Bluegrass gospel wins another soul for Christ

Just kidding. Sort of.

I spent not-enough time a couple of weekends ago at the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. I saw Earl Scruggs and Emmylou Harris and the Barbary Coast Cloggers. My favorite act last year was Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. The year before that was a group called Mountain Heart.

Really, really a bummer that a really important meeting for worship with a concern for business should overlap with Iris DeMent, live and for free; not to mention The Del McCoury Band and Ricky Scaggs and ... [Sigh.]

This story begins in my hometown, where there were two radio stations: one played last year's bad pop and the other played old and current country music. Guess which one I listened to? Here's a hint: In college, one of my roommates was from eastern Montana - she still calls me when she's trying to remember the lyrics from some old country song.

When I moved to New York and started dating Chris M, I introduced him to the East Village's country music dive bars. The Village Idiot and later The Coyote Ugly. At the time, he was more interested in rap and African music, especially from Kenya. He used to say he liked all kinds of music except opera and country. But he was crazy enough about me to listen when I'd play Randy Travis's "My Love is Deeper Than The Holler" on the jukebox. As he heard more classic country, Hank Williams Sr., Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, in their native environment, he was a little more open to it. He even learned to like my Dwight Yoakam albums. Because he is always interested in where music comes from, he explored deeper than I had, into the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe. Chris introduced me to the music of Doc Watson. We learned to like bluegrass together.

Ten years or so later, he brought a tape home from the library, "O Sister Where Art Thou?", a compilation on Rounder Records of women in bluegrass. It opened new horizons for me. I loved it. I listened to it over and over. I started to listen to more recordings of women in bluegrass, and to appreciate bluegrass music more generally. A funny thing started to happen. I realized that the songs I liked best on these compilations were the gospel songs. To the point where I finally went out and bought a couple of compilations of just bluegrass gospel - some old and some contemporary. And I kept listening to them, over and over.

And in that period of about a year, my appreciation for them changed. Some of the language is really hard to listen to - songs about being washed in the blood of the lamb, for example. But it was easier with the banjo going full tilt along with the lyrics. I was able to sing along with some very old-fashioned Christian imagery just because I liked the harmonies. And through the repetition, some of it came to make more sense for me. And then Jesus started talking to me directly. I think I just had to be ready.

I really love fiddle tunes. Before I die, I would like to learn to play bluegrass fiddle.

P.S. On October 7, 2007, there WILL be a meeting for worship on the grounds of the festival, maybe around 9:30 a.m. Check this blog the week before for exact details. I'm not missing Hazel Dickens again.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I was thinking of you the other day when I was thinking of bluegrass gospel songs. (No kidding. I think of such things spontaneously.) On WAMU in Washington, DC, I got hooked on "stained glass bluegrass" but alas, there's no bluegrass station in Philadelphia! Could you post some of your favorite albums? I hate delving into albums sight unseen -- I've been burned by some very ugly music that way...

Kathleen K.
Philadelphia, PA

10/23/2006 10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was going to ask the same thing. Are there albums you'd recommend?

I've been a pretty hardcore bluegrass fan since O Brother Where Art Thou? - I'll Fly Away is one of my favorite songs ever. And although I wouldn't define my Quakerism as Christian, I do love those gospel bluegrass tunes. At the FGC Gathering this past summer, I spent quite a lot of time singing, and the old spirituals were my favorite. Simply put, there is something very spiritual about those old spirituals.

10/24/2006 5:01 AM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

Robin...I had no idea that you enjoyed bluegrass! I grew up and have deep roots in Appalachia. Went to college at Warren Wilson (www.wwc.edu)where bluegrass and mountain music were quite popular. In fact, Doc Watson was, at that time, a trustee of WWC.

Might I recommend a wonderful CD and a wonderful bluegrass artist? I would suggest getting "Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan". While this is not a bluegrass album and falls more within the parameters of African-American Gospel, I think you will greatly enjoy this CD.

My very favorite artist is Ralph Stanley. He is probably the favorie among those of us who grew up in Appalachia. His music is more true to the "real" mountain music sound. He is also a wonderful fellow, active in the Democratic Party, has been very supportive of Labor causes and best of all, he is a Primitive Baptist Universalist (the No-Hellers). Primitive Baptist Universalists have quite a bit in common with Christo-centric Quakers and also with Christian UU's. Good politics, good religion and great music. What more could you ask for?

