Lena Mae Perry (front), Phil Cook (back row, far right)
By Robert M. Marovich
One reasonably warm Saturday in April, 2019, the Long Branch Disciples of Christ Church was especially high in the spirit.
There, in the postcard-pretty church nestled in Newton Grove, North Carolina, the Branchettes, arguably one of the best gospel groups you’ve never heard of, were in the midst of a live recording session.
It wasn’t a live recording—it was church. Traditional songs and singing filled the air, setting the live audience’s feet a-tapping and hands a-clapping. The Branchettes sang the old gospel catalogue as if it never went out of style. For them, it hasn’t.
Front and center of it all was diminutive Mother Lena Mae Perry, octogenarian, lead singer, and charter member of the area’s beloved Branchettes gospel singers. Her singing, indeed, her presence, was filled with what the saints call “the anointing.”
Over time, the live recording, Stayed Prayed Up, was supplemented by a documentary on Mother Perry and the Branchettes called Stay Prayed Up (Greenwich Entertainment). It premiered at the world-famous Telluride Film Festival and went on to appear in several other film festivals. At the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis, it won the Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award. The New York Times gave the documentary a glowing review.
Stay Prayed Up is now available on demand and for purchase from iTunes and Amazon.com.
JGM recently caught up with musician Phil Cook to discuss Stay Prayed Up. Originally from Wisconsin and now living in Durham, North Carolina, Cook was one of the film’s originators and is among its chief evangelists (His album, People Are My Drug, was reviewed by JGM in 2018).
Cook first connected with Perry through the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization founded in 1994 by Tim and Denise Duffy to promote the work of veteran musicians and to assist them financially. “When I first met Mother Perry,” Cook said, “we immediately started singing together. For a few years, she and I traveled. We did shows, festivals, and concerts for school classrooms.”
A program for the entire middle school population of Fish Creek, Wisconsin, provided Cook with an aha moment.
“The students filed in at the end of the school day,” he recalled. “The odds were so stacked against us, it was crazy! They were fidgety and ready to go home. But after all the other artists performed, Mother Perry comes on stage. I watched these awkward sixth and seventh grade boys in the front row become increasingly not in control of their body reactions! They began to trust this small and mighty woman on stage. Even in this most unlikely place, with this most unlikely group, her ministry and her message reached people. That convinced me that [the Branchettes] needed a live record.”
Cook produced the Branchettes’ Stayed Prayed Up on his newly-formed Spiritual Helpline label. The vinyl album and companion booklet were released in a limited edition of 300 copies. Filmmakers D. L. Anderson and Matthew Durning captured the rehearsals and live recording, and conducted a few interviews in anticipation of a companion film.
Then the pandemic hit.
“The funding base for finishing the film dwindled down to nothing, so in the meantime, we collected more information and did more interviews, including of Johnny Faison of the Gospel Tones,” Cook said. “From there, a portrait emerged and it grew into something beyond the concert form—into what you see today.”
Durham’s Carolina Theater was packed May 7, 2022, for the hometown premiere of Stay Prayed Up. “It was 75 percent church folks” Cook said. “We had a red carpet. The Long Branch community came and sat together. Mother Perry was sparkling. Melvin Williams [of the Williams Brothers] sang ‘No Ways Tired’ with Mother Perry. It was beautiful to see her being able to reap her flowers and be honored in her lifetime.”
The film has also had warm receptions at film festival screenings, and Mother Perry attends as many as she can. At a screening in Virginia, a group of young high school girls were so inspired by Mother Perry that when the film was over, they ran up and hugged her.
Stay Prayed Up is available through streaming and download, with Mother Perry having 50 percent ownership of the film. In addition, Cook and veteran gospel promoters Telisa Stinson and Bridget Fleury are planning a grassroots strategy that includes screenings at small churches and theaters. Meanwhile, Mother Perry is scheduled to appear as part of a Spiritual Helpline lineup at the Newport Folk Festival.
“Mother Lena Mae Perry is a very resonant character,” Phil Cook said. “In her, people find something very close to them, very elemental, something tied to their past—a safe place, a safe person. She’s the real stuff. It’s humbling, beautiful, and touching to witness every time.”
For more information on the film and the album, and to inquire about hosting a screening, visit www.spiritualhelpline.com. Check out the film’s trailer below:
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.