Story and Photos by Aaron Greenhood
“I learned to sing listening to my dad and grandma,” recalled KeAmber Daniels, a member of the group Faith & Harmony. Off-camera, her sister Kadesha nodded in agreement. We sat beside a country road in front of Union Grove Baptist Church in Farmville, North Carolina, on a pleasantly mild January day. It had been nearly a year since the Covid-19 pandemic upended everyday life. Church buildings, like the one behind us, had been shuttered indefinitely, and groups like Faith & Harmony had not sung publicly in at least that long.
In response to the disruption of public and community life wrought by the pandemic, chart-topping musicians engaged audiences online with crude home recordings made by cell-phone cameras, while traditional artists struggled to adapt their art to the digital space. To create a place online for traditional artists to engage with lovers of local culture, the Nash County Arts Council commissioned the streaming concert series Grounded. Launched in January 2021, it features intimate performances by emerging voices in Southern roots music. “Grounded” refers to North Carolina’s deep cultural roots, and the series aims to celebrate the significance, diversity, and vitality of artists while connecting viewers to a sense of place and community.
KeAmber beamed as she told stories about her family and neighbors, Faith & Harmony’s origins, and the songs the group would perform later that day. Union Grove is her home church; she was clearly thrilled to be back there, even if just to stand outside and sing to a few cameras.
Her sister Renay reflected, “This is where we grew up and this is where we still are. This is where we go, this is everything, this is our lifeline. We had to be here every Sunday, and I’m grateful for that, because it made a great foundation for us to carry on with our own children, and this is where they are starting, as well.”
Faith & Harmony are the six granddaughters of Johnny Ray Daniels and Dorothy Vines, the founding members of eastern Carolina’s celebrated gospel group The Glorifying Vines Sisters. Faith & Harmony members are Kadesha Spaight, Renay Sugg, KeAmber Daniels, Andrea Edwards, Christy Moody, and Tinesha Weaver. “Music and family go hand in hand for us,” KeAmber said. From the first note to the last, the group performs with breathless intensity—a characteristic that defines the distinct sacred soul tradition alive throughout eastern North Carolina. Like The Dedicated Men of Zion, Bishop Albert Harrison & the Gospel Tones, Big James Barrett & the Golden Jubilees, and Little Willie & the Fantastic Spiritualaires, the sacred soul tradition is characterized by Jubilee singing and song selection that draws from spirituals, hymns, and traditional quartet gospel. More importantly, it is a sound that is nostalgic or as KeAmber puts it, it is reminiscent of "that old, deep-rooted, Christian church sound".
The Glorifying Vines photographed in Farmville, NC in 2017
Left to Right: Johnny Ray Daniels, Alice Vines, Dorothy Vines, Maddie Harper, Curtis Harper
The Vines and Daniels can trace their roots back to when enslaved Africans were brought to the eastern part of the state in the late 1600s and early 1700s. At the time, enslaved people were converted en masse to Christianity, and the church became one of the few places enslaved people were permitted to share fellowship. European sacred music and church tradition were soon superimposed on African singing conventions to create gospel’s predecessor: spirituals. Spirituals were the first generation of African music to be born in exile. Among the music’s many descendants are gospel, blues, soul, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and hip-hop.
The two families have followed the Black gospel tradition—specifically, quartet gospel, which is also known as jubilee singing—from one generation to the next in an unbroken link for nearly 300 years. Jubilee singing employs syncopated rhythms, overlapping melodies, and extended vamps characterized by call-and-response singing with rhythmic short, repeated phrases sung behind a lead singer’s vocal improvisation and religious testimony. More than anything, the singular aim of the song delivery is to rouse the church attendees into an ecstatic and holy reverie.
“We’ve been singing together pretty much all our lives. We decided to formally call it a group around four or five years ago,” KeAmber said. It started with a surprise performance at their church that the sisters planned for the birthday of their father, Anthony. They enlisted their cousins to sing an a cappella performance of the song “Victory,” adapted to their sacred soul style. “We would sneak away from choir practice to work on it together,” she said. When the day came, Anthony, along with the rest of the congregation, was delighted and overwhelmed. Word spread, and soon they were receiving invitations to perform at anniversaries, birthdays, and services all over the coastal plain.
The group’s repertoire grew to include hard-driving interpretations drawn from the traditional gospel canon, such as “Leak in This Old Building'' and “Right Now I Feel Alright,” originals like “I’ll Praise Him,” and a tribute to the Glorifying Vines’ energetic rendition of the old hymn “We’ll Work ‘til Jesus Comes.” Of “We’ll Work,” KeAmber says, “We wanted to carry on the torch. It’s our nod to them to say, ‘Hey, all your work, we were watching, and we are going to pick it up and follow in your footsteps.’” These songs, along with the Andrea Edwards’-led “Come See About Me, Jesus,” comprise the tight set the group performed for “Grounded.”
