I swear to God, I said those words, out loud, multiple times during my initial listen to Mike Roe’s history of southern gospel music, We All Gonna Face the Rising Sun.
Perhaps it speaks to the paucity of my vocabulary or the degradation of my spirit that, when awed, I am reduced to cursing. Or maybe it’s evidence that this album demands a strong reaction. After all, some listeners may recoil at Roe’s appropriation of material so particular to another time, another place and another culture. Others maybe balk at Roe’s absolute sincerity, of which he said, “These songs make me tremble in my boots, I cannot sing these and not feel it every time I sing them. I picked songs I need to hear.” Suffice to say, it’s a difficult album to ignore.
Even most die-hard music obsessive will be unaware of singer/guitarist Mike Roe’s almost 30-year career. Roe only bobbed above the mainstream when his ‘80s roots-rock band (sort of a heavier R.E.M.) the 77’s released a brilliant album on Island Records, the same week as U2’s The Joshua Tree, which utterly consumed that label’s resources.
For this album, Roe is on his own. He sang all the vocals, played almost every instrument (including the banjo which he’d never played on record before) and produced it all in his own home. What he’s produced is a virtuoso one-man show. Roe’s a fine musician, but it’s his voice — a supple instrument, alternately sweet and stinging — that is the gob-smack here.
The songs he sings here could well act as an introduction to the prodigious Goodbye Babylon, a six CD box-set of pre-war Southern gospel, so revelatory that Bob Dylan was moved to buy a grateful Neil Young a copy. Like the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, Goodbye Babylon erased the old ethnic segregation, which once saw one chart for “race” records and another for “hillbilly” ones.
With the period songs he tracked down, Roe weaves together multiple musical idioms, black and white, as Bob Dylan did on his first album back in 1962. Here Roe puts on even more masks than the young Dylan; on “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” he’s a slide-guitar wielding shouter, on “We Need More Rattlesnakes” he’s telling Luke the Drifter-style homilies, on “You Can’t Go Halfway” he’s singin’ all high n’ lonesome, then, with a little multi-tracking, he becomes a full-blown gospel quartet on the title track. Every guise is not equally successful, and occasionally one finds oneself wishing for the guiding hand of a T-Bone Burnett (who produced Oh Brother as well as Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant) but the achievement remains stunning nonetheless.
On the 77’s 1982 debut album Roe sang Washington Phillips’ (via Ry Cooder) “Denomination Blues” and here he interprets Phillips’ “Paul and Silas in Jail.” Back in ’82 he nailed “Denomination Blues,” but in a most literal way, as a young seminarian might rigidly interpret a single bible verse. In “Paul and Silas in Jail,” as on almost every track here, you can now hear Roe wrestling with the poverty, suffering and degradation intrinsic to the origins of these indomitable songs. Roe has said, “I don’t really know the true story (of the songs), they’re all like ghosts to me.” Whatever listener reaction he garners from this work, Roe has given these ghosts his voice, a voice as fiery as the rising sun.