Prime Cuts: Let the Hard Times Roll, Sweet River, Cold Day in Hell
If Alison Krauss is the angel of Roots and Bluegrass music, John Bowman is the male counterpart. With his light and earthy tenor that calls to mind the late John Denver, Bowman emotes an organic serenity in the notes he articulates. Try listening to Bowman's tunes after a trying and stressful day at work, and you will feel that his voice not only has a therapeutic effect but it functions like a mighty vessel of the Holy Spirit to comfort our souls. Yet, vocally he is not aloof, stuck up in the untouchable arches of religiosity. Rather, there's an affecting congeniality about his vocal expressions that you feel like he's a good friend who has come alongside of you with a trove of wisdom dug out of Holy Scripture to impart.
For the unacquainted, it's safe to say a word of introduction about Bowman: Plying through his resume, one is easily impressed that he has played guitar for both Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Alison Krauss & Union Station. Bowman can also be found playing the fiddle for J.D. Crowe & the New South, the banjo and the fiddle with The Isaacs, and he has also contributed the sounds of banjo, fiddle and guitar for The Boxcars. Since 1997, Bowman has been ordained as a pastor. "Beautiful Ashes" is his second CD since Bowman has left Boxcars and it's the much anticipated follow-up to last year's worship project "Worship Him."
Nevertheless, the first thing to say about the album is that "Beautiful Ashes" is a schizophrenic record which starts off with Christian-country tunes before easing into the standard Christian-bluegrass stuff. Frankly, Bowman would have been better off sticking to the country-Christian material as he truly does it without peer. In fact, the first three cuts here are way beyond sublime. The album kicks off with Bowman's rendition of Lionel Cartwright's hit "Let the Hard Times Roll" (albeit with newly written Christian lyrics inserted). This is country music not of today: but it's a return back to country music of the early 90s where melodies are still in existence and audible without being buried by snap drums and jangly electric guitars.
"Ashes," the first of Woody Wright's compositions, chugs along with beautifully with seamless harmonies and rustic banjos. Words really can't describe the beauty of "Cold Day in Hell" (another Wright handiwork). Functioning like a modern day C. S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters," Bowman sings about how the devil's kingdom gets assaulted when Christians live out the Gospel. The piano ballad "Sweet River" is stunning. With just Bowman's vocals on center stage backed by just a grand piano, "Sweet River" is a prayer for the unleashing power of the Holy Spirit. Bowman, on the other hand, sticks very closely to Tim Menzies "Lies the Devil Told Me," which is still a must-hear.
As for the bluegrass-bent material, Bowman still excels vocally, but the tunes and executions pale in contrast with the aforementioned tracks. If the album were to stick to the Christian-country genre in its entirety, this CD would be indispensable.