Review: A Bluegrass Gospel Songbook

by Richard Singleton

In the liner notes for her Lifeline gospel album, Iris Dement states that to her, gospel songs from her mother’s youth were less about religion, but rather about the promise of wisdom and solace for those going through rough times. I am 60 years old and have been a bluegrass fan since age 20. I have always enjoyed bluegrass gospel songs as part of the genre. As I age and face the troubles of life, I have come to prefer bluegrass gospel tunes over more secular bluegrass fare. Most of my life I have been neo-pagan; I hadn’t worshipped in a church since my youth. Recently I returned to church, drawn by the music and perhaps some of the message is sinking in. I still enjoy classic gospel songs, but remain very eclectic in my religious views. “Are you a Christian, child? Ma’am, I am tonight.” – Marc Cohen (“Walking in Memphis”).

The music on this album reminds me of my Methodist mother, playing and singing hymns on the piano when I was little. The past few years, the passing of elderly relatives found me involved in choosing hymns for their funerals. I was also a care-giver to my wife until her passing a year ago after a long battle with cancer. I had begun to seek these songs for solace. I listened regularly to Carol Beaugard’s “Hour in the Light,” the bluegrass gospel segment of her Lonesome Pine RFD radio show on WFDU FM. I began to buy individual mp3s of many of my favorite songs that I heard on Carol’s show. When listening to this anthology I was impressed that I had already acquired about half of the songs. Six cuts in this album were also represented on previous Rounder anthologies.

The ringing banjo and rousing harmonies of J.D. Crowe performing “Crying Holy,” gets the album off to a great start. The second cut, Nashville Blue Grass Band’s “Gospel Plow” has a wonderful mandolin intro by Mike Compton.

The third cut, “Power in the Blood” by Weary Hearts, doesn’t resonate with me theologically, but is still an enjoyable and tuneful listen with great harmonies. I found myself singing along (reprise the quote from Marc Cohen). Tony Rice next presents a jazzy/bluesy “Wayfaring Stranger” with great vocal alongside his inimitable guitar playing.

Vincent & Daley – “Amazing Grace”

“Hewed Out of the Mountains” performed by the late Phyllis Boyens in a raw old-timey voice with great fiddle accompaniment. James King next sings “Garden in the Sky.” This song may seem cloying and sentimental for some, but the death of young children was a grim reality in earlier times.

IIIrd Time Out does a powerful “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with tight terrific harmonies. The arrangement starts at a slow pace then picks up speed with the addition of “Swing Down Chariot” to the song. The songs meld beautifully with Ray Deaton singing bass.

“Give Me Jesus” by The Grascals is a very pretty sweet and slower paced melody. “The Model Church” by Bluegrass Album Band has lovely lead vocal by Tony Rice and great harmony with the other band members. It imparts an uplifting spiritual message of the power of this music to provide comfort.

Ricky Skagg’s version of “River of Jordan” features his tasteful mandolin picking on this very catchy tune with the Whites providing harmony. In “Wondrous Love,” Blue Highway does a strong and compelling job; the end of the song almost recreates the feel of being in the center of a large shape note singing congregation.

“I’ll Be No Stranger” features the traditional old time “High Lonesome” vocals of Dry Branch Fire Squad. “Amazing Grace” is an appropriate finish done by Dailey & Vincent. This is my favorite track. Their harmonies get sweeter as the song progresses, and left me humming the song to myself for hours after.

In summary, I highly recommend A Bluegrass Gospel Songbook anthology to people of all (or no) religious persuasions who enjoy uplifting music; this is an especially good collection for those who would like a representative sample of the recent bluegrass gospel genre.

Rounder Records


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