In a sleek office building in Arden, record-company executive Mickey Gamble is blasting the soulful vocals of up-and-coming singer Lauren Talley over his computer speakers.
“I don’t have a closet religion,” she belts out.
“Not what people who don’t listen a lot would think of as Southern gospel,” shouts Gamble, straining to be heard over the rollicking instrumentals. “But it is.”
Southern gospel just may be the best-kept secret in the Western North Carolina arts scene. Throughout these mountains, this traditional Christian music is thriving — yet it remains largely overlooked by many music lovers in the region.
But generations of local singers, musicians and fans have passionately nurtured a deeply felt connection with the genre since its birth in neighboring Tennessee nearly 100 years ago.
And though bluegrass performers usually give a nod to gospel, you won’t find most Southern-gospel groups on the club circuit. But nearly every weekend, performers proclaiming the glory of Christian salvation draw large, devoted followings in churches, high-school auditoriums, civic centers and open-air festivals throughout WNC.
The region is a veritable hotbed of Southern gospel, notes Danny Jones, editor of Singing News magazine, an authoritative national publication based in Boone.
“Western North Carolina is vitally important to Southern-gospel music,” he declares.
The evidence to back up that view is impressive. For starters, the Kingsmen Quartet — an icon in Southern gospel — called Asheville home for decades. (The gospel group should not be confused with those other Kingsmen, whose thumping “Louie Louie,” released in the early ‘6os, went on to become a hazy frat-house favorite.)
And an impressive network continues to fuel both the musical tradition and the often-ignored (but wickedly competitive) business end of Southern gospel.
Along with a bevy of nationally ranked singers and a powerhouse record company, the region can lay claim to a cluster of Christian radio stations and the official Southern Gospel Top 80 chart (at Singing News). What’s more, the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame is just around the mountain in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
“Four guys and a piano”
To most people, “gospel music” evokes a swaying, clapping African-American choir in flowing robes, or a dynamic soloist like the late Mahalia Jackson.
But “Southern gospel music might well be the best-kept secret in America,” writes Appalachian State University history professor James R. Goff Jr. in his meticulously researched book Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (UNC Press, 2002).
At the heart of the Southern-gospel sound is the traditional quartet — “four guys and a piano.” Those vocalists sing lead, tenor, baritone and bass, explains veteran announcer Jay Michael Sumner of WFGW (1010 AM), a Black Mountain-based Southern-gospel station.
And the message of redemption through Christ is always front and center.
“Southern gospel puts it out front and will mention Jesus, I think, much quicker than any other genre of Christian music,” Sumner observes.
The music’s roots lie in shape-note singing (based on a simplified system of musical notation using specific shapes to represent the notes) — and in the marketing genius of Tennesseean James D. Vaughan, often called the founder of Southern gospel.
In 1910, notes Goff, the budding entrepreneur sponsored a traveling quartet to promote the songbooks he was publishing — a landmark decision in the history of Southern gospel. Vaughan’s gamble paid off handsomely: The first year, songbook sales doubled (reaching 60,000), reports Singing News Editor-in-Chief Jerry Kirksey in an online column. In 1911, Vaughan further solidified the genre by opening a music school that helped birth the styles and harmonies still in evidence today.
Despite mutual influence, however, segregation kept black and white gospel on different tracks.
“It is an indictment of American history that black and white gospel developed as separate — and parallel — traditions,” writes Goff.
Even today, most Southern-gospel performers (and their audiences) are white. But there are exceptions, such as the Morganton-based Gospel Enforcers, whom Goff counts among a small group of noted African-American acts in the Southern-gospel tradition. And over its long history, Southern gospel has also expanded to include women, trios, soloists, family groups and a much wider array of instruments (even drums!).
Gamble, however, would like to puncture another stereotype about the music.
“Southern gospel is perceived — even by a lot of the people involved in it — as something that either is or should be connected ideologically, let’s say, with the Christian right, or something like that in politics,” he muses. “But it’s not. It’s as broad as the public is broad.”
Cradle of Southern gospel
Madison County native Ray Dean Reese, who grew up in Asheville, spent 37 years with the famed Kingsmen Quartet. Wearing a mock turtleneck, blazer and blue jeans, Reese today comes across as approachable — and as someone who long since reached the big leagues.
“I was singing gospel music from the time I could carry a tune,” he reveals from his comfortable office in the Winn-Dixie shopping center in Candler.
In his early teens, Reese began attending one of the singing schools held at churches throughout the mountains. He fondly recalls putting his newfound skills to work in Sunday-night singings at Alexander Baptist Church, where choir members and groups took turns proclaiming their faith through song.
“That’s the roots up here in the mountains,” he explains. “Out of these mountains up here have come people like Rex Nelon, going on to be one of the finest bass singers in gospel-music history with the LeFevres.”