During difficult, challenging and anxiety ridden times – the numbers 2020 start flashing not too subliminally here – there’s no greater turn to for comfort than familiar pop music from an earlier, comparatively simple time in our lives.
For non-millennial adults of a certain age this year, that could range anywhere from the 70’s to the 90s. Post punk and pre grunge, the new wave, synth and pop/R&B/dance 80s is an era that only positive, uplifting thoughts can come from revisiting. If we take the DeLorean to the middle of that spectrum, we can train our ears on 1986, when one of the most uplifting and encouraging pop songs ever, Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” earned the legendary rocker his first #1 Billboard pop hit and two Grammys.
The problem with listening to songs like that for pure nostalgia is that they can almost wash past us as too familiar. Yet thirty four years after it was originally a smash, it has the power to meet our moment like never before. If ever we needed a fresh look at Winwood’s melody and Will Jennings’ highly spiritual words, it’s right now – and, for my emotional money, there’s no better artist to shine fresh light on it than Beth Snapp, a crazy-talented, ethereal voiced bluegrass/folk/Americana artist from Kingsport, TN.
Don’t worry if she’s new on your radar. She’s a newcomer on mine, too. Beth has been making waves in the genre since her 2014 debut That Girl in the Magazine. “Grime and Grace,” the lilting acoustic guitar driven highlight track from her 2017 set Write Your Name Down, brought her honors as a semi-finalist in the New Song Songwriting Competition and led to opening slots on tour with two time Grammy nominee Iris DeMent, country/Southern rock singer Scott Miller, indie folk/alt country artist Jill Andrews, Americana great Cruz Contreras and cello virtuoso Dave Eggar. She also made guest appearances on albums by Eggar, bluegrass artist Tim Stafford and Stafford’s band Blue Highway.
Musical hipsters who’ve been paying attention to the dance charts this past year may point out that the recent Kygo remix of Whitney Houston’s version of the song (recorded circa early 90s) beat Beth’s to the punch pre-pandemic. That track’s got over 440 million Spotify streams and hit #1 on the Billboard Hot Club Songs chart. Beth’s the first to admit that her empowering, transcendent version – while organic and acoustic, reflecting her trademark vibe - owes more rhythmically to Houston’s posthumous smash than the Winwood original.
As strong and infectious as Houston’s version is, we’re so entranced by the electronica flow, the danceability and the exciting fact that we’re hearing the late diva in her heyday that we may be inclined to overlook the message that’s all right there in the opening lines: “Think about it, there must be higher love. . .Without it, life is wasted time/Look inside your heart, I’ll look inside mine.” Even better, in verse two, the song reflects determination amidst the present craziness: “Worlds are turning, and we’re just hanging on/Facing our fear and standing out there alone. . .”
There’s also a charming, lighthearted quality in Snapp’s voice that sets it apart from the Houston/Kygo version – so it bears multiple listens without wearing us out. Beth entrances and enchants as she eases from singing the verse over a sparsely percussive, guitar strumming verse and builds towards the unforgettable, front porch styled electric guitar funk chorus.
Vibing off some of the echoing vocals on the Houston track, Beth also adds an irresistible, dare you not to sing along “oh oh oh” symphonic string-enhanced wordless vocal hook that Winwood might never have imagined. During the later breakdown, the singer’s riffing on this is as much a part of the new anthem she creates as the familiar lyric (“Bring higher love”) pointing us towards a loftier purpose and love, personal and universal, that endures. Artfully fusing the familiar with earthy originality, Beth helps us find new meaning in a song that might otherwise simply flow as part of a comforting playlist.
Listen to "Higher Love" here: https://open.spotify.com/album/0T0HIb4GCJrVL19h66aibS