Clinch Mountain Gospel
REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/14/2012
After having not one, but two lead singers die tragically while working with him, it is a wonder that Ralph Stanley has continued to produce music for over sixty years. In the 1977 bluegrass gospel album Clinch Mountain Gospel, Stanley brought back Keith Whitley as lead singer, who would also die before his time. Whitley's smooth croon mixes wonderfully with Stanley's distinctive raspy tenor to produce a classic sound that evokes the church fellowship and back porch Sunday singing from the Clinch Mountain area in east Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.
Ralph and the Boys met for a one-day session in Lexington, Kentucky and churned out twelve classic gospel songs. "Over In The Gloryland" and "Jesus Savior Pilot Me" are familiar songs for old time gospel listeners, but their presentation here is fresh, with “Gloryland” featuring Ralph’s distinctive claw-hammer style banjo and “Pilot” mixing up the words of the traditional hymn to where you don’t know exactly where the singer is going next. "Traveling The Highway Home" also features the claw-hammer banjo playing and has the same intensity of any hard driving bluegrass standard such as "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms" or "Orange Blossom Special," but for the gospel crowd.
Many will remember the 2000 movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which had a Grammy award-winning soundtrack focused on bluegrass and old time folk music. Stanley's a cappella version on "Oh Death" from that movie (which also won him a Grammy award for best male country performance) is a masterpiece, but it was preceded by the cut on this album as a duet with Keith Whitley and with full band accompaniment. If you thought the movie's version of this funeral dirge about growing old and knowing that Death is soon coming for you was haunting, listen to this version. "I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)" is another dark song that was both on that soundtrack and on this album, although this older version does not captivate as well as the newer. Also, in a common problem that plagues many of Stanley's albums, the lead vocal on the chorus of “Weary” is completely overpowered by Stanley's tenor harmonizing. This is either a fault of the mixing, or perhaps a factor of the vocalists being gathered around one microphone for the recording, which is common in bluegrass. Either way, it is an issue that crops up continually in Ralph's recordings and prevents those unfamiliar with the song from knowing the actual melody without an extremely hard listen.
The "mother song" is a staple of the bluegrass gospel genre, especially among the first generation bluegrassers like Stanley. "Mother's Not Dead" fits this form to a "t" and could be considered the penultimate mother song by those who love that sort of thing. "I've Just Seen The Rock Of Ages" is also a mother song, although it isn't so sappy as to make one want to skip right over the track. The absolute standout on Clinch Mountain Gospel is "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem," which is a classic country Christmas song on its own and has been performed by several artists. This version, however, has to be the quintessential one. Smooth lead vocals and a beautifully cross-picked guitar keep this one in your head. If for some reason you are looking for a country Christmas song that is not about jingling bells or Santa Claus, find this track.
The other notable track is a lined out version of “Amazing Grace.” Lining out or line calling is a practice where the song leader will call out the upcoming phrase of a song before the congregation sings that phrase. This practice evolved back in the 1600s for churches that did not have printed hymnals. The practice is still used today in scattered Regular and Primitive Baptist churches, in which Stanley grew up. The simplicity of the song makes it one of the best to hear in this archaic form, and Stanley’s voice practically puts you in the one room church where it would be sung that way. Even better, go to one of Stanley’s concerts (as of this writing, he is 85 and still performing) and he will often include this song in the program, asking everyone to rise and sing as he calls out the phrases and sings the lead. It will cause goosebumps.
Overall, Clinch Mountain Gospel is a stellar performance that could be made better by the replacement of the mother songs, and a little bit more polish than a one-day recording could afford. Ultimately, it can be considered a classic that should be on a bluegrass listener’s shelf.