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Holy City Hymns plays Christmas tunes with an Americana touch

Ecumenical worship project finds its roots in church history


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Holiday Music Fatigue: It's a malady we've all experienced. By now, some of us are ready to punch a reindeer in its big red nose the next time we hear the whinging schmaltz of "Last Christmas" or the slimy seduction of "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Where to turn for musical relief? Enter Holy City Hymns, a new music collective headed up by Patrick Schlabs, worship pastor at St. Peter's Church in Mt. Pleasant. Their five-song recording Advent Songs, released Dec. 2, consists of classic hymns and carols performed in the Americana-folk vernacular with a bright Nashville polish. "I work at a church, so my vocation is making church music," Schlabs says. "But I've always wanted to be a part of a group of people that would make music that would bless the church universal."

Maybe you're not familiar with modern Christian worship music, a funny subculture unto itself. The Holy City Hymns project fits squarely within the movement away from the rock 'n' roll worship circus of "seeker-friendly" churches in the '90s and toward a simpler, historically rooted praise service. As early as 2000, well before the past few years' infatuation with Mumford et al., groups like Indelible Grace (which grew out of a Presbyterian college ministry) started plumbing the depths of hymnbooks, gently updating arrangements of dusty old tunes with banjo, mandolin, and dobro.

Schlabs came around to hymnody more recently. He moved to the Charleston area 18 months ago, leaving behind an über-contemporary worship program at a non-denominational church in Amarillo, Texas. The worship band there was making it big — ripping guitar solos, recording albums, playing before a congregation of 12,000 — but Schlabs had an epiphany: "I have total freedom to make the music that I want to make ... Why am I ripping off Coldplay?" He was working with a college ministry within the church at the time, and he and the students started experimenting with old hymns while listening to alt-country artists like Ryan Adams and Wilco.

"We were all just kind of rootless, and the church had a rootless feel to it," Schlabs says. "As we began this journey of reading church history and reading some theology, I just realized that there was beauty in being connected to a historical expression of Christianity. It just felt really meaningful and really important to recognize that the church isn't something that we invented or that came along in the last 30 years."

Today, Schlabs serves a congregation of about 250 people at an Anglican church. When he arrived in Charleston, he was pleased to discover a music scene that was bigger than Hootie rip-offs and fratty college rock. Instead, he found a rootsy, folk-tinged sound that he would later pick up on Advent Songs. He started reaching out to worship leaders at other local churches, and gradually, he pulled together an ensemble of like-minded artists: Turner Merritt of Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church contributed vocals, guitar, and mandolin; Jon Lowder of Sanctuary sang; and Andrew Avent of St. Philip's Episcopal Church lent vocals and accordion. Several churches pitched in for the recording budget, and the cast of 10 musicians laid down five tracks in two days at Ocean Industries Studios in West Ashley.

A highlight of the album is "Joy to the World," which features a bouncy banjo line and infectious backing choir vocals that sound like something on an Asthmatic Kitty record. Schlabs has been getting the band together for special Christmas services throughout December, incorporating ancient liturgy and prayers with the songs, and he hopes to keep things rolling with more projects in the new year. Advent Songs is available as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp.

For those who believe that the events celebrated on Dec. 25 are miraculous and mysterious, Advent Songs is a remedy to creeping cynicism and commercial weariness. And it's a reminder that, as the old carol goes, "love came down at Christmas."


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