(Host) The best selling soundtrack to the film “O Brother Where Art Thou” introduced a new audience to an old style of music that combines bluegrass and gospel. Now a relatively new band is bringing this music to Vermont audiences.
As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, “The Bluegrass Gospel Project” has put its own stamp on a traditional music with contemporary appeal.
(Zind) When Vermont fiddle player Gene White, Junior recruited musicians from as far away as Boston for the Bluegrass Gospel Project, he knew he had assembled a good group. What he didn’t know was how much these experienced musicians would enjoy playing together.
(White) “It wasn’t until we got together and some – yeah, good ju ju was going around.”
(Singing, “Crying holy unto my Lord”)
(Zind) The thing you notice first when the Bluegrass Gospel Project walks on stage is the size of the group. Seven members is too many for a typical bluegrass band. Mandolin player Taylor Armerding says that’s something they take advantage of.
(Armerding) “You can have different sounds out of this group. It’s almost like we have three or four bands here.”
(Zind) Having six singers also gives the group unusual versatility in arranging the close harmonies that are the heart of this music. Guitarist Andy Greene:
(Greene) “I’ve done things with this group that I never would have thought of before in other bluegrass bands.”
(Singing, “Twelve Gates to the City.”)
(Zind) Musically, there’s nothing complicated about these songs. But in the hands of the Bluegrass Gospel Project the combination of tight, high harmonies, strong melodies and uplifting lyrics packs an emotional punch.
(Singing, “City on a Hill”)
(Zind) Live, the band uses a stage set up out of the nineteen forties. Singer Patti Casey:
(Casey) “There’s a lot of choreography with seven of us around two mikes really close together. I find people actually say that that’s part of what was so appealing about us is watching us constantly moving. It’s like a dance.”
(Zind) Much of the band’s repertoire comes out of the mother lode of bluegrass gospel that dates back over half a century. But these songs are new to many people. Andy Green says the band’s audience isn’t especially religious, but gospel’s themes of struggle and redemption have universal appeal.
(Greene) “What I sensed from the audience when we first started playing was, whether they were believers or not in a Christian tradition, they really responded to the depth and the meaning of these tunes.”
(Singing, “Angel Band.”)
(Zind) And Greene says the music has the same effect on the people who play it.
(Greene) “One of our favorite songs is ‘Angel Band,’ which is a classic in the canon of bluegrass tunes. And I think the first time we played it we all just got a huge chill down our spines.”
(“Angel Band” continues.)
(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.
(Sound of applause.)
(Host) The Bluegrass Gospel Project has released two live albums. The production engineer for our story was Sam Sanders.