That was my reaction after giving a thorough listen to Feller & Hill’s new release, I Firmly Promise You. The guys clearly have one foot firmly planted in each camp, though all the songs are presented with bluegrass accompaniment.
It’s an interesting blend, hearing the familiar sound of the banjo, mandolin, guitar, and fiddle together with the vocal stylings, enunciation, and arrangements more common in Southern Gospel.
You need some mighty good singers to pull this off, and Tom Feller and Chris Hill are up to the task. Hill is a strong tenor, with the range and power needed to soar at the top of the trios and quartets, and Feller’s mellow baritone serves well for the bulk of the leads and harmony parts. Once again, they include young Cody Jones on bass vocals, who makes any quartet richer by his inclusion.
This one is their first all-Gospel project, though close harmony has been featured on their two prior albums. The guys had been hearing requests for such an album, and complied with a largely home-grown record. Between the two of them, Tom and Chris handle the guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass, plus all but the bass vocals. Tim Graves and Glenn Gibson sit in on reso-guitar, and the fiddle is handled by Steve Thomas, Michael Cleveland, and Jonathan Rigsby.
There aren’t really standout tracks, though my ears especially perked up for the grassier tracks. Bill Monroe’s Little Community Church opens the album with a lovely duet powered by Tom’s mandolin. Chris takes the lead on Aubrey Holt’s Let The Savior In with a pulsing bluegrass beat, well-served by his banjo and Michael Cleveland’s fiddle.
Fountain Of Love is an old time bluegrass waltz, done as a through-and-through duet, that succeeds with a simple guitar and mandolin accompaniment. And of course there is requisite a cappella number, a song written by Tom’s mother Judith Feller, Let My People Live. It’s arranged in the calliope style pioneered by Doyle Lawson, with Cody Jones rumbling the tiny little bones of your inner ear. Great stuff.
Tom and Chris also include a few classics from the Gospel hymnbook, like the title track from Albert Brumley, and I Found A Hiding Place (also from Brumley) where Hill nearly busts a gut singing at the top of his register. A special treat is Walking My Lord Up Cavalry’s Hill, where Harley Gabbard leads the lyrics with his resonant bass voice.
For those unfamiliar with their mission, Feller & Hill were formed to keep the sound of The Boys From Indiana alive. That stellar bluegrass band was a sensation in the 1970s and ’80s, and a profound influence on all the bluegrass music of the central US since. Tom is a BFI descendant; his mother was sister to the Holt brothers who started the group. And Chris spent his early banjo and singing career performing with The Wildwood Valley Boys, which includes one of the originals Boys, and Gerald Evans & Paradise, another group that followed that mid-western sound.
Longtime Boys From Indiana fans may recall that they got their start as a Gospel singing group, and this next generation of practitioners has honored that heritage well.
I Firmly Promise You is sure to appeal to anyone who enjoys Gospel singing. With the tradition in which they stand so clearly understood by bluegrass lovers, there were high expectations for this record. Feller & Hill have met those and then some.