This second collaboration in three years between the soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples and Wilco's talented frontman, Jeff Tweedy, was recorded at the Chicago band's studio, The Loft, as was the case with 2010's You Are Not Alone. While Staples was backed on that album by a host of different players, this time around the musical support is provided, in the main, by Tweedy and his son Spencer. Including material penned by Tweedy, alongside covers of songs by Low and Funkadelic, One True Vine once again features a number of stirring and powerful vocal performances from the 73-year-old Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
James Wilkinson, Rovi
Though RCA released only three LPs and an EP of dedicated gospel material during the lifetime of Elvis Presley, it's likely that he sang more gospel than any other type of music. Late at night, after a session or a show, Elvis would seek out and keep awake anyone who could carry a tune, in order to pore over the nuggets of gospel music he had soaked up during his early years at the Assembly of God churches in Tupelo and Memphis. And among Elvis' most prized awards, among hundreds, were his four Grammy awards for Best Sacred Performance or Best Inspirational Performance. Elvis: Ultimate Gospel completes RCA's cycle of Elvis gospel remasters, which began in 1994 with the two-disc Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Songs and continued with the three-disc box set Peace in the Valley. This one is a solid single-disc sampler, simple but stellar, including roughly half of his officially released gospel material. The selections are judiciously spread from throughout his career; two come from the 1957 EP Peace in the Valley, six are from 1967's How Great Thou Art, and seven each are from 1960's His Hand in Mine and 1972's He Touched Me. The only caveat is the disorienting sequencing that finds songs from different eras scattered across this collection; consider the fairly large step required to move from the sweet, reverent Elvis of 1960's "Crying in the Chapel" to the grandiose Elvis of 1967's "You'll Never Walk Alone." Everything else about this collection is accomplished, but fans of gospel in general or Elvis specifically should consider either the two-disc collection or an original album like His Hand in Mine, which stands out as among the best recordings in Elvis' discography. [A 2007 import reissue featured a darker hued cover and adds the track "In My Father's House".]
John Bush, Rovi
When the soundtrack to Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's film O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released in 2001, it ended up being a left-wing entry on the Billboard charts, going on to sell nearly eight million copies and garnering a Grammy on its way to introducing the public to the gospel, string band, blues, and folk music of the previous century, single-handedly making what had come to be known as Americana music commercially viable. Not bad for a facsimile, for that is exactly what T-Bone Burnett's productions were, smoothed-out and polished facsimiles of songs that were much more wild, ragged, and immediate in their original '20s and '30s incarnations. It’s hard to argue with the soundtrack’s success -- any album that can turn the sad, timeless and beautifully resigned “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” into a hit is obviously doing something right. Burnett's productions were full, warm, and reverent. All of the music was recorded before actual work on the movie even began, and the music became somewhat of a shooting script, with each scene defined and informed by the music behind it, making O Brother, Where Art Thou? a sort of massive video for the songs of another century, and songs like “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (there were four versions of this song on the CD, two sung by Dan Tyminski, and one each by Norman Blake and John Hartford), “You Are My Sunshine” (sung by Norman Blake), “I’ll Fly Away” (sung by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch), and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (sung by Chris Thomas King, who also acted in the movie) took on new life and fame in the digital realms of the 21st century. Burnett and the Coen Brothers pulled off quite a feat by making all this old-time music viable again, and they did it with an obvious love and reverence for it, plugging into a national yearning for simpler times, as if there ever truly "was" such a time. Life has always been infinitely complex, a fact that nostalgia is adept at sweeping away. This soundtrack remains a facsimile of another era, albeit a fascinating one, and while it doesn’t diminish the original songs, it does take a little of the wildness out of them. The tenth anniversary deluxe edition of the soundtrack adds a bonus disc of 14 songs that were also recorded at the original sessions (some were used on the film soundtrack but didn’t appear on the soundtrack album), including John Hartford's delightfully scratchy fiddle workout on “Tishomingo Blues,” an eerie and definitive version of “I’ll Fly Away” by the Kossoy Sisters (with accompaniment from a young Erik Darling), a sturdy take on the Appalachian murder ballad “Little Sadie” by Norman Blake, and an oddly haunting instrumental version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from Van Dyke Parks. The additional tracks expand the facsimile without shattering the illusion that there was a particular time in history when music was made by everyday people and not by marketed and manufactured stars. There was such a time, and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? replicates it. Facsimile or no, it’s reassuring.
Steve Leggett, Rovi
All Time Gospel Favorites is a Time Life compilation with material taken from Loretta Lynn's numerous religious-themed albums. Among the 20-tracks are such traditional hymns as "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "How Great Thou Art," "Amazing Grace" and "Old Time Religion." Any fan of Loretta Lynn will enjoy this mid-priced disc.
Al Campbell, Rovi
An expanded three-disc collection that attempts to trump a 1994 double-disc set (Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Songs) by offering virtually every single Elvis recording of a sacred song, Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings accomplishes the mission in its title, but at a hefty price that won't appeal to any but the most obsessive-compulsive fan. Obviously, it includes each track from his three gospel LPs -- 1960's His Hand in Mine, 1967's How Great Thou Art, and 1972's He Touched Me -- plus scattered alternate takes that are previously unreleased. The third disc is padded out with an array of Elvis' sacred recordings that are easily available elsewhere, like the 13 gospel tracks on the raw Million Dollar Quartet session recorded at Sun in 1956, the "Gospel Medley" from his 1968 TV Special, and a version of "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley" originally aired on Ed Sullivan's television show. Though there's no doubt that Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings is a complete set, most Elvis fans will gain little from owning it.
