August 25, 2019


Bluegrass Gospel: Devotion, Virtuosity, and Beauty (Crispin Sartwell, 7/20/19, Splice Today)

Gospel has been part of bluegrass music since Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys invented the form in that late 1940s. In Monroe's shows and festivals, he usually performed a section of religious music--"hymn time"--in which the music slowed down and the emphasis shifted from the instruments (mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, and upright bass) to quartet vocal harmonies. As the genre developed, almost every bluegrass act included gospel on every album and show, and many artists specialized in the repertoire, which includes traditional hymns, African-American gospel songs, and original material.

Bluegrass music in general is a rich and wholesome American tradition, not widely-enough appreciated, and even as pop and country shift gears, bluegrass ticks on as a vital and traditional form, with a devoted if relatively small audience. It's a scene of virtuosity, and if you compared Earl Scruggs to Segovia, or Scotty Stoneman to Joshua Bell, you'd be in the right ballpark. Indeed, I've got a challenge for Bell: let's hear you play "Orange Blossom Special" at the same pace and with the same complexity, propulsion and joy as Stoneman.

Bluegrass also has some of the best singers working in any form: like Jamie Dailey, Russell Moore, Alison Krauss (who came from bluegrass), Junior Sisk, and Dale Ann Bradley. They've made the "high lonesome" Appalachian sound into something at once perfectly-performed and emotionally intense, both traditional and contemporary. Those harmonies will kill you. And redeem you.

Bluegrass has never stopped developing, and from a propulsive, somewhat rough, partly improvised form originating in Appalachia, it has become something perfectly crafted and ravishing, even as it maintains its continuity with the founding figures and material. It's less rough-hewn and rural than it once was, but it's even lovelier. Artists such as Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice, IIIrd Tyme Out, Audie Blaylock and Redline, and Cody Shuler and Pine Mountain Railroad make beautiful traditional American music that's also fresh.

Posted by at August 25, 2019 12:28 AM


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