march 2011

Various Artists
Rounder Records

A diverse and stirring collection, Rounder’s A Bluegrass Gospel Songbook is a worthy successor to the label’s similarly constructed 2003 anthology, White Dove: The Bluegrass Gospel Collection. More so than the earlier title, this entry digs deeper into the Rounder catalogue for some lesser known artists to add to a formidable, fundamental lineup of bluegrass stalwarts. As per the latter, bluegrass vets and upstarts are represented—J.D. Crowe & the New South kick things off with the barnburning close-harmony fest, “Cryin’ Holy”; James King offers a plaintive farewell to a mother deparated for Heaven, “Garden In the Sky,” a quiet, dignified reading with Louvin Brothers echoes in the tight harmonies; speaking of the Louvins, from his 1990 Rounder album Family & Friends, a young and young sounding Ricky Skaggs delivers Hazel Houser’s Biblically inspired salvation cry, “River of Jordan,” also cut by Ira and Charlie back in the day, with Skaggs getting a tasty assist on mandolin from Peter Rowan and uplifting supporting harmony courtesy The Whites. From their great The Famous Lefty Flynn’s album, The Grascals step into the fray with the close-harmonized, country gospel reading of “Give Me Jesus” that closed the Flynn’s long-player on a beautiful, stirring note. Blue Highway is on board with the title track of the group’s 2003 album, Wondrous Love, a dark tale of redemption and salvation rendered in chilling a cappella harmony. Fittingly, Dailey & Vincent close the album with a stately, resonant take on “Amazing Grace,” from their own all-gospel juggernaut, Singing From the Heart. The most surprising track belongs to Tony Rice, in “Wayfaring Stranger” from his 1990 Cold On the Shoulder album. Laid-back and folk-flavored, it summons memories of some of the Kingston Trio’s jazzier, more subdued moments and features tasty dobro work by Jerry Douglas and a fleeting flash of fiddle by Vassar Clements complementing Rice’s measured singing. The Nashville Bluegrass Band (“Gospel Plow”), IIIrd Tyme Out (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”) and Dry Branch Fire Squad (a sprightly “I’ll Be No Stranger”) all make solid contributions as well.

But in and of themselves, the tracks by Weary Hearts, Phyllis Boyens-Liptak and the Bluegrass Album Band are worth the price of admission. Weary Hearts—a short-lived but beloved group comprised of Ron Block, Mike Bub, Chris Jones and the late Butch Baldassari (with Jerry Douglas sitting in on dobro)—survived but one album (By Heart, 1992) while leaving behind rich memories for bluegrass fans. Their exultant romp through “Power In the Blood” here is not from their lone LP but rather is reprised from the White Dove compilation; the taut, driving vocals and tight ensemble playing are only going to make fans lament anew the band’s fleeting time on the scene. The Bluegrass Album Band in its first lineup (J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks, Todd Phillips) might be hearing calls for a reunion when fans are reminded of their potent mountain harmonies and impeccable arrangements on “Model Church,” from the first of the group’s six albums, 1981’s The Bluegrass Album. Not least of all, the strong, plaintive mountain cry of the late Phyllis Boyens-Liptak, who played Loretta Lynn’s mother in Coal Miner’s Daughter and was herself the daughter of old-time singer-songwriter Nimrod Workman, gives a clinic in deeply emotional mountain vocalizing in “Hewed Out of the Mountain,” from her only album, 1983’s I Really Care. With her assertive phrasing punctuated by an occasional crying “hiccup,” Ms. Boyens-Liptak finds eternal verities in the unrelenting search for salvation detailed in her unsparing lyrics. An album of riches untold, A Bluegrass Gospel Songbook is an occasion for contemplation, reflection and celebration in this life, even as it anticipates greater rewards in the next.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024