various artists,
Christmas the Mountain Way
(Rural Rhythm, 2012)

This bluegrass Christmas album is not entirely either. Many of Christmas the Mountain Way's 15 songs are set to tastefully low-key acoustic stringband arrangements. That's because "hard-driving banjo" is not a practice or an adjective likely to be associated with "O Holy Night," "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger." Others have made the attempt, and the results usually aren't pretty. Some cuts on the disc are hymns and gospel numbers singable any time of the year.

That noted, let it be further said that this is a pleasantly satisfying exercise as such things go. Rural Rhythm's roster includes some of the most gifted artists of bluegrass' present generation, and they're well represented. Only the crystalline-throated Dale Ann Bradley, on stage to contribute a stirring reading of "In the Sweet By and By," is borrowed from a competing indie label (Compass).

Recorded live at the Bell Theater in Pineville, Ky., in June 2012, Mountain Way boasts the heavy-duty likes of Marty Raybon and Audie Blaylock (each on two cuts), who are usually counted among current bluegrass' most accomplished male vocalists. Brad Gulley's singing on "O Holy Night," long my favorite Christmas carol, isn't bad by any stretch, either.

Among the other highlights, there's the affecting hymn "Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus," ably performed by Mike & Brenda Scott. I think I've heard "Amazing Grace" as many times as I want to and then some, but Debbie Gulley handles it capably enough; you'll enjoy it if you haven't reached your own quota quite yet. "Go Tell It on the Mountain," delivered by a group of local children, shades, alas, into cuteness. One wishes this magnificent old African-American spiritual had been given over to the adults. It would have made for a stand-out cut.

A nicely produced accompanying DVD documents the concert and also provides, if you're interested, commentary from the various artists.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 December 2012

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