How Gabriel Wilson Discovered his Paternal Roots—and Made a Record About It

Inside his solo debut, "The McGuire Side."
How Gabriel Wilson Discovered his Paternal Roots—and Made a Record About It
Image: Jason Miller Photography
How Gabriel Wilson Discovered his Paternal Roots—and Made a Record About It

Two years ago, Gabriel Wilson traveled from California to Oklahoma for the funeral of his paternal grandfather, a man he'd never known but felt a strong connection to. He learned of Cornelius McGuire's work as a musician and a minister, heard some of the songs his granddad wrote, and felt the impact of the man's life and art on the world.

It sent Wilson—former front man for the Rock 'n' Roll Worship Circus and The Listening—on a personal and artistic journey of discovery, delving into the fractured relationship with his estranged father and their ongoing efforts at reconciliation. Wilson's parents had divorced when he was two; he rarely saw his dad again. His mom remarried, and Wilson took that new name; he says his stepdad was "fantastic," but "there was always a part of my life that had a question mark."

As Wilson investigated his biological father's side of the family, he learned he was kin to some pillars of gospel music history. His grandfather, Cornelius McGuire, was a self-taught guitarist who grew up in a family of fiddlers and banjo pickers. One of Cornelius's sons, Dony McGuire (Wilson's uncle), married Reba Rambo—daughter of gospel legends Buck and Dottie Rambo—and Dony and Reba went on to make a name for themselves in gospel music as well. (Buck Rambo was recently named into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame; his late wife was already a member.)

What came out of Wilson's digging was his solo debut, The McGuire Side, a suite of songs cut with the blunt edges of country and folk—and smoldering with long-burning emotions. The first "side" of the album covers that family history, while the second side includes songs played at the funeral, country gospel songs written by his grandfather ...

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