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Eastern North Carolina Gospel Takes Center Stage in ‘Sacred Soul’

Musical praise in its rawest, most vital form

Anthony Daniels
Anthony Daniels records for ‘Sacred Soul,’ a new compilation of eastern North Carolina gospel tracks. (Photo by Zoe Van Buren)

“This is my favorite part of the song,” intones Anthony Daniels. “Where I sing these words.” The sentiment, enfolded by a slinky blues guitar riff and a loping R&B groove, comes right as he reaches the middle of the song “Can’t Turn Me Around,” performed by Daniels’ band Dedicated Men of Zion and featured on a newly recorded compilation of eastern North Carolina gospel tracks.

Daniels’ declaration, connecting intimately and one-on-one with the listener, exemplifies the direct power and emotion of the Dedicated Men’s music, and the genre that the group is a part of.

“We’re calling [the genre] sacred soul,” Tim Duffy says.

Duffy is founder of Hillsborough-based Music Maker Foundation, a nonprofit that preserves the traditional music of the South by supporting the musicians who make it. The foundation achieves it goals by giving music makers material help with necessities like housing and medical access, plus tour support for gigs and outreach that exposes the region’s musical treasures to new audiences.

Duffy’s latest project, produced in conjunction with Bible and Tire Recording Co. founder Bruce Watson, is a compilation album of raw and vital gospel — or sacred soul — from eastern North Carolina.

Entitled Sacred Soul of North Carolina, the album drops Oct. 15. Recorded in eight days at a makeshift studio in a former drug store in Fountain, NC, the collection was preceded by an identically titled 30-minute documentary that released on Oct. 5.

The film documents the recording session in the tiny town, located about 18 miles west of Greenville and home to just 435 people. It includes interviews with and insights from many of the project’s participants. The album includes two tunes by Dedicated Men of Zion, as well as contributions by 10 other eastern North Carolina performers — each keeping the flame of the Tar Heel State’s unvarnished and primal, yet protean, gospel alive in their own way.

“To me, eastern North Carolina sacred soul is a little rawer, a little more quartet singing-based,” says Bruce Watson, who co-produced the album with Duffy, and whose Memphis-based label Bible & Tire Recording Co. is releasing the album.

Watson, who is also a co-owner and in-house producer for revered Oxford, Mississippi-based roots music label Fat Possum Records, compares the music on Sacred Soul to gospel groups in Memphis, adding that eastern NC groups eschew the smooth horns favored in Memphis for a more direct vocal-centered sound.

“I hear a little more country in [Eastern North Carolina gospel], and also you hear a little funk influence as well.”

Though forging their own path, Dedicated Men of Zion hold traditions in common with the other performers on the compilation, including Johnny Ray Daniels, Big James Barrett & The Golden Jubilees, The Johnsonaires, Little Willie & The Fantastic Spiritualaires, Marvin Earle “Blind Butch” Cox, Big Walt & The Faithful Jordanaires, female vocal septet Faith & Harmony and all-female gospel quartet The Glorifying Vines Sisters.

All of these performers grew up learning how to sing in eastern NC’s Black churches, and all have kept their faith and love of music intact in the face of racist oppression.

Family, church and rock ‘n’ roll

The Greenville-based Dedicated Men of Zion was formed in 2014 by four singers — Anthony Daniels, Antoine Daniels, Marcus Sugg and Dexter Weaver — all of whom are related by blood or marriage. The family connection threads through the album. Every performer on the collection is a relation or friend to one of two eastern NC families: the Daniels, led by patriarch, performer and Anthony Daniels’ father Johnny Ray Daniels; and the Vines, who claim as matriarch Alice Vines, singer and manager of The Glorifying Vines Sisters.

“I grew up in the church and started singing at a very young age, listening to my grandma [Alice, and] the Vines Sisters,” says Faith & Harmony member KeAmber Daniels. “We would travel with them.”

Faith & Harmony is comprised of six people, two sets of sisters who are either daughters or nieces of Anthony Daniels. That includes Anthony Daniels’ daughter KeAmber, Alexandria Suggs, Kadesha Daniels, Andrea Edwards, Christy Moody and Tinisha Weaver. Though a septet, Faith & Harmony draws on the regional gospel quartet style exemplified by The Glorifying Vines Sisters.

