Archive for July, 2009

Train songs

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2009 by Becky

As a young man growing up in rural southeastern North Carolina, I was often fascinated, and not a little frightened, by the sounds I heard nightly coming from the woods behind my grandparent’s house during my visits over summer vacation.

The house was located approximately a quarter mile from a set of time- scarred, steel and wood plank railroad tracks, which ran the length of my hometown and continued west towards the far regions of the state.

The trains that moved nightly over those tracks carried lumber from the local mills, stone from the local quarry and an infinite variety of electrical supplies, furniture and refrigerated food items.

None of those facts interested me. My imagination was fired instead by the hauntingly mournful whistle rising above the trees as I lay in bed gazing towards the woods, and by the slow reverberations from the trains passing that rolled through the room, across the house and out into the night. It was as if a great beast had passed and left only silence and wonder in its wake.

Judging from the abundance of train images, name checks and symbolic references that have found their way into popular culture over the past century, numerous other young men and women have shared experiences similar to mine.

These images, symbolic and otherwise, have turned up most frequently in popular songs – music and lyrics dating from the railroads earliest days right up to our present high-tech century.

In songs ranging from country kingpin Johnny Cash’s classic “Fulsome Prison Blues” up through the industrial throb and shudder of techno pioneers Kraftwork’s “Trans-Europe Express” and the metallic ravings of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” locomotives have played an important role in defining the sense of freedom, mystery and rebellion integral to the roots of much of this century’s defining music, influencing not only popular American culture but songsmiths and poets throughout the world.

A partial, and very abbreviated, list of some of the more famous songs might run something like this: Midnight Special (Leadbelly), (I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow (Hank Williams), Love In Vain, (Robert Johnson), Love Train (The O’Jays), Zion Train (Bob Marley and The Wailers), Driver 8 (REM), Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Night and the Pips) and Wabash Cannonball (Roy Acuff.)

Not even English punk heroes The Clash were immune from the locomotives hypnotic pull, making a last minute addition, “Train in Vain,” to their classic “London Calling” album. The song, one of the bands biggest hits, contains no railroad imagery or symbolism but was named instead for the music’s propulsive, train-like rhythm – yet another way in which the railroads have helped propel popular music into the modern age.

Of course, apart from providing creative inspiration for numerous artists, the railroad systems have been of incalculable importance to the world’s economy and the shaping of our history, including that of Halifax County.

Completed in 1840, and at one time the longest rail line in the world, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad played a vital role during the Civil War, allowing rebel troops to bypass the Union blockade and transport supplies northward. A substantial portion of the supplies that reached Southern forces in Virginia in the war’s final months traveled over the railway, which became known as the “lifeline of the Confederacy.”

The Civil War transformed the train from a merely utilitarian force into a symbol of freedom for this nations slaves and a means of escaping southern oppression for their descendants. Since that time trains and the songs they’ve inspired have continued to act as an expression of hope, of nearly subversive transcendence from earthly bonds. From the aforementioned “Midnight Special,” written by blues songster Leadbelly while in a Texas penitentiary, to the gospel hymn “This Train is Bound for Glory,” covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Marley and the Wailers to Sublime and including the memorable lyric, “This train don’t carry no gamblers, no whores nor midnight ramblers,” these songs of freedom continue to provide inspiration for the spiritually weary and physically oppressed.

This symbol of redemption continues to resonate in our collective unconscious so powerfully in fact, that country newcomer Josh Turner was able to score a recent #1 hit with his ode to moral fortitude, “Long Black Train,” in which the locomotive in question acts not as a vehicle of salvation but as a soul gobbling, demon -driven engine of evil.

Freedom of a far less spiritual nature also found its way into popular train songs. Country music pioneer Jimmy Rodgers, a former railroad brakeman, sang extensively of thundering boxcars and endless rail lines carrying him towards one high adventure after another, yet always with a touch of bittersweet regret: “Though my pocketbook is empty, and my heart is full with pain, I’m a thousand miles away from home, just waiting for a train.”

