Unlike some of the “bandwagon” tribute recordings that it might be suspected are motivated by commercial appeal as much as a heartfelt desire to spotlight the subject of the tribute, John Bowman’s new release, Family Chain, is a personal statement of love and respect by him for his father-in-law, Joe Isaacs.
For anyone living under a rock, Joe Isaacs is the patriarch of one of the most successful bluegrass gospel groups of all time. In addition to churches, bluegrass festivals, and other venues that make up the regular schedule of most bluegrass gospel groups, the Isaacs regularly appear as part of the Gaither Gospel Juggernaut, I mean Homecoming concerts filling 10,000-seat venues.
Although Joe Isaacs no longer performs with his children, many of the songs on this recording were written by Joe, and performed by the Isaacs when Joe was part of the group. Listeners familiar with the Isaacs will no doubt recognize many of these songs, but no attempt is made to re-create or duplicate the original recordings. The treatment is a simple, respectful performance of songs that have personal meaning to John Bowman, an excellent singer and instrumentalist in his own right. He has performed on every instrument, singing multiple vocal parts (although not all simultaneously), with a who’s who in bluegrass, including Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Alison Krauss & Union Station, The Isaacs, J. D. Crowe & The New South, and the new supergroup The Boxcars (recently winning 4 IBMA Awards).
To assist him in the recording, John called on family and friends: Ben Isaacs, Adam Steffey, Rob Ickes, Jimmy Edmonds and Jeff & Sheri Easter. On a few of the slower tempo selections, Gordon Mote added piano in a delicate and tasteful manner, enhancing without overriding the other instruments. Throughout the recording, the vocal and instrumental performances are flawless.
Of course, as a banjo player I would like to have heard a little more banjo – there is banjo on only four of the songs – but being as unbiased as I can, I can’t say that the remaining selections suffer by the banjo’s absence. (Yes I know I’m inviting all the banjo jokes to appear in comments to this review).
An often overlooked, or at least undervalued, aspect of a CD release is the liner notes, and reading John’s personal recollections of meeting his future wife and the whole Isaacs family, as well as his feelings toward Joe Isaacs, was thoroughly enjoyable. John Bowman genuinely seems to be “one of the good guys” in this world, and he has offered up a fitting tribute to Joe Isaacs which any fan of bluegrass gospel music will enjoy.