The sweet sound of gospel music resounds in Knoxville
by Chris Barrett
"GOOD MORNING, GOOD MORNING, GOOD MORNING, KNOXVILLE!" pipes Brother Louis Thompson across three counties every weekday morning at 5 a.m. From the small cinder block bunker of a studio that houses WKGN-AM, he sends out what may be the most joyous wake-up call available in Knoxville. "This is the time of day when I just like to raise my hands to the heavens and thank Jesus for letting me see another day. Won't y'all join me?"
Thompson has been on the air in Knoxville, sharing the Lord's message in music, for 28 years. Even though he gets a regular traffic report feed by telephone for his broadcast, Thompson's brand of traffic advisory is unique on early morning radio. "Lord, please keep that old reckless driver out of our way and protect us from the evil one who might wish to do us harm."
All of a sudden, it's like Jesus is in charge of 1,000 watts--an illusion made complete by the rapturous sounds of gospel music that Thompson shares for two hours with a still-sleepy Knoxville.
Even though it's on and off the air before the fog burns off the pond, Thompson's Gospel Caravan is one of WKGN's most popular time slots--in sharp contrast with the urban format to which the station adheres during the remainder of the day. Three other stations in Knoxville play gospel music around the clock, and many of those radio fans and others are lining up at the musical altar to hear live gospel every chance they get.
Gospel in Knoxville is experiencing the same "changing of the guard" that other styles of music have seen. The rousing, transcendental euphony of the traditional black choirs and jubilee quartets is giving way to updated, more pop-sounding music. Younger ministers, congregations, and performers are moving away from the roots of the genre to a more palatable, mainstreamed and modern sound. Here we introduce some folks who regularly share their God-given gifts in song and explain how things look from the gospel stage.
On the Sunday daylight savings time begins, it appears to be getting dark at an odd and early hour through the rippled amber windows of First Baptist Church at Roseberry City, a tiny, 80-year-old brick building in North Knoxville. But the sun is shining inside. The God Gospel Singers are holding forth in the tiny sanctuary, and the room is bright and alive. The audience of 50, ranging from pre-teens to seniors in age, are on their feet clapping and dancing for almost the entire 90 minute performance.
The God Gospels, a female quintet backed by lively piano and drums, have been singing traditional gospel in and around Knoxville for nearly six decades. Violet Thompson, Joanne Moore, and Alma Harrison (Sister Harrison could not be present today) are all original members. Juanita Clinkscales and Beverly Moore have joined in recent years. The collective years that the God Gospels have lived seem only to have enhanced their rich, multi-layered sound. Sister Joanne Moore makes use of a cane on her way to the microphone, where she promptly hits and holds notes that would put singers half her age to shame.
As a group, the God Gospels make a beautiful sound, a shimmering tide of holy harmony. Yet even in such talented company, Sister Beverly Moore, the baby of the group at 36, stands out. Her amazing delivery is nothing less than volcanic, reminiscent of the young Aretha Franklin when she was a featured vocalist in her father's traveling choir.
"I was bashful when I was a girl," says Beverly, who's still a bit reserved when she's not singing. "I had a glee club teacher who made me sing."
Since her glee club days in grade school, Beverly hasn't stopped singing. And she sings only gospel. Hers is the very type of voice for which blues and soul were invented, yet she's not attracted to anything those kinds of music have to offer.
"God blesses me and I just want to bless other people with what he gave me," she says sincerely. "I want to use my talent for God. People tell me sometimes that I could do well out there. Well, all of that out there doesn't mean anything to me."
Even though she's only been on stage with the God Gospels for five years, Moore has been involved with the group since she was a child. Her aunt was a singing member, and Moore would attend local concerts and travel along on their frequent excursions to other cities, such as Nashville and Chattanooga. Moore says that in the years since she began attending gospel concerts, she's seen the audience for that vibrant, traditional music lose some of its steam.
"I think the popularity of gospel is going downhill a little bit," she says. "Years ago, the churches used to be packed and response was always good. Now, a lot of the audiences are small, and sometimes, even if they're not, the people just sit there."
Like the elder God Gospel Singers, Louis Thompson has made a career of gospel music. The satisfaction he receives from his work is evident in his warm and satisfied soulful charisma. He has an unfading, beaming smile, like the face the Farmer's Almanac used to put on a full moon. A regular segment of Thompson's Gospel Caravan is the Caravan Calendar. He says there are roughly half a dozen local black gospel groups for whom he announces regular dates. There used to be many more, he adds.
"Now, the young people with talent seem to want to play the popular music," he says. "All the other young people are locked up in the church. The people who have talent and stay in the church are kept very busy by their pastors and usually don't have time to sing out in town."
"Concerts like this one," he adds, referring to the God Gospels' performance, "the Sunday afternoon musical, have almost become a thing of the past."