Whether offering a potent symbol of salvation for the weary and oppressed, enticing the hobo in all of us with the illusion of an all- but- forgotten freedom, or merely stirring the imaginations of wonderstruck children, the train and its metaphoric offspring continue to thunder through the songs and imaginations of dreamers across the globe. Long may they rumble.


Music legends of the Tar Heel state

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2009 by Becky

When considering the epicenters of music-related influence across the U.S., the state of North Carolina may not immediately spring to mind or leap forth from the pages of history books, but the Tar Heel state can hold its own, note for note, with any of its more storied southern neighbors in the span of its artistic breadth and the richness of its musical heritage.

Georgia spawned giants like James Brown and Otis Redding; Mississippi can rightfully stake its claim as the land where the blues was nursed to health on the muddy milk of its famed river; and Tennessee, well, everyone knows about Nashville … but these states, rightfully honored as they are, did not give the world the likes of jazz giants John Coletrane and Thelonius Monk, blind folk-music wizard Doc Watson, P-Funk innovator George Clinton or country die-hards Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis.

And they didn’t give the world bluegrass.

Yeah, I know, it’s accepted knowledge that bluegrass originated in the fertile hills of Kentucky. I won’t argue the point, but history shows that in the mid 1930s, two brothers, Bill and Charlie Monroe, moved from their native Kentucky to a more musically-inspiring region, namely the western hills of North Carolina.

Apparently the bluegrass revolution was already well under way when the brothers arrived — not surprising when one considers the state’s long tradition of ballad singing initiated by Scotch-Irish immigrants as well as the popularity of the banjo, a West African-derived instrument that can be heard on many early blues, as well as bluegrass, records.

After touring across the state extensively, the brothers found their way to a makeshift studio in Charlotte and recorded 10 sides for the RCA Victor label. Their first recordings laid the blueprint for the style they would continue to perfect for the entirety of their careers, namely with the groundbreaking Bluegrass Boys, the band that put the music on the proverbial map and provided a measuring stick for every like- minded group that followed.

The state also developed a distinctly regional form of blues; Piedmont-based, and performed with an instantly recognizable laid-back swing and mellow twang that stamps it as uniquely Carolinian.

A few of its better-known practitioners were Etta Baker, The Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, and of course, Roanoke Rapids’ own Bishop Dready Manning, founder of St. Mark Holiness Church, a guitar-slinging, harmonica-blowing gospel singer and former moonshine salesman whose music can be heard ringing through the rafters of churches across Halifax and Northampton counties.

Born in Gaston to a family of sharecroppers, Manning gave up the typical hard-living blues lifestyle in 1962 after a mysterious hemorrhage left him close to death. Manning survived and made the decision to devote his life to more sacred concerns. Since founding St. Mark Holiness in 1969, Manning and his wife Marie have played for packed crowds across the two counties and recorded numerous locally released albums.

During a recent interview, Manning spoke about the roots of the music he’s been playing since the age of 4. “I learned a lot off a gentleman named Russel Moody, and from listening to Blind Boy Fuller, Lightning Hopkins and different people.”

Though Manning left the seedier aspects of blues living behind him years ago, his music still retains the raw vitality and hard-edged drive garnered from those rough-and-tumble years, giving even unrepentant sinners a reason to get up early on Sunday mornings and dust off the suit and tie.

“I still have the same style of music; it hasn’t changed too much,” he stated with an obvious sense of pride. “I feel like it helps people- they just love to hear me play.”

The reverend is only one example of the talent currently thriving across the state. The full history of North Carolina’s music, which is being written and rewritten with each new generation, is far too rich to go into at length in one article — I haven’t even mentioned the state’s vital rock or folk music history.

Needless to say, however, should any would-be music snob ever question the worth of this state’s musical legacy, simply mention a certain recording session by two Kentucky boys back in the 1930s.

Or better yet, just take ‘em to church.

Local music prodigy hits it big with SNL, NHL awards show

Posted in Newspaper Stories with tags , , , , , , on July 24, 2009 by Todd
Katreese Barnes

Katreese Barnes

From the halls of Weldon Middle School to the concert stages of New York City and beyond, Katreese Barnes has followed her musical instincts to the pinnacle of her professional career and well beyond the dreams of the gifted young prodigy who once called Halifax County home.

