic singer,” in that the written melody takes precedence over individual interpretation, which is most likely by design, given her classical training. I found myself really enjoying the couple instances where she actually ad-libbed some notes, as it felt much more organic than the note-for-note takes.

Stylistically, Having Church feels like it originated in a VERY traditional church background. The songs, both old and new, are arranged in such a way that there is little variety. I perhaps would’ve at least reshuffled the song order a bit, as a couple of the a cappella songs are back-to-back at the end. By dropping them in between a couple piano-backed numbers, a little variety is introduced to keep the listener interested.

That’s not to say there isn’t at least SOME variety here. The slow opening a cappella chorale arrangement of “He Was Wounded For Our Transgressions” doesn’t sound like sweeping “Deep River” or the more upbeat “There’ll Be No Dark Valley.” The project would’ve probably benefited from some additional instrumentation, however. “Somebody Say Amen,” for example, has an old-time spiritual feel to it (and is one of the few times where she seems to “let loose” a bit), but it’s almost completely lost in the a cappella recording. As I listened, I could hear in my head what a full-band arrangement of this song would sound like.

As this is essentially a home recording, there are some technical flaws here and there. There are instances where I could hear background noise and/or extraneous breaths. When you have full insrumentation, these are much easier to hide, but on an album that is backed with nothing but piano (or, in some instances, entirely a cappella), it stands out a bit more. To be fair, though, I chalk this up to the fact that, again, this was done entirely McGrew herself. These are very minor gripes, and given that this is her first effort, something that could easily be fixed with future recordings.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: My first few albums had the same technical flaws and many more, so I am not slamming anyone else for something that I haven’t done myself. The overall quality of this debut recording far surpasses my own initial efforts.)

While this is a more than acceptable first effort for someone who recorded it entirely on their own, I have to be honest and say that I believe the audience for this project is going to be limited. If you prefer straight-ahead, liturgy style church services and strict, by-the-note singing, then you will enjoy this project. For me personally, I found myself wishing there were a bit more here.

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Kyle Boreing

Kyle Boreing

Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a musician, producer, arranger, and occasional quartet singer, who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with many different artists. He also really likes movies that are "so bad they're good." Visit his website at, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.

1 Comment

  1. Bethel

    Thanks for this review. Just to add a little bit more context, I wanted to make the project as a tribute to more than just one kind of church music. A phrase like “having church” can stir really disparate memories in different people’s minds. For me, it conjures up several different ideas at the same time. Although technically, all the covers here are from the Baptist hymnal, you were right to pick up on the fact that my church background was liturgical in nature (Anglican, in fact). Fortunately, my mom made sure I was also exposed early and often to classic old-time gospel tunes, hymns and spirituals. So, one of the things I enjoy most is finding ways to merge all these different streams, while hopefully putting a little of my own spin on it. (“There is a Fountain” is probably the most-covered tune on here, but I had fun taking it to some unexpected places with gospel/country piano.) To me, it’s a little bit like looking at the Church in microcosm.

    Also, in a way I wanted it to double as a survey of American music as well as church music. E.g., “There’ll Be No Dark Valley” is a 19th century tent revival tune, but I gave it a lift that was informed by 60s folk music (WWJBD: What Would Joan Baez Do?) Then “Deep River” and “Were You There” are traditional spirituals, but my own “Somebody Say Amen” blends that influence with a contemporary gospel sensibility. By the way, Crossroads has that song in their catalogue, so you never know: The world might get the full band treatment of that one, one of these days!


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