If the Spirit Moves You
The Bluegrass Gospel Project shine on
The Bluegrass Gospel Project
It was supposed to be a one-night stand. In 2001, when First Night Burlington organizers approached veteran local fiddler Gene White about putting together a special bluegrass group for the annual celebration, he never imagined the band would last beyond that night’s fireworks. But now, after six albums, one lead singer change and concerts all over New England, the Bluegrass Gospel Project have become a Vermont staple. The band’s latest record, Shine, was released in late July. As part of a regional run of shows supporting that record, the BGP will play the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph this Saturday, October 20.
“I would call it ‘organically developed,’” says White of the group’s evolution from one-off to Green Mountain music cornerstone. His previous band, the well-regarded bluegrass act Breakaway, had broken up earlier in 2001. At the time, White was taken with a recording by the Stanley Gospel Tradition featuring members of the legendary bluegrass band the Stanley Brothers. Prior to hearing that album, White says, he was unaware of the DNA shared by gospel and bluegrass music.
“I was shockingly naïve,” he admits.
When recruiting members for the BGP and considering the band’s repertoire, White says, he frequently returned to that Stanley Brothers classic. And the sound continues to inform the band now as it expands into wider, even contemporary, territory.
“It’s become our general default preference,” says White of the band’s gospel-grass hybrid. “We’re fixated on the rich lore that comes with both the bluegrass and gospel traditions.”
Just like each of their previous albums, Shine is a mix of classic bluegrass and gospel numbers — by bands such as the Louvin Brothers — juxtaposed with modern tunes that have been reworked into traditional settings — think U2 with fiddle — plus a few originals.
“For us, it’s all about the song,” White explains. “If it’s a well-written song and isn’t embarrassing to translate into an acoustic setting, we’ll do it.”
White says the band’s experiments covering pop music haven’t always been successful. He recalls bringing an arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” to the group. “That one never got legs,” he says, chuckling.
But when it works, it really works. Covering Brett Dennen’s “Heaven” on Shine, lead vocalist Colby Crehan — flanked by Steve Light’s lilting banjo — gives Dennen’s contemplative elegy a soothing texture with her plaintive delivery.
“She really gets that song across,” says White, adding that “Heaven” is a good example of the band’s secular appreciation for gospel music. “We’re not particularly interested in the religious aspects of gospel, exactly,” he says. “We love the sound, but we’re not super Jesus-y, for lack of a better term.” Instead, the BGP look for music that is “spiritual in nature.”
Crehan, who also fronts the local folk band PossumHaw, joined the BGP in late 2007. She succeeds the band’s original singer — a Vermont institution in her own right — songwriter Patti Casey. Initially, Crehan says, she felt intimidated by Casey, whose brassy, dynamic style had come to define the BGP. “She is a wonderful singer, but I was very careful not to mimic Patti,” says Crehan, who takes a softer approach.
Cautious of the powerful influence of Casey’s inimitable style, Crehan immersed herself in the BGP catalog just long enough to learn the melodies for each song. “I needed to find a way to make these songs my own,” she says.
“Colby considers every note she sings,” notes White. “But she’s also very naturally gifted.”
He credits Crehan’s work ethic and humility for smoothing the band’s transition, which also included replacing original bassist Jim DiSabito with Kirk Lord.
“I always freak out a little bit over personnel changes,” says White. “But as soon as Colby sang at the audition, any and all concerns evaporated immediately. When she sings, everybody just shuts up and listens.”
Shine, like the BGP albums before it, is composed of live tracks recorded at concerts, making listeners feel like they’re at a show.
“I’m always disappointed when I see a great concert and then listen to the record and it doesn’t sound anything like what I just heard,” explains White. “So with the BGP, we want our records to represent what you hear and feel when you see us live.”
Which, some might say, is a kind of religious experience.
The Bluegrass Gospel Project perform at the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph this Saturday, October 20, 7:30 p.m. $19/22.