For The Sacred Shakers, there's nothing finer than old-time, country and blues-influenced gospel music. Think Hank Williams, The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers, Son House, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Beginning in 2005, that music drew a small but ever-widening circle of some of Boston's finest musicians and vocalists together at the Country Gospel Brunch concert series. In short order, The Boston Globe described the group as "a local Who's Who of all-star roots musicians." And last summer, after hearing a single live performance by The Sacred Shakers, indie Signature Sounds label owner Jim Olsen encouraged the group to record their repertoire. On their eponymous debut, The Sacred Shakers offer new life to the gospel genre by revisiting the stripped down country and bluesy gospel material that inspires them.
On The Sacred Shakers, respect is paid to the old tunes but don't look for a strict interpretation on this 14-track disc of mostly traditional gems plus a few gospel classics from Hank Williams and George Jones. Forget about the R&B grooves and slick sounds of modern gospel. Unlike many modern artists' versions of heavy spiritual tunes, the Shakers don't clean things up or over-produce and make it sound pretty. The Shakers simply play the songs and transition effortlessly from slower acoustic country/bluegrass like "Ready To Go Home," to their rollicking rockabilly version of the traditional "I'm Gonna Do My Best," and on to the droning blues of "Travelin' Shoes." As for the religious angle of these songs, the Shakers are an omni-denominational band, joining Christians, Jews and Agnostics to share this genuine, historic music with their believer and non-believer fans.
The beauty of The Sacred Shakers (live and on CD) is the easy mix and match of lead vocalists, with Fram taking lead backed up by Jewell's rich harmonies on some numbers, Beek and Jewell joining voices on another, and the pure ring of Glassman or Royer out in front on others all with some combination of the others voices not far behind. The choice of songs was an equally democratic process, as Beek puts it, "One of us heard a particular tune, brought it to the band and together we processed it through the Shaker format to come out sounding good and fun." That approach of putting a contemporary spin on older material follows the recipe Jewell, Beek, Sciascia and Miller took collectively as the Eilen Jewell Band on her internationally acclaimed 2007 label debut, Letters From Sinners & Strangers. Of Jewell's original songs and selection of covers, The Washington Post praised "her knack for giving older songs a traditional feel with modern flair." And like that debut, The Sacred Shakers is a wonderful distillation of classic folk, country and blues styles delivered by an unforgettable chorus of voices.