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Circuit Rider Indie Gospel

Once it common for successful commercial country acts to record at least one gospel album during their careers. No matter how strong their belief in the Almighty--or whether they held belief at all--sacred song was so intrinsic to the music's roots and its core audience that it was a natural fit. And for listeners more inclined to embrace the first half of the "Saturday night/Sunday morning" dynamic that so defines commercial country's conscience, the right gospel material provides generic upward inspiration without doctrinal commitment.     

For reasons necessitating a more thorough socio-musicological study than you're going to get here, the intermittent gospel album in a country's act's general market career is the exception nowadays. Instead of taking that tack, per Billy Ray Cyrus and Alan Jackson, the trend now skews toward either 1) occasional overtly Christian-themed singles ala' Brooks & Dunn's "Believe" and John Michael Montgomery's "The Little Girl," 2) artists giving a good percentage of their singles subtler scriptural themes as Clay Walker and Martina McBride do, or 3) signing to a Christian label once the general market hits slow down like Randy Travis and Diamond Rio opted to do. Certainly God used all that to advance His kingdom however He saw fit. 

Beyond all that, however, there are those singers dedicating the entirety of their twanginess to the Lord. You are not apt to find them nominated for Doves, and the awards for which they may be nominated have ceremonies that, at best, run on smaller TV outlets found mostly on Sky Angel or other satellite providers. 

Enter Circuit Rider, a quarterly (or thereabouts) gospel country sampler CD for radio programmers and DJ's. Each edition offers a peek into a rawness and forthrightness you're not about to hear on syndicated Sunday radio staples such as Rise Up Country. 

And I do mean RAW. If you are one to curse the days when the Lynard Skynard and The Allman Brothers Band with their ''70s Southern boogie rock, not to mention the wholly non-country stylings of the type to influence everyone from Garth Brooks to Big & Rich, wormed their way into the brains of those who number among current commercial radio, CR offers an oasis of unrecostituted traditionalism that knows little of what the genre has become in the wake of its famed Class of '89 (Brooks, Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, et al ). What's missing here in slick Nash Vegas production values and mastering is made up in sincerity. My familiarity with the CD's began long ago when I was writing a Southern & country gospel column for a magazine in Fresno, and the 20-song Volume 53 is just the latest in this long-lived series to make it to my mailbox. 

W.C. Taylor, CR founder and head of its attendant Country Gospel Guild trade organization, is usually the most likely to give an Elvis Presley facsimile performance on any given edition, but he has some competition this time out. Joe Shirley's "The Great I AM" has a bit of Presley's "If I Can Dream" about it melodically. Taylor contributes the balladically slow story song "The House That Jack Built," one of his more nuanced performances. 

The converse of that subtlety is novelty. Funny ditties have their place in the Circuit as well. Frequent contributor Lyle Stubbs recombines the musical DNA of ApologetiX and Homer & Jethro for "Not Pop A Top," a teetotaling reinterpretation of the similarly-named Jim Ed Brown oldie with which Jackson again made a hit a few years back. The yuks take a bluegrassy turn when Rick Wingerter asks God to "Send Down A Chariot" to deliver him from the perils of teaching Sunday school and sundry other church obligations. The cheery 'grass continues with "When I Put On A Robe & Crown" by The Smith's (note the apostrophe, marking them from Morrissey's and Jonnny Marr's old band). 

Female soloists, including Arlene Varney (any relation to Jim of Hey Vern, It's Ernest fame?) and Gennie Ruth, mostly deliver somewhere somewhere between Kitty Wells' soulfulness and Christy Lane's plainspokenness. Joan Whittaker rises to a level of Loretta Lynn rowdiness on "God Will Send You A Blessing," and saxophone-enhanced, strolling beat distinguishes Shirley Berry's "A Love Walk" (That's with Jesus, of course). If the sax doesn't rock you hard enough, Hermon Turlove gets some feedback on his electric guitar throughout "Stand Your Ground." Nobody will confuse this with hard rocking country on current commercial radio, but Turlove does recall the more rollicking aspects of Mickey Gilley or Hank Williams, Jr. in their gold and platinum prime.       

Before the disc ends with what amounts to a mini-audio infomercial for Jack Hodge's upcoming Embrace The World longplayer, family act (or so I assume) The Canaanlanders sing of "The More I Think About Heaven." Put them about midway on the continuum that separates The Happy Goodmans from The Wauhobs. OK, maybe a tad closer to the latter. 

Perhaps you're in earshot of CGMG Radio, the Guild's weekly show. If so, you might know of all this unpolished gloriousness already. If not, you may take comfort in knowing that indie gospel country flourishes far outside the cCm cookie cutting machinery. 

Jamie Lee Rake 


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