Various Artists

Voice of the Spirit, Gospel of the South

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This project began as an exploration of traditional Appalachian gospel songs, the kind of territory that A.P. Carter and the Carter Family made their own when they started their recording career in the '20s, but as the sessions went on, the focus expanded until Voice of the Spirit, Gospel of the South ended up a more general survey of a variety of Southern gospel approaches as seen through the eyes of contemporary country, gospel, and bluegrass artists. The Carter Family starting point was no accident, though, since the producer here is John Carter Cash, who just happens to be the son of June Carter and Johnny Cash, placing him well in the line of legacy. John Carter Cash coaxed Johnny into the studio in June of 2003 to track a song for the project, "Uncloudy Day," which ended up being not only the one song Johnny Cash recorded after June died, but was the last song he was to record at all. As such, "Uncloudy Day" is a particularly simple, direct, and unadorned capstone to a remarkable career. Cash's vocal, sounding fragile in spots, is made even more poignant for being his last, but there is a certainty in its timbre that makes the song sound ultimately (if heartbreakingly) hopeful. Another clear highlight is Mavis Staples' (with help on guitar from Marty Stuart) stark and bluesy version of "Twelve Gates to the City," but arguably the two most striking tracks are a pair of songs written by George Washington Phillips, "Denomination Blues" and "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?" Phillips, a zither-playing blues preacher who recorded in the late '20s, possessed an uncanny ability to write songs that unwound with almost conversational melody lines, and his sung sermons were as much or more meditations on his personal philosophy as they were exercises in accepted religious dogma. Rodney Crowell's version here of "Denomination Blues" and Vince Gill's take on "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?" both retain the flow and feel of the original recordings, while managing as well to make the songs speak in a contemporary context. And that, in the end, is the strength of Voice of the Spirit, Gospel of the South, for these are old songs that continue to have a spiritual and political utility. They can only fail us if we forget them.

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