Gospel Septet Faith & Harmony are featured on ‘Sacred Soul.’
Eastern North Carolina gospel septet Faith & Harmony are featured on ‘Sacred Soul.’ (Photo by Aaron Greenhood)

Characterized by entwining polyphonic vocals, the style was first popularized in the 1930s by Kinston, NC, group Mitchell’s Christian Singers, although The Vines Sisters’ version of the style is a more rough-hewn and urgent.

Championed by legendary record producer John Hammond, who supported the careers of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and others, Mitchell’s Christian Singers eventually traveled to New York in 1938 to play Carnegie Hall.

KeAmber Daniels stresses that her group performs just as readily at secular venues as they do at sacred ones — Faith & Harmony are booked at The Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival in Oriental, NC, Oct. 8-10 — but the group will always recognize its roots in the church.

“It’s in your bones,” KeAmber says.

Likewise, church and singing in harmony are inextricably entwined for Dedicated Men of Zion. In the band’s official bio, Anthony Daniels claims that his mother would call the children inside every day after school, make them turn off the television and insist that the children sing and speak in harmony until bedtime.

Growing up, Alice Vines also found church and harmony interconnected.

“We got together singing in churches,” Alice says. The group launched in Farmville, NC, in 1958, but it took a few years before the Vines sisters branched out from playing churches to singing in secular spaces.

North Carolina gospel
Alice Vines (right) and Dedicated Men of Zion (Photo by Zoe van Buren)

While they did, the Glorifying Vines Sisters cut five albums and numerous singles. Alice remembers that the songs “There’s a Blessing Over the Hill” and “We Will Work Till Jesus Comes” were regional hits.

“We made good money off of them,” she recalls. Attrition took its toll on the group, which initially consisted of six singers.

Two sisters have passed away over the years and now just four remain, Alice says.

Though sacred soul retains the elemental, stripped-down building blocks of early gospel, the genre should not be considered an archaeological artifact, unchanged and preserved in amber ever since the end of the 17th century. Johnny Ray Daniels briefly performed and recorded with rock and R&B group The Soul Twisters in the 1950s before devoting himself fully to gospel in the 1960s.

Influences from Johnny Ray’s secular sabbatical can he heard on his contributions to Sacred Soul. His buoyant R&B-inflected shuffle “Glory” kicks off with a snaking guitar riff that wouldn’t seem out of place on The Rolling Stones’ 1968 country blues-influenced album Beggars Banquet.

Johnny Ray Daniels (in red) records a track for ‘sacred soul.’
Johnny Ray Daniels (in red) records a track for ‘Sacred Soul.’ (Photo by Zoe Van Buren)

The call-and-response vocal line recalls the melody of countrified 1907 Christian hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” popularized in 1972 by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

The Glorifying Vines Sisters contribute one track to the album, and it too retains the raw power of eastern North Carolina gospel while incorporating elements of funk and R&B.

“Tell It All To Jesus” is a jaunty spiritual focused on the sisters’ swinging call-and-response vocals that gradually grow as hypnotic as an incantation.

“We liked to sing a little rock ‘n’ roll,” Alice Vines says.

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On his Sacred Soul track “No Ways Tired,” Marvin Earle “Blind Butch” Cox draws on the R&B he listened to secretly while honing his musical style in the early 1960s at the segregated North Carolina School for the Blind in Raleigh.

Riding atop funky electric piano, reminiscent of the keyboard sound heard on Michael McDonald-era recordings by The Doobie Brothers, Blind Butch’s weathered vocals testify to the power of faith.

“We have a sound that sets us apart from other places,” KeAmber Daniels says. “We take the music of our ancestors … and keep that tradition alive while, at the same time, we modernize it, putting our own spin on it.” Faith & Harmony’s two tracks on Sacred Soul balance tradition with harmony.

“Victory” is an acapella celebration of belief with swarming arching harmonies with more than a touch of funk.
“We Will Work,” combines the group’s entwining harmonies with thundering bass and big pounding drums that wouldn’t be out of place on a rock record.

A sense of place and race

Duffy says the Vines and Daniels families have most likely been in the same part of eastern NC for centuries.

Enslaved people had arrived in the region by the late 1600s, entering the country through Charleston slave markets. Once families arrived in eastern NC, black or white, many never left. Some still live within a 40-mile radius of the land where their ancestors lived and worked against their will 300 years ago.

