40 More Acres
At the turn of this century, students at my very white, very small Christian college recognized a holy trinity of folk-rockers. Caedmon’s Call, Waterdeep, and Bebo Norman frequented our campus on the Ozarks’ outskirts, and disciples like me returned the affection, squinting until we saw their halos, speaking of their work in reverential whispers.
As is typical with the Godhead, each of us favored one member more than the others. To deflect the temptation of quiet blasphemy, let me avoid assigning each artist their divine analog.
Caedmon’s Call was my band, their 1999 record 40 Acres bounding and explaining my collegiate experience. I savor the marriage of music and geography so, as my father and I drove from our Arizona home to my Missouri college, I let 40 Acres ring through Texas. In an outsize fashion befitting the state of that state, the title track boasts of a “Texas sky . . . as big as the sea” and, at its most redemptive moment, the baptism of a Texas rain that will “wash your house away, but it’ll also make you clean.”
The nostalgia trip I mapped out dissolved into something different altogether.
At eighteen, I clung to the promise of that open stretch of highway, the hope of that endless sky, the faith that a storm was blowing through which would change my life forever.
Over the subsequent years, 40 Acres spoke to my situation fluently. With my parents a thousand miles away, and cleaved from the church of my youth, faith moved beneath my feet like the “Shifting Sand” Danielle Young sang of. I traded futures, mostly attached to girls I’d never kiss, across diner tables like Derek Webb did with his friend Danny in “Table for Two.”
When I left campus with two degrees, a fiancée, and a fraction more clarity than when I arrived, the twists, turns, and leaps of faith threaded through each song felt like my own.
Two weekends ago, and more than fifteen years after college, I returned to 40 Acres on another road trip. This time, its eleven songs framed a drive across the state of Missouri with my son in the backseat. Against arpeggiated guitar and the purr of a Hammond organ, Cliff Young started the album as he always does, with a question: “Is this the strange feeling / Of you working all for good?”
That strange feeling, of being swept up in sovereignty’s embrace, returned. There you go again. But the nostalgia trip I mapped out dissolved into something different altogether.
The same notes lingered, and the same lyrics choked me up. But as each chord struck within me, I felt the music like a thirty-nine-year-old with fingerprints upon his soul, not a kid waking up to the puzzle of holy communion. The rock rhapsodies of my youth still entrance me, but this feeling doesn’t come when “Semi-Charmed Life” emanates from supermarket speakers; 40 Acres is a record that knew me way back when, and knows me even better today.
Twenty years pass and I quote lines reflexively, as if these words always existed. I return to “Shifting Sand” and the phrase “a glimpse of your backside glory” anytime and every time I experience a Mosaic moment, catching God’s greatness from an askew angle or through a cleft in the rock. The glimpses come less often than I’d like—but they still come, and I relish those six words I muster like a mockingbird in conversation with the Most High.
Before I knew his fable in full, I invoked Sisyphus in demanding moments, thanks to Cliff Young’s reading of “Where I Began”: “I’ve done the work of Sisyphus / Thinking that I could get over this hill / But the one thing I can’t get over now / Is the force of your will.”
Invoking Sisyphus isn’t beyond the pale for a band named after a seventh-century poet and caretaker of animals. But therein lies the secret to 40 Acres’s durability, and all it unlocks across the years. These songs represent the present-tense cry of the souls singing them, yet recognize that life didn’t begin and doesn’t end here. At its best, this is what folk music does: humbling us while it upholds us, reminding us we are always heard and never alone.
Always accused of being a prophet, it’s as if Webb acted out of a strange mercy, knowing well that what he left would carry on in his absence.
“Where I Began,” and the record as a whole, also represents the best of a Reformed tradition oft-maligned and more often bent out of shape. Throughout 40 Acres, the compelling call of God has its say, yet room enough is left to accommodate unknowing. (Within “Faith My Eyes,” Webb literally sings, “Life is better off a mystery.”)
On “Table for Two,” a song speculating over the “whos and whens” of your future, Webb affirms a foreknowledge that shakes hands with the specific and stretches its arms into eternity. Everything that happens—“From the rain and the cold / To the drink that I spilled on my shirt”—keeps a divine appointment.
Mile markers pass, and the acres add up. The most realized effort in the Caedmon’s Call catalog returns with melodic reminders that everything changes, yet so much somehow stays the same.
I can’t help but wince during “Faith My Eyes” when Webb delivers the line “But if I must go / Things I trust will be better off without me.” Forever a force of necessary disruption, he once antagonized the church from the inside out; now he lives beyond belief, denying himself the wine and the bread. Always accused of being a prophet, it’s as if Webb acted out of a strange mercy, knowing well that what he left would carry on in his absence.
On this trip, the song provoking the loudest sing-along was the band’s cover of Shawn Colvin’s “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong).” Danielle Young wraps her feather-pillow voice around an all-time great line: “If you could save me a place in heaven / With a clean, well-lighted room / I’ll muscle up to Armageddon / And I’ll wave to you darlin’ / Be home soon.”
Singing along, I recognized the boldness in tying another artist’s masterwork to your own. Selling lines like those without being swallowed by them requires offering your own mixture of revelation and texture. To the band’s credit, several moments keep Colvin in good company.
Nostalgia trips serve their purpose, but music that truly resonates restores a sense of time and place while grounding you in realities greater than a single moment.
Webb turns in more than a few superlative phrases, especially this hall-of-fame string on “Daring Daylight Escape”: “Just like Uri Gellar, I’m bound to twist the facts around / I’ve got to get them straight / Before my baby up and leaves town / Cause I can’t walk on water / And if I chase you, I might drown / And I’m already up to my neck.”
But more than just keeping up, the band peppers this record with lines that evolve with experience. At eighteen, Colvin’s lyric or any of Webb’s lines felt aspirational. Now, with a wife and kid and commitments and scars my younger self couldn’t imagine or appreciate, I know the feeling of flexing before best this world can do and believing love remains. I climb on my wife’s able back daily, then lower my own shoulders in silent invitation.
Some mysteries are solved and some tarry, but the urge to fight, flee and respond with four-letter words never goes away. Neither does the faith that keeps my eyes searching for more. Songs that struck a match at twenty-two underline truths that keep the fire burning almost two decades later.
Nostalgia trips serve their purpose, but music that truly resonates restores a sense of time and place while grounding you in realities greater than a single moment. The songs on 40 Acres sacrifice little of their shine or gravity upon altars built by each passing generation. The years only prove how right they were the first time around.