John Bush, Rovi
How Great Thou Art, Elvis' second gospel album, had very different conceptions of gospel music on its two sides. The first side, including the title track and "In the Garden," was very "high church", with hymnal readings and quietly burbling organ accompaniment. The second side was a far more exciting proposition, with an alternately rocking or swinging piano, some breakneck tempos, and the type of performances more apt to be heard at the gospel singing meetings held in Memphis during Elvis' early years than at church (or, at least, most churches). Fans who prefer either Elvis the crooner or Elvis the rocker will, likewise, have different feelings about each side. On the first, Elvis is full-throated and sincere; on the second, it's easy to picture him cracking a smile as he leads the quartet on "So High" and "By and By." [A CD version with bonus tracks was released in 2008.]
John Bush, Rovi
Recorded live at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on the Cathedrals' farewell tour, A Farewell Celebration is a joyous, star-studded send-off featuring appearances by the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys, Bill Gaither, Sandi Patti, and Guy Penrod, to list a few of the most notable names. At a generous 27 tracks, fans aren't likely to be disappointed, and the performances are inspiring and polished.
Steve Huey, Rovi
This budget-priced, 18-track set from celebrated, Southern gospel family group the Hoppers may best 2000’s Homeland Records offering Shoutin' Time: The Best of the Hoppers by six cuts, but fans looking for the studio versions of some of their favorite tunes, specifically their biggest hit, “Shoutin’ Time,” will be disappointed, as all of the tracks on this collection are live recordings culled from the last two decades of the Gaither Homecoming series. This is indeed a spirited collection of modern gospel music from one of the genre’s biggest names, but it’s not a proper anthology.
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
For the record: Patty Loveless' Mountain Soul II is not a strict sequel to its 2001 predecessor. Whereas the former album was chock-full of bluegrass tunes both historical and contemporary, the sequel is a far more diverse collection that includes traditional songs, country music classics, and some new originals -- and yes, there are a couple of bluegrass tunes in the mix. Loveless and her husband, producer Emory Gordy, Jr., recruited a remarkable cast of players and backing vocalists, and wrote some stellar tunes to put alongside hallmark favorites on this mostly acoustic date. The guests are a star-studded list of session players and singers including Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rebecca Lynn Howard, steel boss Al Perkins, and fiddler Stuart Duncan, to mention only a slim few. The set opens with a mountain version of Harlan Howard's standard "Busted," featuring no less than bluegrass legend Del McCoury on guitar and lead chorus vocal and son Ronnie on mandolin; Rob Ickes plays Dobro and Bryan Sutton plays banjo (these latter three appear on multiple cuts). It's followed by an utterly moving version of Susannah Clark and Rodney Crowell's broken love song "Fools Thin Air," with Mike Auldridge on Dobro and Carl Jackson on banjo. There is a stellar vocal trio on the traditional "Friends in Gloryland," sung a cappella with Gill and Howard. The pair also appears with Loveless on the gorgeous "Blue Memories." Another a cappella number is Loveless and Gordy's "(We Are All) Children of Abraham," with the Burnt Hickory Primitive Baptist Congregation, who sound more like pre-Thomas Dorsey gospel music than the postwar historical model. There is a lovely version of Barbara Keith's "Bramble and the Rose," before the album closes with Kostas' tender leaving song "Feelings of Love" and "Diamond in My Crown," the latter penned by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. This last track, with Harris on tenor backing vocal and Butch Lee on a vintage pump organ, leaves the set on a haunting, lonesome note. Mountain Soul II is every bit as fine as the original Mountain Soul was, and is more adventurous. Loveless and Gordy make no concessions to contemporary country music and don't seem to give a damn about the charts. Loveless has built a following that may not be in the millions anymore, but it is plentiful enough in numbers to support her enthusiastically in whatever endeavor she attempts to undertake. And why not? Since 2000, every record she's released has been at least as good as the one that preceded it, and this is no exception.
Thom Jurek, Rovi
Sony's Southern Gospel Treasury is an adequate collection of the Inspirations re-creating many of their traditional Southern gospel hits, including "Is That Footsteps I Hear?," "Golden Street Parade," "When I Cross to the Other Side of Jordan," and "Touring That City." While it isn't definitive, it should suit the needs of casual fans.
Al Campbell, Rovi
Country gospel crooner Jason Crabb's first solo outing follows in the spiritual footsteps of his work with the Dove and Grammy Award-nominated Crabb Family. When the latter project was retired in 2007, Crabb signed with the Spring Hill Music Group and began assembling a talented team of writers and producers to help craft his eponymous debut. Steeped in the easy-to-digest contemporary Nashville gloss that has dominated radio since the early '90s, Crabb's emotive, evenhanded voice leads the charge on 12 empowering cuts, most of which fall under the "ballad" umbrella. Produced by Tommy Sims (Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith) and Norro Wilson (Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire), the album features appearances from country and gospel greats Vince Gill, Sonya Isaacs, and the Gaither Vocal Band.
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
As a preacher's son and as a protégé nurtured under the massive Bill Gaither gospel umbrella, country gospel singer Guy Penrod doesn't break any new musical ground on Hymns, but he effectively, and without much embellishment, explores the classic musical hymns of his childhood., Rovi