The year 1985 was musically a very transformative time in the Contemporary Gospel and Christian genres. For more than a decade, gospel was steadily marching further away from the purist, staid hymns and spirituals that marked much of the pre-1970s gospel.
As with each successive generation since the days of Thomas Dorsey, acts like Commissioned, The Clark Sisters, The Winans, Andraé Crouch, The Hawkins Family, and even Amy Grant were incorporating more contemporary “secular” musical elements intended to reach a younger audience unmoved by the old-fashioned gospel music of the past but whose souls were still in need of “saving for Jesus.” By 1985 a lot of these younger, dynamic, and commercially successful musical leaders were met with praise by progressives and criticism from the conservatives of the Protestant Christian world, but their sound eventually became the old guard as each new generation grew up listening to it as their “parents’ gospel.” Now, nearly thirty years later, there is a new crop of musicians who are not only moving the music forward, but are also pushing the socio-political boundaries of the theological world too by demanding to be heard as openly gay Christian artists who openly worship and musically bring souls to God too. Tim Dillinger is such an artist and The Baton 1985 is such an album.
Following several years “20 feet from the stardom” of Daryl Coley, Tata Vega and Reba Rambo-McGuire, the Nashville refined Tim Dillinger has been making boundary-pushing music almost from the beginning of his solo career. The former background singer’s 2004 debut album, Love Is On My Mind, and most recent EP, 2011’s Gospel, were more traditional contemporary gospel fare, but 2006’s The Muse found Dillinger professionally out of the closet as a gay musician and playing more of the role of blue-eyed soul artist, introducing secular material not out of place on the urban adult contemporary radio dial. Part retro ‘80s new wave and pop rock, part modern day R&B flavored gospel, The Baton 1985 is unlike anything Dillinger has done before. As with other releases, Dillinger’s sexuality isn’t the thematic focus, praise and worship is, and yet it’s a project whose theological messages are clearly liberation theory centered and inclusive in nature. Dillinger’s musical activism is quieter than say his bolder, brassier contemporary, B. Slade (formerly known as Tonex and Ton3x), but present. Throughout The Baton 1985, there is a cynical eye cast toward religious dogma over God-centered relationship.
One of Dillinger’s activism tells comes in the choice of the uber-controversial—and just as talented as he is whispered about—B. Slade as the producer of several cuts, including singles “The Baton” and “Say Thank You.” Dillinger and Slade write both cuts, and in both cuts’ sample selections find bridges to more established artists like Rev. James Cleveland and Arrested Development (B. Slade’s remix version of the song includes smart interpolations of “Tennessee”). Dedicated to such gospel luminaries as Ruth Davis, Tramaine Hawkins, and Dorothy Love Coates, Dillinger establishes further ties to previous gospel trailblazers, as he—like them—creates bumping R&B music who but for the inspirational lyrics would be completely indistinguishable from the secular jams of both this era and the 80s era The Baton 1985 references throughout. Both jams are as uncommon and funky as their producer and as heartfelt in their messages’ earnest devotion to Christ as its singer.
With the reminiscing “(Go Back To) The Old Time Way” Dillinger and co-producer Circa94 Beats digitally wash the old school gospel of yore and complicate it further with layers of New Orleans swing, rhythmic claps, Pentecostal organ play, clean hip hop and party R&B. Featuring Steffin Pfifer, “(Go Back To) The Old Time Way” also slyly makes its points both lyrically and musically of church hypocrisy, capturing the ecstasy of a “rocked” church on a spiritual high but also sly demonstrating how thin the line is from that often judging church and the high of a hood block party or bangin’ club in an ecstasy of its own. The Leslie Phillips-penned “Carry You,” featuring Kyla Jade, Pam Mark Hall & Patsy Moore and produced by Dillinger and Darnell Miller, does its own complication of “Wade in the Water” by lacing swamp blues, country baked banjo and bass guitar, and harmonic arrangements that echo both the Negro spiritual and contemporary electrosoul. Sinewy, fluid, and as defiant as a river, the Assata Shakur dedicated “Carry You” is a high watermark on an album that is all levee breaks.
Straight-ahead old school, Reagan-era gospel does elbow its way through the more show-off compositions. Taking a page from Andraé Crouch, co-producer Circa94 Beats infuses Jackson 5 pep into “Rain,” a throwback gospel jamboree. The light funk of co-producer Eddy J Free’s “More Like Jesus” could have come right out of the Al Hudson & One Way studio, with Dillinger channeling Walter Hawkins on vocals that effortlessly flow between an easy tenor and a steeple shattering falsetto. For “One,” Dillinger returns to the kind of traditional Nashville material privileging 2011’s Gospel, joined by a sage Reba Rambo-McGuire on a string flushed classical piano ballad that producer Dony McGuire arranges just a hair’s breath away from the sentimental emotionalism of Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong.” Each well-executed cut works in diversifying the project and highlighting the sound variances coming out of the “Born in the USA” years.
Distinguishing themselves from the rest of the material, there are two soft rock curiosities on The Baton 1985. Both harken back to the Christian Contemporary music’s early embrace of rock and new wave, signaling its departure and continued segregation from Black-identified gospel music as its own genre. “The Threshing Floor” sports a purposefully kitschy background vocal that snitches on the track’s Back to the Future timeline, almost as much as the synthesizer Rocky-like anthem on “1985” squeals on its own cinematic novelty—one whose origins could be tracked to soundtracks of B-films only available on Betamax. On both songs, Dillinger does his best Steve Winwood by way of Robert Palmer impression, nailing the role of the big haired, soulful rocker while still singing about a faith in one God for all God’s children.
“I had so many heroes, so many that I admired,” Dillinger sings on “More Like Jesus.” In too many ways to count, this album pays homage to many of those gospel heroes and sheroes who demanded an expansion of gospel to include them, their styles, and more progressive message than each previous generation. For an industry and system that has had gay, lesbian and bisexual performers since before the days of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but preferred them silent in all matters but song, it remains to be seen whether gospel will ever stretch open enough to include those who live their lives more honestly in their walk and message. What is clear is that in talent, creativity, and musical ministries devotion to the Christian message of Christ love for everyone, artists like Dillinger and B. Slade can go toe-to-toe with the best of those conservative circles who’d leave them on the outside looking in on a house whose glass seems to grow shakier and more fragile by the year. In the meantime, pioneering projects like The Baton 1985 continues to find inspiration in the firebrands of gospel’s soulful past while still trying to blaze a new trail as part of the music and the church’s potentially more inclusive future. Highly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson