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Music Review: Various Artists – A Bluegrass Gospel Songbook

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In addition to home and heartbreak, faith is one of the cornerstones of bluegrass. It seems that every bluegrass artist or outfit includes at least one gospel song on virtually every recording. And while there’s no questioning the sincerity and heartfelt belief of most, one might wonder whether such overtly religious material—bound to touch the hearts and souls of the faithful—can appeal to a secular audience.

As a non-believer myself, I’d say unequivocally that it can indeed. Rounder Records’ latest compilation, A Bluegrass Gospel Songbook, is a collection of such honest emotion and sheer musical beauty, it would be hard to imagine anyone remaining unmoved. The label’s roster includes the cream of the bluegrass crop, and the performances collected here are uniformly sublime.

Whether it’s the blazing instrumentation of J.D. Crowe and The New South, who kick things off with “Crying Holy,” or the uncanny harmonies of Dailey And Vincent on the a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” that closes the disc, there’s not a weak moment to be found.

Most of the tracks are traditional and fare well, like “Wayfaring Stranger” (by Tony Rice), “River Of Jordan” (by Ricky Skaggs) and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” The latter is another a cappella tune, this time from IIIrd Tyme Out, with a bass vocal one has to hear to believe. Artists include these veterans as well as relative newcomers like The Grascals and Blue Highway.

The material is indeed timeless (an overused description that in this case really does fit) and the performances and production are all beyond reproach. This is music from the heart and the soul, and it’s all delivered with genuine love, which is another description that might seem suspect in such a cynical age. But the proof is palpable in every note.

The all-acoustic—this is bluegrass, after all—instrumentation is impeccable, but the emphasis is firmly on the vocals. Ranging from the old-timey mountain sound of Phyllis Boyens (“Hewed Out Of The Mountain”) to the four-part harmonies of Dry Branch Fire Squad (“I’ll Be No Stranger”), the disc celebrates the simple, unadulterated purity of the human voice at its transcendent best.

A number of tunes have appeared on previous compilations—for a label that started out as a tiny independent, Rounder is very good at getting product out—but five of the 13 tracks haven’t previously been anthologized. And even if you already own a few of these recordings—and whether or not you’re a believer—this is a thematically consistent and consistently lovely collection that’s a worthy addition to any music library.

With moments of utterly breathtaking beauty, this Songbook is truly divine!

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