My Gospel Conversion

A local rock writer, weaned on punk, wakes up to music fueled by a higher power.

A TESTIMONIAL

Coming of musical age in the early '80s, I was swept up in the American indie maelstrom of great, weird, noisy punk rock—the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag. Growing up in Cleveland and then Miami, the people I encountered who identified as Christian tended to be the right-wingers who formed the fundamentalist base of support during the Reagan/Bush regime. And Christian music of any sort was considered a joke. So if you'd told me then that in 20 years I'd become obsessed with Christian music in general and gospel in particular, I'd have told you to fuck off and die, if I was feeling friendly.

That changed 10 years ago. I was at my friend Bruce's place in Chattanooga, Tenn., listening to a Sam Cooke collection on headphones. The first song on the album was "Touch the Hem of His Garment," which Cooke recorded with the Soul Stirrers, the gospel group he sang with before going solo and secular. It began the way many Cooke songs began: "Whoooooah, there was a woman," followed by a sexy pause. So far, so good—and then, "Back in the Bible days/She had been sick, sick so very long/When she heard that Jeeeesus was passing by/So she joined the gathering throng."

That was it. Newly clean and sober at the time and going to 12-step meetings daily, all that "higher power" talk was starting to work on me; at the least, it made me bristle less when the word "God" was uttered. Hearing the conviction, intensity, purity, and joy of Cooke and the Soul Stirrers was a Road to Damascus moment. I was hooked, and I needed to know more; I needed to know everything about this stuff. Soon, I was devouring recordings of black gospel music from its golden age—the '40s, '50s, and '60s.

Gospel, I came to realize, is the root of many things I love, from whole strains of jazz (notably Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler, and Jimmy Smith) to soul music itself, with Cooke and Ray Charles (who borrowed the gospel standard "My Jesus Is All the World to Me" to create "I Got a Woman") being the point men for the sacred-to-secular shift. Gospel's three-tiered emphasis on the ecstatic, the improvisational, and the visceral was right up my alley. Those aspects were a lot of what I already loved about Moroccan trance music, free jazz, and punk rock, but gospel didn't seem like a combination of these things so much as a distillation of them. It had a similar sonic intensity and DIY ethic as, say, straight-edge hard-core punk (sample lyric: "I'm warning you, I'll put a knife right in you if you don't go into the bathroom with me"), only the lyrics were much better ("You've got to live so God can use you—any day, any time"). Gospel was at the forefront of the civil rights movement; fittingly, its roots were in pre-gospel black spirituals like "Wade in the Water," often sung on plantations as a way for slaves to communicate that folks were running away later that night. In the post–civil rights era, gospel dipped in quality—there are dozens of exceptions, but in general, the keyboard sounds got hella cheesy, the arrangements became way less intricate, and the music began borrowing more from popular R&B than it gave back.

Until recently, I stayed with the idea that the charged, intense gospel I loved so much was a historical entity that existed mostly on recordings. Such ignorance is partly due to the fact that the music and culture were never part of my own heritage—I grew up a middle-class, sort-of-Episcopalian white dude who found most of the Episcopalians I came into contact with both low-key and uptight. When in fourth grade I decided to blow thing up in the basement with my junior science kit instead of going to church, my parents let me—they weren't terribly into church, either. Then I came across some of the most mind-blowing contemporary gospel I've heard in years, the past and present colliding brilliantly. Where was much of it being made? Right here in Seattle.

GOD IS ON THE AIR

Seattle is not a city like Chicago or Birmingham or Detroit. Its African-American community—the historical and current bedrock of gospel—is relatively small (just under 8.5 percent as of the 2000 census), and its music scene, while diverse, is dominated in the public ear by rock.

But like those cities, Seattle also has one of the most vibrant Christian music scenes in the country. One of the Christian rock genre's best labels, Tooth & Nail (Joy Electric, Starflyer 59), is based here, and during the '90s, local mopesters Pedro the Lion, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Damien Jurado seemed poised to make Christian emo-rock the next grunge. That never quite happened, but each of those acts attained a measure of both commercial and critical success—a big deal since the only overtly Christian rock acts to have attained widespread critical fandom are Low (who don't really count—they're Mormons) and Daniel Johnston (who doesn't really count—he's mentally ill).

Seattle also possesses a vibrant, close-knit gospel community—albeit one that's fairly small, rather racially segregated, and filled with musicians much better known outside of the Emerald City than in it. For all the city's qualities and its citizens' putative progressiveness, issues of race and class seem largely missing from public discourse, especially within the arts community, which tends to be pretty homogeneously white.

