Better than twenty years ago, back when I looked too much like Charles Manson’s little brother, I was driving my 1967 Dodge van with three on the tree and Washington state plates through the back roads of Virginia one particular Sunday morning, looking for I don’t know what. Myself, I guess.
Anyway, that morning I stumbled upon a series of very small, very local radio stations playing gospel music and sending out good words to their friends and neighbors; a community to which, as a middle-class white guy with no church learning, I had (and have) no other entry.
Only much later did I realize there had been a golden age of gospel music, and that it mostly ended before I was born. That what I’d heard on the radio that Sunday were strikingly vibrant but still distant echoes of a beautiful, powerful, transcendent thing. That this music, this enormous, grand tradition, was every bit as true and bone-deep as the Elmore James and Blind Willie Johnson I had taped for the road.
The Spiritualaires are one of the few still-extant local groups who go back to that golden age, back to 1948 when they first formed. Singing Songs Of Praise is, of all things, their debut, pieces of recent studio work placed next to call-outs to sponsors on their weekly radio show. And, yes, hearing it is like driving down that secondary road again.
Curtis Harris plays a rudimentary guitar that owes as much to Luther Perkins as anything, but it’s only meant as an anchor. Robert Marion, Jimmy Anthony, Rufus Jordan, and Sam Relf trade loping, plainspoken leads. Not a voice suggests it should have been on the pop charts, but they mesh together easily, like the worn gears on that old van.
The stars of gospel soar. You can’t miss the magic of the Fairfield Four or the Soul Stirrers or the Blind Boys. This isn’t magic, it’s the rich loam from which so many good things spring.
Mike Farris has almost been a star — his boogie band, the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies, cut two albums for Atlantic and one for Capricorn in the 1990s — and it’s a fair bet the experience nearly killed him. Salvation In Lights, recorded in the same east Nashville studio that produced Loretta’s Van Lear Rose, is his second gospel outing. His comeback.
Salvation In Lights draws from both black and white gospel traditions, albeit more from the former than the latter. Farris’ voice has moved unexpectedly higher — and stronger — and melds seamlessly with his female backup singers. His original songs (particularly “Streets Of Galilee” and “Selah! Selah!”) fit naturally between Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down”.
Farris has, of course, lost most of his swagger. But no matter what he does with it after, he seems inescapably to have found his voice.
The only vocals amid Ben Bowen King’s revival of pre-WWII gospel songs are what his liner notes call “Baptist moans.” The sidewalk saints of the title were street performers, black and white, remembered today and not, who held forth for god and mammon with their resonator guitars.
Some of the songs are familiar (“Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, “Great Speckled Bird”), but their setting is not, for this is now a comparatively arcane way of playing. It is also a way of hearing where Leo Kottke came from, and if King plays with less visible flourish, the songs seem not to mind.