Various Artists: The Very Best of Country Gospel
Genre: An amalgam of mostly contemporary country and gospel styles
Label: Madacy Entertainment
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Real deal country gospel music - the older kind that is difficult to distinguish from its more polished secular counterpart that emerged in the 1970s - is the oldest genre of country music in existence. Featuring uncomplicated acoustic accompaniment and soulful vocals, the music radiated from the Bible-loving, God-fearing hearts of its creators. The Carter Family, The Foggy Mountain Boys, The Blackwood Brothers and others made an art of declaring their faith in simple, sincere songs that possessed a spiritual intention difficult to deny. While some very well-produced and inspirational music emerged after the golden age of country gospel, the style took on a homogenized sound in the ‘70s that generally fails to capture the glories of its forebears. The latter type of music primarily comprises Madacy Entertainment’s double CD, The Very Best of Country Gospel - a title that would be more appropriate on a compilation of older examples of the genre. These discs present a hodgepodge of artists and stylings that, while not without merit, is sorely lacking focus. The songs range from old standards to latter-day, religious-themed pop fare by singers from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Brooks and Dunn. They are sequenced in a random patchwork that, for example, pairs one of the collection’s few legitimate classics, Ferlin Husky’s "Wings Of A Dove," with a Southern rock rant by Charlie Daniels. The track, "Washed In The Blood," is a no-nonsense, evangelical can of unapologetic Christian sentiment, but one that departs too far from the other cuts to make sense here. The same goes for Michelle Wright’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s "People Get Ready," which is a soul song miles removed from country. Lee Roy Parnell’s country blues "John The Revelator" features the Fairfield Four on vocals and fares far better, yet it too pushes the boundaries of the disc’s concept.
While many past and present country artists cut gospel records that revealed a personal commitment to the message therein, gospel is also a showbiz tradition that is a sure crowd pleaser, not to mention cheap and easy to produce. Because the songs are often in the public domain, no royalties need to be paid to the songwriters. On a compilation like this one, the varied levels of quality and devotion are all too evident. Tracks like Glen Campbell’s version of "Daddy Sang Bass" and George Jones’ "Homecoming To Heaven" are flimsy and unconvincing, while Larry Gatlin’s grandstanding "The Prodigal Son" is more showstopper than heart stopper. Alan Jackson’s "We’re All God’s Children" is an affable number, but one that dilutes the Christian theology espoused elsewhere with its plea to recognize all religions as equally valid. It’s almost an insult to place Roy Acuff’s sterling achievement, "The Great Speckled Bird," alongside even the better cuts in this package, as the recording is perhaps the CD’s sole example of truly classic country gospel. If you haven’t guessed by now, this is a re-released, warmed-over stew that, while consumable, is designed to make a quick buck rather than to truly educate or inspire. The notable moments that do emerge - like Radney Foster’s haunting take on "Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded," Blackhawk’s straightforward old-school reading of "Farther Along" and Diamond Rio’s irresistible shuffle, "Walkin’ In Jerusalem" - are songs that were just in the right place at the right time to hop on this pre-fab, clearinghouse-forged compilation. This is a "buyer beware" project that might offer mild delights for fans of generic country and gospel, but it falls far short of the claim trumpeted by its "Best Of" title.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This article was developed by UMC.org, a ministry of United Methodist Communications