This could change, though. I am standing in front of a purple storefront church, the Oneness Christian Center on Cherry Street and Martin Luther King Way, near the Catfish Corner. "It's a mighty rough road." The voice is pure, the intonation perfect. "Standin' in the need of praaaaayer." The words are drawn out and floating atop a bed of polyrhythmic percussion. "For me to carry my load." Pastor Patrinell Wright, founder and director of Seattle's Total Experience Gospel Choir, has her car stereo cranked and the door open for me to hear the CD she's playing. It's Wright's solo project, her first in a 30-plus-year music career—a CD called Drums and Spirit, which she plans to self- release in September. "Standing in the need of praaayer." She can't lend a copy of the recording, which is still unfinished; her car stereo is the only CD player handy. It's one of the best local recordings I've heard this year, of any sort—and there's plenty more like it.

Turn on KZIZ (1560 AM), KRIZ (1420 AM), or KYIZ (1620 AM) on Sunday afternoons, and you'll hear Frank Walton playing some of it. A tall, handsome, well-dressed, and fiercely intelligent 50-something gentleman whose enthusiasm is infectious and very real, Walton was born into gospel music and broadcasting. As a child in Chicago, he would accompany his father and uncles to radio station WVON on Sundays, where they sang live on the radio as the Walton Brothers. They even accompanied gospel giant Mahalia Jackson on occasion. "My job was to answer the phones and take the prayer requests for the radio host, Isabel Joseph Johnson," he says.

Upon returning from college in Nebraska, Walton connected with the Christ Tabernacle Church in Chicago, where Pastor Milton Brunson of the famed Thompson Community Singers held court. Later, after moving to Minneapolis, he encountered "a visually impaired Joe Sorenson" working the mixing board at the community radio station KMOJ, where Walton was volunteering. "I could only think, 'If [Sorenson] can do this without physically seeing the board, I must be able to see it and make it work,'" he says. Walton's job relocated him to Seattle in February 1993; that summer, he began filling in at KRIZ/KZIZ and was soon offered the Sunday afternoon slot he keeps to this day. The Federal Way resident plays a swell mix that ranges from traditional classics by the Rev. Dr. James Cleveland to more R&B–heavy contemporary acts like Yolanda Adams.

Running a local gospel show with his own playlist, Walton is a bit of an anomaly. Today, few gospel DJs actually broadcast live from their local stations, which often use prerecorded programming interspersed with local public service announcements. "The trend to syndicate gospel music limits the opportunities for upcoming artists," Walton says. "There was a time that the local radio announcer would literally launch the career of local gospel artists."

That's what Walton tries to do. His show enthusiastically showcases local contemporaries from the jumped-up urban choir sound of Danell Lamont & a Royal Priesthood to the contemporary urban music of William Demps & B the Truth; from gifted solo singer Crystal Aikin to KIRO Star Search winner AnnaMaria Pasley; from gospel hip-hoppers Passion Click to sister act Witherspoon; from a cappella group Latter Rain to Pastor R.L. Marway and the Tabernacle Church Choir. "In so many ways, it is a challenge with limited on-air time and a lack of local opportunities to share the gifts," he notes.

In the '90s, Walton formed the Seattle Area Gospel Announcers Guild. "[That] came as a result of being new to the area and the new kid on the block. I found there were limited connections locally to provide information to those who needed it most. Additionally, the area's reputation was somewhat questionable due to lack of support for events and the limited exposure as a result of the high cost involved in bringing artists here. I knew that if the announcers, retailers, record labels in the area could work locally as we do nationally, it would make a big difference." Walton also helped start the West Coast Gospel Announcers Conference a few years ago, and helps produce a yearly Gospel Jam at KeyArena in conjunction with the Sonics and the Storm.

Pastor Patrinell Wright, at keyboard, leads the Total Experience Gospel Choir.

"It's a shame that this is not the African-American history, the contemporary history, that people are being exposed to—this gospel music, which means the good news," Walton says. "There weren't news cameras when we had thousands of people at the KeyArena, but let there be a shooting, and that tends to be the news for what is going on inside the African-American community. Segregation and discrimination is still alive and well here in Seattle, and unemployment hits the African-American community more than anywhere else. So can we make this real right now? An African-American male with an education here is probably the last person to be hired. Look across the dial on any Sunday, on radio and on the television— do you see even one African-American church represented anywhere? This area is spread out, so there's no true sense of community, as one might know it either in a Detroit or a Birmingham or a Pittsburgh or a Los Angeles. That sense of community happens during the Sunday morning service—and we take that moment to keep focusing on our hope."

