John Bowman has performed with a who’s who of bluegrass groups over the past several decades, from his beginnings with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver in the early 1990s to his most recent tenure as a founding member of The Boxcars. Though he’s been with a number of bands, playing different instruments and varying styles of bluegrass, something that’s always been a constant with Bowman is his love of Gospel music. During his twelve-year stint with bluegrass Gospel favorites The Isaacs, he answered the call to preach, and two years ago, he decided to embark upon a solo career focusing wholly on preaching and Gospel music. His recent solo project from Mountain Home Music, Beautiful Ashes, reflects upon that new ministry.
In the project’s liner notes, Bowman writes, “Every song has a special message for every listener whether they are believers or not.” And indeed, the songs here speak to listeners in a number of ways, from perspectives on family and relationships, to reminders of God’s love and the power of hope. The album opens on an optimistic note with the contemporary Gospel-flavored Let the Hard Times Roll. Rob Ickes’ resophonic guitar mixes well with piano from Tre’ Corley, putting a bright feel behind lyrics that encourage listeners to push through difficult experiences because good times will surely come again. He’s Your Friend, which was written by Troy Engle (who also recorded and co-produced the album), has a similar message of reassurance. The tune is a little bluesy, a little swingy, and reminds us that God is always there, even through the hard times: “He didn’t promise good days, but He said always, I’ll be with you til the end.”
Traditional bluegrass fans will enjoy Bowman’s rendition of Carter Stanley’s Baby Girl, a love letter to a cherished daughter, which has some excellent harmonies. The Easter Brothers’ They’re Holding Up the Ladder is another excellent bluegrass Gospel number, with fine banjo from Bowman and strong fiddling courtesy of Ron Stewart. When My Travelin’ Days Are Over is a tight modern traditional grass look toward beginning eternal life in Heaven. Fair warning to strict traditionalists – there are drums on several of the bluegrass-style songs on the album, adding a bit of a Southern Gospel feel.
One of the album’s most enjoyable numbers is the classic country-style Cold Day in Hell. Written by Woody Wright and Jeff Easter, the song turns the title expression on its head as it tells the story of a couple who turns away from fighting and bitterness in favor of loving each other again. As the couple makes amends, the lyrics imagine that Satan’s plan for them has been foiled: “The devil wore his overcoat, his demons felt the chill, as winds of change came blowing through…” Bowman’s earnest delivery, coupled with clever songwriting, makes this a standout. The ways in which Satan can twist the mind also figures into the sparse, acoustic country Lies the Devil Told Me. Bowman takes the perspective of a man looking back at bad choices made in the past, finally realizing that he was listening to the wrong voice. It’s another highlight of the album.
The musicianship here is of an extremely high caliber, and Bowman reminds listeners why he’s long been considered one of the finest high lead and tenor singers in bluegrass. Though the songs range from straight-ahead bluegrass to a contemporary Christian feel, they all offer encouragement and hope to listeners, reminding them God is never far away. Fans of Bowman – and of Gospel music – will want to take a listen.
For more information on Bowman’s preaching and music ministry, visit his website at www.johnrbowman.net. Beautiful Ashes is available from a number of music retailers.