Diane Jordan is a Knox County Commissioner and a gospel singer. She currently sings at the church where her husband is pastor, Peace and Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church, on Woodbine Avenue, and her former group (Jordan and Company) has evolved into the choir at that church. Jordan also organizes the gospel talent for the annual Kuumba Festival in Knoxville. From her experience as a performer and promoter, Jordan offers another perspective of black gospel music's changing audience in Knoxville.
"Knoxville is a good place to sing gospel," she says. "But it's not a good place to make money singing gospel. We've had some real dynamic groups here that weren't able to move. In terms of appearances, though, you can get all you want. There are lots of audiences that want to hear good gospel music."
That fans of traditional black gospel in Knoxville may not be a gold mine for talented local singers can probably be attributed to a number of mixed blessings. Most folks who enjoy the music are familiar with the motivation of the singers. They're aware that men and women, like Sister Beverly Moore, see their talent as gifts from God, given to share. They know it'll be shared, whether or not it's paid for. In almost 60 years, the God Gospels say they've only rarely declined an invitation to perform because the inviter couldn't promise pay. At this concert, the offering plate is passed to compensate their talent, hard work, and the message they passed along.
Another factor is that singers of national fame regularly pass through Knoxville and perform for modest ticket prices. Heroes of the genre, like Willie Neal, who sang at Knoxville College in October, routinely play here for 10 bucks or less, about the same as the average bar band on the strip or Market Square.
Gospel music is a black tradition that has been embraced and adapted for other audiences over the last century and a half. Separate from hymns and other sacred or liturgical music, historians credit the invention of gospel to an energetic black pianist named Thomas Dorsey, who first composed in the teens of this century. Even before Dorsey, slaves had adapted the sermons and spirituals they heard here during the 18th and 19th centuries to rhythms of their own African-based cultures.
There's a tendency to point out attributes of the distinct white and black gospel traditions with claims that certain musical aspects were borrowed by one culture from the other. It would be more accurate to say that there has been an ongoing process of sharing between black and white gospel (or Southern gospel, as its current niche in the sales and radio markets is referred to) all along. Slaves learned the hymns of the Protestant faith and also interpreted the Bible to write their own spirituals. During the '20s and '30s, Southern songsters like A.P. Carter and Jimmie Rodgers re-learned those same hymns, radically changed and stylized, from black musicians such as Frank Stokes and Blind Willie McTell. The white singers then thrust their versions of the songs into a young and growing country music song bag. Ever since, the traditions of black and white churches have given to each other, like the soil that feeds the tree that, a season later, feeds the soil.
J. Bazzel Mull first played the Lord's music on the radio in 1939. Since then, his signal has only gained in strength. His family now owns and operates PRAISE 96.3 (WJBZ-FM), and Mull, with his wife and long-time broadcast partner, Elizabeth "Lady" Mull, continues to host a Sunday morning gospel television show that has aired on WBIR for 40 years. Preacher and Lady Mull are on the air almost every day on stations all over East Tennessee. He has become an icon in Southern gospel, a form of music and worship that he's done much to sustain.
"Back when I first went on the radio in nineteen hundred and thirty-nine, very few stations played gospel music," says the sprightly, gravel-voiced Mull, explaining gospel's growth in popularity. "I think it's the hand of the Lord guiding people to gospel music. It's the last message that God is sending to the world before the rapture.
"Gospel music has made it. It's all over the nation. It's as great now as country music ever dared to be. In fact, most country singers have gospel records out now."
Southern gospel has evolved alongside black gospel. Mull's comparison to country is natural, as Southern gospel tends toward similar instrumentation and arrangements. In contemporary groups one hears shades of the family quartets and duos popular in early bluegrass, as well as the Nashville sound born on the Grand Ole Opry.
Arbitron rates PRAISE-96.3 number one out of 1,100 Southern gospel stations across the country. The Mull family sees the music they spread far and wide as nothing less than a ministry. One aspect of that ministry, which has had a tremendous impact on the steadily increasing popularity of Southern gospel music, is their live singing conventions, where they bring performers of national or regional acclaim to sing in and around Knoxville.
Cedar Ridge is a Knoxville-based family quintet that has performed for Mull Family conventions, and has had nearly a dozen songs on the Southern gospel top 40 (in the charts published in Singing News, Southern gospel's answer to Billboard and Rolling Stone). Frank Treece manages the group, which features his wife Violet, his sons Jeff, Duane, and Dustin, and his daughter-in-law Ginger.
"Knoxville is one of the better singing points in the country," says the elder Treece, who has toured nationally with the group for 32 years. "There are a lot more local groups here than in most other towns, and that seems to keep the audience interested. Out west, in California or Texas, there aren't a lot of groups. Of course that seems to help us when we go out there, because the people really come out for gospel when they get the chance."
