Part One: The Music
Brian Free and Assurance is a multi-talented, award-winning Southern Gospel group with a unique sound and a drive for excellence. Any listener unfamiliar with this genre of music will quickly learn two things when Assurance takes the stage. First, all accolades are highly deserved. Second, none of this group’s rise in popularity and musical distinction was achieved through dilution of the message. For Brian Free and Assurance, being a Christian music artist is not just a job. It is their life and a reflection of a lifestyle and strong, abiding faith.
The recent release of the vinyl LP A Season To Remember, is a showcase of the group’s highlights of eighteen years of making music. This walk down memory lane is not a type of project containing only one or two must-hear tracks. For the Assurance aficionado, the recording contains all your favorites. For the uninitiated, the project is a recording of all that is Southern Gospel: strong lyrics, unforgettable harmonies and music that will keep you humming for hours. For the members of the group, A Season To Remember takes them down memory lane and the changes that have happened within the industry.
Tenor and owner Brian Free, along with Bill Shivers, lead for the group, have both seen an evolution within Southern Gospel. Other than the disappearance of platform shoes and bell-bottoms, Free says there are other positive changes as well. “If I had to narrow it down to one thing, for the most part, it’s the ministry. It is more ministry-oriented now than it was 35 or 40 years ago, which is very, very good. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s here.”
Shivers agrees that Southern Gospel artists have become more cognizant of their responsibility to present the Gospel. “I’ve been with Brian for ten and a half years, and before that I was with Heaven Bound for four and a half years. So I’ve been around about 16 years, and I’ve seen quite a few changes in that area in the short amount of time I’ve been here.” Free laughingly adds, “People come and go in this industry every six months, so sixteen years is a long time.”
When asked to describe to someone what is Southern Gospel, and to define the sound of Brian Free and Assurance, both men find it difficult to respond. Free says, “You can’t describe ‘Southern Gospel’. That’s like saying, ‘Narrow down Contemporary Christian Music’. You can’t do it because there are so many different categories. When they hand out the Dove Awards, there are more than 15 different categories.” Brian Free and Assurance has been a recipient of the prestigious Dove Award, given to them for the song, ‘Long As I Got King Jesus.’
“We don’t fall under the umbrella of hard-core Southern Gospel, but we are in the industry,” states Free. “We are not Contemporary but we are not Traditional Southern. We are somewhere in-between. We do the traditional quartet music and some traditional songs.” Shivers says, “I like to think that we have created our own niche. And that’s a good thing.”
“Absolutely,” continues Free. “If someone hears us on the radio, I want them to know that’s us. We don’t want to sound like one of twenty other quartets. We like music that is a little more progressive. The more creative you are, the more progressive it is. And if you aren’t going to create, then what fun is music anyway. That’s the artistic side of music.” Shivers adds, “It makes it more enjoyable for us as singers.”
The creative process comes into play in the recording process. When creating a new project, the group members spend a lot of time choosing songs that will fit the group. Their previous recording, Never Walk Alone, has many incredible tunes with enjoyable melodies and lyrics that touch the mind and emotions of the listener. Free notes that regardless of the melody, the words are the most important part of a Gospel song. “That is 99% of it. We have to remember it is ‘Gospel’ music and that comes first. The music is just the vehicle to carry the Gospel. The music is important and you want to do the very best you can, spending time arranging and producing, making it what it needs to be…” Shivers adds, “…But it all should enhance the Gospel lyrics.” “Because without the words, what have you got?” says Free.
“When we sing the song, the message is most important,” continues Shivers. “As Brian says every night on stage, each one is like a mini-sermon. You want that three- to four-minutes to count for every song. You don’t want it to be wasted.”
The songs recorded by Brian Free and Assurance can become very personal to group members. Free says, “With each songwriter, the music they write reflects where they are at that time. That is not necessarily the case with groups like us who don’t write our own music. It is, in certain ways, for our ministry because the songs we choose and that really appeal to us, reflect where we are. God has never failed to send great songs. We have some great writers that write for us who are very consistent.”
Shivers adds, “We have been blessed with some wonderful, anointed songs. Where the message of one song might hit Brian one way, it might affect me differently. The Lord speaks to us in different ways.”
