The vocal power and grace of the Chuck Wagon Gang, in its current iteration, is astonishing and little short of transcendent. As Marty Stuart observes in his heartfelt liner notes for The Gang’s new CD: “The songs and the singing are crystal clear. Beautiful words wrapped in sounds that touch my heart, give me hope, fill my soul with peace and paint a picture in my mind of God’s eternal heaven.” As Stuart reminds us, it’s more than fitting that one of the most esteemed and enduring gospel-roots vocal groups should pay such a heartfelt and exquisitely rendered tribute to the family band that preceded it—and more or less defined the genre.
The Chuck Wagon Gang was founded in 1935 (just eight years after The Carter Family made their earliest landmark recordings) and is currently headed by alto singer Shaye Smith, granddaughter of founding member Anna Carter Gordon Davis and long-time guitarist Howard Gordon, who served in the group during the 1950s and 1960s. The current, third-generational lineup also includes singers Melissa Kemper and Stan Hill, along with guitarist Karl Smakula.
The Gang went to great lengths and did extensive research before settling on these 12 cuts. As explained in the accompanying promotional material, they focused on songs that meaningfully portray The Carter Family’s musical signature, while fitting The Gang’s signature four-part harmonies and subtle instrumental accompaniment. Nearly all the songs are in the public domain and some are familiar gospel classics. Yet, they’ve seldom been interpreted with such crystal-clear fervency.
The opening cut “When Our Lord Shall Come Again” (written by Johnson Oatman and R.L. Ferguson) presents an apocalyptic vision of the end days with soaring harmonies that almost feel like the power of salvation itself. The group brings similar vivid rejuvenation to standards such as Frederick Graves’ “Honey In The Rock” and A.P. Carter’s “On The Rock Where Moses Stood.”
Much credit also goes to David Johnson, who not only co-produced No Depression In Heaven with Jeff Collins, but also plays acoustic, electric, and resonator guitar, and mandolin, fiddle, and cello on various tracks. Aside from the guitar, all these instruments are deftly applied as subtle, low-key window dressing to the incredible vocal music. (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.mountainhomemusiccompany.com.)BA