Just before the pandemic shut down the world, Alice Vines of the Glorifying Vines Sisters of Farmville, North Carolina (crate diggers will know their singles on Pinewood and Sound Hut), gathered ten other local artists in the small town of Fountain, northwest of Greenville. Reminiscent of record producer Ralph Peer’s 1927 Bristol, Tennessee, sessions, the groups came to Fountain prepared to record.
In this case, it was Tim Duffy’s Music Maker Foundation and Bruce Watson’s Bible & Tire, not Victor Records, that captured the proceedings during eight days of recording sessions. As an album, Sacred Soul of North Carolina, has the feel of a live gospel program, each group doing one or two selections and relinquishing the platform for the next artist. The album illustrates how vibrant the traditional gospel quartet sound is in the Carolinas.
Prior to the pandemic, gospel quartet programs were regular occurrences, not just in Eastern North Carolina but throughout North and South Carolina. These extravaganzas—part Christian entertainment and part religious revival—were arguably more frequent in the Southeastern United States than anywhere else in the nation. Promoters brought together a passel of national headliners as well as local quartets and small groups to sing the glory down, often into the wee small hours of the morning. I’m certain these programs will return as soon as the virus waves the white flag of surrender.
What’s remarkable about Sacred Soul of North Carolina, and different from most other quartet programs, is the amount of a cappella singing. I’m not certain whose idea it was, but nearly every group featured on the album contributes at least one unaccompanied piece, or harmonizes with only light drum and cymbal for support. Examples are the Glorifying Vines Sisters’ breathless version of “Tell It All to Jesus,” Big Walt & the Faithful Jordanaires’ “Ask God in Faith,” and the female quartet Faith & Harmony’s melismatic “Victory.” The Johnsonaires contribute “He’s Coming Again,” a warning about the signs of the judgement. Altogether, the groups resurrect, if only momentarily, the a cappella gospel quartet tradition that reigned during the first half of the twentieth century.
Another revelation is the number of traditional pieces that make it to the microphone. Johnny Ray Daniels and his group cover the congregational favorite “Glory Glory” and then offer “Somewhere to Lay My Head” in a tempo somewhere between the Sensational Nightingales’ frenetic take and the Highway QCs more restrained reading. Bishop Albert Harrison & the Gospel Tones cover “Shake Me” (aka “Wake Me, Shake Me”) an old gospel whose musical architecture I believe was inspired, at least in part, by Louis Jordan’s 1945 R&B hit “Caledonia.”
Yet another difference is the lack of synth playing heard regularly on quartet programs and recordings. While an electric piano appears from time to time on Sacred Soul, the accompaniment to the singing of songs with pulpit-hewn messages is generally earthy and nostalgic.
Among the highlights are Bible & Tire artists Dedicated Men of Zion singing “It’s a Shame,” a head-shaking commentary on the troubles of the world. Big James Barrett & the Golden Jubilees alternate between traditional and modern quartet; they infuse “Tell It” with the quintessential quartet backbeat and hypnotic vamp, and then give “Use Me Lord” a thumping bass and electric piano treatment. “Trying To Make It,” the Johnsonaires’ drive-tempo selection about holy living, is the album’s pinnacle track. “If you don’t want to go, don’t hinder me,” they sing, and their energy on the vamp suggests that walls as solid as those protecting Fort Knox couldn’t stand between them and Heaven.
Little Willie & the Fantastic Spiritualaires recover from an uneven “I Want to Be Ready” to deliver “Have You Tried Jesus” with vocal prowess (sadly, Little Willie passed away from COVID-19 since the recording was completed). Appropriately, Melody Harper closes the program with a passionately-rendered a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.”
As many of these groups do not tour far outside the region, Sacred Soul of North Carolina gives a wider audience an opportunity to enjoy their contributions to gospel music. A companion documentary DVD is expected later this fall.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Trying To Make It,” “Have You Tried Jesus.”
Written by : Bob Marovich
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.