The gospel spirit fills the history of country music... For many country and bluegrass fans, the constant Jesus-isms can be a real turn-off, yet, like many kinds of religious music, it can bring out amazing, powerful performances and an emotional conviction that is rarely matched in secular pop culture. I'm hardly a preacher man, but there is some of this stuff I love, and having had the opportunity to hear a lot of country gospel over the years, I decided to take the chance to share some of my thoughts and impressions of the genre with y'all... Ready? Here we go!
Gospel MP3s | Holiday Music | Other Country Styles
Donna Ulisse "Holy Waters" (Hadley Music Group, 2010)
(Produced by Keith Sewell)
A top-flight set of bluegrass gospel, all the more impressive because, other than a nice Stanley Brothers cover, these are all original songs written or co-written by Ms. Ulisse herself. There's a hint of slower, more Southern Gospel-style songwriting, but for the most part this is strong, upbeat bluegrass material, with tight backing from elite pickers such as Rob Ickes, Andy Leftwich, Scott Vestal and guitarist-producer Keith Sewell. Once apon a time, Ulisse was a Nashville country singer reaching for the Top 40 brass ring; after a decade or so out of the music business, she's come back to it from an indie angle, born again in more ways than one. If you like country gospel and bluegrass, you'll definitely want to check this out.
Leroy Van Dyke "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" (Kapp, 1969) (LP)
Leroy Van Dyke "Gospel Greats" (Plantation, 1977)
Rhonda Vincent & The Sally Mountain Show "Bound For Gloryland" (Rebel, 1991)
Porter Wagoner & The Blackwood Brothers "Grand Old Gospel" (RCA, 1965)
Although the CD artwork isn't as classy as the original LP, the music is the same -- great stuff from a true believer! Porter Wagoner often sprinkled spiritual songs through his regular records, but his all-gospel albums are their own special thing... This is Wagoner's first album cut with the venerable Blackwood Brothers vocal group, and definitely worth checking out!
Porter Wagoner With The Blackwood Brothers "More Grand Old Gospel" (RCA, 1967)
Nice... if ya go for the whole Jesus thing. Sometimes Porter's hillbilly charm gets lost amid the solid, barbershopping style of these pioneering Southern Gospel idols, but he generally manages to make his presence known -- a corny recitation here, a tasty pedal steel there -- and the Blackwoods do grow on you after a while. Of course, we'll just have to leave aside the fact that there are five of them pictured on the cover alongside Porter, and the group is supposed to be a quartet... Other than that, this is a mighty fine country gospel album.
Porter Wagoner With The Blackwood Brothers "In Gospel Country" (RCA, 1969) *
Porter Wagoner "When I Sing For Him" (Murray Hill, 1982) (LP)
Billy Walker "How Big Is God?" (Monument, 1969) (LP)
Billy Walker "Soap And Water" (Tall Texan, 1980) (LP)
Billy Walker "How Great Thou Art" (Tall Texan, 1981)
Billy Walker "Precious Memories" (Tall Texan, 1987)
Billy Walker "Let My Faith Begin To Move" (Tall Texan, 1992)
Billy Walker "Larger Than Life" (Tall Texan, 1995)
Billy Walker "Back On The Mountain Again" (Tall Texan, 1999)
Billy Walker "15 Gospel Super Hits" (Gusto, 1992)
A selection of tracks from his Tall Texan recordings...
Charlie Walker "He Is My Everything" (Epic, 1969) (LP)
Clay Walker "A Few Questions" (RCA-Nashville, 2003)
(Produced by James Ritchey & Clay Walker)
I wasn't wild about the musical end of this album -- Walker and his production are both a bit thin -- but the lyrical content is quite striking. Although Walker only wrote a couple of the songs, this album has a very personal feel, and a sense of cohesion and depth that is all too rare in contemporary pop and country. It opens with the title track, which is one of those lofty efforts that I call "issue songs," a subgenre I don't generally care much for, as it seems opportunistic and contrived. However, on this track (which was also the album's lead single), Walker may surprise a few folks with his sincere questioning of our world's injustice and imbalances, not merely deploring when "bad things happening to good people," but also questioning the privelege and affluence he enjoys as a modern American. Even more surprising is that the album actually continues along in the same vein, for song after song. Walker returns to the issue of American materialism and spiritual drift on songs such as "Everybody Needs Love," the potentially controversial "Jesus Was A Country Boy" (where he sings, "I bet he never had a million dollars/or wore a lot of fancy clothes...") and, most effectively, on "This Is What Matters," where Walker encourages the world to turn off the cell phones and fax lines, and kick back with nature, family and friends for awhile. The album is dedicated, not surprisingly, to "the Good Lord," but Walker eschews the self-serving "told you so" smugness that many self-styled Christians drape themselves in, and actually seems to be searching for both answers and for a personal philosophy that will allow him to live life as a good, whole human being, one who is engaged with other people and with the world around him... He's not parading his religion, he's actually exploring his spiritual values, and it's an interesting effort, made all the more thought provoking for the highly commercial context. This isn't the greatest Nashville-style country I've ever heard, but it is a substantive, earnest album, notable amid an ocean of crass, cynical, individualistic self-involvement. Good for Clay!
