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Ark Rock, pt. 1: The Smooth Christianity of Myrrh Records

Ark Rock, pt. 1: The Smooth Christianity of Myrrh Records

by Erik Helin

The stalwarts of yacht rock were nothing if not journeymen; wanderers in a desert brought in to punch up and smooth out styles ranging from jazz and prog to hard rock and disco. Their eclecticism and own unique styles at times led them in unexpected directions. Perhaps the most left-field solo career of all of these studio musicians belongs to Michael Omartian.

Mike “Smackwater”* O’Martin began inauspiciously in 1970 as the ivory tickler for Gator Creek, a blues rock band that coincidentally featured a pre-Messina Kenny Loggins. Throughout the 70s he’d wind up with credits on everything from Billy Joel’s Piano Man to Steely Dan’s Aja, tackling production, arrangement, and piano and synth credits.

A bulk of his work, which stands incongruous to the majority of yacht players, includes his involvement in the burgeoning Christian contemporary scene; most notably his work with Myrrh Records. He released four records with Myrrh throughout the 70s and 80s, including two with his wife Stormie. None of them are good…

And so begins the story of Myrrh Records. Charting the label’s output from its founding in the early 1970s to its ramped-up output in the 1980s and through its eventual demise in the early 2000s, it surprisingly tracks the progress of yacht rock’s evolution almost perfectly.

Right off the top, let’s define what we’re talking about here: Ark Rock. Ark Rock is essentially a subgenre of yacht and nyacht rock (I believe it can be either, though I’ll reserve my commentary and leave it to the experts), with all of the music exploring Christian themes. A less charitable listener would say these devoted Christians are the ultimate fools; pledging a love for a being that can never truly love them back; singing the praises of an indefinable force based solely on faith; though we’re not (really) here to judge. As far as the sound is concerned, because the market for Christian contemporary music is much narrower than smooth pop, there is a tendency towards sloppier production, shoddier songwriting, and looser musicianship.

Myrrh Records, along with its sister label Sparrow Records (both were founded by Billy Ray Hearn and released albums by many of the same artists), were foremost purveyors of Ark Rock in all its forms, from the proto-Ark (antediluvian?) of the mid 70s through the synthier, straightforward pop Ark of the mid 1980s. Most of these records didn’t make much noise on the charts; in fact they were more likely to go frankincense than gold (please clap). But that doesn’t mean that these albums were all bad, or unsmooth, or lacked the personnel of traditional yacht rock releases; quite the contrary.

In this series we’ll track a dozen or so releases that define the evolution of Ark Rock at Myrrh and Sparrow Records, beginning in the proto era of the mid-70s through the genre’s death knell in the 80s. Devotees will recognize some familiar names from yacht rock credits, though not every release features the caliber of musician as traditional yacht.

This first installment will look at the genre’s beginnings, the proto-Ark era.

*The origins of the “Smackwater” nickname are a little fuzzy: Carole King released a song called “Smackwater Jack” in 1971, and Quincy Jones released an album of the same name, featuring a cover of the song the same year. It’s also worth noting that Smackwater Jack was the name of a yacht that got lost in Australia’s Tasman Sea in 1979; its captain and crew never to be seen again. Omartian remains the original Smackwater, however (probably).

The Early Years

Chuck Girard - Chuck Girard - “Galilee” (1975)

If you’ve ever dived into researching yacht rock, you’re immediately struck by the overwhelming amount of anonymous white guys that litter the genre (to varying degrees of quality). You’ve got your Dane Donohues and Alan O’Days and Peter Allens and Ned Dohenys; a seemingly bottomless well of white guys with a little bit of a knack for the groove. Whatever hallmark that is in yacht rock, it’s even more prevalent in Ark Rock, so suffice it to say there will be a lot on this list.

Chuck Girard was a member of the first successful Christian contemporary band in the US, Love Song, in the early 70s. For his first solo album he recruited a few future yacht rockers, namely David Pack of Ambrosia and David Paich of Toto. The track I’ve chosen from this album is “Galilee”, which features a lot of the attributes of proto-yacht: It’s smooth, but because it’s acoustic guitar-led it tends to evoke southern rock more than pop R&B or jazz, and it’s a little too straightforward. You could see how a song like this made four or five years later would’ve featured electric piano or synth and a tighter bassline and really fit well within the yacht rock sound. The addition of gospel backup vocals also helps cement its credentials; after all, one of the most important parts of yacht rock is an appreciation and incorporation of traditionally black styles of music.

B.J. Thomas - Without A Doubt - “Without A Doubt” (1976)

B.J. Thomas is best known for his recording of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” which topped the charts in early 1970. B.J. then drifted through pop rock and country, finally landing on gospel-tinged soft rock by the middle of the decade. Without A Doubt represents his first foray into Christian contemporary, and his first collaboration with the extremely on-the-nose named Chris Christian (which was presumably shortened from Chris Christian-Contemporary). Chris Christian was an important figure in the Ark Rock scene, penning, producing and playing guitar on a number of genre-defining albums. The title track is proto-Ark Rock, and prototypical white guy soft pop; the kind that someone like Christopher Cross would make if he wasn’t collaborating with gifted session musicians.

Amy Grant - Amy Grant - “Beautiful Music” (1977)

Amy Grant was the golden girl of Ark Rock, and the flagship artist of Myrrh Records. Her debut self-titled album was produced by Chris Christian, and featured Randy Goodrum (who later penned songs with Michael McDonald and Toto) on keyboards. In the same way B.J. Thomas was a couple key pieces of personnel off of the yacht rock sound, the selected track, “Beautiful Music” has some smooth pop tendencies, but is just a bit too white to be in that camp.

On a personal note, I’d like to say that the line “Since you came inside me” on the chorus is dirtier than anything Trina ever released and it gives me the heebie jeebies every time I hear it.

Chris Christian - Chance - “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (1977)

By the end of 1977 Ark Rock had found its smooth, and Chris Christian helped usher in the peak era. His album Chance represents the growing pains of proto-Ark becoming full-fledged Ark Rock, with some tracks falling on the country rock side and others, like the selected “Satisfaction Guaranteed”, bringing in electric piano and a smoother sound.

As an aside, I have a theory that the Chance track “Sail On” was the spiritual predecessor to Christopher Cross’ “Sailing”. Michael Omartian, who was labelmates with Chris Christian, later went on to produce “Sailing” the following year. Christian and Cross also collaborated on the track “Don’t Give Up On Us” in 1981, so they were in each other’s purview. I think Cross heard “Sail On” and identified with the themes, and then folded them into his smash hit.

David Meece - Everybody Needs A Little Help - “Everybody Needs A Little Help” (1978)

On the sultry, Bee-Gee’s disco-ballad side of Ark Rock is David Meece. There aren’t any notable personnel on this album, but it represents how Ark Rock, as in the case with yacht rock, felt slightly adrift in the late 70s before the synthesizer boom of the turn of the decade. Fun fact: David Meece is from Humble, Texas. And charlatan fact: He was asked to participate in Billy Graham’s Crusades in the 90s and 00s.

In part two of this series we’ll look at the golden era of Ark Rock, the early 80s.

Ark Rock, pt. 2: The Flood Years

Ark Rock, pt. 2: The Flood Years

Show Notes - BYR 52: Nu-Wop

Show Notes - BYR 52: Nu-Wop