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.