Growing up as an Army brat moving from state to state, Barnes and her family settled in Weldon in 1976. At the age of 10, she began taking classical music lessons, a move her mother, Esther, recognized as inevitable. “She was just a very talented child,” she said during a recent interview. “The teacher gave her the sheet music and she went through it just like that. They had to start writing out charts for her after that. She won all kinds of competitions.”

After attending Weldon City Schools for several years, Barnes was awarded a music scholarship to the N.C. School of Arts in Winston Salem. Thriving in the creative atmosphere of her new environment, she played with the Wilmington Symphony as a featured soloist during their performance of Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor,” a coveted slot that brought her recognition outside of regional music circles.

Drawing inspiration from her father, an avid musician who played in Top 40 bands in his spare time, Barnes joined her equally talented brother, Jerry, to form the early 80’s R&B group Juicy, and was quickly signed to a recording contract with Arista Records. The group released their debut album in 1982 and went on to record the theme for the seminal 1984 movie “Beat Street,” one of the first motion pictures to explore the world of break dancing and hip-hop. Moving on to Atlantic and CBS records later in the decade, Juicy released a number of singles and two more full-length albums before disbanding in 1987.

Several years later, in the early nineties, Barnes made the decision to move to New York, a decision that would ultimately catapult her career into an entirely different direction.

Following the move, Barnes, now in her early-twenties, quickly established herself as a backup singer after being tapped by legendary R&B artist Roberta Flack to work on her 1994 album “Roberta.”  She would go on to work with some of the biggest names in the music industry, such as Sting, Carly Simon, P. Diddy and Billy Joel, stretching her wings into the fields of writing and arranging in the process.

Speaking to the Daily Herald from her home in New York Tuesday, Barnes recalled this formative period of her career fondly. “It was funny how I acclimated so fast working with people I idolized. I felt that was where I was supposed to be. I believe you are just destined to be who you are going to be. When you meet people who are like-minded, it really opens your eyes.”

In 1999, a band mate informed Barnes about an opening for a pianist with the house band of the famed late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live. Though somewhat skeptical of her chances at first, Barnes auditioned for the spot. Much to her surprise, she got the job.

Slowly but surely, Barnes worked her way up the ranks, writing, arranging and learning the ropes of working in live television. Eventually, Barnes would be promoted to musical director, the first African-American female to hold that title in the show’s history.

“In this industry there’s a lot of pressure to have your own band and constantly tour and make records,” Barnes said of the career change, “but very few people can sustain that. With SNL, it’s a different challenge. You’re always doing something different. It’s worked out for me and I believe I found the thing that’s right for my soul.”

Though she was thrilled to get the job, Barnes said the change of pace took some getting used to. “Working at SNL is completely different from the work I did before. I can’t even explain the madness of that show from week to week. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere. It’s amazing working with this brilliant cast of comedians and musicians.”

One of the high points of Barnes’ tenure on SNL thus far was winning the 2007 Emmy for Best Original Music and Lyrics for her work on “D..k in a Box,”  a classic comedy sketch starring Justin Timberlake. “That will never leave my piano,” Barnes said of the award. “A lot of people think I wrote the lyrics but I didn’t. I just wrote the music. They came to me and said they wanted a spoof of the nineties R&B stuff, like R. Kelly and Color Me Badd. I came up with the music on Tuesday and they recorded the vocals Thursday night. You’ve got to be on top of your game to do this because a lot of it is last minute.”

Addressing the risqué nature of the song, Barnes said she was told it was a “stretch for some of the older Emmy nominating committee members. But comedy is so different now than it was 30 years ago, and I think people are smart and will recognize that.”

With her career in full swing, Barnes was recently picked as musical director for this year’s National Hockey League Awards show, a task that Barnes obviously relishes. “I was flattered,” she stated. “When people recognize your work outside of the show, it’s an accomplishment.”

Barnes said although her work on the awards ceremony is similar to her day job, it does offer some distinct advantages. “It’s not as high pressured as SNL. It’s less stress because you have more time to put things together. I’ve been working on it for two months, brainstorming, getting things finalized.”

