Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie,
The Gospel Side
(Rural Rhythm, 2015)

Tammy Jones Robinette & The Drive,
Tammy Jones Robinette & The Drive
(Rural Rhythm, 2015)

For a guy who doesn't sing, Bill Emerson has had a remarkable run, more than half a century as a respected bluegrass master. Emerson's career stretches back to the foundational days of the Country Gentlemen, who modernized the genre while still honoring the tradition. Emerson's chosen instrument is the banjo, which he plays with unique taste and grace. There are few, possibly no, living bluegrass banjo pickers I'd rather hear than Emerson.

He also has a virtually flawless ear for good songs, of which The Gospel Side has a characteristic abundance. Should you have some Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie CDs in your collection, however, you will want to know that only three cuts are newly recorded. Two first appeared on a Rebel release in 2007, seven on previous recordings on the group's current label, Rural Rhythm. Of course, if you haven't heard any of these, everything here will be fresh to your ears. As for myself, I'm hearing most for the second time, and I can't say that's in any way diminished my pleasure.

Bluegrass bands being what they are -- mostly, temporary way stations for traveling pickers -- Sweet Dixie is not an institution cast in stone. The shifting line-ups underscore that reality. One constant, though, is the overall sound, which is focused on the gentler, melodic end of traditional 'grass. As the title makes clear, these are gospel-themed songs, but you don't need to embrace the theology to be moved by them. The material ranges from the modern (e.g., Pete Goble's "Last Night I Was There," Peter Ruckmann's "What a Day") to the old-time (Barney Warren's "Beautiful," Charles Moody's "Drifting Too Far from the Shore"). Among the lately cut numbers is F.W. McGee's impressively imagined, classic hymn "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," which brings to mind this stray factoid: According to his biographer, Robert Morgan, it was Daniel Boone who invented the phrase "elbow room."

Tammy Jones Robinette, who lives in Ohio, has worked within gospel music, as both performer and songwriter, since her teenaged years. But to the best of my knowledge, this is her first bluegrass album, or at least the first on a significant label within the genre. I'm not always sure whether a bluegrass gospel song is sung out of actual religious conviction -- as listener all I care about is whether the band manages to carry the song -- but in Robinette's case, there is no question. A self-defined evangelist, she sees her music as part of her ministry.

She is possessed of an alto voice used to sterling effect, especially on strong cuts such as Steve Gulley's "I Think I'll Let You Drive," Larry Whitehead's "There's a Record Book" and Bobette Punches's "Pages of Time." Her own material (four of the dozen numbers) is also pretty good, though your tolerance for "To Be a Kid Again" will depend upon your patience for that sort of thing, once a ubiquitous theme in country music. Her "Mama's in the Sweet By & By," on the other hand, would surely draw tears out of any rock. Mother songs -- and their sub-genre, dying mother songs -- vanished from popularity decades ago (someone once called them "pre-Freudian," not meaning it as a compliment); yet Robinette shows what you can do with that universal human experience when you apply manifest sincerity, affecting melody and smart arrangement to it.

Much of the charm of this album is in its natural, unapologetic honesty, its willingness to evoke raw feelings, and its ability to find beauty and hope even in the hardest of circumstances. You don't hear that much anymore. Let's hope we hear a whole lot more of the bluegrass Tammy Jones Robinette.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 January 2016

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

Click on a cover image
to make a selection.

what's new