Gospel Choices #2 – Gary Reid’s five favorite gospel songs

Here’s the second episode of a periodic feature, where we ask bluegrass personalities to choose their top five bluegrass gospel songs. This week we hear from Gary B Reid, an award winning writer with a particular focus on the music of the Stanley Brothers.

Naturally, there are two selections by The Stanley Brothers, but all Reid’s choices are very interesting. They are …..

  1. A Voice From On High – The Stanley Brothers: Mercury single 70340, 1954
  2. If We Never Meet Again – The Stanley Brothers: Good Old Camp Meeting Songs (King, 1962)
  3. Let The Light Shine Down – Bill Monroe: Decca single 29436, 1955
  4. It’s Just Like Heaven – Country Gentlemen: Sit Down Young Stranger (Sugar Hill, 1980)
  5. Fifty Miles of Elbow Room – Carter Family: Bluebird 78… #9026, 1942

A Voice From On High has always been one of my favorite Stanley Gospel recordings. It was recorded in November of 1953 at Carter and Ralph’s second session for Mercury Records. Musically, the group was at a high water mark in their career. The vocal configuration of this song, where Ralph Stanley sang a high lead, and the harmony parts by John Shuffler and Carter Stanley were below, has always appealed to me; it was simply a stunning arrangement. Added to this was the fiddle work of one of my favorite Stanley fiddlers, Ralph Mayo, as well as the swooping, driving bass work of John Shuffler.

Good Old Camp Meeting Songs - The Stanley BrothersIf We Never Meet Again is another of my favorites from the Stanley Brothers catalog. It was recorded in May of 1962 for an album on King called Good Old Time Camp Meeting Songs, King-805. The majority of the album was recorded over a two-day period. On the third day, the group came back into the studio and recorded a few songs to be released as singles (My Deceitful Heart, Mama Don’t Allow, etc.) as well as two additional songs for the gospel album. While the balance of the gospel album was really good, there was, to my ear, something special about the two religious songs from the third day of recording. Perhaps Carter got some good rest the night before and came to the session feeling refreshed. Or, maybe he had a special affinity for this particular song.

Whatever the case, Carter sang with a strength, conviction, and sweetness that was absolutely beautiful. I wish he had been able to pull out all the stops for the rest of the album.

Basically, I like Let The Light Shine Down because it moves! It’s got drive! I like the message of light being a guiding force in life.

In this song, as in all of the songs I listed, the performers emit a real conviction for what they are singing about. I don’t know that I always agree 100% with what they are singing about, but… because they so invested in what they are singing… their commitment, emotion, energy and excitement is real and that’s what speaks most to me.

It’s Just Like Heaven appeared on a 1980 album by the Country Gentlemen; it was the last one to feature Doyle Lawson when he was a member of the group. I’m sure that Doyle had more than just a little part in arranging the a cappella version of this lovely old hymn.

Years ago, when I first started researching the songs of the Stanley Brothers, I was curious as to where a lot of their gospel songs came from. I found some of them in old shape note hymnals, which put me on a quest to locate more hymnals so I could trace the origins of the Stanleys’ gospel music.  As of today, I have about a thousand of the old shape note hymnals and the origins of only two or three of Carter and Ralph’s sacred recordings remain elusive to me.

One of the first hymnals I purchased was a 1951 hardback book called Church Hymnal; it was published in 1951 by the Tennessee Music and Printing Company. Not only did it contain a number of songs recorded by the Stanley Brothers, but by other bluegrass and old-time groups such as the Lilly Brothers, Carl Story, the Lewis Family, the Monroe Brothers, and more. As I would acquire new bluegrass recordings with gospel material on them, I would consult this hymnal to see if they were in there.

The very first song in the book was It’s Just Like Heaven. What makes this song special to me… the Country Gentlemen album with this song had just been released, and I knew of its inclusion in the Church Hymnal book. While attending the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia, I encountered an all-black a cappella choir called the East Rome Singing School, from East Rome, Georgia. I noticed that their hymn book of choice was the Church Hymnal book.

When I went back to the festival the next day, I brought my copy of the hymnal with me. I think they were surprised to see some young white kid from the DC suburbs with a copy of “their” hymnal. I asked one of the song leaders if they could… if they would sing a song for me from the hymnal. My request was for It’s Just Like Heaven. I was amazed at the time how the choir could sight read and perform songs from the book without prior notice or rehearsal. I didn’t perceive of it as a test, but… I was curious to see what they could do with It’s Just Like Heaven. They nailed it! So… for a variety of reasons, I have a certain affinity for this song.

When I first became aware of bluegrass and old-time music in the early 1970s, one of the first groups I latched onto was the Carter Family. I loved Sara’s clear, high lead vocals on their earlier recordings, and Maybelle and A. P. harmonies, too. Of course, Maybelle’s guitar work was the icing on the cake.

In 1977, I acquired a 10-LP boxed set from Japan that contained all of the Carter Family’s Victor recordings. My friend Walt Saunders was importing LPs from Japan at the time and made them available to a small group of people he had on his mailing list. There weren’t many Carter Family albums in print in the late 1970s, and for people who were serious about collecting their music, the Japanese boxed set was a treasure trove.

The 86th anniversary of the Carter Family’s first recordings — from the famed Bristol sessions of 1927 — was just a few days ago [August 1st]. In honor of the occasion I listened to the songs from those sessions, on my iPhone, no less! Forty years after having heard them for the first time, I am still captivated by their music.

One of my favorite religious songs of theirs is Fifty Miles of Elbow Room. I don’t know how genuine a depiction the song is of the afterlife, but… I like how it speaks of a better place, whether it be “gem set walls of jasper” and gates 100 miles wide, or not.

Gary ReidGary B Reid is currently working on an annotated discography of the Stanley Brothers’ recordings. Having been an early bass player with the Johnson Mountain Boys, Reid has devoted most of his adult life working in the record industry. In 1978 he formed Copper Creek Records – the birth place of Sara Dougherty Carter – and the following year Reid released the first single by the Johnson Mountain Boys.

He followed this with a several albums, the Stanley Series. featuring recordings of Stanley Brothers’ live at the various music parks around Washington DC, from the Ash Grove, in Los Angeles, and one from Bean Blossom. Later Reid broadened his catalog by releasing several albums of contemporaneous recordings by some artists from the west as well as many from the east coast. Interspersed with these were some historical recordings by the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family, the Blue Sky Boys, Reno & Smiley, and others. 

From 1983 to 1996 he worked for David Freeman, acting as project co-ordinator for several albums on the Rebel Records label. 

Reid has won the IBMA’s Liner Notes – Recorded Project award three times; in 1994, 1999, and 2008. He was a final nominee for the award in 2006 also. He has written and published a preliminary discography of the Stanley Brothers’ recordings, made available in 1984. Since 1991 Reid has also published The Bluegrass Calendar

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.