Last month, southern rock/gospel singer Zach Williams released his latest extended play: “Survivor: Live from Harding Prison”, which seemed somewhat reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s live prison albums such as “At Folsom Prison” and “At San Quentin”, but with a more Gospel-centered focus. Zach Williams started his musical career in southern rock with his band Zach Williams and The Reformation, but dissolved the band after being born again. He later began his solo career, with music focused more on bringing glory and honor to Jesus Christ, and released his first album “Chain Breaker” in 2016.
Last week, I listened to the “Prison EP” for the first time after having been recently introduced to Zach Williams’ music through his “Fear is a Liar” music video, which was recommended to me on YouTube after I’d been listening to some Crowder songs (and it’s a wonderful video by the way). I have since listened to the entire EP (comprised of six live tracks) probably close to fifteen times, and will probably listen to it another fifteen in the next week or two.
“Survivor: Live from Harding Prison” is a passionate look into the heart of a man genuinely changed, hoping to see others “set free”. The irony of that statement, and also part of the appeal regarding this extended play, is the fact that Williams recorded these tracks live at Harding Prison with a bunch of prisoners, some of which may never be free from their physical bondage (if you take a peek at his YouTube channel, Williams even gives some of these inmates the opportunity to share their own stories, which is truly sobering).
The titular track “Survivor” plays first and its a killer way to open the show. It’s no wonder “Survivor” was chosen to be the title of the extended play as the lyrics powerful convey Williams’ heart for and gratitude towards the Lord, but also to see these prisoners (and those of us listening now) “rescued from the grip of sin”.
The second track is by far my favorite. “Old Church Choir” is one of those songs that’s studio recording was already intoxicating enough, but to hear the live version both soothes the soul and sets my heart on fire in a way I can’t explain. Every time I hear this gospel tune, I can’t help but belt out the words along with the recording. It joins Crowder’s “Run Devil Run” as my go-to “pump me up” songs. I guess it’s true what he says, “there ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy!”
This leads directly into Williams giving a brief version of his testimony right before offering his audience of inmates an invitation to “come to the table” where God can take away their old nature and give them a new identity in Christ. “To the Table” wasn’t the biggest stand-out track off the “Chain Breaker” album, but it’s live recording within the context of Williams’ testimony and plea gives the song much more weight. The EP wouldn’t be the same without it.
Next follows a cover of Bethel Music’s “No Longer Slaves”. This isn’t Williams’ first cover, as he covered the Allman Brothers Band’ song “Midnight Rider” on his solo album back in 2016, but it’s by far his best. This cover was the first song off of the EP that I had heard while watching the music video, and let me tell you it’s moving. Williams performance is exceptional, but more than that, the prisoners in the video show clear conviction and praise to God. The track on the EP is honestly not enough, take the time to watch the video itself below.
The fifth track “Fear is a Liar” is straight-forward and passionate. Again, this is the first Zach Williams song I ever heard, and thus has a special place in my heart. I can only echo the good I’ve already said about previous tracks here.
Lastly, the extended play ends with Williams’ possibly most famous song, and titular song from his first solo outing, “Chain Breaker”, which proves to be both riveting and satisfying as a conclusion to the “Prison EP”, reminding the prisoners that if they need freedom, Jesus can be their “prison shaking Savior”. How many of us who aren’t behind bars still need to hear that?
All of this being said, this EP is truly not complete without watching the interviews with the five different inmates posted on Williams’ YouTube channel. These powerful testimonies are a must-see in order to understand and appreciate the full context of the concert in which they were recorded. Absolutely check them out.
Overall, “Survivor: Live from Harding Prison” is a truly heart-felt and honorable collection of his best work and a clear glory to the Creator. Between this and the two GMA Dove Awards he recently received, Zach Williams is certainly an artist to watch out for going forward, especially if southern rock, country, and gospel are your types of music. They’re definitely mine!