“The only place Blacks were allowed to gather was Sundays for church,” Duffy says. “That’s where everything starts for music up through today.”

KeAmber Daniels echoes Duffy’s assertion that the Black church is the wellspring for much of popular music.
“You can track it all back to [the church],” she says, “Most of the popular musicians were raised in the church. When something is ingrained in you, it’s hard to get it out.”

Sacred Soul is a brand of gospel that was cultivated in small Black churches across eastern NC.
Sacred Soul is a brand of gospel that was cultivated in small Black churches across eastern North Carolina. (Photo by Tim Duffy)

Duffy posits that, in addition to informing R&B, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and pop, primal Eastern Seaboard gospel launched jazz as well.

“[Gospel] is polyphonic music where people sing in different voices and in different time [signatures] at the same time,” Duffy says. “You could say early jazz bands started from following those different lines. Dixieland [a style of jazz] has five different lines going in a song, breaking down all at once.”

Yet, despite the music receiving the church’s blessing, eastern North Carolina gospel and sacred soul developed under hellish conditions. In the 1950s and 60s, as the Civil Rights movement gained traction, a white supremacist backlash swept through North Carolina, which at one time claimed the largest Ku Klux Klan membership in the country.

Pitt County, where many of eastern NC’s sacred soul artists resided, was a hotbed of Klan activity.

When Duffy interviewed artist, luthier and Alice Vines’ brother Freeman Vines for a book on Freeman’s art and philosophy, Freeman Vines called nearby Greene County “the most terrible place in the world.” The KKK erected a “Welcome to North Carolina” sign at the Greene county line, and Duffy recalls speaking to Black gospel singers and musicians who grew up under the shadow of that sign. The county’s KKK also erected roadblocks on Sundays so that Black church members had to drive miles out of their way to avoid the Klan on their way to praise the Lord with song.

In 1930, a white racist mob captured a Black man named Oliver Moore, and hung him from a tree on Aspen Church Grove Road, where Wilson and Edgecombe counties meet. Every lynching is an abomination, but this one was particularly brutal. The white men kept the corpse suspended from the tree with a mule harness and shot Moore’s body 200 times. The vigilantes then left guns on a card table under the tree so anyone who wanted to could drive up and shoot Moore’s mutilated body.

By the time Duffy visited Freeman Vines in nearby Fountain, the hanging tree was long gone, but Freeman had carved a guitar out of wood from it. Duffy’s and Vines’ burgeoning friendship led to a professional relationship in which Duffy helped Freeman exhibit his guitars, hand-carved in myriad fantastic shapes, at the Greenville Museum of Art, less than 25 miles from his birthplace in eastern NC.

Freeman Vines’ spiritual philosophy and art are featured in the book Hanging Tree Guitars, published by The Bitter Southerner in association with Duffy’s MMF in August 2020. Duffy, who is also a renown photographer, illustrated the volume with evocative and mysterious tintype images he shot — chosen to reflect the hand-crafted nature of Freeman’s work.

Freeman Vines and his Guitars; No. 1, 2015. (Photo by Timothy Duffy)

Through Freeman, Duffy met his sister Alice, and through her became immersed in the music of the Glorifying Vines Sisters. Their songs became Duffy’s gateway to sacred soul.

Though he has managed and helped the careers of many roots music performers, including Grammy and MacArthur award winner Rhiannon Giddens’ former Durham-based string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the world of eastern NC sacred soul was new to him and a revelation. He sent recordings of some of the music he heard to Bruce Watson.

With Fat Possum, Watson had purchased the catalog rights of Memphis-based classic gospel label Designer Records and put out the compilation The Soul of Designer Records in September 2014. He continued to release other music from the label, and started keeping an eye out for raw, edgy gospel from the 1960s and ’70s.

North Carolina gospel
Bruce Watson in the studio. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Watson)

Watson has known Duffy for at least 20 years, and the two men have collaborated on record releases for several Music Maker artists, the first project being an album for electric blues keyboardist, singer and songwriter Ironing Board Sam.

Watson’s label Bible and Tire subsequently released an album by Dedicated Men of Zion in June 2020. The debut album from the eastern North Carolina gospel group, titled Can’t Turn Me Around, featured reworked versions of songs from the D-Vine Spirituals gospel catalog.

