Various Artists

A Bluegrass Gospel Songbook

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Few record labels are as well situated as Rounder to put out a top-notch bluegrass gospel compilation, given that it has been recording some of the best artists in that genre for over four decades now -- which makes the hit-and-miss quality of this collection kind of puzzling. (Also puzzling is its 39-minute length, which seems pretty stingy even at mid-price.) There are some stone classics here, of course: J.D. Crowe & the New South open the program with the joyfully raucous "Crying Holy," and the Bluegrass Album Band's "The Model Church" and Ricky Skaggs' "River of Jordan" are timeless as well -- but those tracks have also appeared on several similar collections before, and they tend to cast the relative mediocrity of the Nashville Bluegrass Band's "Gospel Plow" and the Grascals' pedestrian "Give Me Jesus" into pretty stark relief. There are other high points on this album, though, and some of them come from further out in left field: Dailey & Vincent's "Amazing Grace" is utterly gorgeous, and IIIrd Tyme Out's setting of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is even better. And Blue Highway take the beloved shapenote hymn "Wondrous Love" and give it a unique and stunning a cappella arrangement. For those who like their gospel music to swing a little bit, there's a very jazzy Tony Rice rendition of "Wayfaring Stranger." All in all, this is a solid but slightly frustrating collection that could easily have been outstanding with just a bit more attention and care.

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