KeAmber is grateful for the attention that she and her bandmates are receiving. “We are a young group of women with an old sound. . . the style of spiritual music that we sing [is inspired by the] Christian church sound that we grew up on.” KeAmber and her bandmates cherish the opportunity to keep that sound alive.
Watch their full episode on Grounded, Presented by Nash County Arts Council below
Directed & Edited by John Laww
Produced by Aaron Greenhood
Camera Operators: Corey Reid & John Laww
Audio Engineering and Mixing: Aaron Greenhood
Vocals: Kadesha Spaight, KeAmber Daniels, Andrea Edwards,
Christy Moody, Tinesha Weaver, Renay Sugg
Keyboard: J-Rock Blow. Organ; Antwan Daniels. Drums; Jahiem Daniels
Caroline Shaw masterfully stitches together sound, ideas, and genres.
Born and raised in Greenville, N.C., Shaw is a composer, violinist and vocalist. In 2013, she became the youngest recipient ever of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Everything from synth-pop to square-dancing has contributed to her distinct style which has captured the attention and hearts of the classical music world and beyond. Since receiving the Pulitzer, she has since been commissioned by orchestras across the globe, scored films, and teamed up with the likes of Kanye West, the National, and tUnE-yArDs, lending her unique blend to the contemporary music world. Meet Caroline Shaw.
Caroline Shaw recieved the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Partita for 8 Voices a composition she wrote and performed with the group Roomful of Teeth. Several moments in the composition reflect Shaw's ties to North Carolina - one slower, contemplative moment she wrote with the Albermarle Sound in mind, and another cacophounus moment that catapults into a shared chord of harmony that her family says sounds like their house at Thanksgiving.
Shirlette Ammons isn’t interested in staying in her lane. Best known for her work as a musician, she is also a poet, filmmaker, and activist who claims both rural and urban. Her childhood in the tiny eastern North Carolina community of Beautancus influences her creative voice just as much as Durham, the town she now calls home. In an interview for the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50 for 50 project, Shirlette reflected on how those places shape her sound.
You grew up in eastern North Carolina. Will you talk about the creative context you grew up in and how it shaped your identity as an artist?
I have a twin sister and we grew up in rural North Carolina. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of open space, and we were really imaginative. My first performance was for a corn field that we imagined as an arena of people, so I’ve always been creative and always had that outlet.
I grew up in church, and I always sang in the choir and recited Easter speeches as we call them – [they are] poems in essence. I always wrote short stories and drew, so I was always inclined to be creative and was always encouraged to be outside. Probably the best thing about growing up in eastern North Carolina is space…open land…and the ability to look out over the span of nothingness for miles and think. I grew up with a wonderful backdrop for becoming a creative person.
You are now a Durhamite. Will you speak to what makes Durham a good community for you to work as an artist?
I love Durham. It’s like any place that has its complexities, but for me it’s been a wonderful place to challenge myself as an artist…to reach beyond my own personal safety zones and work outside of the genres that I’ve been prescribed that I never actuallyreally ever claimed myself. Coming to Durham gave me an opportunity to really shake loose those labels that I didn’t want to own and meet creatives who I otherwise wouldn’t know, who I would not have had the opportunity to work with.
Every song on my last record Language Barrier has a different artist on it. Every artist is of boundless genres, and I’m into that. That’s kind of how I envision my life being [with] these really malleable boundaries that Durham has helped me decide how and when to challenge. I think that’s the spirt of Durham — not just musically, but also in terms of social activism. A lot of folks I know here in Durham are both those things. They are artists, and they are activists, and they negotiate both things in everything they do and celebrate those things in everything they do.
Arts are important to elevating people’s voices. The arts are important to cultivating new ideas, and also to bringing people together – not in this superficial “we’re all the same way,” but in a way that celebrates all the differences that make us unique and important and valid. That’s something I think is inherent to a democratic society. I think that’s part of any framework of a place that is required to support and celebrate humanity. There’s no way you can support the intellectual growth of a place without supporting the creative growth of a place.
Durham is complicated. There’s a really strong history of black artists who have come through here to perform. The Chitlin’ Circuit ran through here. That’s important history to be familiar with. I’m proud to claim Durham, and I think it’s up to us as artists to really make sure that what we create here is reflective of everybody and the Durham we want to see and leave behind.