CD Review: Stewart Varnado et al (The Southern Gospel Players, Volume 2)

RATING: 4 1/2 Stars

Producer: Stewart Varnado

Song Titles: “Just Over In The Gloryland,” “Down By The Riverside,” “Heaven Came Down,” “I Feel Like Traveling On,” “The Holy Hills,” “One More Valley,” “The Lighthouse,” “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “He Keeps Me Singing,” “Just A Little While,” and “The Unclouded Day”

In 2004, Stewart Varnado assembled more than 30 of the top studio and touring musicians in Southern Gospel to record The Southern Gospel Players (a release I included in my Top Five for that year}. Two years later, he’s done it again. Perhaps this will be an ongoing series. (The National Quartet Convention should take note of this pair of recordings. I think it’s potential fodder for a showcase and/or live video recording in the future. I know I’d be willing to pay to see a group of musicians like this on the same stage.)

The Southern Gospel Players, Volume 2 gets underway with “Just Over In The Gloryland.” About 50% of the track is actually Mark O’Connor‘s “A Bowl Of Bula,” which segues neatly into “Just Over In The Gloryland.” David Johnson is responsible for most of this track, playing five instruments including an acoustic guitar solo to contrast Varnado’s piano solos. A pounding bass guitar (Adam Borden) provides the foundation for “Down By The Riverside,” with a harmonica solo by Randy Miller and some thrilling organ licks courtesy of Gordon Mote. “Heaven Came Down” has a Steve W. Mauldin arranged string orchestra for a backdrop with Mike Riddle providing an acoustic guitar solo in addition to Varnado’s piano solos. “I Feel Like Traveling On” does indeed “travel on.” Varnado (piano), Jeff Tolbert (fiddle), Lewis Phillips (banjo), Jeremy Brown (electric guitar), Steve Easter (steel guitar), Randy Miller (harmonica), Stephanie Brown (mandolin), and Mike Riddle (acoustic guitar) all take solo breaks for an exciting up-tempo track.

The pace slows for “The Holy Hills,” giving Steve Easter and Jeff Tolbert opportunities to shine on the steel guitar and fiddle respectively. Gordon Mote returns to the organ seat on “One More Valley,” this time for a featured solo. He’s joined by Greg Ritchie (drums), Scoot Shelnut (bass guitar), Randy Miller (harmonica), Joel Key (electric guitar), and of course, Varnado (piano). “The Lighthouse” is similar in style to “The Holy Hills” due to the tempo and Les Butler‘s rhythm guitar in the background. This track isn’t particularly unique except for Steve Easter‘s diving steel guitar at the end that dips below the tonic and then slides back up. My favorite track on the CD is “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” Varnado has a slow piano introduction, then a Steve W. Mauldin arranged group of brass instruments kick in to give this cut a touch of a New Orleans jazz feel. Varnado comes back for another solo, followed by a blistering break by Roger Fortner (electric guitar), and then an even more blistering break by Jason Webb (piano). Dennis Murphy has a jungle rhythm moment with his toms before the brass kicks back in to close out the track.

Other selections on The Southern Gospel Players, Volume 2 include “If That Isn’t Love” with Jeff Easter playing harmonica and “He Keeps Me Singing” with Varnado’s hero Roger Bennett on a piano solo. Bryan Sutton has the most impressive guitar solo of the entire CD on “Just A Little While.” The CD closes with “The Unclouded Day,” featuring Varnado on both piano and vibraphone, Jason Webb on both organ and Fender Rhodes, and Kelly Back on electric guitar. If you’ll let your CD keep playing at the end of this track, you’ll hear a bit of silence, then a very “special” song. I won’t spoil the surprise other than to say the Cadillac Cowboys should be proud.

Varnado has drawn from a variety of musical styles while maintaining a consistent thread of quality. Coming up with arrangements and coordinating a large group of players is no small task. If you enjoyed the first SG Players CD, you should like this one as well. There is one difference in that there are no vocals on this CD. (The first one included three vocal solos.) Overall, The Southern Gospel Players, Volume 2 is what you’d expect from the best players in this business…well worth your money.


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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 and David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

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