The first time I listened to the Kingdom Heirs’ Redeeming the Time project in May, I was blown away by how many great, utempo quartet songs it contained. But as I continued to listen to it (repeatedly), one song began to stand out over the others, and it wasn’t one of the convention numbers. It is that song, “I’ll Know I’m Home,” that ended up as my favorite recorded song of the year in gospel music. Its lyric describes Heaven so vividly, and in ways I’ve never heard in a gospel song. The music is perfectly set to the lyric to lift the spirit of the listener to that heavenly place. And Arthur Rice is the perfect match to deliver the song with power.
The lyric for “I’ll Know I’m Home” was composed by Jeff Crews, who most gospel music fans will remember for singing tenor with Paid in Full for many years. Amazingly, it is the first song that Jeff has ever had cut! It was set to music by Dianne Wilkinson, who is probably the most prolific and successful songwriter in southern gospel today, and who is the go-to writer for the Kingdom Heirs. Both Jeff and Dianne graciously agreed to share with Southern Gospel Critique and its readers the story behind “I’ll Know I’m Home”. It is a case, and perhaps an unexpected one, of a songwriting match made in — well…Heaven!
Jeff, how did the lyric come about? Was there something specific that triggered it?
Jeff: During lunch breaks, I would go to this cool little park in my hometown and listen to a sermon on iTunes. I really liked this Presbyterian preacher named Tim Keller. He did two sermons, one on Heaven and one on Hell. His basic premise for each of the sermons was that God put in us a desire to be fulfilled in many different ways – in friendship, in appreciation of art and beauty, in the sex of marriage where we join flesh with another person, in enjoyment of our occupation or trade. He said that Heaven will be the perfect, final fulfillment of all those natural desires God gave us and we were unable to fully satisfy on earth. In Heaven, we would BELONG and be understood like we never could fully do with mortal friendships, we would see and taste perfected beauty, we would become one flesh with a perfect God as his bride, and we would be put to work in the most fulfilling and satisfying way. He also preached that Hell would be a place where those who had told God to leave them alone would get their request fulfilled and that the real torture of hell, much worse than the fire, would be the eternally unsatisfied desires God put in us that only He could fully satisfy. This fascinated me – the fulfilling of taste, sight, hearing, feeling. So I wrote about each of those – what we would see, taste, feel, etc. However, this ultimate fulfilling that interested me only led me to know that seeing the God who created it would be what made Heaven Heaven.
As you said, the song talks about experiencing Heaven with all five senses. How important was the use of imagery in the lyric?
Jeff: I’m a high school literature teacher, so imagery is important to me. I wanted people to see themselves stepping off a grand ship and sinking their toes into the sand of time, something that on earth had defined and ruled EVERYTHING, but in Heaven was just something to step on. I wanted to know what we would smell. When I sang with Paid In Full, we worked lots of Gaither dates with the Happy Goodmans, who I loved. Vestal had her own perfume custom-made and she was the best smelling human I’d ever met. I wondered what heaven would smell like, and again, being a lit. teacher, the smell coming from the “fruits of our labor” FINALLY in harvest would be the sweetest smell I could imagine.
What led you to send the song to Mrs. Dianne?
Jeff: I met Di when I was fifteen years old at the very first concert I ever sang with Paid In Full. She was there to hear Greater Vision, also on the program, and we struck up a grand conversation about the history and love of SG music. Years later, we reconnected when Paid In Full had achieved some level of success, and I reminded her of who I was, and she remembered it as well as I did. She sent me a song called “Work of Grace” to record when I was with PIF. It was a number one song, but we were not well known enough to achieve that. She gave it to me anyway, and said she wanted me to sing it. We’ve been GOOD friends for a long time. I write poetry, and this was the first one that I KNEW would make a great song. I’ve written music to other song lyrics I’ve written, but I couldn’t get a tune for “I’ll Know I’m Home.” The opportunity to write with the legendary Di Wilkinson, the knowledge that she would know EXACTLY what to do melodically, and the understanding that she had the connections to recording quartets to get it heard, made working with Di the only option. She is a Southern Gospel treasure.
Mrs. Dianne, tell us how the song came about on your end.
Dianne: Jeff sent me this lyric one day. When I read his words, I immediately thought he had made me experience Heaven to some extent already…what I would see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. I LOVED what he sent! And on the first read, I began to hear melody. I knew from the lyric content, this song had to be a shouter…and would only be fully understood by a BORN AGAIN CHILD OF GOD. When I had finished the music, and Jeff and I had agreed the song was finished, I went to do a work tape to send to Daywind for demo. I contacted Tim Parton and Terry Franklin (they do 99% of my demos) to be sure it could be done. Off it went…and when the demo came in, I knew we had something special.
Once finished, did you have Arthur Rice and the Kingdom Heirs in mind right away?
Dianne: Yes, they were the group I thought of first…for several reasons. They were deep into looking for songs for this current project, and they are always looking for songs that will move their audiences…and they love Heaven songs. And yes, I knew they would sing it to PERFECTION, and that Arthur’s production of it would be flawless. I sent it to Arthur Rice, and he put it on hold at once. He had more songs he considered great to choose from this time than any other, he told me. But he said to me, “Di…this heaven song, “I’ll Know I’m Home”…is going to be the song that touches folks most on this project.”
How much of the arrangement the Kingdom Heirs used came from you? How much came from Terry Franklin?
Dianne: As always, the Kingdom Heirs recorded it VERY faithful to the demo. The arrangement is all mine; I had the idea then of having that last chorus be done a capella. The last chorus where the tenor goes high…that was from Terry; he just instinctively knows what to do in such places in the song. And Arthur went on to give the bass a line of it as well. That is the peak moment in the song!
Jeff, what were your thoughts when you heard what she had come up with, and then when you heard the finished product from the Kingdom Heirs?
Jeff: I sent Di and Arthur an email that simply said, “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” When I heard it, I knew why I had sent it to Dianne. It was great, and Arthur absolutely sang the fire out of it. Not bad for a first cut!
Anything else you’d like to share about the song?
Jeff: There was initially another verse that talked about the marriage supper where we’d “Trade daily manna for the fruit of the vine, and the bridegroom Himself served the feast and the wine.” However, for time reasons, it was omitted. The Kingdom Heirs cut was so great, that I didn’t even realize they had omitted the third verse. Dianne had to tell me.
Dianne: When I sat down to my piano to do the work tape for this song, it was difficult for me to get through. The Holy Spirit began to move in my soul, and my thoughts turned to the Heaven I was singing about, and the ONLY REASON I’d get to go there, and the tears kept flowing. Steve and Arthur tell me that when this song is sung at Dollywood, folks get in the aisles of that theater and go up and down them, shouting…especially those silver-haired preachers. They close most of their shows with it. From my perspective as a writer, I am eternally thankful that Jeff Crews entrusted his God-inspired lyrics to me…and HONORED that I was allowed to have a part in this song. If a person isn’t saved, they won’t “get it”. But OH, if he IS…he will have the same reaction I did!
“I’ll Know I’m Home,” as well as the rest of the stellar Redeeming the Time project, can be purchased at Crossroads, or on the Kingdom Heirs website, or in digital music outlets. You won’t regret it! I’m so thankful to Jeff and Dianne for entrusting me with the story behind this great song. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, and your gratitude to them, in the comments.