It’s a plain fact that Gospel music has always been a part of the bluegrass tradition. From the earliest days, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and The Stanley Brothers incorporated spirituals and hymns into their stage and radio shows, typically performed without banjo or fiddle as these instruments were considered somewhat profane by their rural audiences.
It’s also true that the relationship between bluegrass Gospel and secular fans has been an uneasy one. Labels had been less than enthusiastic about Gospel projects, and smaller Christian record companies have sprung up to fill that niche. Bands or artists who become pegged as a “Gospel act” can find it having a negative affect on their bookings, though the added benefit of church shows often more than makes up.
I think that this stigma has had an impact on Mountain Faith, one of the most exciting young groups in bluegrass. Far too many people hear the name, and assume their music will involve preaching or something that will make them uncomfortable, and subsequently miss what this dynamic and original band has to offer.
Their latest Mountain Fever album, Blue, showcases all the elements that suggest future headlining status for this North Carolina band. Strong original material, crisp picking, and solid arrangements are the norm, combined with the delightful singing of Summer McMahan. This is the formula that makes the band work, and it’s employed here to fine effect.
Summer wrote 5 of the record’s 12 tracks, including the debut single, Feelin’ Blue, a old timey romp driven by clawhammer banjo and old time fiddle. Despite the title, it’s a happy, feel-good song with the singer insisting that she won’t be feelin’ blue. For such a young woman, Summer’s original compositions are notably mature and insightful, which you hear on City Lights, a lovely duet with guest vocalist Aaron Ramsey, and on The Soldier Song, the story of a young wife missing her man at war.
Perhaps her most striking performance is on If You Are Ever Down In Dallas, which Lee Ann Womack wrote with her ex-husband Jason Sellers. Mountain Faith gives it a swingy, acoustic country feel, and Summer shows herself as a singer to be reckoned with.
Guitarist Luke Dotson also shines as a vocalist, sharing duet duties with Summer on a lively version of Buck Owens’ My Heart Skips A Beat, McMahan’s Long As The River Runs, and the Gospel favorite, Long Lonesome Road. He also takes the lead on a cover of Flatt & Scruggs’ Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, which owes more to Ricky Skaggs’ version than Lester and Earl’s.
The singers get strong support from Dotson’s guitar, Brayden McMahan’s banjo, Dustin Norris’ mandolin, and producer Aaron Ramsey on bass. (Summer and Brayden’s dad, Sam, plays bass with the band live, and Cory Piatt is now on mando.) Stephen Burwell contributes fiddle throughout, and Jeff Partin adds reso-guitar.
Each track is strong, full of the excitement and vigor that young artists create. And Miss McMahan’s voice is a rare treat.
The truth is that the McMahans are a believing Christian family, and sharing that faith is a part of their show. But if you pigeonhole this talented bunch on that basis, you’ll miss some terrific music and a powerful stage presentation.