Rebel Records' testament to recording the bluegrass gospel revelation, from its inception to the present day.
Bluegrass and gospel music have such a natural association with each other that the distinction between them can seem ambiguous. Applying the "high lonesome" sound of bluegrass to any dusty road can make it sound like the glory road. Bluegrass gospel music throws the Good Book at the intricate string work and high-pitched harmonizing that are the definition of traditional bluegrass. Time-Life has used recordings from premier bluegrass label Rebel Records to compile Gloryland: 30 Bluegrass Gospel Classics, a two-disc set showcasing the major players of the genre, including both traditional and contemporary artists
The Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph, was one of the earliest bluegrass groups. Included are two tracks with Ralph alone and two previously unreleased tracks recorded by the duo, originally released under the pseudonym John's Gospel Quartet. The Stanley Brothers' "Somebody Touched Me" and Don Reno and Red Smiley's "Shine Hallelujah Shine" display the breakneck-tempo picking style that takes them running right past the gates of heaven. This dizzying virtuosity is contrasted by sparse tracks that highlight the faithful lyrics. Cliff Waldron's 1970s cover of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" has a clean, airy sound, as he drawls out each phrase. He ropes it in near the end, turning it into a devotional ballad.
Family groups are the cornerstone of this roots-driven genre. "I Just Want to Thank You Lord" by the Marshall Family is an uplifting modern gospel featuring the writing, solo and mid–song testifying of Judy Marshall. Her warbled lilt is accentuated by the delicately plucked banjo and enveloped by the harmonizing of the other family members. Buck White and the Down Home Folks' "Down Home Gospel Medley" is not only a medley of hymns, but voices as well. The different solos organically, almost chaotically, come to the forefront, stepping aside for one another in the manner of an impromptu backyard session.
Fortunately, contemporary bluegrass gospel involves more than applying bluegrass elements to Michael W. Smith lyrics. Rather the traditional structure and style are followed, but slightly updated. The Country Gentlemen was the first commercially viable group, and the leader of the progressive bluegrass gospel front, with their use of songs from disparate genres and a vocal and instrumental tightening of the sound. On a rare live recording of "Bright Morning Star" you can hear the focus on exceptionally melded and arranged harmonies. Traditional bluegrass groups tended to exclude women, except when they were the mother or daughter of a family group. "First Step to Heaven" showcases Rhonda Vincent, one of the most successful contemporary female artists, leading her original family band, The Sally Mountain Show. Larry Sparks' "I've Just Seen the Rock of Ages" sounds like a B-side from the mainstreaming O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, with its side-of-the-mouth, nasal redemptive howl.
One notable absence on the track listing is Bill Monroe. Monroe was inarguably the first musician to establish the roots of bluegrass. The name of the genre itself was taken from his band Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, formed in the early '40s. Unfortunately, Monroe never recorded for Rebel Records, which authorizes the exclusion. Still, an overview of bluegrass gospel seems a bit incomplete without a contribution from Monroe.
For the untuned bluegrass gospel ear, the diverse sampling will allow you to determine if you care to venture further down from the mountain. And the inclusion of previously unreleased and unissued tracks makes the set a valuable addition for those well-versed in the genre. Alongside some companion napstered Bill Monroe tracks, Gloryland: 30 Bluegrass Gospel Classics listens like an historical archive of bluegrass gospel, from its beginnings to the present day.