Doc Watson "On Praying Ground" (Sugar Hill, 1990)
Gene Watson "Jesus Is All I Need" (Step One, 1997)
Gene Watson "The Gospel Side Of Gene Watson" (Compendia, 2004)
Kitty Wells "Dust On The Bible" (Decca, 1959) (LP)
Kitty Wells "Singing On Sunday" (Decca, 1962)
Kitty Wells "Gospel Sing" (Decca, 1965) (LP)
Kitty Wells & Johnnie Wright "Heartwarming Gospel Songs" (Decca, 1972) (LP)
Kitty Wells "Dust On The Bible" (King, 2009)
Dottie West "Sacred Ballads" (RCA Victor, 1967) (LP)
Buck White & The Whites - see artist discography
Jack White & The Carter Sisters "Southern Songbook" (Silverwolf, 2002)
Not to be confused with the guy from the rock band White Stripes, this Jack White is a fella of modest voice who has an obvious love of traditional country, and an appreciation for country gospel. This album was apparently the last project that the Carter Sisters worked on... Their role is pretty marginal, if the truth be told; other than one solo vocal towards the end, this is mostly just some chorus harmonies, and little else. White sort of reminds me of Hank Snow a bit, but only just a little; overall this is a pretty lackluster, low-budget indie release.
Slim Whitman "I'll Walk With God" (Imperial, 1960) (LP)
Slim Whitman "God's Hand In Mine" (Imperial, 1966) (LP)
Slim Whitman "How Great Thou Art" (K-Tel, 1993)
The Wilburn Brothers "Songs Of Inspiration" (Varese Sarabande, 2011)
The Wilburn Brothers "Livin' In God's Country" (Decca, 1960)
The Wilburn Brothers "Take Up Thy Cross" (Decca, 1964)
Hank Williams "Luke The Drifter" (MGM, 1953)
Hank Williams "I Saw The Light" (MGM, 1953)
Hank Williams "Waiting For The Light To Shine" (MGM, 1960)
Hank Williams "Home In Heaven" (MGM, 1975)
Hank Williams, Jr. "Sunday Morning" (MGM, 1969) (LP)
Jeanette Williams Band "Get In The Boat" (Bell Buckle, 2003)
A nice, heartfelt bluegrass gospel album. May be too Jesus-y for more secular-minded 'grass fans, but there are several nice slow numbers that stand out, particularly "When The Harvest Has Come" and "Come Morning," which both have an old-fashioned brush arbor feel to them.
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "Old Ways & Old Paths" (Rebel, 1999)
Another fine, fine bluegrass gospel offering by this soulful old-timer. I think what I like best about this album is ho understated it is: the picking isn't flashy, and the harmonies are just as sweet as they need to be, not a bit more. Williams and his band really know how to deliver their message and then just get out of the way. If you like the picking on the old Bluegrass Album Band records, this'll be a real treat as well.
Paul Williams & Cliff Waldron "Higher Ground" (Rebel, 2001)
Like Williams, bluegrass revivalist Cliff Waldron abandoned the secular stage after he got religion, and later came back to the music, although as a way to spread the holy word. This is a nice pairing, with a somewhat delicate brush-arbor feel to it. Williams tends to goose things up a bit with his band, and it does feel like he's holding back a bit here... Still, if you like truegrass gospel, this is another fine album from the Williams camp. Worth checking out.
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "Hard Working Pilgrim" (Rebel, 2001)
Gospel picker Paul Williams consistently blows my mind with pretty much every album he puts out. Sure, maybe the Jesus stuff isn't for everyone, but nobody has better, higher, twangier vocal harmonies than Williams and his pals, and the picking is always first rate as well, particularly his mandolin work. As always, this record rocks from start to finish... If you want some sweet sounding, authentic bluegrass, then this album should fit the bill. Recommended!
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "I'll Meet You In Gloryland" (Rebel, 2002)
Another fine bluegrass gospel album by this veteran picker... This isn't the most electrifying of his albums, but it's still rock-solid truegrass. Why his band is called the Victory Trio when there are at least four of them is outside of my range of expertise, though. You'll have to ask Williams that one yourself...
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "The Real Christmas Story" (Rebel, 2002)
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "Living On The Hallelujah Side" (Rebel, 2003)
I'd have to say that this album has less to offer the secular bluegrass fan than other Williams efforts -- somehow the religious message seems more forceful and the music less of a balance than on his earlier albums. These guys are still a class act, with swell harmonies and sweet picking, but I think this disc may be more for true believers. I also have to take exception to Paul Humphrey's patriotic anthem, "Liberty And Justice For All," which posits that "strong faith in God" is one of the things our country was founded on, and that anyone who doesn't share William's faith is a traitor who should leave the country. Actually, my mom was an American historian, who specialized in the separation of Church and State, and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that freedom from religious persecution -- including freedom from State-sponsored religion -- was a key part of the founding of the U.S. of A, not the other way around. Characterizing those who "won't uphold God's values" (whatever that means) as "freedom thieves" and "God haters" is corrosive, ill-reasoned, unfair, and deeply, deeply offensive. Yeah, sure, the song is clever and catchy, but it's also destructive and divisive, and the exact opposite of the "love thy neighbor" message in the song's first verse. I like Williams's music and respect both his beliefs and his band, but I truly think he should be ashamed for recording such an arrogant and hate-filled tune. Oh, well. We all make mistakes.
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "I'll Be No Stranger There" (Rebel, 2004)
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "When The Morning Comes" (Rebel, 2005)
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "Where No One Stands Alone" (Rebel, 2007)
Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "What A Journey" (Rebel, 2008)
Tammy Wynette "Inspiration" (Epic, 1969) (LP)
Tammy Wynette & George Jones "We Love To Sing About Jesus" (Epic, 1972)
Tammy Wynette "Inspirational Favorites" (Ranwood, 1998)
This disc reissues all eleven tracks from the orignal Inspiration album, along with a bonus song, "Precious Memories."
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