Guitarist Ward Darby has spent six decades immersed in a range of styles that touch virtually every corner of the American roots musical landscape. Since his teenage years in the 1950's, he has demonstrated a high level of songwriting and instrumental talent in country and western, rock and roll, jazz, rhythm and blues and beyond.
But even before Darby’s teenage years, it was the stirring gospel sounds of the church in his hometown of War, West Virginia that made the first – and perhaps most enduring – imprint on his musical sensibilities. It was here that he discovered the emotional and spiritual power of music for the first time.
“These are the songs that I remember from my youth,” says Darby, who currently works in and around Branson, Missouri, his home for more than a decade. “I’ve had many requests over the years from friends and fans to play guitar on some of these songs. It was suggested that I record them, so I did. I have a small recording system in my home. I did it, and people received it very well, so we decided to go ahead and do it with a more polished production.”
The 16 tracks on "Old Gospel Guitar" include several titles that are familiar to all – even those with only a casual acquaintance with the gospel tradition. The songs are deceptive in their arrangements – seemingly simple, but actually built on complex but carefully balanced combinations of melody, harmony and bass lines.
From the opening notes of the hushed “The Old Rugged Cross,” his quiet but earnest sense of spirituality shines through. The slightly more upbeat followup track, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” is built on a steady backbeat that gives it a decidedly country flavor.
The melancholy “Mansion Over the Hilltop” is slightly more elastic in tempo, while the children’s classic, “Jesus Loves Me,” is delivered in harmonic intervals that resemble those of an old but trusty church organ.
Further into the set, the tunes grow even more universal and familiar, with a steady and consistent rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River,” a stirring reading of “Amazing Grace,” and a rousing delivery of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that starts out with minimal fingerwork but evolves into something more intricate and orchestrated.
In the home stretch, “Precious Memories” is quiet and contemplative – just as the title suggests – but the closing track, “Farther Along,” brings the set to an end with a smoldering undercurrent that promises joy and redemption somewhere in the distance.
“The songs on this album are very well known, not just here in the United States, but in churches all over the world,” says Darby. “They’ve been around for a long, long time, and have brought a lot of joy and spiritual uplifting to a lot of people. I made this record as a way of giving praise to the Lord and to pay tribute to the great tradition of this kind of music.”