Since 1989, the State of North Carolina, through the North Carolina Arts Council, has honored dozens of folk artists with the North Carolina Heritage Award. Throughout 2019, we will highlight the eminent musicians honored with the award. Today, we republish the official N.C. Heritage Award profile of the Wilson Brothers, a gospel duo from the western part of the state who received the award in 1998. Jerry Wilson passed away in 2016, and Ray is no longer performing music, but their families continue the tradition of performing to this day, as documented by Jerry’s daughter Tipper Pressley here.
“I know that there’s a gift, a natural gift, that a lot of people have more than others," says Ray Wilson. "But if you don’t work on that to perfection, you don’t ever do much with it.” Ray and his brother Jerry have approached their music with this idea firmly in mind. Influenced by the brother duos that had their heyday in the 1930s, the Wilsons have worked out precise harmonies for the duets that have become the signature of their style. By their own choice, the Wilson brothers have focused their efforts on singing gospel, even when they could have enjoyed greater financial gain and attention by performing other types of music.
Jerry and Ray grew up in a religious family that has its roots in Cherokee and Clay Counties. Their father preached and both parents sang in the choir. However, their first forays into music were instrumental jam sessions with neighbors. Then, asserts Ray, “we got saved and got to going to church, and we started using our talents for the Lord.” They began playing at church revivals and singings, performing songs remembered from their youth and learned from radio and records.
By the late 1960s, the Wilson brothers were performing in churches located in mountain communities throughout southwestern North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. Balancing their desire to make music with their need to make a living wasn’t easy. “We’ve always had to work hard for a living,” says Jerry, “and you can cut pine woods like Ray did and work with your hands all the time, why you’re not too apt to have the flexibility you need in your hands.”
Despite such challenges, Jerry and Ray have always held their singing and playing to a high standard. They sing tightly harmonized duets that combine a lead with high-tenor harmony, and they pitch songs in keys that allow for a smooth blending of their voices. While both men are accomplished instrumentalists — Jerry plays an acoustic guitar while Ray plays both guitar and mandolin — they prefer instrumental accompaniment that complements rather than competes with the lyrics. “The gospel, to us, is more important than anything--the message,” says Jerry.
Their desire to spread a gospel message to their audience kept the Wilson Brothers from crossing over to perform other types of music. “Here everybody knows you,” Ray explains. “Say you go on a Friday night and you sing country music and then Sunday morning you’re singing gospel songs in church. It just won’t mix that way. You lose all your influence you might have on people.”
Several of their children and grandchildren sing and play instruments, “So it’s going on down,” muses Jerry. “They’re picking it up.”
“I think that it’s the truest music there is. It has a good melody and it has a good message,” Ray says of their bluegrass influenced gospel music. “We’re sincere in what we do. We do it first for the Lord and then we hope the people enjoy it.”