Outside of the television industry, Barnes has kept one foot in the performing world, staging a one woman show, what she refers to as a “dark comedy” called “Rocket Man.”  Barnes said the show features funked-up arrangements of songs by Elton John, who she formerly worked for as a backup singer.

With a career that’s branched off into soundtrack work, classical composition and low brow comedy, Barnes seems content to let the music take the lead, following the sounds wherever they choose to take her.

“I only really knew I was going to be able to do this full-time eight years ago,” she stated, sounding grateful and surprised. “It wasn’t one of those things where I thought ‘Wow, I’m automatically going to be able to do this for a living.’”
I can’t say what the future holds, but I’ll always be involved in composing and arranging, whether it’s for artists, TV or Broadway musicals. I think that’s what I was born to do.”

Remembering the music of a small town kid who took on the world, and won

Posted in Newspaper Stories with tags , , , , , on July 23, 2009 by Todd

Michael Jackson

I can still picture the album, nearly hidden beneath a pile of black and white family photographs, that famous Motown label shinning through the dust and cobwebs like a red, green and gold beacon. There was no cover, just a scratched plastic LP discarded by my aunt, left behind with all the other remnants of her childhood after she married and moved away to the big city.

I must have been around eight at the time and, while I’m sure I’d heard of Michael Jackson before, this was the first time I ever sat down and really listened to the music, in this case a greatest hits album by his family’s band, the Jackson 5.

That music, muted and warped as it was by the years of grime and heat, seemed to my young ears like nothing more or less than pure euphoria; an expression of joy so profoundly rhythmic, so endlessly melodic that it bordered on the manic. Even the ballads made me smile.

I played that record until it was worn down to an un-listenable husk of its former self. For all the joy I found in its muffled grooves, I don’t think it particularly bothered me when I dumped it in the trash.

By this time, 1979, Jackson had completed his first solo album, “Off the Wall,” a statement of purpose and independence miles removed from his work with the Jackson 5. I walked into the kitchen of my grandmother’s house one day and heard the title track insinuating itself into the nooks and crannies of the room thanks to an oversized boom box that belonged to my cousin, who had recently purchased the tape.

When I think of Michael Jackson now, the real Michael Jackson, this is the music I hear: Funky, earthy and glamorous all at once, the album contains songs as strange and avant-garde as any pop music ever produced, a mix of disco, rock, jazz and sheer charisma that in its very inclusiveness seemed to both embrace and blow apart the very meaning of the word “Pop.”

I was nine, Michael was in his early twenties, and for me at least, it was the last time he would still be recognizable as that young kid from Gary, Ind., the one who may have been forced to the front of the stage by his father, but who was still enjoying every second of his time in the spotlight. Watch the video for “Rock with You,” and then tell me this is a young man eaten up with loneliness and regret over a lost childhood. I don’t think so.

All that came later, I suppose.

You can already hear the fear and paranoia creeping in on “Thriller,” the 1982 atomic blast that helped launch not only the video age and the compact disc revolution but also apparently launched Jackson right off the face of the planet and into a bizarre alternate universe, where every ridiculous whim is encouraged, where childhood need never end. It also obliterated what was left of the humanity in Jackson’s public persona and, even more disheartening, his music.

I’ll be willing to bet people will still be listening to “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” 20-years from now. I’d be very surprised indeed if anyone was still discussing “Bad” or “Dangerous.” The crucial element of his music, simple joy, seemed to have evaporated like so much stage fog.

By the time of “Thriller” I was doing my best to tune out the blare of popular music, having pledged my allegiance to the bombast and aggression of heavy metal several years earlier.

Jackson was lightweight, fluffy kid’s stuff, not to be taken seriously by true rock fans. The Eddie Van Halen solo on “Beat it” just wasn’t enough to sway me.

Try as I might, however, there was simply no escaping the man or his music. The word omnipresent doesn’t even begin to describe the saturation level his stardom achieved: Videos, magazines, radio, clothing, dance — no one who didn’t come of age during that era can possibly conceive of the utter pandemonium that followed Jackson’s every leg kick and finger twitch.

