Gospel music is the sound of faith, unfiltered.
There’s a reason why so many of the country’s greatest singers got their start in church. When someone believes he or she is a conduit for the divine, the self-consciousness and other earthbound restraints have a way of dropping like chains. The results are rarely anything but life affirming — and occasionally sublime.
If you’re a fan of gospel music, the festival offers a field of riches: respected national artists and local gems, including a couple of newbies.
First, the out-of-towners. The most well known is Nashville’s Grammy-winning the Fairfield Four, one of the oldest continuing a cappella quartets in the country. You may recall them from the Coen Brothers’ film and soundtrack, “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” They provide the haunting accompaniment for the climactic flood scene. The group has sung with artists as wide-ranging as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, John Fogerty and Elvis Costello.
“Our style is a combination of barbershop and old spirituals with a good little rhythm to it,” says member Larrice Byrd, who’s been with the group since 2009. At 62, he’s the youngest member, with the oldest clocking in at 81.
“We’re all from the same background, we grew up in church,” Byrd says. “Between us we cover a lot of space in time.”
Most of their material will be old stuff, he says, even the newer songs they perform in the old style. Audiences can expect the sets to start slow and build to an uplifting finish. It’s a musical tradition he believes is endangered.
“A lot of the young guys don’t care nothing about it — old is old to them,” he says. “Most people want new and shiny.”
“Look at leadership in our country. Everything is messed up now. We can’t depend on our leaders. ... We feel like Jesus is only one who can help us get through this thing. I’m not trying to preach, but we believe he’s coming back some day. A lot of this stuff has been prophesized.”
“And we love everybody,” he adds. “Love goes a long way.”
Another touring act at the festival versed in old spirituals is the Branchettes, an acclaimed voice-and-piano duo from Raleigh, North Carolina. Unfortunately, regular pianist Wilbur Tharpe won’t attend after the recent amputation of his left leg below the knee. But original vocalist Lena Mae Perry will keep things going strong, singing old-school spirituals accompanied by pianist Angela Kent.
“Wilbur’s doing OK, he’s in good spirits,” says Perry, an engaging storyteller at 76. She adds that Tharpe has been playing lately at his medical facility but that he doesn’t like it “cause the piano ain’t tuned.” His replacement pianist, Kent, is definitely old school and the sets they perform will be similar.
Perry first started singing as a child with her Carolina siblings out in the yard using shoe boxes on Saturday evenings. As they grew older, their grandparents focused them in a more rehearsed manner. “We used to stand up on boxes, people would give us pennies. We really thought we had it going on!”
The Branchettes started with three singers in 1973, including Perry’s aunt and another woman who died in 2004. “I whispered in her ear I would keep the legacy going as long as I could,” Perry says. Their name was inspired by the tree branches outside their church, the Long Branch Disciples of Christ Church, off the highway near some cool springs in Newton Grove, North Carolina.
Perry says she’s not as worried about traditional hymn singers disappearing. “That old hymnbook singing gonna be around,” she says. “Somewhere in your lifetime, there gonna come a hymn back in your mind, you gonna realize that’s what brought you over.
“Some young people still come to me and ask me to teach ’em. This is music to help you along your way. When you get down, this type of music lifts burdens, helps with friendships, and helps lift other people’s spirits. I’ve had so many people say, ‘That song you played was just for me.’”
With modern secular music, she might appreciate the songs, but she can’t feel how the artists felt when they wrote them, she says: “I really have to sing the way I feel.”
Perry is the only person left from the original group.
“We sung together so long, if one of them traded spaces, it messed us up,” she recalls. “When I perform now, I can still hear the two of them in my ear. I know I’m getting older, but I still can hear them singing.”
When it comes to local acts on the bill, the legendary local Ingramettes are no strangers to the festival and once again will close it out. But this year also will see the debut of Richmond’s Cora Harvey Armstrong and the Hurdle Brothers.
Armstrong grew up playing under the Harvey Family name, and is blessed with a deep, heavy voice that’s powerful and assured. Local producer Bill McGee compared her to “Aretha Franklin on piano, Mahalia Jackson on vocals and Shirley Caesar with her style.”
She also was a student of the local gospel leader Larry Branch when he was at Virginia State University. “Choir decorum, the quality of music when you direct, I got a taste of choreography through him,” she says. “Just polished professionalism.”
She’ll perform with her sisters, Clara and Virginia, and two nieces, and they’ll sing traditional as well as original songs from her new album, “Greater Is He.” She has no CDs to bring, but you can find the music on iTunes or at Barky’s Record Shop. One original song, “For the Lord Is Good,” has a jazzy feel and features local James “Saxmo” Gates, who also will be at the festival.
Armstrong says she went through tough times before finding God.
“We’re not able to get these gifts on our own. When you’re gifted by God, he gives us talent for his ministry,” she says. “When I was younger, I wanted to be the next Aretha, I always had that nervousness and concern about what people thought. I had to go through some nasty and hard times and learn that stuff doesn’t mean anything.
“When my relationship with God became real, and I learned he really is the one who cares more than anyone, I do what I do now to glorify him. My audience is one.”