The title track of Never Walk Alone was one song that touched the group deeply. Shivers says, “That song ministered to us majorly because we had been going through a tough time. Three of the guys in the group have lost parents recently. Brian lost his mom and his dad within six months. I lost my dad back in January and Jeremy lost his dad two years ago. So God really knew what He was doing when that song came along. It ministered and blessed us. The song was definitely intended for Brian Free and Assurance and it is amazing how God can work through that.”
The last two releases by Brian Free and Assurance have been especially well-received by audiences and radio alike. Melissa Flores, General Manager of He’s Alive Radio, says, “The Southern Gospel industry is enhanced by artists such as Brian Free and Assurance. Because [they] are fearless in their progressive approach to quartet music, they have coaxed in an appreciable number of listeners to the genre. Their latest single, ‘The Part Where You Come In’ is a glorious hybrid of country instrumentation and quartet vocal harmonies. A number of He’s Alive listeners have commented how they appreciate artists who are willing to modernize.”
Some people are under the mistaken idea that Southern Gospel listeners are, as a whole, very selective and staid in the style of music that they find appropriate. The audience of He’s Alive Radio have proven otherwise by these comments regarding Brian Free and Assurance.
Flores continues, “Although we love the traditional sounds that Southern Gospel is known for, people like Brian Free and Assurance give us hope that the genre will live on for another generation. Brian Free has pushed the envelope, creating space for other avante garde groups to express their creativity. Southern Gospel music is not at the risk of losing its identity over artists like Brian Free and Assurance. As the genre has evolved, it has produced a number of talents that possess certain expected key qualities, but a characteristic sound. Brian Free and Assurance embodies the heart and soul of Southern Gospel: rich harmonies, solid gospel lyrics, and a radio presence that draws in listenership.”
As the group continues to ‘push the envelope’, Brian Free is conscious of retaining that certain indefinable it factor that makes Assurance the unique quartet with a sound that people recognize. Free notes, “We are always looking to reach out into different areas and people we haven’t reached yet with our music. If something doesn’t grow, it eventually dies. So we want growth. Stylistically, we plan to stay where we are. We have found our niche. Not everybody is going to love it, but every style doesn’t appeal to every body.” Shivers adds, “That’s why there’s bluegrass and country and other styles. It would be boring if everyone was the same.”
“If everybody liked the same thing, there would only be one kind of automobile made or one type of house,” laughs Free. “But we need to keep fresh for our supporters. Our fans and friends are the most dedicated ones. We love them more than anything in this world. They are the reason we are out here.” Shivers agrees: “They take care of us like family.” Free adds, “So we continue to do what we do and pray that God will continue to use us more effectively and that we don’t grow stale or stagnant. We don’t want to sit still.”
Even though Free notes that the group’s style isn’t everyone’s forte, the increasing fan base and continued award nominations prove that Assurance is appreciated nation-wide. Free comments, “Our music allows us to go into a lot of places that will not have traditional Southern Gospel. What we do may be more appealing to the church crowd and I guess we are more of a ‘church crowd’-type ministry. We are not a dancing-fluff, fair-date, putting-on-a-show, type of group. We are more at home in the church, and we are more focused and more effective when we can present our ministry from our hearts, present our songs and testimonies and who we are.”
“Our heart is in the church market,” continues Free. “We do a lot of concerts and we have a good time and we do the same program in a church or an auditorium or a fair.” Shivers affirms, “We love to do those too!” Free laughs, “We do the same thing, so if they don’t like it, they know what they are getting so they’d better look out!”
Shivers adds, “You don’t have to wonder what you are getting with Brian Free and Assurance. We let the people know where we stand and what we stand for, by our music.” For these artists, singing the Gospel is not just a job. As the title of one of the tracks on Never Walk Alone states, it’s their ‘life’.
Brian Free and Assurance is an example of a group of artists committed to their calling, their faith and their music. Stay tuned for Part Two, in which Bill Shivers and Brian Free discuss the ministry of Southern Gospel and standing strong in the message of God.
For more information on Brian Free and Assurance, click on to http://brianfreeandassurance.com/
First Published in January 2012 by SGN Scoops http://www.sgnscoops.com/