Here’s another new feature, where we ask bluegrass personalities to choose their top five Gospel songs. This week we hear from Peter Thompson, host of Bluegrass Signal on KALW.
The five I’ve chosen are all from the wonderful world of bluegrass, although I can imagine a collection that also includes favorites from African-American Gospel.
- Wings – Kathy Kallick Band: Walkin’ In My Shoes (Live Oak, 1999)
- Some Glad Day – Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers: Basic Blue Grass (Old Homestead, 1987)
- I’ll Not Be a Stranger – Stanley Brothers: The Early Starday-King Years (King, 1961)
- When I Wake Up To Sleep No More – Marshall Family: Requests (Rebel, 1976)
- Won’t You Come and Sing For Me? – Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard: Pioneering Women Of Bluegrass (Smithsonian-Folkways, 1973)
Of course, Kathy is my favorite singer, songwriter, guitarist, and bandleader, and I treasure the 20 years we’ve lived together. It’s hard to limit myself to just one of her great songs, but this one seems appropriate. I love its ecumenical and inclusive approach, optimistic perspective, and soulful singing. The recording is the first one issued on the Live Oak Records label that Kathy and I founded, named for areas of Florida and Michigan where the Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin were based — and for the trees that grow right outside our bedroom window in Oakland.
One of the joys of producing a concert series is the ability to call up a musical hero and invite him/her to come for a show. When I did so with Mac Martin, I had no idea it would lead to a close relationship with him and his wife, Jean, along with several concerts and visits. Mac’s County album with the classic Dixie Travelers is what drew me to his music, but I appreciate his version of another positive song, this one from the Monroe canon. Mac has always been a distinctive interpreter and arranger, and is a singer with loads of nuance and feeling.
The Stanley Brothers’ music was what got me hooked on bluegrass, and I never tire of listening to Carter’s powerful songs and that equally powerful duet with Ralph. Again, this is not from my favorite Stanley Brothers era — the Mercury sessions get that nod — but everything they recorded has merit, and I think this song fits well with the others. I’ve done thematic radio shows for many years, and I guess this set is no exception.
Hazel Dickens and Judy Marshall represent, for me, the yin and yang of bluegrass vocals, encompassing the edgy and haunting as well as the beautiful and transcendent aspects of singing, equally thrilling and moving. Hazel was, of course, one of our music’s extraordinary songwriters, and always made me listen to what she had to say. Judy, with her siblings, could sound sweetly powerful like no others. Both make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and stay there — as do all the musicians in this Gospel set.
Peter Thompson currently produces and hosts Bluegrass Signal on KALW (San Francisco) and WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, and earlier did bluegrass shows for Vancouver Co-op Radio and CBC Radio. He has been involved in bluegrass since the mid-1970s as not only a radio producer/host but also as a concert presenter, emcee, publicist, tour manager, record producer, booking agent, board member, product seller, label owner, and nanny.