I saw Volume 5 at Merlefest and was immediately struck that I hadn’t of heard them before. Great musicians, very nice presentation, and some great story songs and ballads—a very complete package all around.
But (you could sense this coming, couldn’t you) this album, The Day We Learn to Fly is a bit of a departure for them in that it’s their first release of entirely gospel songs. All the things I appreciated of the band when I saw them live are here. “Nothing But the Water” is a great a cappella piece showcasing the vocal strength of the group. The production is crystalline, as is the playing and the arrangements.
Where it falls short, at least in terms of a secular audience, is the songwriting. Gospel is, of course, a component of bluegrass music. But can we judge gospel songs in the same way we do secular songs? “Tennessee Stud,” for example, tells a story; there is movement and drama, and that’s one of the reasons that its been recorded so many times. It’s just a great song.
I think there are lots of gospel songs that are great in exactly the same way. “O Death” by Ralph Stanley found a huge audience, and I’d say it’s because of the strength of the song, not the level of devotion within the audience. Some people, no doubt, approached it from a place of belief. Others, I’m certain, didn’t, and nevertheless were moved by the song and by the performance.
Indeed, Ralph Stanley is one of those musicians who stands as an example of how great gospel songwriting can be, and he also demonstrates that the division between gospel and secular doesn’t require a different approach to the music. There is drama, movement, and the songs work unto themselves. The songs are less about the product—a communion with God—than it is the process, the rocky road that leads a person there. For me, I’m more interested in the sins than I am the forgiveness.
Not so for Volume 5. In “Miracle Today” we hear that the narrator’s life has gone astray. But what did he do? His life is full of blame, apparently, but he doesn’t tell us why. And without it, there goes the drama, the real dimension of the story. The same is true of “Until I Found the Lord.” This guy has troubles, that’s plain, but good Lord, what the heck did he do? We never find out, though that’s what the song, if it were really to work on its own, needs to be about. The only glimpse of any real storytelling is “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.”
Elsewhere is the typical stick-to-the-straight-and-narrow admonishment, as in “Color Between the Lines” and “Get Down and Pray.” Also are a few cliché statements of how great it will be to die, as in “The Day We Learn to Fly” and “When We are Called to Meet Him.” I suppose there is someone who likes listening to this kind of stuff, but it’s not me. A friend of mine who is a minister complains at times that religion in North America is a mile wide and an inch deep. The writing here supports that claim.