Why the gospel songs of Joe Isaacs have not been better covered by bluegrass bands defies understanding. Lack of quality of composition can’t be the reason, nor can lack of name recognition, and yet the fact remains. Enter John Bowman, who has taken the first step toward correcting this shortfall, releasing this 13-track CD of Joe Isaacs’ songs. Joining Bowman, who plays the guitar and banjo and sings all the leads, are reso-guitarist Rob Ickes, bassist Ben Isaacs, fiddler Jimmie Edmonds and mandolinist Adam Steffey.
In the bluegrass community, Joe Isaacs’ best-known tune is “I Pressed Through The Crowd,” recorded by numerous groups. Here, Bowman offers a slow, spare arrangement of solo guitar and voice, focusing you on the lyrics, but also on the emotion of a man seeking comfort and healing. Bowman’s tenor-pitched, clear and gentle voice and his delivery full of wonder and reverance gives this song a presence that, even though he sings beautifully and emotionally throughout this CD, cannot be matched.
All the rest of the tunes receive full band treatment and the tempos stay predominantly in the medium and slow range, with one or two exceptions. At the faster end are three highlight tracks, “Ye Men Of Galilee,” “He’s My Constant Companion” and “I’ll Sail For Higher Ground.” All three are cast in traditional bluegrass form and are guaranteed to get the spirit moving, especially “Ye Men…” which has a compelling old-time gospel feel. On the other end, the highlight tunes are the slow-timed “The Garden Tomb” and “Tired Of Sin,” the latter a re-telling of the prodigal son story. “The Garden Tomb,” in particular, underscores Isaacs’ writing skills. To fold into the rhyme scheme, such rich detail of the two woman visiting Jesus’ grave to annoint his body is truly masterful.
Perhaps with Bowman’s tribute, more bluegrass bands will discover Joe Isaacs’ songwriting mastery. (Crossroads Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.) BW