The Gospel of Bluegrass5 June 2012
It’s high time we got right with gospel here at Second Cousin Curly. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to feature very different flavors of gospel-tinged bluegrass (or vice-versa). To get us started on the righteous foot, here’s a tune from— what else?— The Bluegrass Gospel Project that I recorded a couple of years back at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival:
How Much Gospel Do You Take With Yer Bluegrass?
In my wanderings, I’ve found a wide spectrum of attitudes in bluegrass circles toward gospel. On one end, I’ve encountered folks who truly only play bluegrass as a vehicle for exploring and enjoying gospel music. On the other end, I’ve met a few pickers whose view of gospel might best be summarized as “Thanks, but no thanks.” I hasten to add that people’s tastes in this regard don’t necessarily align with religious beliefs, though of course a lot of fervent Christians like to celebrate their faith through song.
I am now going to creep out onto a limb and make a glaring generalization: gospel music is more deeply integrated into bluegrass below the Mason-Dixon line. Look into the biographies of Southern bluegrass musicians young and old, and you’ll find that the great majority of them got their first introduction to music singing in the church. With the recent passing of Earl Scruggs, many fans took another look at episodes from Flatt & Scruggs television series and were surprised by how much gospel those shows featured (with Earl picking a mean guitar!). In his autobiography, Ralph Stanley writes extensively about the role that singing in church played in shaping his music. This tradition lives on. In an interview we recently posted here, Sierra Hull spoke in much the same terms about her upbringing. You could say that gospel is in southern pickers DNA.
This fact doesn’t just account for why those folks are more at home with gospel than their northern counterparts; it also helps explain why harmony singing is emphasized more in southern bands than groups from elsewhere. As I say, I’m going out on a limb, but if you’ve ventured this far out onto this rickety branch, let’s see if you’ll follow me one step further: just as harmony singing and gospel music form the backbone of bluegrass down south, fiddle tunes play a more fundamental role in northern bluegrass.
To be sure, these are broad brush characterizations and certainly don’t apply to all performers, northern or southern. Witness the fact that The Bluegrass Gospel Project is a Yankee outfit, drawing its members from Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. Of course, it’s also notable that this group leavens its staple of gospel numbers with tunes like the one featured in this next video postcard from Lake Champlain:
Festival Season Is Upon Us
Incidentally, I hope the glimpses of the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival in the two videos featured here motivate you to dig the lawn chairs out of the garden shed. It’s festival time!
Seemingly perched at the top of the world— the Canadian border is just about walking distance from its gate— the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival is representative of the myriad rustic and family friendly festivals that pop up every weekend from now until Labor Day. As it happens, the LCBF didn’t take place in 2011 and isn’t scheduled to run this year either. Like so many bluegrass events, LCBF depends on dedication and hard work of a very small core team. Here’s hoping they will return (as advertised) in 2013.
Anyone could be excused for assuming that “The River of Jordan”— the tune featured in the first video clip— was written by Mr. Anonymous way back when. Turns out the song was penned by Hazel Houser in the middle of the twentieth century. Houser is one of the great unsung songwriters of country and bluegrass. While others were drinking martinis and playing mahjong, this housewife from Modesto, California was turning out timeless compositions, including the country and bluegrass classic “My Baby’s Gone.”
My research has dug up precious little on Houser, beyond the fact that she passed away already many years ago. The music she has left behind offers tantalizing hints of a profound and sophisticated sensibility. Who wouldn’t want to meet the author of the lyric, “Hold back the rushing minutes, make the wind lie still”? That’s a verse that’s closer to Romantic poetry than it is to honky tonk. If anyone has more information on Houser’s life and music, please get in touch.
Yer Pal— Curly