By Bob Marovich
Rolling Stone and NPR called the Jones Family Singers, a gospel group from Bay City, Texas, one of 25 “must see” acts at SXSW [South By Southwest]. Filmmaker Alan Berg is working on a documentary about the family. They may be up for a GRAMMY for their latest CD, The Spirit Speaks, which received the Journal of Gospel Music‘s highest rating, five stars, upon its release in 2013.
Given the wave of national publicity and the group’s accessible and soul satisfying presentation, I predict the Jones Family Singers will be embraced by the same multicultural American roots music community that has invigorated the careers of the Blind Boys of Alabama, Mavis Staples, Robert Randolph, and the McCrary Sisters.
The Jones Family Singers—including five daughters, two sons, and three family friends—will make its first appearance in Chicago at Mayne Stage in Rogers Park Thursday, November 6.
I had a chance to see the group perform last week while attending Baylor University’s Pruit Symposium on Black Sacred Music. Yesterday, I chatted with family patriarch, Bishop Fred Jones Sr., about the group’s roots and the recent flood of national attention it is receiving.
JGM: Who makes up the Jones Family Singers?
BFJ: Starting with me, Bishop Fred Jones Sr., there is Ernestine Ray, Sabrina Freeman, Alexis Jones, Theresa Patrelle Jones, and Velma Davis. The band is Fred Jones Jr., Kenneth Jones, Stephone Roberts, Duane Herbert, and Matthew Hudlin. Over our uniforms and product is First Lady Sarah Jones.
JGM: Are there any members who are not family?
BFJ: Duane and Stephone belong to our church, and Matthew is a friend of the family.
JGM: How long have you been the pastor of Mount Zion Church of God in Christ in Markham, Texas?
BFJ: Pretty near forty years.
JGM: When did the Jones Family Singers begin to sing together formally?
BFJ: The family has always sung together. Alexis was not the lead singer at first. We had another young lady from Pensacola, Florida, who was a member of the church. Cynthia Fray, she was our lead singer, but when she and her husband moved back to Pensacola, we incorporated Alexis, and she’s been there ever since.
JGM: Did the group start out singing at the church?
BFJ: At the church, on the street corners, in the hospitals, in the nursing homes. That’s where we started honing our skills.
JGM: How would you describe the sound of the Jones Family Singers?
BFJ: It’s traditional with a contemporary flair. Many folks liken us to Aretha Franklin in spots, Mavis Staples, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar. We developed some of our personality and sound from them. Our sound is user friendly, so in any area we go, whether it’s in the secular arena or in a church, we can adapt. We are able to grow wherever we’re planted.
JGM: Do you write all of the songs for the group?
BFJ: No. We do group writing. Some of the members might come up with a melody and I’ll do the verses. Or I’ll have verses and they’ll come up with the music. Everybody in the group has something on [The Spirit Speaks].
JGM: Did you or anyone else in the Jones Family Singers ever sing with another group?
BFJ: Yes, early on, I did a little stint with the Violinaires and Robert Blair. I also did a little stint with the Spirit of Memphis.
JGM: So you have a little bit of quartet in you!
BFJ: Oh yeah, quartet is in my blood. The [Jones Family Singers] are quartet babies. I raised them on quartet music. Every Sunday morning, I got ‘em up for church with quartet music playing loud as it could!
JGM: What quartets were your favorites, growing up?
BFJ: My favorite quartet, my number one quartet, was the Fantastic Violinaires. Also the Pilgrim Jubilees, the Loving Sisters, the Five Blind Boys—you name it!
JGM: How did the group come to the attention of the folks at the SXSW festival?
BFJ: Actually, we were blessed to get into that festival through a man by the name of Michael Corcoran [Arizona Dranes biographer, This is My Story]. He worked for the Austin Statesman and was covering a program where we were singing. He happened to stop by our stage. He said he thought that our kind of gospel music, that traditional sound, was dead and gone and would never be heard of again. He interviewed us, and introduced us to various people. They liked us right off and said they wanted us to come to SXSW. We just started going, year after year.
JGM: Tell us about your latest CD, The Spirit Speaks, because I understand it came out of the SXSW experience.
BFJ: The Spirit Speaks is a combination of songs we have done over the years. Each song tells its own story. [Jones Family Singers documentarian] Alan Berg came up with the title, because he said each song had a message that could clearly be heard and understood. I agreed with him and that’s how we got it.
JGM: How has the album been doing?
BFJ: The album is doing great! When we leave the stage, the audience just buys us out! We can’t seem to keep ‘em! In fact, it was submitted earlier for a GRAMMY. So we’re waiting to see how that is going to turn out. I would love very much to have a GRAMMY.
JGM: How often do you travel these days?
BFJ: A lot now. A lot. In fact, right after we go to Kennedy Center January 10, we will be at Webster Hall for GLOBALfest 2015. We’ll be included with 38 artists from around the globe. And we just got a call to sing in Russia! That will be our first international tour.
JGM: As a young pastor at Mount Zion, did you ever imagine that something like this would happen?
BFJ: Yes, I could. I often told my family, “Stay focused, stay faithful, our day is coming.” And one day I was in the restroom, washing my face, and I heard the Spirit say to me, “Stay faithful, for you never know who’s got you on their mind.” From that day forward, everybody who wanted to book us into something major said those words: “You were on my mind.” I remember it just like it was yesterday. I looked for it, I did expect it, and I expect greater things even now.
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To learn more about the Jones Family Singers, visit www.jonesfamilysingers.com.
For tickets to the November 6 Mayne Stage performance in Chicago, visit www.maynestage.com or call (866) 468-3401. Mayne Stage is located at 1328 West Morse. The show begins at 7:30 p.m.