We're Gonna Rise
(Rural Rhythm Christian, 2014)

Steve Gulley,
Family, Friends & Fellowship
(Rural Rhythm Christian, 2014)

Mike Scott & Friends,
The Old Country Church
(Rural Rhythm Christian, 2014)

Gospel music has always been as much a part of bluegrass as evangelical Christianity has been of the Southern culture out of which 'grass grew. It took some years, however, for gospel to evolve from one token selection in a performance or on an album to full-gospel repertoire. The well-regarded Lewis Family didn't play a bluegrass-festival stage until 1969. Today, anybody who hears 'grass is going to be exposed to a fair amount of religious-themed material, which one can appreciate for its message or for its musical qualities, or both.

Four decades ago musicologist Howard Wight Marshall observed that bluegrass-gospel focuses on "individual salvation, life's rocky road, the maternal hearth, grief for the deceased, and the good Christian's 'action orientation.'" That's still generally true, though truly lachrymose ballads about, for example, the Mother's departure from this earth aren't being heard much these days. Then again, even a genre so fundamentally dependent upon tradition cannot entirely ignore modern, post-Freudian sensibilities in these matters. The 19th-century cult of Mother, once prominent in bluegrass' cousin, mainstream country, passed long ago out of fashion.

The CDs up for review skirt the distance between old and new approaches to bluegrass itself. Mike Scott & Friends' The Old Country Church and Steve Gulley's Family, Friends & Fellowship draw upon the services of some of the current generation's most celebrated pickers and, in the latter case, singers, not least Gulley himself. Scott's album is all instrumental.

Gulley sings with his wife and mother, both of whom are a pleasure to hear. I am especially drawn to the latter's old-fashioned, mountain-style singing on "God's Not Dead." A former member of Doyle Lawson's Quicksilver, Gulley works with his old boss on a sterling version of Hank Williams's "House of Gold," which also carries a secular message in this era of accelerating economic inequality. Likewise, Gulley's original "The Man I Ought to Be," one of two cuts (of 14) set in a country arrangement, works as easily as a pure honkytonk song, and a splendid one at that. As you listen to Family, all you have to bring to the experience is a belief in bluegrass, which Gulley and associates amply reward.

If you've seen Reno's Old Time Music Show, which airs on RFD TV early Saturday evenings (and if you haven't, you should), you've seen Mike Scott, who plays banjo in Ronnie Reno's band, the Reno Tradition. Before the present disc, Scott and Rural Rhythm released an instrumental collection of Civil War-era tunes ; I reviewed it in this space on 13 July 2013. As with that CD, Scott surveys an American musical tradition, this one consisting of hymns and spirituals. He and fellow pickers place a masterly touch on, along with 11 others, two of my personal favorites, "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies" and "Where the Roses Never Fade." (As it turns out, the same place.) Scott does this sort of thing with such taste and professionalism that no criticism could be anything but carping, and none will be transmitted from this keyboard.

On its Rural Rhythm Christian debut, Crosspoint, out of southeast Kentucky and east Tennessee, makes clear that, as far as it's concerned, it's not just about the music. Band guitarist and songwriter Gary Kidwell pronounces that the album's "first and foremost" purpose is to "spread the gospel message." In pursuit of their mission Crosspoint's five members deliver both originals and covers with manifest passion and sincerity. They don't traffic in flashiness on We're Gonna Rise, preferring affectingly sweet harmonies and appealingly straightforward picking. It's an approach that could only come directly from the heart, and it'll move you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 September 2014

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