It was the moment when popular culture stepped through the looking glass into a new world of mass idolatry and frenzied press speculation the likes of which this country — this planet — had never seen. The attention afforded the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, the three music careers that most closely parallel Jackson’s, seem almost quaint by comparison.

I was saddened by the news of his death this week. Though I haven’t listened to his music in years or kept up with his latest legal troubles, like most Americans I love a good second act, and if any performer deserved a final curtain call, well, who would begrudge a 50-year-old man-child a chance to go out with a little dignity.

But I feel no pity for Jackson. He became what he always dreamed of becoming. Many children before him saw their youth slip away working behind the back end of a mule or stuffing endless rows of cotton into burlap sacks.

Jackson clearly was born to a different destiny, one that brought joy to millions of fans across the world and, however lonely or confused he may have been in his life, those very emotions were at least signs that the enigma behind the mask still retained some vestige of his former self, of that all too human young man who stepped into the spotlight and changed the world for everyone.

Chambergrass blooms on the river

Posted in Newspaper Stories with tags , , , , , , on July 23, 2009 by Todd


As the last notes of “Ode to Joy” fade into the sun-lit room, the two musicians face each other, huge smiles span their faces, their instruments still ringing with the hum and throb of music that, by some mysterious alchemy, has merged the grace and elegance of classical with the propulsive drive of bluegrass. The song is the perfect introduction to the duo and a perfect metaphor for the two very individual talents who helped bring it to life.

Kim Koskela and Dave Schwartz, better known as Chambergrass, first met in 2004 while fishing for shad along the banks of the Roanoke River. Though the two quickly forged a bond based around their mutual love of music, they quickly realized their radically different backgrounds would prove a challenge to future collaborations. While Schwartz, a bass player, came from a family steeped in the traditions of classical music, Koskela was an avid bluegrass aficionado who had spent three decades honing her skills on the banjo. While neither Koskela nor Schwartz had ventured far from their roots, they both longed to stretch out, to reach across the musical void and discover the secrets of the other’s world.

On the banks of the Roanoke River, the two musicians made a pact: She would provide the bluegrass knowledge and he would teach her the intricacies of classical music.

“We just decided that we wanted to play together and we’re going to make this work somehow,” said Koskela yesterday, as she tuned up her banjo. “I gave him Bill Monroe records to listen to. He kept calling me up and telling me we needed a fiddle player. I just kept telling him ‘Dave, you know how to use a bow, you are the fiddle player.’”

“It was very puzzling at first,” she stated, with a look of exaggerated perplexity. “We asked ourselves, ‘Are we insane for doing this? Will it work?’”

According to Koskela, through a long process of trial and error, the two eventually merged their influences into a cohesive mix, drawing on the best of both worlds. “We picked songs that we both liked and then we just figured out how to play them together.”

As their confidence grew, they began playing for audiences across the Valley, putting in appearances at the Roanoke Canal Trail Museum, the Halifax Day’s celebration and other festivals across the region.

Yesterday evening, the duo celebrated the fruits of their patience and practice with an impromptu gathering at the Hilton Garden Inn in Roanoke Rapids to celebrate the release of their first CD together, ‘At The Theater,’ a collection of fan favorites recorded during two days last fall at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.

As light refreshments were served, the group performed a selection of their newly-recorded songs. Dressed in a button down dress shirt, black tie and black slacks, Schwartz alternately caressed and plucked his stand-up bass, while Koskela, who favors cowboy boots and flowing skirts, picked out notes and rolls on her banjo with silver, steel-tipped finger picks.

“It’s so great,” stated a clearly excited Schwartz, as he took a break to sign CDs for fans between the group’s performances. “It’s kind of like graduating, when you know you’ve made it.”

“Everybody has been so nice,” he added. “We have to thank Phyliss Lee (former City Manager) for letting us in the theater to rehearse. The sound is just perfect in there.”

