Doyle Lawson
& Quicksilver,
Just Over in Heaven
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

I'm starting to think that Doyle Lawson needs to break his run of bluegrass gospel albums and do a straight-ahead secular CD for a change. The high altitudes seem to be getting to him. In the liner notes, he talks about a lady in Texas who gave him an "amazing photo," which I assume is the one used in the cover background. Maybe it's supposed to be heaven's gate or something, but it looks like a big wasp to me. Maybe the more imaginative can see something sacred in it, but I'm at a loss.

The CD's title is both indicative and a warning. This is not just any gospel album, but a gospel album primarily made up of songs about heaven, and, as such, is much more one-dimensional than most. By the sixth or seventh ditty about goin' on up and seein' the home folks agin' in the land where we never grow old, you may profanely find yourself longing for some musical rolling in your sweet baby's arms. This may sound like I'm criticizing oranges for not being apples, but in this case I'm criticizing the oranges for being too uniform -- all the same size, color, and taste.

I'm offended too by the seemingly purposeful ignorance in such lines as: "Some folks save their money for the hard times that's to come." Such subject-verb disagreement is all well and good in traditional songs, but this is a new one by Lawson and bass player Jamie Dailey.

"I'll Keep On Sailing" kicks off the album well with a bouncy, old-school Lawson song, but "The Only Thing That Matters" is a maudlin ballad, and "The Man Upstairs" is chirpily dismal and depressingly slick, with its "Have ya talked, have ya talked, have ya talked, have ya talked to the man upstairs," backed up by an "um-CHUNK um-CHUNK" rhythm guitar. It's the kind of song I remember my grandmother listening to, and has more to do with the Blackwood Brothers and barbershop harmonies than with bluegrass.

"God Is Watching Over Me" is closer to the good old bluegrass gospel sound Lawson's known for, but "Listen to the Bells" provides another cringe-worthy tune, with such lyrics as "Ting-a-ling-a-ling / Ding-a-ding-a-dong." It's a verrrry slow a cappella song that quickly gets tedious. The sugar level of the antiphonal "ding ding ding dongs" is very high indeed.

"The Right Hand of Fellowship" is an up-tempo song on which Lawson sings an uncertain lead, and "Safe With You at Home" features Barry Scott's nasal, countrypolitan voice on lead. "We Need the Light" comes as a relief. It's straight a cappella, with no cute gimmicks, just good tight harmony. "Gonna Row My Boat" is a decent call-and-response, up-tempo number.

We're back in sub-par grammar with "Is That the Bells of Heaven," another Quicksilver original. Look, guys, it's either "Is that the bell" or "Are those the bells." Either way, it wouldn't help this maudlin (an overused word here, but one that describes too many of these songs) vision of heaven -- yes, yet another.

The nadir of the album, however, is the next song, "Heaven's Not So Far Away," another Quicksilver original. The melody is remarkably childish, and the chorus is one of the sappiest I've heard in years. Gospel music doesn't really have to be this elementary in nature, does it? "Great White Angel" is a good tune that will have you singing along by the last chorus. The album ends, of course, with still another vision of heaven, "Just Over In Heaven," about walking on streets of gold and shouting hallelujah. Did you ever wonder, if money doesn't matter, how come the streets of heaven are gold?

The current assemblage of Quicksilver isn't particularly one of the best. The vocal blend is, as always, very good, but the instrumental work is fairly pedestrian. With the emphasis naturally on vocals, there's little opportunity for the pickers to shine and stretch out. As a result, the instrumentals are predicable, never straying far from the melodies.

Before this CD, I could happily recommend Doyle Lawson's bluegrass gospel albums to any bluegrass fans, even those who didn't much care for gospel, knowing that there would be enough fine bluegrass picking and singing to please. This CD, however, can only be recommended to fans of old-fashioned gospel singing. But even with gospel (or especially with gospel), you expect to frequently hear something that gives you a tingle and makes the hair on your neck stand up from the sheer raw power of the music. This album, however, is so slick and homogenized that it is powerless.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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