CD Review: Chuck Wagon Gang (70th Anniversary)

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RATING: 3 1/2 Stars

Label: Song Garden
Producers: Bobby All, Nick Bruno, and Robbie Hiner
Website: www.thechuckwagongang.net

Song Titles: “Daddy Sang Bass” (with the Oak Ridge Boys), “Life’s Railway To Heaven” (with Ricky Skaggs), “I Saw The Light” (with John Conlee), “Turn Your Radio On” (with George Jones), “Down The Road” (with the Jordanaires), “Wait A Little Longer, Please Jesus” (with Bill Anderson), “Grandma’s Feather Bed” (with the Brooks Brothers), “Looking For A City” (with Lulu Roman), “Heaven’s Jubilee” (with the Gatlin Brothers), “When The Wagon Was New” (with Billy Walker), “He Walks With The Wild And The Lonely” (with the Sons Of The Pioneers), and “Family Bible” (with Jack Greene)

The Chuck Wagon Gang celebrates 70 years with a collection of 12 songs produced in their classic style. Each track also features a country artist, giving the sound of 70th Anniversary a contrast to other Gang recordings. Familiar titles like “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Life’s Railway To Heaven” and “I Saw The Light” are joined by lesser known titles like “Wait A Little Longer, Please Jesus,” “Down The Road,” “When The Wagon Was New,” and the humorous “Grandma’s Feather Bed.”

If you’ve ever heard the Gang sing, you know what to expect. Before hearing this CD for the first time, I wondered how much the guests might affect the overall sound. The answer is…not much. Eleven of the twelve songs are arranged strictly in the traditional Chuck Wagon Gang style. Acoustic and bass provide the primary accompaniment with a bit of piano to fill out the mix. On most tracks, the Gang sings the first verse and chorus, the guest artist sings the second verse, and they conclude the song together.

Some guests appear to be holding back vocally in order to stay within the context of the Chuck Wagon Gang style. On the opening song, “Daddy Sang Bass,” Richard Sterban resists the temptation to drop the bottom out while Joe Bonsall strains to reach the B over middle C. It would have sounded a lot better if it had been pitched a minor third or so lower. Ricky Skaggs stays in baritone range for his verse on “Life’s Railway To Heaven,” only coloring the melody slightly with a few bluegrass style passing tones. At least you can identify Skaggs and the Oaks, though, unlike the Gatlin Brothers, whose verse on “Heaven’s Jubilee” lacks any of their distinctive vocal traits.

Other artists are more aggressive in putting their own vocal stamp on 70th Anniversary. His vocal tone would have probably been enough, but John Conlee takes additional liberties with his verse on “I Saw The Light” to let you know it’s really him. The same can be said for George Jones on “Turn Your Radio On.” Bill Anderson adds one of his trademark whispering narrations to “Wait A Little Longer, Please Jesus.” “Grandma’s Feather Bed” is positioned at track seven, featuring the Brooks Brothers and providing a lighthearted contrast to the more serious tunes.

On “Looking For A City,” Lulu Roman only stands out from the group when she delays a rhythm slightly or modifies the melody line. This isn’t due to her holding back, though. Her style and tone quality are similar enough that she could actually be a Chuck Wagon Gang alto if she sang rhythms more strictly. “When The Wagon Was New” features Billy Walker, who died in an automobile accident in May 2006. “He Walks With The Wild And The Lonely” is the one song on 70th Anniversary that sounds like it was selected and arranged with the traditional style of the guest artist in mind more than traditional style of the Chuck Wagon Gang. The Sons Of The Pioneers sound right at home on musical phrases that emphasize minor chords with a wailing accordian providing fills.

70th Anniversary comes with an attractive booklet. A collection of photographs dating back to the original group is included (courtesy of former member Harold Timmons). Each guest participant has also written a few of their impressions about the Gang. Former member Ronnie Page wrote the introduction. Unfortunately, the project does not credit the songwriters or include copyright dates in the liner notes, so I couldn’t satisfy my curiosity regarding whether or not the songs I didn’t recognize as classics were recently written or if all the songs on this CD were from days gone by

Overall, 70th Anniversary makes a handsome addition to the legacy of the Chuck Wagon Gang. A few aspects could have been improved. Finding more middle ground on arrangements rather than trying to bring the guest artists entirely into the Gang’s musical world would have been nice. Starting the CD with three songs in the same key (G) perpetrates the notion that all the group’s songs sound just alike. On a positive note, the historical significance of the group’s contributions to gospel music have been adequately emphasized, and that was, after all, the primary point of putting this project on the market. Including easily recognizable guest artists on a project with such historical significance is probably a wise marketing move.

Category CD Reviews

David Bruce Murray

David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

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