Dick Kimmel & Co.,
My Lord Keeps a Record
(Copper Creek, 2005)

Though you wouldn't think so, Minnesota -- where I have lived most of my life -- has long had a thriving bluegrass scene, going back to the early to mid-1960s when the Middle Spunk Creek Boys held forth on the same Dinkytown folk scene that spawned the likes of Bob Dylan and Koerner, Ray & Glover. (Dinkytown was then a bohemian neighborhood near the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota.) The Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Association claims more than 1,100 members.

Dick Kimmel, a leading figure on the national and international bluegrass scene, is not a native -- he grew up in bluegrass' home country, in West Virginia -- but he has lived in southern Minnesota, in the very German and Catholic small city of New Ulm (home to the state's most rural Catholic diocese), since the early 1980s. Yet Kimmel, significantly for this good-natured recording, counts himself among New Ulm's tiny minority population of Lutherans.

Most bluegrass gospel music is associated with Southern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, of the sort that today underlies the growing (and, in my unsolicited opinion, onerous) power of the Christian right. Sung and played by Kimmel and four born-and-bred Minnesotans, My Lord Keeps a Record sounds to my ears like something you don't often, if ever, encounter in bluegrass: Lutheran gospel. (If you otherwise miss the point, check out the liner-note words of Kimmel's friend Jon V. Anderson, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church's Southwestern Minnesota Synod.) Let me be clear: This kind of gospel is unquestionably sincere and devout, but respectful enough of your own perhaps contrary understanding not to want to knock you on your head and speed you on your way to the infernal regions where you belong. As a liberal Lutheran turned liberal Catholic daily more uneasy in a world too heavily populated with Bible-thumping nut jobs, I appreciate that.

Kimmel's "Co." consists of Darrell Fuhr (dobro, vocals), Paul Horrisberger (bass, vocals), Jerilyn Kjellberg (vocals) and Tim O'Connor (banjo, guitar, vocals). Kimmel himself handles vocals (lead and harmony), mandolin and (on two cuts) clawhammer banjo. The band's sound is charmingly low-key and unfailingly melodic as it takes on a nicely chosen assortment of famous and not-so-famous sacred tunes. Kimmel's craggy tenor is a wonderfully expressive communicating instrument. His one original, "Door to Door to Heaven," a true story of the Rev. Douglas Larsen who went from house to house to gather a congregation for his Lutheran church in New Ulm, may be the first classic of Lutheran bluegrass gospel.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 23 July 2005

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