Shine Troubles Over: The Spiritualaires of Hurtsboro, Alabama
The lines between gospel and blues have always been blurry as heck (well, musically at least). And they just got a bit blurrier thanks to the latest CaseQuarter release, The Spiritualaires of Hurtsboro, Alabama‘s Singing Songs of Praise.
I’ve spent much of my energy in this column discussing two strains of old school gospel: the great vocal quartets such as the Swan Silvertones and Soul Stirrers on one hand and the haunting sanctified blues played by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson and the Rev. Charlie Jackson on the other. This is the first time I’ve discussed a group whose work sits so squarely in the middle of those two camps: the Spiritualaires. They’ve been together since 1948 and have had regular radio broadcasts for almost forty years (!) — but are just now releasing their first album. In the great gospel tradition of groups having the same name, there are other Spiritualaires, including the Original Spiritualaires who are from Florida. (The one track I’ve heard from here on eMusic is pretty good, but nothing to write home about.) There’s also a Windy City Spiritualaires (from Chicago, naturally), a Southern gospel group from Virginia, and… you get the picture,
It’s hard to believe this is only the third release on the New York/Alabama-based CaseQuarter label, run by WFMU DJ and gospel expert Kevin Nutt. It must be that his other releases by Rev. Charlie Jackson and Isaiah Owens instantly felt like such classics. Nutt’s approach to documenting his artists is to do it in as raw and vital a manner as possible. He’s also interested in providing as big and clear an image of his artist as possible, which is accomplished here with a few brief snippets from the group’s radio show. These ads and announcements will be familiar to fans of Nutt’s essential radio program “Sinner’s Crossroads”; the “Announcements” track is particularly charming even as it hints at the similarities between used car salesmen and radio preachers. (It begs to be included on your next serious mix tape.)
The quartet’s relatively loose style is closer to the moaning roots of gospel spirituals than your typical Golden Age hard shouting or jubilee-style group. A few songs recall the recordings that the Virginia-based Starlight Gospel Singers made for the Music from the South series in the 1950s. Quite a few of the Spiritualaire songs are mournful dirges, but the album’s far from a downer. Fans of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi will not be disappointed by the Spiritualaires. Actually, if you look at YouTube old clips of the Blind Boys playing live on TV in the ’50s and early ’60s, you’ll see that they had a really rocking and guitar-based sound in performance. If you can imagine the guitar-fueled version of the Blind Boys at half-speed, you’re close to the subtle glories of this music.
The guitar playing by Curtis Harris is laid-back, bluesy and wonderful throughout. It’s reverb-saturated, sure, but not as lost in space as Pops Staples ‘famous (and much imitated) style. Check out “I’ve Got Somewhere to Lay My Head” (which is not their version of the song the Highway QC‘s made famous). The guitar has far more space to roam about and take center stage than you’ll hear in almost any other quartet music. It’s truly wonderful to hear an actual guitar solo in a song of this style, especially one that’s so tasty and un-showoff-y. (Heaven knows I love the Sacred Steel phenomenon, but one wishes those guys took more of a cue from their brilliant patriarch Lonnie Farris and kept it simpler.)
Founding member and superb bass singer Elder Robert Marion sings lead more than the others, but close behind him is Rufus Jordan with three numbers, and the other singers, Jimmy Anthony and Sam Relf, all get the chance to sing lead as well. A real treat is “Some Folk Say,” which features the familiar refrain “My soul got happy and I stayed there all day,” a sweet tribute to the Southern gospel sound, with the group whooping it up and singing with a twang. Whether this arose from having to perform for white audiences and having to win them over (a la the Blues Brothers covering “Rawhide” in that country and western bar) or it’s just a tribute to their music’s country kin is anybody’s guess.
Regardless of that song’s origins, it makes it clear that the group is in full control of their sound. The Spiritualaires mix and match genres, borrowing from the blues and drawing from jubilee and Golden Age styles. This album has a remarkably relaxed vibe to it; it’s truly a one-of-a-kind recording — and I wouldn’t mind hearing many more of its kind! The release does raise one question, though: How many more awesome and unheard gospel acts are out there singing on the radio and in churches? I’m confident there are at least a couple dozen still going strong — and that CaseQuarter is already out there looking for them.