Personnel: Bill Monroe (vocals, mandolin); Rudy Lyle (vocals, baritone, banjo); Milton Estes (vocals, bass voice); Edd Mayfield, Carter Stanley (vocals, guitar); Birch Monroe, Joel Price (vocals); Joel Price, Charlie Cline (baritone); Gordon Terry (bass voice, fiddle); Culley Holt, Birch Monroe, Buddy Killen (bass voice); Grady Martin, Jimmy Selph, Jackie Phelps (guitar); Owen Bradley (organ); Ernie Newton (bass guitar); Jimmy Martin (vocals, guitar); Farris Coursey (drums).
Recording information: Nashville, TN (04/08/1950-03/21/1958).
Photographer: Raeburn Flerlage.
While many country artists have made inspirational singles or albums on an occasional specialty basis, rather like making a Christmas record, but spent most of their recording careers performing secular material, bluegrass music tends to admit religious subject matter as one of its constants, not, perhaps quite as frequent a topic as lost love, but fairly close. Thus, the Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys' entry in MCA Nashville's series of discount-priced 2004 compilations called Gospel Spirit (there are also discs by Loretta Lynn, the Statler Brothers, and Conway Twitty) is really just a distillation of some of the group's regular recordings for the most part. Among the 16 tracks, six were cut for a 1958 religious LP, I Saw the Light, but the rest, drawn from singles dating back to 1950, are just bluegrass songs that happen to treat Christian themes, starting with a version of the Carter Family's "I'm Working on a Building," cut in 1954. One gets to hear different versions of the band. The earliest track, 1950s "I'll Meet You in Church Sunday Morning," features Monroe with his brother Birch Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Joel Price, while the I Saw the Light tracks recorded eight years later use Edd Mayfield, Bessie Mae Mauldin or Culley Holt, Kenny Baker, and Gordon Terry (with producer Owen Bradley sitting in on an un-bluegrass-like organ on "Precious Memories," "Life's Railway to Heaven," and the closing track, "Wayfaring Stranger"). But Monroe's high tenor remains distinctive, whether playing off lead vocalists Martin, Mayfield, Charlie Cline (on 1955's "Let the Light Shine Down on Me"), or even Carter Stanley (on 1951's "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray"). And the music remains true to the high-lonesome sound of Bill Monroe's bluegrass. It's just that the lyrics on these tracks are all reverent. ~ William Ruhlmann