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.

A young Greer and CeCe Winans

A young Greer and CeCe Winans

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.

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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.

Regina, Ann, and Alfreda were born into a legendary gospel heritage, as daughters of Fairfield Four founding father, the late Samuel McCrary. The finest embodiment of Motown-driven funk and gospel I've experienced to date, their live shows are transcendental. The night of SHOUT!, I was working on my Americana hymns record (which released early this year), and I had been searching for a natural representation of my gospel obsession on a few tracks. I asked the sisters if they ever recorded background sessions. They responded with big hugs and a "Yeah, baby!" We swapped management information and worked out the dates.

The night before our studio rendezvous, I looked the sisters up on YouTube to prepare who would sing what part. The results yielded footage of the sisters singing with the likes of Bob Dylan, Andrae Crouch, Patty Griffin, and Johnny Cash. And I had asked if they performed background sessions. (They've also backed up Elvis and Stevie Wonder.)

Greer shares a laugh with Ann and Regina McCrary

Greer shares a laugh with Ann and Regina McCrary

The next morning we recorded "Jesus Paid It All," accompanied by a sparse, percussive "slave stomp," as well as "I've Been Searching," a track I had written with Motown in mind. Though I was helping produce the record, I asked Regina how she felt the session was going. With a sparkle in her eye, she looked at me and said, "You are our brother from another mother."

Later that day we were each performing in funerals for close friends who had died unexpectedly the week before. Connecting through grief, we prayed and encouraged each other by reading 2 Corinthians 5 in which Paul writes of an "eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands" (NIV). As a musician who dreamed of singing gospel since I was a kid, the sisters were an otherworldly experience. And as a man who has had a profound encounter with Christ's redemptive work on the cross, our spiritual bond created the biggest impression.

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A balm for the pain

When in the trenches of heartache, I often find hope in gospel music. I've always been in awe of the genre's intensity of performance, as if every fiber of each artist's being depends on it. African-American spirituals are haunted by the physical and mental anguish of slavery. Motown's vintage soul reminds us of our nation's not-too-distant past, when "coloreds" were fighting prejudice to secure their unalienable rights. That's why so many of their songs are sung like they mean it. Even bluegrass, perceived as a predominantly white genre, is trademarked by African instruments like the banjo. And where church songs can be a bit stoic, and CCM music too banal, black gospel is alive.

A few months ago I was one of several artists for a national conference featuring Tamela Mann, and hosted by her husband David. As I left the stage after my performance, Mr. Mann was imitating my higher vocal register in hilarious "Mr. Brown" fashion. The mostly white, conservative audience perceived these antics as irreverent, considering the historical and spiritual sensitivity of the hymns I had just finished singing. But David knows the best in gospel music. So for this wannabe "brotha," I simply considered it one more step into the inner circle of black gospel.

So yes, my recent iTunes purchases include new music from the finest of my black brothers and sisters, including Tamela Mann's Best Days (my review) and Israel Houghton's Jesus at the Center. And yes, I'll be lining up for more gospel albums—and concerts—in the years to come. This music has changed my life, and the artists who create it are role models who shake and shape my soul.

I only wish I was one of them.

Andrew Greer is a singer-songwriter and CT music critic who lives in Nashville. As this story went live, Greer reported that he was still white, but not for lack of trying.