The CD, which consists of 16 songs, covers a unique stylistic range spanning the traditional bluegrass of ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘Jerusalem Ridge,’ a Bill Monroe song, to the classical tones of ‘Gavotte,’ a beautifully realized piece that draws its origins from a French folk dance. The somber tones of gospel influenced numbers such as ‘Jesus Joy of Man’s Desire’ give way to the raucous good times of ‘Great Big Woman,’ and ‘Mississippi Squirrel Revival,’ a Ray Stevens talking-comedy number that drew rounds of laughs from the crowd gathered for yesterday’s release party.

The sound on the disc is big and warm, enveloping the listener in the clearly defined yet intricately woven world of acoustic bass and banjo. “It sounds just like when we play in a room,” said Koskela. “We didn’t want a lot of effects and reverb. We wanted it to sound like we were playing in your living room in front of you. We had to be real about it.”

For his part, Schwartz said the chance to play with his bluegrass mentor, who he calls “one of the best banjo players in the state,” has been the joyful culmination of four years of hard work. “I’m just really excited to get this CD out and record with Kim,” he stated. “We put a lot of time and effort into this.”

Koskela and Schwartz said a live Chambergrass album is currently in the works, which will be comprised of recordings from their popular First Friday Acoustic Jam appearances at Halifax Community College. The duo said they also have plans for a gospel album in the near future.

Said Schwartz: “It’s very exciting. I never thought we would do anything like this. The community has just been so supportive; coming out to see us and letting us record at the theater. We have so many friends in the community; every time we play it’s like a family reunion.”

With a series of concerts, bluegrass and folk festival appearances on the horizon, the two very different, very determined musical partners seem destined to carry their music into the future, together.

“We just started something crazy and people seem to enjoy it,” said Koskela. “We didn’t expect this at all. We just love playing.”

Country music elder statesman look towards future

Posted in Newspaper Stories with tags , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2009 by Todd


Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys

In a world of fly-by-night, flavor of the month chart-toppers and one hit wonders, rare indeed is the artist that can maintain a strong fan base for more than a few scant years; a group that somehow defies the odds and draws in listeners from generation after generation is even more uncommon.

And then, there’s the Oak Ridge Boys.

The group has roots stretching back to World War II, when their original incarnation, known as the Oak Ridge Quartet, performed their unique brand of gospel music for members of the historic Manhattan Project, the top secret government program that led to the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

In the early 60s, the group changed their name to the more contemporary sounding Oak Ridge Boys and recorded a series of groundbreaking albums for the Warner Brothers record label. By the early 70s the group had won a Grammy and recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family that put them on the country charts for the first time.

With the current lineup of lead vocalist Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden on baritone and bass vocalist Richard Sterban solidifying in 1973, the group made the risky but profitable switch from gospel to country music with the album “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” in 1977, the title track provided their first country hit.

“That was a big step for us,” said Sterban, during an interview with the Daily Herald. “But it worked out great.”
Since that initial step into the country mainstream, the group has racked up an impressive 21 number 1 country hits and 48 chart records.

Through the years the Oak Ridge Boys have managed to maintain their statues as contemporary hitmakers while keeping one foot in the gospel-based music of their past, as a look at their two newest projects makes clear.

Sterban, who joined the group in 1972, spoke excitedly about the groups recently completed album, “The Boys are Back.” Sterban said the album, which will be released May 19, marks a leap forward into uncharted territory and a throwback to a more traditional sound. “This new album is what we’re most excited about. The title song was written by Shooter Jennings especially for the Oak Ridge Boys. He’s a big fan and he actually had a lot to do with this project.”

After accepting an offer to sing background vocals on Jennings’ 2007 album “The Wolf,” the group was introduced to the young artists equally young producer, Dave Cobb. After a performance at a music showcase with Jennings brought down the house, the group became convinced that the time was right for a fresh approach.

“We decided to bring Dave Cobb in to produce our new album and it’s some of the most different stuff we’ve ever done. It’s definitely taken us down some different roads than we would normally travel on our own. But it’s still unmistakably the Oak Ridge Boys.”

Comparing the album to Johnny Cash’s series of American Recordings with Rick Rubin, Sterban said the new sound is more stripped down than the group’s previous offerings. “Instrumentally it’s very spare, with our voices right out front. It’s very new for us.”

