By Aaron Keith Harris
Family bands have made some of the best bluegrass and gospel music, and these two single-disc collections remind us why of the Forbes Family’s immense achievement and influence in what was a relatively short recording career.
The Forbes Family—siblings Homer (banjo, fiddle, lead and harmony vocals), Jay (mandolin, Dobro, and bass vocals), Lisa (lead vocals), and Lori (acoustic bass and harmony vocals), with Tracy Keenan on guitar—recorded four albums in their middle teens in central Pennsylvania before moving to North Carolina in 1984 to be closer to markets more hospitable to bluegrass gospel—at the ages of 17, 18, 19, and 20, by the way. All but six of the 36 tracks on these two discs come from their run of four classic albums on Rebel Records in the 1980s, which now seem to be out-of-print: Gleams of That Golden Morning (1984), I’m Just a Pilgrim (1985), Outside the Gate (1985, with David Marshall), and Farewell (1988). (The group later reunited for I’ll Look to Him (1995) and, with Ron Block as producer, In the Shadow of Your Wings (1996), both on Rebel Records.)
With the Marshall Family as a primary influence, it’s not surprising that these songs and their sumptuous harmonies—many of them with a cappella arrangements, or with concise, clean instrumental backing, sometimes applied after a brief a cappella opening line or two—sound simple, soft, and beautiful. Keep listening, though, and you’ll hear the intricate, precise arrangements that can only be perfected through years and years of singing together.
Anyone who grew up in a church with well-worn hymnals tucked into the back of wooden pews will welcome the Forbes’ gentle and hopeful readings of standards like “In My Robe Of White,” “The Old Ship Of Zion,” “Gloryland,” “Jesus, I’ll Never Forget,” “Fill My Way Every Day With Love,” and, especially, “Blessed Assurance” and “Softly And Tenderly.”
Tracks more familiar to the typical bluegrass music fan fit nicely with this matrial, including Claire Lynch’s “Come Unto Me,” Carter Stanley’s “A Vision of Mother,” Alan O’Bryant’s “The Other Side of Life,” and “Satan’s Jeweled Crown,” made popular by the Louvin Brothers. Their cover of the Marshall Family’s “Two Roads” includes David Marshall on vocals, guitar, and mandolin, and evokes not only Southern and bluegrass gospel harmonies, but the more ancient tones of the British Isles.
“The Whale Swallowed Jonah,” “Talk About Suffering,” “Lord Don’t Leave Me Here,” “Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long,” “My Rock,” “Fill My Way Every Day with Love,” “I Need Jesus,” and the previously unreleased “Jesus Gave Me Water” and “I Have a Father Who Can” stand alongside the very best American a cappella gospel quartet singing ever put to record, regardless of race or era. (Fans of the Isaacs are familiar with that group’s show-stopping take on the latter track, a fiery, yet faithful, reading of the Forbes’ arrangement.)
Homer Forbes’ “The Things I Used to Do,” Dolly Parton’s “Sacred Memories,” and the Marshall Family’s “Something That The World Didn’t Give Me” and “I Just Want to Thank You Lord” are also previously unreleased recordings, all of which were recorded prior to the four albums from which the rest of this collection is taken, making these two discs an essential document for everyone from the most dedicated Forbes Family aficionado eager to hear what they sounded like between their early albums (also now out-of-print) and their classic period to the listener lucky enough to discover this classic group for the first time.