“I really got to know Anthony Daniels and all the guys in Dedicated Men of Zion,” Watson says. Then Duffy pitched Watson the idea for the Sacred Soul album, urging Watson to come record the raw sounds of eastern NC.

Duffy had purchased a former drug store in Fountain for Freeman Vines to use as a workshop, but there would be a few weeks before Freeman moved in when the building would be vacant.

No longer unsung

“Tim said, ‘Why don’t you just bring all your equipment and come down? We’ll spend a week recording,’” Watson remembers.

Duffy contacted Alice Vines to line up the groups, drawn from the eastern North Carolina gospel scene, that would be recorded.

“Tim asked me to find some people,” says Alice, who is credited as talent director for the album. “I’ve sung with all of them. I’m friends with most of them. We all grew up together singing the same thing. I’ve been around.”

With a slate of several performers and eight days to cut a record, Watson, Duffy and their crew put up sound blankets in the old building, now christened Music Maker East.

“We showed up on a Sunday,” Watson says. “We set up all the gear, until everything sounded the way it should, and then on Monday morning we started.”

The sessions began on February of 2020. KeAmber Daniels remembers going in for the recording of Faith & Harmony’s songs. After Duffy introduced the group to engineer Rick Caughron, the recording began, a process KeAmber says went smoothly.

North Carolina Gospel
Big James Barrett and the Golden Jubilees record a track for ‘Sacred Soul.’ (PHoto by Zoe Van Buren)

“We did six or seven songs,” KeAmber says, “They said they would pick which ones would fit for the album the best.”

“We averaged two to three groups a day,” Watson says. “It was wham-bam, let’s record as much as we can.”

While the audio crew was recording the various groups, another crew, including director of photography Cornelius Lewis, started shooting the documentary that augments and accompanies the album.

In addition to filming each groups’ performances, the documentary crew also captured interviews with the performers themselves. KeAmber remembers that performers’ profiles were filmed after recording their songs.

“They were done the same night right there, after things quieted down and most of the other people involved had left,” she says. “One or two of us would stay back and do the interview.”

The interviews were followed by a quick photo shoot to capture portraits for the album’s art.

“I have never seen such a large project come together in such a short amount of time,” KeAmber says. “They worked really hard [and] it was a good time.”

Once all the performers were recorded, filmed and photographed, Duffy handed a hard drive with all the music to Watson. Watson went back to Memphis to mix and shape the album just as COVID swept through the country and shut it down.

Watson and his Memphis crew spent most of 2020 mixing the record and working on the documentary. Watson says COVID took the pressure off of having a timeline to get the project done.

The result is a collection of music that crosses boundaries, blending profane blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and soul with the sacred gospel of the Black church. You can hear the weight of the ages in the voices of singers and community leaders like Alice Vines and Johnny Ray Daniels, yet there is a buoyancy, a surge of human emotion in these hymns, grooves and singalongs.

North Carolina gospel
Those who weren’t performing could still get down while other performers laid their tracks. (Photo by Zoe Van Buren)

Outside their pocket of eastern North Carolina, many of these gospel performers have gone unheard, unseen and unsung — until now. KeAmber Daniels says she’s overjoyed the project gave some of the older performers a chance to be heard.

“You know that they wanted to sing and it was a passion of theirs, but they never had their music heard anywhere outside of Greenville or Farmville,” she says. “It was really nice for them to be heard by a different audience.”

While the album may be a boon to some of the performers, increasing their profiles and introducing them to audiences not necessarily steeped in gospel, Alice Vines believes the music will endure regardless of exposure or lack thereof. Referencing the stark and emotional solo acapella edition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” by Melody Harper that closes Sacred Soul, Alice says people will always need music that heals and nurtures.

“People when they get in trouble, the first thing they do is [find] a song that can lift every burden,” she says. “Certain songs are always going to be there because they touch the soul. They revive us and give us hope.”

In that respect, Alice Vines, who is pastor of Believe in Jesus Ministry, a small church in Farmville, sees performing sacred soul as a form of ministry.

“If I can sing a song that will touch somebody’s spirit, it makes me feel good,” she says. “I’m touching people. I really am.”


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