Here’s the fifth contribution of a periodical feature, where we ask bluegrass personalities to choose their top five Gospel songs. This week we hear from celebrated radio host Wayne Rice.
- Somebody Touched Me – The Dillards: Back Porch Bluegrass (Elektra Records EKL 232)
- On the Sea of Life – Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver: Rock My Soul (Sugar Hill Records SH 3717)
- Hallelujah Turnpike – The Lewis Family: Hallelujah Turnpike (Canaan Records CAS 9847)
- Solid Rock – Lonesome River Band: Old Country Town (Sugar Hill Records SH-CD 3818)
- 5. He’s Holding on to Me – Ron Block: Faraway Land (Rounder Records 0477)
Wayne says …
I have always loved Gospel music. While I didn’t get to hear much bluegrass Gospel music growing up in Southern California, my family went to church every Sunday and we loved to sing. Our church would occasionally invite a southern Gospel quartet to perform at one of our services, and that was always a thrill. They were like rock stars to me, and I dreamed of someday being able to sing in a group like that.
I never got to sing in a southern Gospel quartet but after learning to play banjo, I did get to play and sing with a few bluegrass bands, all of which have featured Gospel music. I’ve also featured Gospel music on my Sunday night radio program in San Diego. Here are a few songs that have stood out for me:
Somebody Touched Me – I list this song first because my infatuation with bluegrass started with the Dillards. I must have played their 1963 Back Porch Bluegrass album hundreds if not thousands of times trying to learn to play banjo like Doug Dillard (I gave up on that). The only Gospel song on that album was Somebody Touched Me, and so I gravitated to it immediately. Our family band at that time was called the Rice Kryspies (no kidding) and we did Somebody Touched Me everywhere we played. And just like the Dillards, we always asked the audience to sing along on the chorus. It’s one of those songs that can get stuck in your head for a long time, which isn’t a bad thing.
On the Sea of Life – I can still feel the goose-bumps from the first time I heard this song from Doyle Lawson’s Rock My Soul album. And when I played it on my radio show it became an instant listener favorite. 35 years later, I’m still getting requests for that Sea of Life song and it still holds up very well. Of course, there’s not a bad cut on that entire album, but Doyle certainly outdid himself when he arranged this song with his original Quicksilver band which included Jimmy Haley, Lou Reid and Terry Baucom. I’ve heard Doyle perform On the Sea of Life in concert numerous times with many different versions of his band, and I get goose-bumps every time.
Hallelujah Turnpike – I’d be remiss to not include a song from the first family of bluegrass Gospel music. This song from their 1979 album of the same title has to be the quintessential Lewis Family barn-burner. When Little Roy kicks off Hallelujah Turnpike, the notes come out of his banjo like bullets out of a machine gun. And it doesn’t let up the entire song, complemented by some ferocious fiddling by Buddy Spicher. This song still makes me smile. I have always loved the energy and excitement (and fun!) of a Lewis Family performance—whether live or on recordings—and Hallelujah Turnpike seems to me to epitomize what the Lewis Family did best, namely to bring Gospel joy to all their fans.
Solid Rock – This song from the Lonesome River Band’s landmark Old Country Town album has everything you want in a good bluegrass Gospel song—a punchy mandolin kickoff, creative call-and-response vocals, tight quartet harmonies, sparkling banjo and easy to understand lyrics. Ronnie Bowman opens with “A foundation …,” Dan Tyminski answers with “I’ll build” and the quartet including Sammy Shelor and Kenny Smith adds “Upon the Solid Rock …” When the banjo and the rest of the band join in, the song gets into that classic LRB groove. If you listen to the words of the last line of the chorus, you’ll know why I introduce this song on the radio as the Stairway to Heaven of bluegrass music.
He’s Holding on to Me – I think most of us know that Ron Block is not only a wonderful musician but also a devout Christ-follower who takes his faith quite seriously without being obnoxious about it. That’s not to say that he isn’t comfortable being open about what he believes. In fact, many of his songs express his beliefs quite clearly. He has written dozens of wonderful Gospel songs and He’s Holding On to Me is one of my favorites. The second cut on his Faraway Land solo project, not only do I love the performance of this song from a musical standpoint (with help from Dan Tyminski, Adam Steffey, Stuart Duncan, the Forbes Family, Ricky Wasson and Barry Bales) but I love the message. “I’m not holding onto Jesus; he’s holding onto me.” What an amazing and comforting thought—that even when my faith is weak, He is strong. Thanks Ron, for this reminder which very reassuring and hopeful to me.
Wayne Rice is the weekly host of KSON’s Bluegrass Special, now in its 42nd year on KSON-FM in San Diego, California. He also curates the website BluegrassBios.com featuring profiles of the stars of bluegrass music. He is a former member of the band Brush Arbor, winner of the ACM Award for Vocal Group of the Year (1973). Besides his radio show, he works with a ministry called The Legacy Coalition.