I Firmly Promise You

Feller & Hill

Tommy Hillpicker Records , 2015


REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


I Firmly Promise You is the third release from bluegrass group Feller & Hill, and in keeping with a long running tradition in bluegrass music, they have opted to do an all gospel album for this effort. Their approach is a bit different from many other bluegrass gospel endeavors. This album takes some of the classic southern gospel hits from the 1970s and turns them into bluegrass tracks. The result is a sound that mixes the classic four part harmony of Southern gospel, including a deep rich bass end, and superimposes it over mandolins and banjos. The drawback of this approach is really in the song selection, as I will get into later.

I have always felt that many Southern gospel songs can be played well as bluegrass gospel tracks. Even in the hits that you hear in Southern gospel music today, if you strip away the often audacious and supercilious production, there is a solid song underneath that will flow well into the stripped-down style of the bluegrass genre. In fact, if you listen to some of the early albums from the strictly bluegrass gospel Primitive Quartet, or the half and half group Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, they were often taking songs popularized by the Rambos, the Hinsons, etc, and making them flow into their bluer shade of grass.  Feller & Hill are replicating that approach, but with a bit more attention paid to having Southern gospel sounding vocals.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Case in point:  “The First Million Years” and “I Firmly Promise You” were both performed by the influential North Carolina group The Inspirations way back when. Vocally, Feller & Hill sound almost exactly like they did decades ago. They reach back even further, to sounds of the ‘40s and ‘50s era Chuck Wagon Gang with “Echoes From The Burning Bush” and “I Found A Hiding Place” (with a little Bill Monroe version mixed into this last one). “Let My People Live” takes a page from the Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver a cappella arrangement style, and Fountain Of Love sounds like the classic duo groups like Flatt & Scruggs and the Osborne Brothers.

One of the drawbacks of the album comes in a few of the song selections. “The First Million Years” is done in a syrupy slow fashion. This approach is to make it almost sound like a parody of a Southern gospel song rather than a serious attempt. “Build My Mansion” and “In The Garden” are done in a similar way, and the whole premise of “Build My Mansion” – which is about wanting to have a mansion in heaven that is built next door to Jesus – reminds me of the argument in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 10:35-45) between disciples about sitting at the right and left hand of Jesus when they got up there. They were clearly rebuked for such an argument, but then here comes this Southern gospel tune that has always garnered some popularity since it was written. “Walking My Lord Up Calvary's Hill” is a decent song, but the spoken word recitation on the refrain detracts from the tune.

I Firmly Promise You pays great homage to the Southern gospel greats and the classic songs they imparted to the world. The bluegrass approach works well on many tracks, but for others, the rendering is almost satirical. I do wish that more groups would find solid Southern gospel tunes and give them the bluegrass spin.

Rating: B-

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