The Common Good
September-October 2003

Bluegrass Gospel

by Joe Heim | September-October 2003

Offering listeners more impassioned spiritual music in four hours than
they might hear in a lifetime of Sunday morning services, "Stained Glass
Bluegrass" is a ...

Offering listeners more impassioned spiritual music in four hours than they might hear in a lifetime of Sunday morning services, "Stained Glass Bluegrass" is a wonderful—and wonderfully named—Sunday morning public radio show in Washington, D.C. Hosted by Red Shipley, this church of the air waves plays traditional and contemporary bluegrass songs that are both testaments to faith and to the musical form itself.

For those unable to listen to Shipley's show, however, two fine new releases on the Rounder Records label provide the sort of down-home spiritual fare that often finds its way on to his venerable play list. The first, Blue Highway's Wondrous Love, is a remarkable journey through the history of religious bluegrass and country music. The group's versions of such traditional songs as the stirring title track and the haunting instrumental "The Rugged Old Cross" feel both old-timey and timeless. They speak to a new generation of listeners like a knowing voice of yore coming straight down from the Appalachian hills.

Artfully reworked covers of Bill Monroe's "Wicked Path of Sin" and the Carter Family's "Live on Down the Line" are bristling, high-energy tales of the redemptive spirit at work. But on this album, it's the luminescent harmonies of the group's five members—Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, Rob Ickes, and Jason Burleson—that sound most like a divine gift. Clear-toned and keening, their singing brings alive the message and emotion of songs like "Ahead of the Storm" and "The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Cross." Lane's soulful tenor on the prayerful and lovely "I'm Asking You" is a thing of melancholy beauty, revealing a vulnerability that has evolved into belief. It's the truthfulness and strength in these performances that makes these songs so compelling, and it is why this album is such a vivid and moving contribution to the bluegrass gospel genre.

COLLECTIONS OF SONGS by multiple artists on the same CD don't always hold up very well, but White Dove: The Bluegrass Gospel Collection is a masterful creation. Culled from the Rounder vaults, it brings together 21 traditional and newer songs performed by a slew of contemporary artists including Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, and Ron Block.

Like much bluegrass gospel, these songs detail personal travails, journeys through darkness, experiences of doubt and despair, and, through it all, a search for spiritual strength. There are songs about the death of a loved one ("Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor") and mortality ("Are You Afraid to Die?"), as well as the classic country church song about being grateful for what you have and recognizing difficulties faced by others ("Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine"). Here, too, are wonderful harmony songs such as the Whitstein Brothers near-yodeling rendition of "Make Him a Soldier" and "Power in the Blood" by the Weary Hearts.

More than anything, though, the theme of this collection is the succor and reassurance that true faith provides. Claire Lynch sets the tone on "Lead Me On," the album's opening track, singing: "When this veil of doubt surrounds me I will look for you.... Like a sailor with his eyes upon the stars/traveling through the shadows of the night." Faith is also clearly the object of desire in the Johnson Mountain Boys' magnificent rendition of "Harbor of Love" and Paul Williams's "I Just Steal Away and Pray."

On the album closer, Krauss joins The Cox Family for another testimonial, the beautiful "In the Palm of Your Hand." Like most of the songs on this collection, it takes the hallowed plaints of ordinary folks and infuses them with a pure spiritual simplicity that a great deal of more exalted religious music never manages to attain.

Joe Heim is the music editor at washingtonpost.com and lives in Washington, D.C.

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