John Bowman's credits in the world of bluegrass over the past quarter-century include stints with three of the most exactingly professional - not to mention successful - bandleaders in the history of the genre - Alison Krauss, Doyle Lawson and J. D. Crowe. For the past few years he's been an important cog in The Boxcars, likewise as expert and veteran a band as there is to be found nowadays. Along the way, he married Becky Isaacs of the Isaacs Family, raised a family and immersed himself in their world of bluegrass and Southern Gospel. An by his own account in the liner notes, the past year has found him stepping out on his own as an evangelist and spiritual leader. With all of this, he's still managed to produce a quartet of solo albums, the latest coming with "Beautiful Ashes."
While he previously released a tribute to his father-in-law, Joe Isaacs and a mainstream Gospel effort, the new disc finds Bowman in a more relaxed and contemplative frame of mind. Though the majority of the material is faith-based, it's more in the vein of appreciation for the good things in life that you can't always hold in your hand. Despite the title, there's precious little fire and brimstone in the 11 tracks. In fact, one of the better cuts is "Cold Day In Hell," a good-natured honky-tonker about kissing and making up that would be at home on roadhouse jukeboxes across the land.
The presence of straight-ahead bluegrass numbers like Carter Stanley's "Baby Girl" is no surprise, but most of the arrangements feature a mellow brand of acoustic pop, prominently featuring piano and drums, and the production by Bowman and Troy Engle is excellent. Like many bluegrass veterans, Bowman is a multi-instrumentalist, and his overdubs on guitar, banjo and bass here are seamless.
It's Bowman's singing, though, that has made him a favorite lead and backup vocalist over the years, a mid- to high baritone that's always clear, confident and on pitch. "Ashes," "Sweet River" and "When My Travelin' Days Are Over" also stand out. This is a well-conceived and entertaining disc.