How Great Thou Art

Bluegrass can make you buck-dance, boogie or cry like a baby. And we experienced all three this week at Roots. It was a bouquet of bluegrass, a bushel, a banquet, in a show tied to and fueled by the nomination announcements for the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, which will be happening September 27 at the Ryman Auditorium. And from the fiddle-and-banjo duo of “Angeline the Baker” by the Lonesome River Band to the speed-metal-paced “Blue Train” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver to the sung bluegrass manifesto of Junior Sisk, it was a splendid ride through the traditional side of the music. But I think the emotional climax on Wednesday night came from a group that mixes generations and styles, and more on that in a moment.

We couldn’t have launched with any more soul or substance. Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice is a key member of the new guard in old-style bluegrass music, from the western Virginia mountain region that produced the Stanley Brothers. They began their evening by learning that they’d snared two IBMA Award nominations, for album and song of the year. Naturally they played that song, “A Far Cry From Lester and Earl,” and it’s a pitch-perfect anthem to the original sound that could be a bluegrass analog of “Murder On Music Row,” except nobody gets killed. The five-piece band pared down to three guys for a tasty gospel tune done near a cappella called “Lowest Valley,” and “Another Man’s Arms” was a brilliant song about the worst part of prison – suspecting what’s going on with your significant other on the outside.

Now that’s mighty lonesome, but could you get more so than the accumulated catalog of The Lonesome River Band? Their vocal work on “Laura Jean” was striking, with all kinds of internal motion and difficult harmony. They did “The Game I Can’t Win,” a song written by Junior Sisk, which was a nice tribute to their long-time friend. Their take on the classic “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome” (see?) was FAST and sort of white-water awesome as a result. Then they closed with THEIR newly nominated tune, an update of the absolutely timeless “Angeline The Baker.” It’s in my top three favorite fiddle tunes ever, and just to show you how versatile it is, none other than Guthrie Trapp included it on our show two weeks ago as an intro to a fat, funky piece of hillbilly guitar jazz. This Angeline was aquiline, with two choruses of only Sammy Shelor’s award-winning banjo and fiddler Mike Hartgrove to really take in the shape of the tune before the band exploded into accompaniment. Awesome ride.

And then came the Isaacs, who would probably be mentioned in the Bible if the Bible included what’s going on these days. They are heart-on-sleeve Christians who’ve been at or near the top of the gospel music world for DECADES, and where many of their colleagues in the land of Dove Awards hew to a rock/pop sound, The Isaacs’ identity is built on and around the amazing legacy of gospel bluegrass. Picture two sisters (Sonya and Rebecca), brother Ben (who plays some staggering acoustic bass) and their mom Lily, plus a husband of a sister on guitar and a drummer. I was expecting a bright and cheery sound and of course exceptional singing, their hallmark. But holy… (wait, that’s probably not the direction to go) I mean, I was unprepared for the power of the band. They OPENED with a show-stopper, a blast of sound and glory called “Walk On.” Then they eased into sweetness with an old Dottie Rambo tune (complete with a winking dedication to some Rambo family who were in the crowd). Then they swung, showing wild range, and the song “Four Men” made Alison Krauss’s similarly-vibed and famous take on “Oh Atlanta” sound a little thin by comparison. Sonya showed that she has impressive mandolin chops besides her angels-in-silk voice.

It was their set closer that sealed the deal and sanctified the night though. “How Great Thou Art” is one of those songs that can be lovely or stuffy depending on how it’s performed. It was my maternal grandfather’s favorite song, so I have an emotional connection, but what I remember coming out of the 8-track player in his land yacht was kind of bad opera w/ schmaltz. Contrast that, if you will, to the Isaacs’ voices only, heart-felt and soaring take on Wednesday night. It was pure emotional testimony digging as deep and reaching as high as voices go, swirling around one another in contrapuntal bliss. It was kind of heart-stopping, and I got as verklempt as I’ve been all season.

Doyle Lawson brought it all home the way we knew he would. “Til The Rivers All Run Dry” was a really nice choice, and I learned something new, which is that Don Williams wrote that song with Wayland Hollyfield. Cool! And lovely. They did “Country Store,” which is kind of their recent greatest hit, a pulsing, funky and dobro heavy tune that always gets my groove engaged. When they hit the climax of the fastest “Blue Train” ever, with sky-scraping vocal harmonies, the whole room sort of gasped. It was a wild effect. And they also soothed us with the spirit in an a cappella “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.” Doyle looked more dapper than ever in a fire-engine red Manuel coat, which I coveted briefly before I remembered there’s a commandment about that.

Since it was a deep bluegrass night, we had to dip into the Bill Monroe catalog for the Loveless Jam. Everyone took a masterful turn on “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” and it was a perfect benediction to a fine evening. See y’all at the IBMA Awards.

Craig H.

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