Bluegrass in my Blood


Pine Mountain Kentucky

Pine Mountain, Kentucky

I was born in the small town of Harlan, deep in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky. Southeastern Kentucky has close ties to parts of western West Virginia, southwestern Virginia; western North Carolina; and eastern Tennessee.  The entire region has a distinct culture that includes its own spoken dialect, cuisine and music. The mountains, culture and good people living there get in your blood and they’re impossible to forget, no matter how long or far one roams.  The regional music, widely known as Bluegrass, traces its roots back to Ireland, Scotland and England.

I find the music particularly enjoyable.  Bluegrass is notable for its combination of stringed instruments—specifically the banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Acoustic guitar and upright bass are common as well.  The music is also notable for many singers who care more about belting out the lyrics than staying in tune.  My affinity for Bluegrass music is something my wife tolerates, but doesn’t quite understand.  I’m particularly fond of the Bluegrass Gospel subgenre.  I grew up hearing it at home, at church and places all around our home.

Gospel Bluegrass tells the story of Jesus Christ as only mountain people can tell it.   If you’re not familiar with this music, it’s only fitting that I introduce you to it with a piece by Bill Monroe, who is commonly recognized as the “Father of Bluegrass.”  Since this is Holy Week, a good place to begin exploring is:

Were you there (when they crucified my Lord), performed by Bill Monroe.  It describes the feelings that many of the onlookers at Jesus’ crucifixion must have felt.

https://youtu.be/5EHP5Nj2BdE

Power in the Blood, performed by Dolly Parton.  It’s impossible to discuss Bluegrass music without the name of Dolly Parton coming up.  Dolly is a Tennessee girl whose voice is perfectly suited for the genre.  Her song of redemption discusses the power of Jesus’ blood to wash away our sins. “There’s power in the blood of the Lamb.”

https://youtu.be/B1CV-HtsMvc

I’m ready to go, performed by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Ricky Skaggs, a Kentucky native, is a multi-talented musician with a Bluegrass legacy dating back to the days of Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs.  Skaggs’ group Kentucky Thunder has a powerful, fast-paced style.  The group’s rendition of I’m ready to go is about salvation through Jesus Christ.  I promise it’ll get stuck in our head. “Jesus came in and saved my soul from sin, Hallelujah I’m ready to go.”

 https://youtu.be/pjrJKnVmQwQ

The darkest hour is just before dawn, performed by Emmylou Harris. Alabama native Emmylou Harris has proven herself in a variety of genres, including folk, rock, country and Bluegrass.  She slows down the tempo with a Ralph Stanley salvation song. “Lay down your soul, let Jesus in.”

https://youtu.be/_r0FtxqR9Pc

One can’t listen to Gospel Bluegrass without hearing a song about eternal life in heaven that’s promised to Christ’s believers.  Here are two examples.  The Stanley brothers slow it down with their rendition of Angel Band.   Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch pick it up with I’ll Fly Away.

Angel Band, performed by the Stanley Brothers. “Bear me away on your white wings to my immortal home.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIHFxIQfSxc

I’ll fly away, performed by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. “Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away, to a home on God’s celestial shore.”

https://youtu.be/sdRdqp4N3Jw?list=PL3BDAEBE555FB3CBF

Go Rest High on that Mountain, performed by Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, and Alison Krauss. No discussion of Gospel Bluegrass music is complete without Vince Gill’s epic Go Rest High on That Mountain, a song he penned in response to the death of country music singer Keith Whitley. Gill, an Oklahoma boy, is a talented songwriter, singer and guitarist whose work spans Bluegrass, country and rock.  His Bluegrass skills come out in this performance. “Go to heaven a shoutin’ love for the Father and the Son.”

https://youtu.be/NwFiWCUkk4M

So there you go—my guided tour through some of my favorite Bluegrass music that just happens to be Gospel.  If you’re having trouble deciding how to introduce someone to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, just head to YouTube, Spotify or one of your favorite streaming services and play them some Gospel Bluegrass music.  “Hallelujah, I’m ready to go!”

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