Bluegrass and devotional music go together like—hmm, mac and cheese, let’s say—and Rounder Records has 40 years of material to pull from to create a stellar collection of pickin’, strummin’ and prayin’. You would expect a compilation from called The Bluegrass Gospel Songbook to be outstanding, and you’d be right.
First, the obvious: if you’re unmoved by devotional music, or by bluegrass, then this album obviously isn’t for you. However, the disc contains plenty of nuggets for fans of the genre. Rounder stalwarts like JD Crowe and the New South are here, but it’s The Nashville Bluegrass Band who steal the show early, with the mid-tempo chug-a-lug of “Gospel Plow”. Other highlights include Tony Rice’s silky smooth “Wayfaring Stranger” and IIIrd Tyme Out’s show-stopping a capella version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.
Not all songs are winners; James King’s “Garden in the Sky” is sappy, as is “Give Me Jesus” by The Grascals. However, such moments are more than compensated for with gutsy performances like Phyllis Boyens’ unvarnished “Hewed Out of the Mountains”, with its frantic banjo line that sounds like it was recorded on somebody’s front porch (in a good way). Blue Highway’s “Wondrous Love” is another highlight, a down-tempo number with close harmonies that manage to be simultaneously dispiriting and inspiring. Isn’t that supposed to be impossible?