Peace out sister,

10/24/2006 9:25 AM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

Oops..gave the wrong url for Warren Wilson. Here is the correct one:


10/24/2006 9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope there is some way you can get hold of the recordings of Bill Jolliff and his son Jacob Henry. See the description and ordering information here: peace.mennolink.org/giftideas.html. (Scroll down.) Be sure to ask Bill when he might be performing in your area.

10/24/2006 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

country, for a long time, was the one kind of music, i Did Not Like. but i had a secret fond place for kenny rogers. i'm still not a big fan of... what i think of as "commercial country music" but that classic stuff is amazing.

and it's interesting-- i can handle hearing christ language in that way much better than in pretty much any other way.

10/24/2006 1:57 PM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

No, no, no! I learned about Dwight Yoakum at WPRB when his first album came out in 1986. I even played him on the radio a little bit.

Otherwise, I agree with your version of the story. :)

I recommend:
- "White Dove: The Bluegrass Gospel Collection" -- that's the one that really got us hooked
- "Classic Southern Gospel" from Smithsonian Folkways
- Compiling Doc Watson's spirituals onto a CD; his "On Praying Ground" isn't as good as the one or two gospel songs included on most of his records.

-- Chris M.

10/24/2006 2:56 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

As for album recommendations, Chris is the one to ask for music catalog information, not me. I am personally a big fan of Greatest Hits type albums - basically, you know what you're getting and usually they have all the best songs in one place. On the other hand, I would specifically recommend the Mercury Records' Best of Bluegrass: Preachin', Prayin' Singin'. It has older songs from the 50's mostly, including the title song by Flatt and Scruggs. The album that Chris mentioned, White Dove, is more contemporary bluegrass.

And O Sister 1 and 2. Both very fine compilations, and they have the names of the albums the songs came from, if you really like a particular artist.

When I first met Kathleen, we were getting ready to spend a couple of hours in a car together. I said something like, "you probably wouldn't like the stuff I usually listen to in the car, mostly bluegrass gospel" and her face lit up. I knew right then we were going to get along fine.

Laura, I didn't get to sing as much as I'd like at FGC this year but I am hopeful that another year I'll do more.

Craig - I like Bob Dylan too. But the last couple of years, I saw Ralph Stanley at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. I keep telling my kids "Pay attention now. Someday you will tell your children that you saw Dr. Ralph Stanley perform live and in person when you were a little boy." But they don't really care. Yet. I did not know about his religious affiliation. Thank you.

Johan, I think I read your post some time ago about Bill Jolliff. I was interested but didn't fully act on it. Now I may have to. Thank you!

Cubbie? Kenny Rogers? Yet another artist who stumbles back and forth across the line between crass commercialism and good music.

Sorry, Chris, for impugning your D.Y. credentials. Let it be known that I did not marry Chris just for his record collection, but in fact, his encylopedic knowledge of artists, album titles and years, and musical genres is a great gift in my life.

And to all, I strongly encourage you to think about a trip to SF early next October. The weather is likely to be beautiful and Doc Watson is already confirmed for the free bluegrass festival.

10/24/2006 8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want cross-over appeal for gospel and rock, there's one of my favorite recordings by Beck of "He's a Mighty Good Leader" from Mutations. Then there's the Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson recordings of hymns which are both quite beautiful.

I admit, I missed out on one of my favorites, Ricky Skaggs, just to be at that Business Meeting (after volunteering parking bikes in the morning), but did get to see Emmylou thank goodness (plus the Friday before when she sang backup with Gillian Welsh for Elvis Costello--wow!).

10/25/2006 6:48 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

I'm a huge bluegrass fan myself. I knew I liked you! Over on my ever-so-quiet blog, I have a list of my favorite local bands, some of which you may like. Check it out. Take care,

10/26/2006 3:35 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I also just have to recommend Iris DeMent's Infamous Angel. It's not all gospel songs, but I love it.

10/26/2006 10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Robin, I lived in North Carolina for a few years and was allowed to play bass with a bluegrass pickup band for a while. It totally opened my ears to music I had never considered before. Among the tunes we did were "Gospel Plow", "California Cottonfields", the above-mentioned "White Dove" and my personal favorite, "Sing For Me" by Hazel Dickens. One day when I am brave enough I will try to sing this at Quarterly talent night ;)

I feel the shadows now upon me/ And fair angels beckon me/ Before I go sweet Christian brothers/ Won't you come and sing for me?/ Sing the hymns we sang together/ That plain little church with the benches all worn/ How dear to my heart, how precious the moment/ We stood shaking hands and singing one song...

Keep writing,
peter a.
Cupertino, Calif.

10/27/2006 10:17 PM  

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