So Much For Forever, Gospel Sessions, Vol. 2 – Authentic Unlimited

It is extremely rare for a record company to release two albums by the same artist simultaneously, but that is precisely what Billy Blue Records has done with Authentic Unlimited’s two new projects, and for the second time! Today we get one gospel and one secular: Gospel Sessions, Vol. 2 and So Much For Forever. It’s a good call since this award-winning quintet is one of the hottest new bands on the bluegrass circuit. 

Authentic Unlimited formed two years ago when Doyle Lawson retired, and three members of his band, Quicksilver – Eli Johnston on banjo, Stephen Burwell on fiddle, and Jerry Cole on bass – joined forces with mandolin extraordinaire, Jesse Brock, and young relative newcomer guitarist/vocalist, John Meador. Out of the gate, that combination of talent landed them a recording contract with Billy Blue Records and they started racking up awards including Vocal Group of the Year and New Artist of the Year at the 2023 IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards, on top of Vocal Group and Gospel Group at 2024 SPBGMA Awards. Collectively, these five gentlemen, vocally and instrumentally, are hard to beat. The combination of their skills on these two new projects is a true reflection of what they do best: compose, sing, and pick.

Gospel Sessions, Vol. 2 follows their 2022 Vol. 1 project. It is wise marketing to release a series of albums, alerting the consumer that more is to come, much the way the Seldom Scene did with their Acts I-IV records in the 1970s. This project offers 12 gospel numbers, five of which are the band’s originals. Two of the tunes, Come on In and Won’t It Be Wonderful, were penned by Bill Turner (brother to the late Buster Turner of the Pinnacle Mountain Boys who wrote Altar of Prayer that Lawson recorded). Bill had a special connection with Cole by singing and playing mandolin in his dad’s group, Better Way Quartet, for around 30 years. 

The album offers a variety of styles of music that is sure to please listeners from Cole’s To the Cross with a Louvin Brothers-impacted duet to the band’s original western swing number, Wings of Love, to revamping The Cry from the Cross and Memories of Home to a couple of a cappella tunes, Help Me Endure and Written Up There. Personal favorites of this reviewer are Thank You Lord for Grace that has that distinctive Lawson influence, and Won’t It Be Wonderful, which concludes with a stratospheric ending.

In addition to their obvious vocal prowess, the group offers solid instrumentation with Johnston’s hard-driving banjo, Brock’s flawless mandolin breaks and tasteful back-up, Meador’s melodic guitar work, and Cole’s solid bass laying the foundation. Burwell shines on the fiddle, doing some beautiful twin work. Now if he can just clone himself to do it live!

So Much For Forever is their secular offering. Twelve of the thirteen tunes are Authentic Unlimited originals, with many of them destined to become jam favorites. Jonathan Edwards’ Ain’t Got Time is the only non-band generated number. Again, the guys knock it out of the ball park with their variety of songs. Fans have already been introduced to a couple of the album’s tunes, Cole’s driving Big Wheels, plus Meador and Bob Minner’s tender Fall in Tennessee (featuring the dobro mastery of Jerry Douglas), when the singles dropped. 

Tempos and emotions vary with the song selection. Ruby Ann, a group composition, is hard-driving with tight harmonies throughout the song, mirroring classic tunes like Little Bessie and East Virginia Blues. I Can’t Let Go is a heartfelt song grieving the loss of a spouse. 

There are two instrumentals on this project. Benfield Line, a lively fiddle tune by Burwell, which he randomly named after a longtime friend, Harold Benfield, who helped tape down cable lines before a show. The other is A Drive at Dusk, a peppy mandolin number offered up by Brock. He started this tune over ten years ago. When asked about his composition, he explained, “It was half-written, waiting for the right inspiration and setting. I am very reluctant to present original material for fear nobody likes it. This was well-received by the band and they were kind enough to allow it on the album. I work with a bunch of supportive friends that help inspire me every time we perform.”

The album concludes with Refection, a fast-paced powerhouse banjo-driven tune, composed by Meador. With a classic Osborne Brother-flavored ending, it concludes the project in a dynamic way. 

Both these albums are destined to win awards and become fan favorites. They leave us wanting more!

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.