There is an hour almost every week that I enjoy as much as any; I call it my Baileys and Bluegrass time. Most Sunday mornings for about an hour before the house starts stirring I have the chance to quietly enjoy my coffee and Baileys while listening to bluegrass music. Recently I've found myself using this time of contemplation and solitude to listen to three outstanding examples of bluegrass gospel music, albums that have found their way to me since late summer.
I am not a Christian although I was once- long ago- terrorized into being baptised. I remember Sunday School as a place of happiness and pasta noodle-based craft projects, as a place of parable and amazing stories. That some church leaders in my life felt fear and intimidation were the road to salvation of my soul is something I've tried not to allow colour my impression of Christianity. That I've chosen a different direction for faith-based endeavours in adulthood has done little to temper the respect I feel for those who truly live The Christian Life. My fascination with bluegrass gospel music is a bit of an incongruous element of my life: I don't believe but I love the message and the sound.
When I started listening to bluegrass music I found myself attracted to the murder ballads and killing songs as much as anyone. One of the elements of the bluegrass community I most appreciated was that a performer could be on stage singing of the fate of Pretty Polly, the girl with the little glass of wine, Tom Dula, or the Knoxville Girl while the very next song could be one of sincere Praise. This dichotomy of conflict within the human spirit was immensely appealing.
As I listened more (and more) I better appreciated the learning I could do while listening to bluegrass gospel. I've said elsewhere, most of my bible knowledge has been acquired through listening to bluegrass songs- through the music I've extended my knowledge of Canaan, John's revelations, the resurrection, the pharaoh's daughter, and so much more. As a result of my listening to bluegrass gospel music I am a better reader, a stronger writer, and a more rounded individual; heck, my ability to be a good listener at funerals has markedly developed. Some days, I like to think I am even a better person as a result of the messages absorbed from the singing of Larry Sparks, the Stanleys, Paul Williams, and others.
Unfortunately, all three albums I write about today seem to have been largely ignored when it comes to airplay and press.
Kathy Kallick's recent release is a collection of bluegrass gospel both new and previously enjoyed. Within this beautifully packaged set- all shades of blue, much like her music- one finds 18 bluegrass gospel performances that rank with the very best the music has to offer. "Count You Blessings: A Bluegrass Gospel Collection" (self-released on Live Oak Records) includes four recently recorded songs which find Kallick working within the range of settings for which she has become noted.
The hopeful I'll Not Be A Stranger features a trio with Keith Little taking the lead vocals and the remarkable John Reischman, who makes several appearances throughout the set, on mandolin. Listening to Kallick sing with Laurie Lewis is always a treat, and their a cappella rendition of Daniel Prayed is most impressive. The current Kathy Kallick Band is featured on two additional new recordings, Bill Monroe's Lord Protect My Soul and the gospel standard Precious Memories.
These new recordings, each very enjoyable and enlightening in their message, show the breadth of sounds and approaches contained throughout the collection. Duets have their place as do intimate trios and full-band treatments. Some of the music is very much obviously within the bluegrass traditions and in other places Kallick seasons her sound with elements of near-grass, folk and country.
Of the remaining tracks, they have been selected from a range of Kallick releases from 1986's "Part of a Story" (Good Ol' Persons) to last year's "Between the Hollow and the High-rise" from the KKB. Highlights will be dependent upon personal preference, but I never tire of hearing The Messenger, a truly original sounding song with a terrific- if slightly fearsome- story, and the thematically linked It's Gonna Rain and God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign. Kallick's "Warmer Kind of Blue" album has long been a favourite, and that album is well-represented by two previously mentioned songs as well as Late Last Night and especially In the Middle of My Town.
