Sacred Soul of North Carolina
Gospel and blues are two different art forms, but ones that are linked, not just in their foundations in African American communities, but also in the way both styles can get to the root of an emotion using straight-forward musical genres. You can feel the link on Sacred Soul of North Carolina, a compilation of gospel performances recorded in rural eastern North Carolina back in early 2020.
The album, which is also a documentary, features 11 gospel acts, and while they're regional groups, they sound professional, but even more importantly, soulful. Not only in the sense of soul music, but also in the earnest connection to the music—a connection which will appeal to blues lovers. Sadly, I don't have a background in gospel, so I lack the vocabulary to precisely describe why I enjoyed this so much.
Luckily, other people do have the words for the exposition. Michael Corcoran's wonderful All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music discusses gospel artist Arizona Dranes: "A link between the 'Negro spirituals' of the antebellum south and the Christian blues of Chicago in the 1930s and '40s, Dranes and her piano told a story." Sacred Soul similarly offers a bridge between blues and gospel, which is why blues lovers will appreciate this album.
The connection can be quite explicit, too. Some of the tracks have a genuine bluesy edge. "Can't Turn Me Around," performed by The Dedicated Men of Zion, features emotional vocals, but also the classic Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" groove, sped up and executed on organ. "We Will Work," by Faith and Harmony, blows past the blues into rock and roll, with an "Amazing Grace" melody rooting the track in the spiritual. "Tell It," by Big James Barrett & The Golden Jubilees, is 70s-style funk-gospel with wild bass that almost seems to be speaking in tongues.
And then there's plenty of music that sounds like more familiar gospel. "Trying to Make It," by The Johnsonaires, has passionate vocals and swirling organ, but the song thrives because of the drums, a hand-clap of a beat that probably tracks with the heart rate of someone who recently got a healthy amount of exercise. Melody Harper takes on "Amazing Grace" acapella, showing that it doesn't take elaborate production to capture a listener's heart; an honest voice is more than enough.
And that's the other impressive thing about this album. Bruce Watson's production stays out of everyone's way. There's a lo-fi aesthetic to the songs, but everyone sounds beautiful. There's often a punk rock energy to the tunes in their urgency and immediacy, and Watson understands how to capture that without sacrificing a baseline cleanliness. Everything feels live, but not unrehearsed.
For me, gospel and zydeco fall along the same continuum as the blues. They're American forms that can seem formulaic, until you sit down and really listen, but also feel. Rock and roll grabbed onto the blues in a way that didn't happen for zydeco and gospel, but listening the music like Sacred Soul, you can understand how there's a missed opportunity for rock bands, and everyone really, to integrate these sounds into contemporary music.
Or better yet, just sit back and enjoy the lovely source material.