Just how new is evidenced by the album’s first single, a cover of the White Stripes hit “Seven Nation Army” that finds the group replacing the songs grungy bass pattern and guitar riff with their familiar, harmonized voices. Sterban said other surprise cuts from the album include a version of the John Lee Hooker blues classic “Boom, Boom, Boom” and a take on Neil Young’s “Beautiful Bluebird.”

The group even managed to get Jennings’ mother, Jessi Colter, to lend a hand on keyboards during recording. “We recorded in the same studio where the original Outlaw stuff was recorded, Tompall Glaser and Waylon Jennings and all those guys. So it just made sense.”

A new DVD project, “The Oak Ridge Boys: A Gospel Journey” was released April 21, and showcases the groups roots, giving older fans a chance to watch the band perform their favorite gospel numbers.

That mix of the old with the new will be on display Friday night when the Oak Ridge Boys take the stage at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. Said Sterban: “The fans can expect a lot of new music; we’ll  open with the title track off the new album. But they can expect a lot of hits, too. You can count on the fact that you’ll hear ‘Elvira,” you’ll hear “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight;” you’ll hear “Trying to Love Two Women.”  It’ll be a great night of wholesome country music that the whole family can enjoy.”

Despite the changes in the music business since the group’s inception, Sterban said he remains optimistic.  “They’re some great new artists, like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. In general we have a good feeling about country music and where it’s headed. We’ll be working 160 days this year, which is pretty great considering the state of the economy. The Oak Ridge Boys are still looking forward to the future.”

Group brings songs of praise to the Valley

Posted in Newspaper Stories with tags , , , , on July 23, 2009 by Todd

The Roanoke Jubilees

The Roanoke Jubilees

The small gray van pulling the battered utility trailer sits parked outside the doors of the empty venue. A few early arrivals mingle around the van, joking with the musicians as they gather in the last of their equipment. Inside, the men unpack their instruments, adjusting amps, tightening bolts on drum cymbals and testing microphone volumes. The guitarist plucks out a few hesitant, quicksilver notes, then turns a knob on his amp and cuts loose with a flurry of distorted, blues-rock riffs. “All right Mick Jagger,” says one of the singers, unpacking a case of microphones, “you cut that out. You’ll have us singing out on the street.”

It’s a scene played out nightly across the country: a small group of hardworking musicians setting up for one more gig in yet another small town in Anywhere, USA.

Yet the fans making their way out of the rapidly cooling October dusk into the Littleton Community Center are decked out not in jeans and T-shirts but instead don their Sunday best suits and dress hats, high heels and flower print dresses. As they make their way to the seats, the musicians gathered around the stage greet them like long lost family members.

“I think I’ve just seen a ghost! Where you been hiding brother? You want a piece of sweet potato pie.”

“God bless you sister, so glad you could come out tonight.”

Clearly this is no ordinary concert. Just as clearly, The Roanoke Jubilees are no ordinary group.

Originally formed in 1931 in Roanoke Rapids, the Jubilees — which currently consists of singers Clentis Wilkins, Telly Wilkins, Edward Allen, Tracy Parker and James Gatling; guitarist Tony Branch; bass player John Allen and drummer Kevin Doby — are the longest running gospel group currently playing the Roanoke Valley area. All original members save one have passed away.

“This is something we do because we love it,” said Branch, the bands unofficial businessman, as the group relaxed following their community center performance. “It’s just like a baby with a piece of candy. About the middle of the week the guys will start calling me and I’ll start getting excited.”

“We do it because we love the Word,” echoed Gatling, pushing his shoulder length dreadlocks back from his face.
Though all the band members are married with families and hold down full-time jobs, they still manage to perform two to three times every weekend and practice at least once a week.

“There’s really no money involved, if we were doing it for the money,” said Clentis Wilkins, who’s been performing gospel music for over 60 years, “we’d all be starving. Most of what we do is for free.”

Performing up and down the East Coast for audiences in New York, Maryland, D.C., Virginia and South Carolina, the group hasn’t let economic troubles or high gas prices slow them down.

“It hasn’t stopped us one bit,” said Edward Allen, who, along with Wilkins, acts as the self-described “daddy” of the group. “And I’ll tell you something else, in 40 some years we’ve never had a flat tire. The Lord has always looked out for us.”

