Gospel music has been a part of the bluegrass repertoire since the beginning. Its significance, however, has increased dramatically in the 20 years since Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver released Rock My Soul. Since then, it’s been demanded that Southern all-male bluegrass bands be able to deliver both kickass secular grass and gospel quartets.

Which leads us to that bluegrass band rite of passage: the all-gospel album. Mountain Heart faces that challenge with The Journey, a living lesson on the impact that gospel music and groups in that tradition (such as Third Tyme Out) have made on contemporary Southern bluegrass.

For one thing, the music of small African-American gospel ensembles such as The Soul Stirrers, The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Swan Silvertones has become cool in bluegrass. Here, Mountain Heart delivers an unusual and rockin’ a capella arrangement of “The Gospel Train.” Then there’s two slow, closer-to-contemporary- Christian-than-bluegrass showpieces: the nearly perfect “The Scars in His Hand” and the eight-plus minute “Not Long For This Earth,” which includes bowed basses and cellos by Hillsborough’s Robbie Link (inspired by Bill Monroe’s “My Last Days On Earth”). The killer cut is the jazzy original, “John,” featuring the vocals of Mountain Heart founders Steve Gulley and Barry Abernathy (the latter a veteran of both Doyle, Lawson & Quicksilver and Third Tyme Out) above the razor-sharp playing of guests Missy Raines, Jim Hurst and Rob Ickes.

And, yes, The Journey includes bluegrass: “The Hill Lone & Gray,” for one, slowburns gloriously at midtempo for five minutes–long for bluegrass–while “What a Time in Heaven” exemplifies what could be called traditional bluegrass gospel. The lead track, “Wings of Love,” provides a lovely example of yet another trend: converting Southern gospel material into straight-ahead bluegrass. With outstanding arrangements, strong original material, exceptional variety and heavenly singing, Mountain Heart’s The Journey is state-of-the-art bluegrass gospel.