Further expanded with a recently discovered live track from 1982, "Count You Blessings: A Bluegrass Gospel Collection" is a well-constructed set of bluegrass gospel. It should appeal to both Kathy Kallick's many long-time followers and those still discovering the talents of this west coast bluegrass gem. (www.KathyKallick.com)
The problem with Paul Williams & the Victory Trio's latest "Satisfied" (Rebel Records) is that it is simply the latest in a series of outstanding bluegrass gospel collections emanating from this legend of bluegrass music. Over the past decade few can challenge the consistency of Paul Williams when it comes to releasing superior albums within the bluegrass gospel field. Whether recording 'solo' sets or with various partners including Cliff Waldron, J.D. Crowe and Doyle Lawson or his own Victory Trio (which has usually been a quartet performing with Williams), Paul Humphrey- a rock within the bluegrass world having performed with Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys more than forty years ago- has continually written great songs and performed them to the highest level.
There is little to distinguish "Satisfied" from "What A Journey" or "Where No one Stands Alone," the two outstanding albums that I've encountered that preceded it. In fact, going back to the first Williams album I heard in its entirety, 1997's "Ain't God Good," Williams has mastered the formula for great bluegrass gospel albums- mix some southern gospel tradition with bluegrass instrumentation, have several strong new songs among several favourites, base everything in scripture and faith and make those harmonies tight.
Dan Moneyhun sings lead on several tracks including a block of three in the middle of the album- Give Me Just A Little More Time, Something Got A Hold of Me, and He Will Call (And I Will Answer). The members of the Victory Trio remains stable with Adam Winstead (guitar and baritone), Jerry Keys (banjo, bass vocals), and Susie Keys (acoustic bass). O, the vocal harmonies: the calling card of The Victory Trio has always been the ability to create inventive, enjoyable harmony arrangements, and they more than meet the challenge throughout "Satisfied's" dozen tracks. We'll Go Home Together (On the Cloud) and He Lived His Life That Way are simply two of several examples where the vocal harmonies are notable in their execution.
The star of the show, although never at the expense of his band, is Paul Williams. His vocal strength remains impressive in both lead and tenor position (see Paul's Ministry for evidence) and his mandolin playing rings loud and bright.
An added bonus is Hunter Berry's fiddling throughout the album. He doesn't appear on every track, but his presence is notable. He adds flair to the title track, deep atmosphere to I'll Keep Holding On, and a hint of mystery to Let Me Dream On.
"Satisfied" is an album that may be overlooked by some bluegrass programmers because it isn't as flashy as other releases- outside of Berry, there are no drop-in special guests to highlight a particular track, no gimmicks that would cause the album to be noticed amongst the scores of albums that flow out each month. That is, nothing until you actually listen to it! That is when the magic is revealed.
David Parmley rolled up the Continental Divide tent a few years back, seemingly ending a family tradition that went back to the 60s even before he rambled the bluegrass highways with his father Don as part of The Bluegrass Cardinals. Alas, Parmley has returned with yet another line-up of Continental Divide, one that bridges the past and the present, and a newly recorded collection of faith-based bluegrass music.
Teaming again with the ageless Randy Graham (mandolin and tenor) and Steve Day (fiddle), David Parmley brings his signature baritone to songs mostly familiar on "Church House Hymns, Volume II" (self-released on DP&CD Records). From the opening notes of Precious Memories, featuring the rumbling, deep vocal presence of (I'm guessing here) bass-playing Matt Wallace, through lively interpretations of Get In Line Brother, Lord, Lead Me On, and Power in the Blood, Parmley and his crew get to the heart of bluegrass gospel. At 11 songs and thirty-five minutes, the album has the feel of those wonderful albums Ralph Stanley used to whip-off in an afternoon. Everything is well-executed, precisely played and sung- there just isn't any room or need for fancy extras.
Parmley's voice is always enjoyable, and he sings here with the control and warmth one has long associated with him. Josh Hymer is provided many opportunities to feature his 5-string (as on The Heavenly Light and the results are very enjoyable.
"Church House Hymns, Volume II" is a rockin' little album of bluegrass gospel- the message is clear but the package is a little less strident than other gospel recordings; there is perhaps a bit more Saturday night spark here than found elsewhere. (www.davidparmleyandcontinentaldivide.net)
Three highly recommended bluegrass gospel sets, each very different from the other:a career encompassing overview from one of bluegrass music's sweetest voices, another in a long line of outstanding albums of devotion, and a return-to-form from one of the music's favourite vocalists.