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Mountain Gospel: The Sacred Roots of Country Music
Artists: Various
Label: JSP, U.K.

Beyond the sacred pieces on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and the European-American performers on the Goodbye, Babylon box set on which some roots music fans spent a Benjamin or more, Mountain Gospel: The Sacred Roots of Country Music digs deeper still into pre-World War II white rural Christian expression. For those who found those other collections heavenly, this four-CD set of 100 selections is a glorious find.

Though African-American sacred music was recorded early as 1902, it wasn't until the mid-'20s that white Christian music was put to shellac. Mountain Gospel's chronology begins not long thereafter, covering a wide breadth of earnestness and novelty, legalism and freedom, denominational affiliations and, most importantly for the ethnomusicologically minded, styles.

A few acts receive significant chunks of the track listing, beginning with the powerful baritone and agile double-necked guitar work on Alfred G. Karnes' eight cuts. The depths of his passion sound clear nearly 80 years later. Sacred and secular country pioneer Ernest Stoneman nets 12 songs, a majority of the gospel work he recorded in the era of 78 r.p.m. records (Stoneman lived in such a timeframe to have recorded on every medium from wax cylinders to TV videotape).

For group singing, Anglo-American Free Holiness Pentecostal Church preacher Ernest Phipps' work with both his Holiness Quartet and Holiness Singers nets the biggest share--12 tunes total. They may be the only extant recording of traditional white Holiness movement singing of the time; in both aggregations, Phillips led some boisterous harmonizing. By contrast, the McCravy Brothers' four waxings come closer to recalling the more measured, sentimentally-arranged pop music of their late '20s era.

Country music's roots are all over the place here. More than one act represented was discovered in the same Bristol, TN recording sessions where Jimmy Rogers and The Carter Family recorded the first sides that brought them to fame. Members of The Virginia Dandies, whose two-string band offerings cross from the cutesy to the serious, were once part of famed banjoist Charlie Poole's band, The North Carolina Ramblers (JSP Records has also issued a more extensive Poole box set than the more fancily appointed package released by Columbia's Legacy imprint last year). They shouldn't be confused with The Carolina Ramblers who have two harmonica-accompanied fiddle band songs here.

Other country forebears such as Bill Carlisle (with uncredited jaw harp) and The Coon Creek make appearances as well. Brothers J.E. and Wade Mainer's respective bands can be heard crossing the line from more old time string band style to the nascent, accelerated bluegrass form within the four tunes each is allotted.

An anthology of Southern country gospel wouldn't be complete with some a capella singing from the influential _Sacred Harp_ hymnal, and this package fills that bill, too. The shape-note sheet music used here for easy congregational singing would be a pivotal step in in
the history of Southern gospel singing, as well. The same kind of songs heard here by Roswell Sacred Harp, Allison's Sacred Harp, and
the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers persists today both congregationally and in gatherings specially dedicated to making this robustly joyful
sound. With titles such as "Cuba" band "Odem" attributed to a couple of numbers, one might wonder whether there was a misread from the labels of the 78s from which they were mastered. Other strictly quartet ensembles included here also presage the development of
modern Southern gospel.

Per JSP's usual attention to thrift and historical overview, detailed session notes and liner comments by old time researcher Pat Harrison
compensate for the lack of elaborate packaging. The only real complaint with Mountain Gospel could be its non-chronological track
listing. The linearly time-lined approach JSP took for its quadruple-disc set on African-American guitar evangelists (an apt companion piece to this box) drew an evolving sonic picture. Mountain Gospel would have benefited from the same kind of order. As for the uneven, but most often excellent, mastering, that's a matter of available source material.

There's a bit of spillover from Goodbye, Babylon, but there's so much more rootsy country material here. For country, folk and
bluegrass lovers with an ear for where so much of it derived, this is a relatively inexpensive way to gorge on it.

Jamie Lee Rake  2/18/2006



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