Album of the Week #5 – Clinch Mountain Gospel

With Christmas time upon us, one song which is sure to deck your halls is, everyone’s favorite, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. It is one of Appalachia and bluegrass’ most beloved songs of the season, and for good reason! It is truly a magical song that reminds of the true meaning of Christmas and brings it full circle to today. It has been recorded by nearly everyone: John Starling, Emmylou Harris, Larry Sparks, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent, The Judds, and more. Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent’s first recording together was Beautiful Star of Bethlehem on Christmas Grass Volume 2.

The Stanley Brothers had the original bluegrass hit version, but the primo version which most people point to as THE recording of this song was when Keith Whitley was standing beside Dr. Ralph as a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Keith Whitley, Curly Ray Cline, Jack Cooke, and Renfro Profitt were all Clinch Mountain Boys when Ralph took them into the studio to record Clinch Mountain Gospel on May 12, 1977. Beautiful Star of Bethlehem was such a big hit on the record, it was emblazoned right on the cover: “Featuring Star of Bethlehem.” The album featured some of Ralph’s greatest gospel songs, and is a true benchmark when looking at bluegrass gospel.

The album starts with the rousing mountain banjo which has been associated with Ralph for over sixty years. Over In The Gloryland is a hymn book favorite and a Ralph Stanley classic. You know with this opening track, that the album is something really special. The pure power in the picking and singing is felt, and you can’t wait to find out what else this album holds.

Along with Over In The Gloryland, the album features many favorites which Ralph picked out of the old hymn books, Amazing Grace, Jesus, Savior Pilot Me, Mother’s Not Dead, among them. The a cappella style which Ralph grew up singing in the Primitive Baptist church which attended growing up in the mountains is in full display. The songs’ call-and-response style is a forgotten art, which takes us all back to simpler time. The style also helps showcase the timeless lyric of this classic we have all grown to love.

The album features a pair of special guests which are no strangers to bluegrass gospel or to Ralph Stanley. David and Chester “Pop” Marshall contributed their talents on Clinch Mountain Gospel. David played the mandolin on the record, while Pop contributed some bass vocals to Over In The Gloryland, Amazing Grace, and What A Price. David Marshall also co-wrote a tune with Ralph for the album, There’ll Be None On The Other Side, a real standout. Keith Whitley’s raw vocals interpret this song brilliantly, and the unique a cappella arrangement only on the choruses, is quite special. Ralph also co-wrote the song, What A Price, with Gene Duty.

In addition to housing the quintessential version of Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, Clinch Mountain Gospel also holds, what many consider, the go-to version of Oh, Death. Nearly everyone in the world is familiar with Ralph’s solo a cappella version of the song, which was included in the award-winning O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, and won Ralph the 2001 Grammy for Male Country Performance of the Year. However, it is this rendition which is looked to as the best recording of the song. The arrangement is quite different from that of O, Brother’s. In addition to it not being a cappella nor a solo performance, the arrangement features Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley alternating lines on the verses, which is truly magical.

Clinch Mountain Gospel also includes the introduction of the bluegrass community to the bluegrass gospel standard, I’ve Just Seen The Rock Of Ages. The song paints a stirring picture of a son near his mother’s deathbed. It is quite glorious as she leaves this world telling her family of where she is going to in paradise. Keith Whitley’s performance drips with emotion and sincerity. It is performances such as these, that made everyone in bluegrass and beyond realize that Keith was something special, and was destined for great things.

In addition to the songs listed above, Clinch Mountain Gospel features other favorites such as I Am Weary (Let Me Rest), Are You Afraid To Die?, and, one of Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys’ signature songs, Traveling The Highway Home. This album is, without a doubt, a classic album which is a must-have in any collection. Clinch Mountain Gospel is a landmark recording when looking back in bluegrass and bluegrass gospel music. The collection of incredible material matched with unforgettable performances makes for a truly remarkable recording.

Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys’ Clinch Mountain Gospel (REB-1571-CD) can be purchased from County Sales and The Classic Country Connection, and is available for download on iTunes and Amazon Music.

Happy Thought of the Day: You may recall my excitement several weeks ago at the discovery of The Osborne Brothers’ Up To Date And Down To Earth being one of the most expensive records at our local Half Price Books store. Well, this week while I was in, that news was exceeded by seeing a live Stanley Brothers’ album completely run away with that title! Except for maybe a few Beatles records, it was the most expensive single LP I have ever seen in that store. Ricky Skaggs’ put it best: “Bluegrass RULES!”

Answer to last week’s trivia question: Rob Baker and Randy Barnes were both members of Rhonda Vincent & The Rage in addition to being former members of Newfound Road.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone. Hopefully, you can listen to Beautiful Star of Bethlehem this season and remember the true reason of the season. Merry Christmas!


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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.