While the church provided both framework and inspiration for each of the musicians growing up, the eight member group interacts more as a family unit than a traditional, career-minded gospel outfit, no surprise when one considers the father and son team of Edward and John Allen and the fact that drummer Kevin Doby is Wilkins’ son-in law.

“That’s what this is, one big family,” said Parker, who handles most of the groups cooking, “If one of us is in need, we’re all in need. But we do fight, we do disagree.”

Though the group admits brotherly conflicts do arise occasionally, their performances bear testament to their years of practice and dedication to craft, offering congregations across the country a seamless, sweat-drenched lesson in communal kinship and rapturous rapport.

Dressed in matching gray and black pin-stripe suits, the musicians waste little time with introductions or pleasantries, diving headlong into traditional classics such as “Somebody Touched Me” and “Never Let Go of God’s Hand” with a drive and force that belies the members combined ages.

As each singer trades off lead vocal duties, the other members quickly fall in around him, offering the kind of call and response harmonies that have been a hallmark of the African-American church experience since the early days of Emancipation.

During a rollicking, fire and brim stone reading of “God Told Noah,” Wilkins wipes the sweat from his face and, eyes shut tight, lifts his head to the ceiling, shouting out a raw-voiced message of sin and retribution, invoking both 9-11 and Biblical prophecy.

“We got a lot of people that they think the fire gonna fall from the sky, but the fire’s already here,’ he cries, as his fellow Jubilees intone a sere, hypnotic chant in response.

“No more water, fire this time. No more water, fire this time.”

Wilkins also handles lead vocal duties on the self-penned “Never Let Go of God’s Hand” whose refrain “Some days my body is wracked with pain, but I still go in Jesus’ name,” echoes another of the group’s most explosive numbers, “Hallelujah Square,” during which Edward Allen recites his long-running battle with cancer and his eventual recovery.
“Somebody in here may be sick and don’t even know it,” he offers in a hushed yet commanding voice, “I was sick. The doctors thought I had cancer, cancer of the bone, of the liver and the prostate. The last checkup I had was three months ago. I was cancer free. Whatever’s wrong with you God can fix it!”

The congregation members rise to their feet in celebration and Allen slowly retreats into the wall of sound and harmony behind him, taking up the final chorus as the Jubilees bring the song to a close.

“Won’t be no cripple (in Hallelujah Square). Won’t be no blind (in Hallelujah Square.) Won’t be no cancer…”

As the performance draws to a close, Branch sets down his guitar, draws the other members around him and leads them slowly down the venues center aisle as they sing out a final, a capella hymn. Their voices growing slowly dimmer, the Jubilees disappear behind a side door as wide-eyed children and stone-faced seniors clap their hands and turn in their seats to watch. Cries of “Hallelujah” and “Praise God” follow them from the room, which, grown suddenly quiet after their departure, rings with the high, bell-like tones of their passing.

In the dimly lit storage room the members grab bottles of water and relax before beginning the process of breaking down their equipment and loading up the truck.

As they discuss the night’s performance, friends and family crowd around the tables.

“You know, there’s another Jubilees you may not see,” smiled Gatling, “Our wives. They’re there every program, supporting us. They might as well be up on stage with us.”

One of those “other Jubilees,” Jean Wilkins, Clentis’ wife, discussed the importance of the group in maintaining her husband’s sense of purpose and devotion over a 60 year performing career.

“It’s great. He’s got to love it because he’s been doing it so long, since before we got married. He just enjoys singing. If he misses a Sunday or is feeling bad, he goes to the program and he feels better. If you really want to do something and do it from the heart, it will turn out right.”

The fall light fading quickly, the members excuse themselves and begin packing up, hauling amps, monitors and bass drums out to the utility trailer, packing away their sound until next weekend finds them on the road to one more church or community center in one more small town somewhere on the East Coast.

“We sing as hard if it’s five people or 1,000 people in the room,” James said earlier, noting the somewhat sparse attendance, “It doesn’t matter. I love these fellows. I wouldn’t sing with nobody else.”