The Treece family also sees its music as an extension of their religion. When they consider recording or performing a song that they didn't write themselves, they'll compare it one line at a time with the Bible to make sure it's something they can get behind. Treece says that Cedar Ridge's audience is equal parts churchgoers and folks who just love their music for the way it sounds. They do have a fine sound, with family harmonies out in front of modern, multi-instrumental arrangements. Cedar Ridge's line-up demonstrates well one facet of Southern gospel's evolution. Due to extensive traveling and performances in nontraditional venues that aren't likely to have a piano, the electronic keyboard has all but ousted the piano from its position as primary accompaniment.
Cedar Ridge will perform in Knoxville the Sunday before Thanksgiving at Valley View Baptist Church.
The music of Knoxvillian Kirk Talley also illustrates how Southern gospel has adapted to appeal to secular audiences. His arrangements are tight, slick, and up to the minute--somewhere between Bruce Hornsby and Michael Bolton. So while his lyrics are traditional in their references to scripture and prayer, his music gets him into a lot of homes that might not lean toward old-time gospel. Readers of Singing News recently voted Talley Favorite southern gospel male singer and favorite southern gospel song writer and picked his "Serenaded By Angels," from last year's album ,Serenade, as their favorite southern gospel song. Talley is on the bill for the upcoming Mull Family singing convention scheduled for Thanksgiving evening.
A sort of adjunct to Southern gospel is the nebulous and recently invented contemporary Christian brand of gospel. Contemporary Christian is something of a musical chameleon. In record stores you'll find rap, rock, and even heavy metal with religious lyrics.
On a recent Monday night, Lorrie's Kitchen, on Broadway, is packed to near capacity. A Knoxville trio called Redeemed is letting loose some rafter-raising hymns, their own originals, and Southern gospel top 40 tunes. They've drawn in almost enough boots and Bibles to moderate the Big Orange decor at Lorrie's.
As singer and pianist Fredda Valentine winds up, "I can almost hear the trumpet for the Lord to come again ..." singer Tommy Spencer sums up the mood: "Folks, if that don't make you shout, you got a busted shouter!"
From a distance, Valentine looks and sounds a perfect copy of a young Tammy Wynette. Up close, it's clear that she's taller and prettier.
"I do sing country some," she says. "But this kind of music is so different. It just fills you up."
Redeemed has been together just over eight months. Along with bassist Ron Hutchinson, Valentine and Spencer have been playing regularly on the Star of Knoxville and plan to record a compact disc early next year. Though they're members of a newly formed group, all three have been musicians in Knoxville for years.
"This is not a hard way to make a living," says Spencer, who's been singing since he was six and is now in his mid-30s. "We've almost got more work than we can handle. Knoxville has a very large audience for gospel, but it's very discriminating. If you're not very good, you won't last long."
If the reaction of the audience at Lorrie's is any indication, Redeemed will do just fine. In the time it takes them to disassemble their sound system, they get booked for another show by an audience member.
There is young blood coming up in Knoxville's black gospel pool as well. The four young musicians who accompany the choir at Peace and Goodwill have recently formed a group called the New Travelers. Jordan says she has high hopes for them and that they've been well-received. Churches in town routinely feature their children's choirs and allow the young singers as much solo time as they want. Surely some of those singers will get the spirit, just as Sister Beverly Moore did, and keep that train a-rolling.
Gospel music was something of a gift from the church to the world. Now gospel appears to be giving back to the church. Its broad reach and mass appeal competes even with television ministries and extends the reach of the minister far beyond the walls of the church. It does sound different from the gospel Knoxvillians heard here 20 years ago--but you can hear gospel music, in one of its many manifestations, almost every night of the week in Knoxville. Much of it is very good. What's not wonderful to listen to often still rewards in its spirituality.
Some of the elders in the Southern church were offended by Dorsey's audacity, bringing the sounds of jazz and blues--the Devil's music--into the church. Now, Dorsey's influence is pervasive, and his music is the root music of the church. Today, some elders who are accustomed to the roiling, syncopated energy he introduced are appalled by the introduction of today's street music sounds into the church.
Bishop Gary E. Wright, pastor of Knoxville's Biblical House of God and presiding bishop of the 20 other Houses of God throughout the east, listens to Thompson's radio program. Wright has heard young singers, rooted in soul and even hip-hop, gaining on the old-time jubilee quartets and choirs. Thompson gets an endless string of requests for music by Kirk Franklin, a contemporary gospel singer whose sound might easily be confused for Keith Sweat or Luther Vandross if not for his silky, obliquely spiritual lyrics. Music is one of the cornerstones of the worship service at Biblical House of God, and Wright, who's been preaching for 20 years and has a head of close-cropped gray hair, is among Franklin's fans.
"There is a diversity of music in the black community," Wright explains, "and at this church, we try to appeal to all the different tastes. In order to be effective in the ministry, we try to have some of all of it.
"Over the last 10 or 15 years, gospel music has come to be seen in a new light. Sales have taken off, and it's being marketed in new ways. I think that's good. I try to learn, from what's happening in the music, things we can do to keep the church alive."