Walton is careful not to sound divisive, though: "It is amazing that of all the many differences in our world and the community we live in, music seems to be a common bond that people somehow get to connect with through a melody, tune, or words that touch the heart." A statement like that may sound cheesy to someone outside that community, but after years in the irony-straitjacketed Seattle "rock community," it sounds amazingly refreshing to me. At the very least, the kid in the tight jean jacket from the hip band of the week is not likely to say anything like it.

GOSPEL FOR UNITARIANS

I first encountered Dan Tyack when I moved to Seattle six years ago to join the staff at Amazon.com, where he also worked at the time. Private, laid-back, and intense, Tyack was also, it turned out, a phenomenal pedal-steel guitar player, as I discovered when I saw him perform with Laura Etling, another former co-worker, whose singing range is somewhere between Joan Osbourne and Aretha Franklin.

Tyack had already been exposed to sacred steel music, a term given to a particularly bluesy and beautiful form of gospel in which the pedal steel replaces the organ as lead instrument. Best known by mainstream music fans as the style played by Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who released the acclaimed Unclassified on Warner Bros. last year, the term "sacred steel" comes from the title of a 1997 compilation on Arhoolie Records, which originated with a cassette that CD co-compiler Bob Stone assembled to accompany a thesis he wrote on the stuff. Later, "Sacred Steel" was used to encompass a series of solo and compilation records for the label and made enough of an NPR–type splash that many of the 40-, 50-, and 60-something musicians now make a living doing this music for the first time in their lives.

In 1999, Tyack went to Nashville to work on his album Blackened Toast. "I was taking an ear break from mixing, and decided to come into a music store called Bobby Seymore's Steel Guitar World," he says. "I had been there about a half-hour when I noticed that the store was quickly filling up with young black men. Now, I spent a few years in Nashville, and let me tell you, I never saw a single black person in this part of town, this redneck suburb called Hendersonville. My curiosity got the better of me, and I walked up and asked if they were connected with the sacred steel thing. I got a huge double take, but I spent a few hours trading licks and talking with these guys, and they invited me to their church that night."

KZIZ-AM DJ Frank Walton.

The House of God Church, where sacred steel originated, is composed of hundreds of congregations, primarily in the South, New Jersey, Chicago, and Detroit. "Most of these are urban storefronts or small country churches, with a typical membership between 50 and 100," Tyack says. "And every year they get together for their national convention in Nashville. I arrived at this huge, ugly modern church about 11 that night, and there were about 3,000 people crammed in there. The house was rockin'. These guys just treated me like a long-lost brother. It turns out that I was the only white steel player who had ever actually come out to their church. They had been inviting the players they met at that Nashville music store for decades, but nobody had ever showed. I gave them a few copies of the mixes of my album that I had just finished and encouraged them to spread them around."

Among the CD's fans was Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers, one of sacred steel's breakout stars. "Chuck gave me a call, and we started talking regularly," says Tyack. "By the time I got to the first National Sacred Steel Convention in March of 2000, I was already a mysterious legend as 'the country guy who plays like us.' I played on the Campbell Brothers' Sacred Steel for the Holidays album and did a bunch of recording with them."

Tyack has also been a featured player at several sacred steel conventions and was invited to play at the Centennial Celebration for Nashville's House of God Church last September. And for the last couple years, he's been gigging this music around town, playing it with area funk and jazz guys like Thaddeus Turner, Mike Stone, and Orville Johnson. Additionally, the debut of his band, the Unsanctified Gospel Revival, is about to be released. The album is really good, but you're better off catching them live first. (They play a CD release show at Lofi, 9 p.m. Wed., July 28.)

Tyack's mission is to take this music to a secular audience. He himself isn't a member of the House of God; hence the band's name. "It's not anti-sanctified, just unsanctified—and 'unpastorized,'" he says. "I guess Garrison Keillor might call it 'gospel music for Unitarians.'" But the spirit is there. "This is powerful, uplifting, transcendental music," Tyack explains. "When you go to a House of God service, you learn that most of the people in the church lead pretty hard lives. Many work very, very hard at low-paid jobs. But when they come on a Sunday afternoon, they are taken to a completely different place. They are transported, physically and spiritually, and the musicians are leading the journey. The relationship between musician and audience is a lot closer to a Dead show in the Fillmore in 1968 than to an Episcopal service in the burbs."

