Spurred on by a hit debut at the 2010 National Quartet Convention, the New Gospel Singing Caravan is a joint venture of the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Blackwood Brothers, and the LeFevre Quartet. This interesting conglomeration of gospel styles and formats is touring together on select dates, and Keeps On Rolling Along is their debut recording. The original inspiration, of course, is the highly successful Gospel Singing Caravan of the 1960s, which included the Blue Ridge Quartet, the LeFevres, the Prophets, and the Johnson Sisters.
Modern fans may be reminded of the acclaimed Jubilee series created by Greater Vision, Legacy Five, and the Booth Brothers. While there are similarities, there a couple of key differences with this New Gospel Singing Caravan recording. First, the groups are featured as separate entities in only one song; the vast majority of singing is done by the “choir” of voices from all three groups. Secondly, almost all of the songs are of the convention style. Those two factors work together to create a very pleasing sound, as if you were listening in on an actual gospel singing convention.
The songs have typical quartet arrangements, with the mixed format of the Chuck Wagon Gang differentiating it from a completely quartet sound. To my ear, on most songs, alto Shaye Smith sings with the quartet tenors, and soprano Julie Hudson sings an octave above the baritones. The blend is full and well-rounded in the choir format. The instrumentation is comprised primarily of traditional piano, bass, and drums, which is somewhat of a departure from the simple acoustic style of the Chuck Wagon Gang. My only real negative about the recording is that when the tenor/alto group gets solo lines (which happens often in these convention songs), they seem to lean too heavily toward the Chuck Wagon sound, with less power than I would have liked. With the “louder” instrumentation, I would have liked to have heard more volume and edge out of the tenor/alto slot. But that’s a minor complaint.
The project opens with the theme song of the original Gospel Singing Caravan, “This Great Caravan Keeps on Rolling Along”. I’ve always loved this Vep Ellis classic, and the New Gospel Singing Caravan gives a standard, but delightful, rendition. Most of the other songs on the project are similar, just-how-it’s-written, arrangements of convention classics sung by the “choir”, including “Wait Upon the Lord”, “I’m Too Near Home”, “Oh, the Glory Did Roll”, “Crown Him King”, and “Old Daniel Prayed”. “Sinner’s Plea” is from the same era, but is atypical in its very slow tempo, with jazzy harmonies.
There are two newer songs, but from the same convention style. “I Always Have a Song to Sing”, composed by Jerry Kelso, was recorded in 2008 by the Mark Trammell Trio. The MTT arrangement is simplified in the chorus, while here it is presented with all four contrapuntal parts. Luther Presley and Wally Varner’s “Crown Him King” was mentioned above, but the Dianne Wilkinson song of the same name is also present on this recording. Previously recorded by the Inspirations in 2009, it is a very fun and well-crafted song that fits in perfectly with convention standards of yesteryear.
The three remaining songs are the ones that deviate most notably from the choir format. “I’ve Found a Hiding Place” has various individuals from the three groups taking their turn singing the step-out lines in the chorus. “Revival Days” features each of the three groups separately in a verse and chorus. The project closes with the only non-convention song on the project. “How Great Thou Art” includes solos in the verses from Mike LeFevre, Jimmy Blackwood, and others, with the chorus delivered by the choir. In this song, more than any other, you get a feel for just how different the voices are individually, from mountain to traditional to modern. Yet, when the voices combine, it is very effective.
You should not buy this project looking for a variety of styles and fresh, progressive arrangements. But if you are, like me, a big fan of traditional convention-style gospel music, this project is a must-own. If you are a newer fan and may not be familiar with this old-fashioned style, it would be an excellent primer on southern gospel’s singing convention tradition. Keeps on Rolling Along is a well-executed nod to history for a new generation of gospel music fans.
Album rating: 4.5 stars
- This Great Caravan Keeps on Rolling Along (Vep Ellis)
- Crown Him King (Dianne Willkinson)
- Sinner’s Plea (Joe Roper)
- I Always Have a Song to Sing (Jerry Kelso)
- Wait Upon the Lord (J.B. Coats)
- Revival Days (Jimmy E. Jones)
- I’m Too Near Home (Charles B. Wycuff)
- Oh, the Glory Did Roll (G.T. Speer)
- Crown Him King (Luther G. Presley/Wally Varner)
- Old Daniel Prayed (G.T. Speer)
- I’ve Found a Hiding Place (Albert E. Brumley)
- How Great Thou Art (Carl Gustav Boberg/Stuart K. Hine)
Daywind/Song Garden joint release
Release date: 5/3/11
Review copy provided