I'm a white guy raised on the fringes of West Texas. So why is it that I've always felt so connected to black gospel music? And why, on some days, do I even wish I could be not just a gospel artist, but a black one at that? Must be something in my blood.
Music born from and inspired by America's storied African culture and history has had an unexplainable hold on me since I was a kid, compelling how I write, perform, and record my own music today. Where I grew up, not many folks in the region were into black gospel, much less black people. But that's another issue altogether. Thankfully, my parents loved folks from all sorts of backgrounds, and their musical tastes reflected it. Born and bred in Louisiana, my parents are fine musicians who shared their diverse musical genetics with my brothers and me by filling our youth with folk, classical, country, southern jazz, Zydeco, and even gospel music.
For my 13th birthday I asked my parents for tickets to a CeCe Winans concert in Dallas. Her R&B-pop-soul gospel career with her brother BeBe made an indelible mark on my musical childhood, eventually directing my ear's attention to soul greats like Roberta Flack, Ben Harper, the Reverend Al Green, and Mavis Staples (whose 2010 Jeff Tweedy-produced gospel effort is a must listen). And boy was CeCe in fine form that Saturday night. The woman can flat out saaang. Even stoics can't avoid the altar call conviction of her electrifying gospel performances.
But that night, it was more than just the music that grabbed me. After the show I shuffled to the autograph table to say hi and get a picture. With her radiant smile and demeanor, the multi-genre celebrity reached out her hand and said, "Hi. I'm CeCe." That gracious introduction and the easy conversation that followed fueled a fire for music that still burns in and inspires me fifteen years later.
I attended many more gospel shows, most in Dallas' prominent black congregations. Apathetic to my unconventional tastes, friends usually declined invitations to come along. But my parents jumped at the chance to join me for the festivities as we often jostled for front pew seats. Our casual, fair-skinned trio made quite an impression in the sea of the "Sunday Best"-dressed black community. But no one seemed to care. In fact, they seemed to think I—barely 5-foot-9 and pale as skim milk—was a cute lil' token of white soul. If a gold hat was heading my way, I braced myself for a little sugar—sometimes it felt a bit like suffocation—from my own personal Madea. Awkward? Always. But I was pleased as peaches with my newfound extended family.
The musicianship conveyed in every concert was indescribable. Though my church background contains magnificent musical components, it is steeped in high-church orchestrations. But in the black church, I was mesmerized while listening to the band's thumping bass correspond with the drummer's syncopated snare and kick, perfectly supporting the oh-so-soulful singer's every vocal whim. They exhibited a raw proficiency and wild passion for the craft that I feebly attempt to incorporate in my own recordings and live shows today.
If this white boy was going to bring some genuine soul to his music, he was going to need some help.
A soul-stirring SHOUT!
A couple years ago, a friend invited me to Mike Farris' Sunday Night SHOUT! at Nashville's historic Station Inn, a series of shows which typically included talented guest artists. Though I bargained for good music, I didn't budget for the McCrary Sisters.