The Father of Bluegrass Gospel Music

January 26, 2019

The following post draws from the traditional artist directory of our partners at the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

With an entertaining career that spanned more than 60 years, Carl Story (1916-1995) has been called “The Father of Bluegrass Gospel Music.” Story played fiddle with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys starting in 1942, before joining the Navy in 1943. After his discharge, Story helped shape the bluegrass gospel style and led a band that served as a training ground for many musicians.

Born in Lenoir in 1916, Story grew up hearing his father play fiddle. By the time he was a teenager, Story was playing fiddle and guitar and performing on local radio programs. He led a band in his early twenties that included a three-finger banjo player, helping pioneer the bluegrass sound. Story traveled around the region playing on different radio stations. He played in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early 1930s, and moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the mid-’30s, where he joined Johnnie Whisnant and formed the Lonesome Mountaineers and Rambling Mountaineers. He played with these groups until joining Bill Monroe’s band in 1942.

After World War II, Story reorganized his band in Asheville, signed with Mercury, and performed at radio stations in Knoxville and Bristol, Tennessee. His group, the Rambling Mountaineers performed both secular and sacred music, but most of their repertoire was gospel.

Story’s band recorded with Mercury for five years, and later recorded on the Columbia and Starday labels. During the peak years of his career, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers hosted radio and television shows in several Southeastern states and had a 10-year affiliation with WNOX’s Tennessee Barn Dance program in Knoxville. His band was a fixture at bluegrass festivals throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s.

Story retired to Greer, South Carolina, where he worked as a disc jockey and continued to perform until his death in 1995. Over the course of his entertainment career, Carl Story recorded more than 2,000 songs and 55 albums. A section of NC Highway 18 that passes through his hometown of Lenoir is named in his honor and he is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

It Started as a Prayer

January 16, 2019

Born in 1929, Reverend Faircloth C. (F.C.) Barnes was a gospel recording artist from Rocky Mount, N.C. His debut record Rough Side of the Mountain, a collaboration with with Reverend Janice Brown, reached #1 on Billboard’s Gospel Albums chart in January 1984. The North Carolina Arts Council profiled Reverend Barnes, and the hit-song, in the African American Music Trails Guidebook. The following excerpt is from the book.

The Reverend F.C. Barnes and Reverend Janice Brown met at Rocky Mount radio station WSRV, while hosting a gospel show together in the late 1970s. Their recording career started when they made a home reel-to-reel recording of “It’s Me Again Lord” to play on their broadcast. Listener response was so ecstatic that the station manager encouraged them to make a studio single so that he could legally play it on the air. Shortly thereafter with the single in regular rotation at WSRV, the duo was picked up by AIR/Malaco. They went on to release eight albums on the southern soul, blues, and gospel imprint between 1979 and 1988.

Rough Side of the Mountain was penned by Barnes after some car trouble on his way to a revival. After the song’s release in 1984, it occupied the number one spot on the gospel charts for more than a year, went gold, and earned Barnes and Brown a Grammy nomination. Here’s Reverend Barnes had to say about the song:

“Rough Side of the Mountain was a prayer. It was initially a prayer. I was going to Tabor City, North Carolina for a revival, about 175 miles from here. That evening, when I got below Lumberton, North Carolina, on Highway 74, something got wrong with the car. I don’t know what it was, never have known, but it just started slipping and shaking. They had just put the new part [of Highway 74] out there then, and for 20-some miles there were no stores, no nothing out there. And I said, Lord, if this car cut off out here—there was no service stations, no nothing—I don’t know what in the world I’m going to do. So I start praying to the Lord and [told] the Lord how hard it was times coming up, trying to do this and that, little money, car wasn’t doing too well, and still trying to do the work of God. And somehow or another, it struck me in my mind, “It’s rough, it gets rough out here.” Nobody in the car but me. I just was talking, and I started praying, “Lord, having it so hard,” and not only the car thing being in my spirit, but other things I’ve run into before, and this and that—everything.

And I said, “Lord, you just know that I’m trying to do what I know. A lot of people are trying to do the will of God like they were sailing smooth. I’m doing the will of God, but with everything I put my hand on, it’s something else.” And like I was telling, there was two sides: they’re going up on the smooth side. I’m going up on the rough side. And I prayed that prayer. I got stuck in the prayer, and I don’t know when the car stopped skipping. When I come to myself, the car had stopped skipping, was running smooth going down the road. But when I got to the church, the Deacon had already called my house because it was time for service and I wasn’t there. But the words of that song wouldn’t leave me, and that prayer wouldn’t leave me. So I goes back, after service. I go to my room and it wouldn’t go away, so I just started writing. So when I got back to Rocky Mount, I told Janice, a lady that sung with me, that I had a song that we need to learn. So we called the musicians. We started singing the song, learned the song. Wasn’t thinking about no hit or no nothing. This was not the purpose of it. The song was a prayer and it was true, and not just something with words made up. And we put the song on the album.

For white, black, everybody that heard it, [“Rough Side of the Mountain”] seemed to be in their life. And they took it for their life, coming up on the rough side of the mountain, when I got to hold God’s hand, it doesn’t matter. A lot of people quit when it gets rough, but I didn’t quit. And the song had a meaning to it, but I didn’t write it to nobody but myself. I wasn’t thinking about the public.”

Celebrating Worship Music

January 13, 2019

When it comes to worship music, Hispanic churches look within. - Jesse James Deconto for The Washington Post

National Religious Freedom Day is on the horizon. Over the course of this month, we will explore some of the ways North Carolinians express their faith through music. To kick things off, we invite you to dive into this 2015 Washington Post article that documents how Hispanic congregations – including one in Durham, N.C. – worship and train their next faith leaders through music. 

Folklore Friday: The Wilson Brothers

January 11, 2019

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.”

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