Crowe, Lawson & Williams,
Old Friends Get Together
(Mountain Home, 2010)

Gospel has been integral to bluegrass since the genre's invention in Bill Monroe's band in the mid-1940s. Some bands do nothing but gospel. All have at least some Christian music in their repertoires, befitting a style of music deeply rooted in the evangelical culture of the rural Southeast. Most performers genuinely mean what they're singing, and sincerity always helps whether you're singing about Jesus or selling insurance (come to think of it, not entirely dissimilar efforts). On the other side of it, as I can attest, listeners need not be believers to be moved.

On Old Friends Get Together three leading bluegrass artists -- with a century and a half's experience of the genre among them -- turn their attention to sacred songs associated with the late Jimmy Martin, a towering figure in the history of the music. Martin also had a reputation as something of a crazed wild man as opposed to, say, a devout witness to the Lord. No matter. Martin could sing, he always had superior bands and he knew good songs.

J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams played together in Martin's band, the Sunny Mountain Boys, in the late 1950s and early '60s. Doyle Lawson's stint with the band overlapped for a time with Williams's. Lawson left in 1963, Williams in 1964. Crowe and Lawson later formed their own influential bands (most significantly, the still-extant New South and Quicksilver respectively) even as Williams, while continuing to write songs, devoted himself to private life and church activities before returning to performing many years later.

By now the three are veterans of the recording studio with a long history of making memorable records. Old Friends Get Together, no surprise, is another, though it is a particular delight to find the three of them doing it together, turning their soulful harmonies to mostly familiar but always happily received material. As I write, "Shake Hands with Mother Again," surely among the first bluegrass gospel songs I ever heard, wafts from the speakers. It's still a terrific piece, and Crowe, Lawson & Williams make it sound even better than that.

Whether these songs are old or new to your ears, the pleasure of hearing masters at work will warm your soul and maybe, if you're especially susceptible to its charms, turn it to Jesus. If you're conversant in the American song tradition, you'll know -- or perhaps learn here -- that Albert E. Brumley's "This World is Not My Home" served as the template for Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home."

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 July 2011

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