With the Aug. 4 release of their new album, Revival, the members of Third Day can cross a longtime goal off their collective bucket list. Celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, lead vocalist Mac Powell, guitarist Mark Lee and drummer David Carr had long planned on recording a project at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL. With Revival, the four-time Grammy-winning band joins Aretha Franklin, Mac Davis, Shenandoah, Etta James and other notables who have recorded at the legendary studio.
“What we wanted to try to do musically was go back to our roots, and it just made sense to go to a place that so many classic records have been made and so many classic artists have been to,” Powell says of the studio that spawned such hits as James’ “Tell Mama,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and Davis’ “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me.”
The Rolling Stones, Bono, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood and Franklin were among those who celebrated the town’s unique musical legacy on the acclaimed documentary Muscle Shoals: The Incredible True Story of a Small Town with a Big Sound. But Powell and his bandmates were enamored with the Muscle Shoals mystique long before the documentary.
“Going back 20 years, we were talking about going to Muscle Shoals to record at Fame,” says Lee, whose self-penned memoir, Hurt Road, will be published by Revell/Baker on Sept. 5. “I’m glad we didn’t do it then because we were such a green band at the time, but after seeing the documentary, that idea resurfaced and we started going, ‘What if we actually did that? Let’s just give them a call and book some dates.'”
They booked studio hours and also rented a house on the river, where they spent time fishing when not writing and recording with members of their touring band (keyboardist Scotty Wilbanks, mandolin/banjo/guitarist Trevor Morgan and bassist Tim Gibson, who replaced Tai Anderson when he exited the band in 2015 after 23 years).
Revival finds the veteran Christian rockers reuniting with producer Monroe Jones, who had worked with Third Day on six previous albums including Time, Offerings I and II and Come Together. “Knowing that we were going to just set up live and record that way, the first name for a producer that came up was Monroe Jones,” says Lee. “He had worked with us on the Time record and that was the whole approach to recording that album. For Revival we said, ‘Let’s just set up live and record and capture that.’ Even if we don’t know the songs that well, we’re going to just capture that energy that you have when you are first playing a song together as a band and we’ll sort of use that and build on it. I don’t even think we talked about anybody else for a producer. We felt like he would be the perfect leader for us as we went into the studio.”
Watch an exclusive behind-the-scenes video of Third Day in the studio working on Revival:
Powell enthusiastically agrees. “It was unbelievable. He’s been our favorite producer that we’ve ever worked with. We did a lot of great work together and he was the perfect guy for the job in a lot of different ways. He not only recorded us for the record but he and a friend of his set up video cameras and are making a small documentary about making the record. We have a lot of footage. He’s just such a talented guy and we were excited about the possibilities of working with him again.”
Jones’ distinguished resume includes writing and producing for David Phelps, Chasing Furies, Ginny Owens, Judson Spence, Chris Rice, Cliff Richard, Stevie Nicks and Mark Schultz. In 2009, he walked away from producing to launch the educational tech enterprise SongLever.com, but Powell lured him back into the studio for Revival. “It’s Third Day going back to what they do best which is their roots in Southern rock,” Jones says. “That’s their heart. I’ve seen some reviews that compared it to the Time record and all those rootsy records and I love that because I was involved with those records. I know that’s like breathing for them and I know they have not done one of these Southern rock records in a long time. They were really wanting to do that again. This record is them playing to their roots.”
Jones invited percussionist Ken Lewis to join the sessions and recruited Vance Powell, who works on Chris Stapleton’s records with Dave Cobb to engineer Third Day’s new effort. “Vance is the dude,” Jones says. “When we were trying to figure out who the team was, early on I knew they wanted to work with Vance, so I called and we worked out a deal. He was great.”
The swampy, gospel-tinged title track is the first single. “I think it just made sense,” says Powell of the decision to lead with “Revival.” “It was a song that all of us were really excited about. We loved the idea of ‘Revival’ and just for us it was a musical revival in a sense of really getting back to our roots and playing some good ole down home Southern music. I also love that it’s not a worship record by any means, but it’s a very gospel record. It’s hard to explain because it’s not a Southern gospel record and not a black gospel record and yet lyrically, I think it takes you to church. That’s a couple reasons why we chose that.”
Powell is the group’s principal songwriter and admits the record wasn’t totally written when they started recording. “I would say half of the songs were mostly written and the other half were just ideas I had in my head,” he says. “I actually wanted to go in with no ideas. I wanted to start from scratch on everything, but that didn’t happen. That definitely scared the record company. I just wanted to see what would happen and so we met in the middle and we kind of compromised a bit in that we did have some ideas and yet most of the things the band had never heard before. I would say the overwhelming majority of the songs were just ideas in my head and instead of me finishing them I just presented the ideas to the band and just said, ‘Let’s develop these more instead of me finishing the songs and recording. Let’s finish them together.'”
The one outside track on the album is the band’s cover of Paul Simon’s 1973 hit “Loves Me Like a Rock.” “We had the Oak Ridge Boys sing on that one which was fun,” says Lee. “We met them years ago at the Dove Awards and we just hit it off. We’ve been talking for a long time about it would be fun to collaborate on something. We had that song and knew we wanted to have some kind of an old timey gospel background vocals on it and we were like, ‘Oh yeah! We’ve got to call those guys!’ And what’s funny — and I had no idea of any of this — but they were originally supposed to sing on that song when Paul Simon recorded it. He ended up going in a different direction on it [using the Dixie Hummingbirds], but they sang on another hit song [“Slip Slidin’ Away”] of his so it’s really funny that they ended up singing on ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’ for us all these years later.”
Third Day plans to tour heavily behind Revival in 2018, but this fall Powell and Lee will be on the road doing solo gigs. Powell has two previous country solo albums and is working on his third. He’ll be on the road this fall opening for country hitmaker Craig Morgan.
Lee will be doing solo dates for the first time this fall as he’s booked gigs where he’ll be both speaking and sharing some tunes. He will also be heavily involved in book signings and promotions for Hurt Road. The book chronicles the early days of Third Day when he and Powell met and started the band, and also delves heavily into Lee’s personal history. As an author, he has an honest, compelling voice as he shares defining moments such as being hit by a truck when he was 14 and his father’s death from cancer. “The biggest lesson I learned through all of this process,” Lee says, “even moving forward from what happened to me in high school and what’s happened with the band, as a father and husband and everything now, my biggest takeaway is just to focus on living in the moment and not being worried about projecting yourself out in the future and making plans and getting all caught up in that. I think it’s great and I think God wants us to make plans and be looking ahead to the future and have goals, but I think sometimes we get so caught up in those things that we don’t see these amazing life experiences that God has for us right here today.”
Though both Lee and Powell have solo projects percolating, Third Day remains their creative priority and they couldn’t be more excited about Revival. “I believe it’s a record that a lot of our fans have been waiting for a long time for us to make,” Powell says. “I’m proud of us too because I feel like there’s just not anybody in our market doing music like this so that can be scary, but at the same time it’s exciting. I’m proud of us taking some risks and some chances, and thankful to the label for trusting us to do that.”