Tyack recalls the first time he played with the Campbells, at the first national convention. "I started with a slow blues—and I had never, ever previously felt what happened in that room. I played a line, and everybody in the room started calling out. I felt this intense, tangible connection with the people in the room. I had Chuck take a solo, then came back in. I had a Holy Ghost moment, and hit this harmonic that just screamed. I held if for most of the verse, and everybody in the room came to their feet and screamed.

"[Fellow sacred steel player] Calvin Cook showed me this video his son took, which shows [sacred steel patriarch] Willie Eason rising out of his wheelchair and raising his arms. Ever since that moment, I have been treated like one of them. It's actually kind of embarrassing to hear the introductions at the conventions, but I'll just say it's nice being called 'Brother Dan.' They don't refer to me as an outsider playing their music, but as a part of the community." Tyack remains one of a handful of musicians from outside the House of God to have been accepted by the sacred steel community; the fact that he lives here and serves as a diplomat for this visceral, juicy, and unique variant of African-American gospel is a very nice treat.

EXPERIENCE UNLIMITED

Like lots of folks in town, I first saw the Total Experience Gospel Choir at a mall—Westlake Mall, specifically. They drew a large crowd of mesmerized shoppers toward them, many of whom didn't budge for the entire set. Approximately 13 strong, the choir works in the high-energy mass choir tradition begun in the late '50s by the Rev. Dr. James Cleveland: a soloist backed by hard-driving mass harmony and accompanied by percussion and keyboards. When it works, it's electric.

TEGC have been together 31 years, and they are Seattle gospel's biggest "name act." That's partly because they're the city's most diverse choir. Pastor Wright stresses that the group's multigenerational and multiethnic makeup was never explicitly strived for—it just happened over time: "I got the idea to have the parents join in with their children. Thus, the old folks became a part." There is a conscious effort, on the other hand, to have the group perform at penal institutions, restaurants, shopping centers, festivals—anywhere that people least expect to hear church music. Wright's reasoning behind this schedule is surprising. "People are less judgmental at a restaurant and more likely to actually listen to what you're doing," she says. (For the few Seattleites who haven't seen them, TEGC perform at the Century Ballroom's gospel brunch Sunday, Aug. 29, at 12:30 p.m.)

Wright, a Seattle-area native, began her musical training early, singing her first church solo at age 3. "By the time I reached 14, I was the minister over three choirs," she says. Later, she came under the tutelage of the late Rev. Cleveland. "I love working in the choral tradition, hearing all of those voices making perfect three- or four-part harmonies. When it's all blended well, the music is euphoric! I have epiphanies each time I open my mouth to sing. It's as though the spirit overcomes me and I am in another space; I love that feeling! I feel like I can conquer the world through song."

With her numerous awards (including but not limited to the Jefferson Award for Women in Communication and the Mahalia Jackson Community Service Award), electric smile, and buoyant, get-things-done energy, Wright has the demeanor of a queen in exile. (She is, in fact, a former Seafair Queen.) She's tough but considerate, the perfect person to run a choir. And to get one noticed: TEGC have performed for President Clinton and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, appeared on the last Dave Matthews album, and have performed with artists both sacred (the Winans, Take Six, the Rev. Isaac Douglas) and less so (King Sunny Ade, Ray Charles). They're also popular in Europe. "People in Europe seem not to be ashamed of their emotions, and gospel music, certainly when it is done properly, will stir up those emotions," Wright says.

Wright and the Total Experience Choir at rest.

Just as intricate and propulsive as her work with TEGC is the Drums and Spirit project. The concept is simple but pointed: Over deep African percussion, Wright sings her favorite spirituals, bringing the music full circle in a noncampy, syncretic fashion, similar to deceased Mississippi fife and drum master Otha Turner's From Senegal to Senatobia CD. The slave-era songs go back hundreds of years ("I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," "Standing in the Need of Prayer"), while the percussion, naturally, goes back farther still. Wright's friend Jeff Busch collaborated on the intense arrangements, amassing local African-born drummers whose polyrhythmic percussion and occasional use of stringed instruments make the sound far less stark than you'd think.

Will it be heard, though? Wright relates the fact that gospel music is so terrifically misunderstood and not part of the mainstream music world to systematic cultural racism. "Anything that has to do with African-American culture in this country is suppressed; it stems from slavery," she says. "This country tries hard to deny slavery's very existence. One hundred and forty-one years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery is still alive and well in the fiber of this country. So, if the powers that be in America simply ignore black people, then perhaps black folks will just disappear; [but] we are not going away! I use the power of gospel music to ferret through this stupidity and find peace within myself." And, if Wright has anything to say about it, spread the word beyond the church. Say amen, somebody.

info@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus