Crystal Yates was listening to a sermon at Cross Timbers Church in Argyle when she had a musical epiphany. "Stop trying to separate the secular and sacred by treating everything as sacred," implored the pastor, Toby Slough. It was then that the country singer-songwriter from McKinney realized her love of songwriting didn’t require her to compartmentalize her audience or subject matter.
It's had a profound effect on how she approached her music — country, spiritual or otherwise. “If I were a doctor, I wouldn't just treat the people who thought and behaved just like me. I would treat anyone," says Yates.
She and her husband and guitar player, Will, have a new EP, The Other Side, to celebrate, but on Sunday mornings you will find them in front of thousands of worshippers leading the song service for Cross Timbers. "So I write out song prescriptions for my own heart, my friends, my family, and then share in hopes that they resonate and bring some hope and a voice to others.”
Though the songs sung in the sanctuary are different than those performed on the stages of local bars, the two types don’t necessarily come from different places. Yates has been influenced by Hank Williams Sr. more than by any other artist. Since the 1920s, the connection between the down-home tales of country and the God-fearing respect of gospel music — a combination Williams excelled at unlike few other artists in history — has been practically unbreakable.
Yates, who grew up on a steady diet of Merle, Waylon and Dolly, is a student of country music in all of its forms, so her songs don’t categorically fall into some sort of contemporary Christian/country hybrid. Such a narrow distinction would undermine the depth she requires from her own creations.
“Goodbye Letter,” from her last EP, I Believe, is “a cheating song” Yates wrote for a friend whose husband of 17 years had cheated on her many times. The friend was facing divorce and an uncomfortable swelling of uncertainty in her future. She had a “Deep hurt that needed hope,” Yates says. Such real life material requires a nuance that can’t typically be found on a close-minded path.
The new EP was recorded in Denton and produced by longtime friend McKenzie Smith of Midlake, who happens to not only be an acclaimed producer, thanks to recent work with Sarah Jaffe, but also the drummer at Cross Timbers.
The five songs on the new record offer Yates' powerful voice a proper stage. But as is the case with the best country music, even the prettiest voices must be heard on songs built upon a foundation of rock-solid storytelling. To that end, Yates delves into material not often heard from a mega church’s praise and worship team.
Perhaps the new EP’s boldest song, “Hell on the Soul,” is a classic country heartbreaker. Yates delivers an aching vocal about needing “smoking, drinking, lovers and pills” to deal with pain and emotional torment, regardless of whether it's the healthiest idea ever. If country music is “three chords and the truth,” as it has been famously described, then this song in particular is imminently country. The truth isn’t usually pretty and it isn’t often G-rated. Yates doesn’t need the truth to be anything it’s not.
“Whether it is worship or country, I approach being an artist as a soul, writing and singing to another soul, bound to a truth that has changed everything for me. I use my own journey to write and focus on relationships and experience. I am undoubtedly a spiritual person, so I write from that perspective. Sometimes I write directly to God, sometimes about God and sometimes about and to His people.”
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Whether a song is initially intended for two-steppers, the believers in her church or a close friend in pain, it doesn’t have a genre-specific point of origin. Yates’ songs come from the kind of love she believes in and the kind that’s guided her through the tough times great songs are made of.
“I have battled depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and so many difficult seasons, and the most healing I have ever received was when I began to let love pour in me and then pour out that love on others," she says. "That love changed how I saw myself, and that is the place I draw strength and write from.”