1. WHERE I STAND- Mike Bowling
Style: State-of-the-(ch)art country.
Worldview: "I'm gonna see Him face to face, / the one who saved me by His grace. / What a marvelous sight to behold! / And after all these years, / a lot of joy and tears, / Oh, what a thrill! / I've never seen Jesus, but I will."
Overall quality: Predictably, and sometimes overridingly, maudlin (with the notable exception of "Solid Rock and Shifting Sand").
2. SUNSHINE - Jeff & Sheri Easter
Style: Classic-sounding, if not quite vintage-sounding, country.
Worldview: "In His loving arms of mercy, He has held me through the years. / His blood covers every sin. I've found sweet peace at last. / I can't see the future, but He can't see my past."
Overall quality: Sentimentalism kept largely in check by soulful singing, catchy melodies, and a cover of Don Williams's "You're My Best Friend."
3. HEROES - The Isaacs
Style: Primarily acoustic, bluegrass-flavored country.
Worldview: "In as much as you've done to the least of these, / you've done unto Me. / There is no small service in the eyes of the Lord. / Great is thy reward."
Overall quality: Strong singing by multiple Isaacs and a mastery of various styles give this album an appeal slightly undercut by the title cut's preference for "heroes" over "heroines" when referring to women.
4. THE JOURNEY - Oak Ridge Boys
Style: "[T]he plan was to record . . . very traditional, rootsy, earthy songs about love, life, home, family-basically songs about real-life experiences. . . . The instrumentation would be very acoustic with lots of four-part harmony" (from the liner notes).
Worldview: "Oh brother, my dear brother, / your life could end today. / Except a man be born again, / he cannot see the way."
Overall quality: Lively forthrightness slightly undercut by occasional mawkishness.
5. PASSING THROUGH - Randy Travis
Style: Sparse, reflective, acoustic country.
Worldview: "My Grandpa, Lord knows I miss him, / and the way that he and Grandma looked at life. / And each day, I count my blessings, / to have that kind of love here by my side."
Overall quality: Esthetic integrity intact, Mr. Travis replaces his recent emphasis on salvation with an emphasis on the lives of those who work out their salvation in fear and trembling.
In the spotlight
One reason that country gospel remains among the most authentic sounding of American Christian musical styles is that, like black gospel, it existed within and for the edification of bodies of believers before it existed for the marketplace. Even now, when it exists as much for the marketplace as for the church, it proudly retains many traits of its "folk" origins, most notably voices inflected with Southern accents, lyrics characterized by down-home simplicity, and themes susceptible to the sentimentality that is the fly in down-home simplicity's ointment.
That such traits characterize the five albums contending for this year's Gospel Music Association "Country Album of the Year" is no surprise. What is surprising is that, the occasional predictability of their chord changes and clichés notwithstanding, they often find fresh ways to express old insights and music fresh enough to help those insights stick. And in those stretches when they contain neither, the professionalism insisted upon by the marketplace provides compensation.