Here’s the third contribution of a periodical feature, where we ask bluegrass personalities to choose their top five Gospel songs. This week we hear from Jon Weisberger, who has been very thoughtful in making his choices, which are ……..
1. Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, I’m Travelin’ On and On (The Essential Bill Monroe: 1945-1949 Columbia C2K 52478)
2. Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Brother, I’m Getting Ready To Go (Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys Foggy Mountain Gospel Columbia92754)
3. Marshall Family, Waiting For the Master To Come (Marshall Family Best of the Marshall Family. Vol. 2Rebel REB 1652)
4. Jerry & Tammy Sullivan, Oh Captain (Jerry & Tammy Sullivan Tomorrow Ceili Music 2005)
5. Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers, Be Jesus To Someone Today (Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers Hymns from the Hills Rebel REB-CD 1839)
Gospel songs have been an important part of the bluegrass repertoire right from the start, and my list of favorites is a long one, so choosing just five songs to focus on is an excruciating job. In fact, the only thing that makes it easier in the slightest is that some of those I love the best, like Dee Gaskin’s I Couldn’t Make It Without Him, memorably sung by a young Rhonda Vincent with her family band, the Sally Mountain Show, aren’t readily available. With that in mind, here are a few that I turn to year in and year out, and one that I’m really proud to have had a hand in writing.
Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, I’m Travelin’ On and On. This was the last song recorded by the original bluegrass band, and after more than a year and a half together, they had an inventive, flexible quartet capable of cool arrangements with lots of quick call-and-response singing that seems effortless…until you try doing it yourself. I love the way the pauses, ritards and rich 4-note chord with the bass singing the sixth that makes up “my journey,” set up not just the final line of the chorus, but somehow seem to pull Monroe in to the microphone for two full—and quintessentially Bill—solos over Chubby Wise’s guitar
Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Brother, I’m Getting Ready To Go. This edition of the band, which featured Everett Lilly and Jody Rainwater, was a truly great, and perhaps still under-appreciated one. The simplicity and assurance of the song’s message make such a strong impression that it can take a listener a long time to realize just how deliciously idiosyncratic the rhyme structure is, and the performance is absolutely masterful; Everett takes a muscular solo, Earl’s breaks confound expectations in wholly satisfying ways, and the quartet manages to sound tight while still allowing the distinctive quality of each singer’s voice to shine.
>Marshall Family, Waiting For the Master To Come. If you don’t know the Marshall Family’s music, you’re missing one of the most beautiful and unique bodies of work in bluegrass gospel, never mind bluegrass in general. David Marshall wrote many of the group’s best-known works, and his quirky instrumental work takes some getting used to—don’t worry, it repays the effort—but this, one of their most sublime and tender songs, was written by its lead singer, Judy Marshall. The lyrics are compressed and concise, and together with the spare chord structure, the luxurious rise and fall of the melody, the hushed harmonies and Judy’s delicate vocal, they create a powerful, mysterious blend of patience and anticipation that lingers long past the end of the
Jerry & Tammy Sullivan, Oh Captain. The recent passing of Jerry Sullivan put these wonderful folks on my mind, but truthfully, I don’t go for very long anyhow without listening to Tomorrow, the album their long-time friend Marty Stuart produced and played on back at the beginning of the new century. As with a long line of bluegrass singers going back to Bill Monroe, Tammy Sullivan cites an important African-American Gospel artist—in this case, Dorothy Love Coates—as an influence, and you can hear it in her moving delivery as well as the song itself. Like I’m Traveling On And On, Oh Captain has strategic pauses that draw the listener’s attention; here, we focus on the plea of the title, on the subtle restraint of the sliding vocal harmonies, and on the bass vocal of Jerry Sullivan, may he rest in peace.
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers, Be Jesus To Someone Today. Tim Stafford came by my house one day with not much time to spare for a songwriting session, but he had an idea, drawn from a sign he’d seen outside a church. In less than an hour, the song was done. In his note to the Radio Ramblers’ wonderful recording, Joe Mullins expressed not just his belief, but ours, too: “If we could all live out the words in this song the world would be a much better place”.
Jon Weisberger is a one of the most prolific songwriters in bluegrass music, and was selected in 2012 to be the winner of the IBMA’s first Songwriter of the Year award. He also plays bass with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, serves as on-air producer for the SiriusXM Bluegrass Junction show, Hand-Picked with Del McCoury, and writes occasionally for The Bluegrass Situation and the Nashville Scene.
In September 2013 he was elected chairman of IBMA’s board of directors.
Weisberger was the subject of a Bluegrass Today songwriter profile in September 2009.