Athens, Georgia's Summer Hymns arose in the late 1990s from singer/guitarist Zachary Gresham's desire to find an outlet for material unsuited for a typical rock band. Many of his musical ideas were born of boyhood experiences playing piano and singing hymns and folk songs at his grandmother's house in rural Georgia. Zachary fused this inspiration with newer musical obsessions such as Robert Wyatt, Neil Young, Yo La Tengo and Smog, and Summer Hymns was born. With long-time collaborator Phillip Brown (who played with Zachary in the pre-Summer Hymns band, Joe Christmas) on drums, Zachary assembled the first version of Summer Hymns with members of fellow Athens bands Elf Power, Of Montreal and Masters of the Hemisphere. The first Summer Hymns' album Voice Brother and Sister was released on Misra Records in 2000. This full-length debut is a gorgeous, hazy, psychedelic work that owes as much to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as it does to Robert Wyatt's classic Rock Bottom.
Whereas the first record was built from layers of overdubs, the band's second album, A Celebratory Arm Gesture, relied more on considered orchestration and crafted arrangements. 2002 brought significant changes to the Summer Hymns line-up, with the band slimming down to a quartet, with pedal steel guitar added to the mix. The quartet recorded the band’s third album, Clemency, in Nashville with Lambchop’s Mark Nevers at the controls. The 13 undeniably memorable folk-structured pop songs on Clemency shimmer with melody,
In between Clemency tours, the band tinkered with new song ideas and a few covers, recording sketches and fragments, and experimenting with some of Zachary’s lo-fi keyboard-and-vocals demos. The edited output of those sessions became the 10-song EP Value Series Vol. 1: Fools Gold. Fools Gold eschews most of the twangy bounce of Clemency in favor of more open-ended, chancy arrangements with imperfections tweaked until they sound purposeful. Imagine Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde stacked up against the less heralded, homespun Planet Waves, then apply the analogy to the Summer Hymns’ universe. That’s near where Fools Gold will take you.
In 2005, experimentation with new forms and arrangements inspired the band to strip down to basic elements. Summer Hymns is now a trio consisting of Zachary on guitar and vocals, Phillip on drums and vocals, and Chris Riser on bass, samples and vocals. A member of Summer Hymns since 2003, Chris played steel guitar with a nascent Whiskeytown in the mid-90s and was the founder of Chapel Hill’s honkytonk freakout collective Pine State.
Summer Hymns has spent much of 2004 and 2005 recording. Material from sessions at Radium Recording, Downtown Athens Recording Company, Secret Squirrel, and at their new studio, Illuminati Audio will feature on their fourth full-length release, Backward Masks, due to be released by Misra Records in the fall of 2006. Outtakes from those sessions are included on three new compilation CDs. The improvisational "Stick and Leaf" appears on Appetizers and Leftovers, released by Austin's I Eat Records. Live favorite "What Kind of Bird" is included on the 2006 AthFest 10th Anniversary compilation CD. A live acoustic version of "Bombay Brown Indian Ink" is on the new WUOG Live in the Lobby CD compilation of live radio performances.
With a wealth of material written and recorded, there are tentative plans for a handful of additional releases in the near future, including a one-sided vinyl LP, with an etching on the reverse, on Burnt Toast Vinyl, the second in the band's "Value Series" of EPs, and a live EP of acoustic material.