From way down yonder come the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers, a musical combo well-named because that is exactly where they live, what they preach and most decidedly what they do. The band got its start about five years ago when a bunch of American roots-music enthusiasts began holding hoedowns at their Eagle Rock pad, at which like-minded roots-heads gathered to hang out and sing songs cut from the cloth of the old African-American gospel and white, Appalachian, folk-country gospel traditions.
“We were covering stuff by artists who were doing it in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” says drummer-singer Will Wadsworth. “The stuff that resonated with us was coming from people who were singing out of a place of desperation, sometimes heartache, sometimes complete joy. They were coming from a very real, raw emotional place where it didn’t seem like they were doing it for a paycheck, although a lot of them probably were. Mainly they were doing it because they had to get something out of them, or they wanted to connect with God and they felt driven by some force to do it.”
Experiencing their own genuinely heartfelt connection to the music, a few of the Eagle Rock hoedowners formed a performing and recording band whose current lineup comprises Wadsworth, guitarist Jeremy Horton, Jeff Murray on the bass and vocalists Kim Garcia and Alissa Bird, all of whom supply both solo and harmony singing.
The band’s debut album, Heavenly Fire (out Aug. 4 on Ba Da Bing Records), is a rip-roaring, soaring batch of rootsy-flavored originals written by the band’s individual members, who took their songwriting cues from the greatest and most venerable of American trad musical genres. Recording basically live on magnetic tape, the group sung their songs standing horseshoe-style around the mic — for extra churchy effect.
It’s out of the church from which much of this old music comes, a deep-roots connector for the different musical traditions (black and white) that the term gospel cradles in its embrace.
“Gospel music for a lot of people is defined by the content,” Wadsworth says, “and that’s usually traditional stories that are based in what we have known as the Bible of Judeo-Christian beliefs. These orations wove themselves into music that was very white bluegrass music, very white folk and country music, and very African-American blues gospel.”
Wadsworth likes the way these related sounds danced with and spun gracefully away from one another at certain points throughout history in the United States and other places.
“The tradition we’re pulling from is primarily a Southern African-American and Southern white tradition that danced very closely with bluegrass, folk and blues, and all of that gave way to what was happening in gospel.”
“Down at the end of that river of American roots music, you’ve got gospel and you’ve got blues, and from there you can just have American music,” Horton says. “We’re a little bit more of this white Americana bluegrass version of the gospel music, but definitely trying to stay to the truest form possible of that, while bringing our own modern-day influences to it.”
These days, bands have to be damn careful about how they sling around their supposed musical influences, and woe betide them if they use such references for mere ironic/kitsch appeal. The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers take serious pains to ensure that they are knowledgeable about and respectful of their sources.
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“Gospel is an everyone thing,” Wadsworth says, “and it’s so interesting: If you look at the Louvin Brothers — one of the biggest influences on Johnny Cash and one of Elvis’ favorite gospel groups — they were totally white, two white guys raised on a farm down South. And if you listen to their melodies and lyrics, they are kin to a lot of what the African-American singers like Washington Phillips and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were doing. Listen to Sister Rosetta singing ‘Up Above My Head’ — these were the songs that were being shared by white and black performers in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s all part of the quilt, the mosaic.”