Graded on a Curve:
Walker Family Singers, Panola County Spirit

Best known as the label home of contemporary soul greats Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, Daptone Records is a multifaceted enterprise excelling at the documentation of soulful creativity in various forms. For evidence one need look no further than the new album by the Walker Family Singers; the third volume in Daptone’s showcasing of African-American gospel from the locale of Como, Mississippi, Panola County Spirit offers an engrossing plunge into the Walker Family’s talent and experience, and it’s out on compact disc and vinyl March 18.

The full title to the first volume in the Daptone gospel project mentioned above is Como Now: The Voices of Panola Co., Mississippi Recorded Live at Mt. Mariah Church July 22nd 2006. The vocalists shaping that revelatory compilation included the trio of Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, and Delia Daniels; known as the Como Mamas, they delivered the second installment in the series, the exceptional 2013 LP Get an Understanding.

Amongst Como Now’s highlights are three tracks credited to Brother and Sister Walker; that’s Raymond and Joella, heads of the family singing group rounded out by daughters Alberta, Patricia, and Delouse and sons Robert and Bobby. Underscoring the family’s abilities, Robert’s “I Can’t Afford to Let My Savior Down” is also featured on Como Now, producer and recorder Michael Reilly so impressed he returned to Mississippi in 2010 to capture Panola County Spirit.

Reilly has a background in non-fiction filmmaking, and he applies a documentary approach to recording out of the tradition of Folkways and Alan Lomax. Sidestepping scholarly dryness for clarity and depth, the richness of sound is accentuated here by significant aspects of the Walker Family history; formerly the head of The Longtime Travelers, a group of considerable local stature that unfortunately never recorded, Raymond was asked by blues titan Mississippi Fred McDowell and soul cornerstone Sam Cooke to tour as backing vocalist.

McDowell and Cooke were partaking in secular fare, so Walker turned down the offers of both and chose instead to stay in Como with Joella and raise his family; now in his eighties, Panola County Spirit serves as his full-length debut, recorded in the Walker’s living room with his wife and children and presenting a beautifully intense collection of songs primed to move non-believers and the devout alike.

For those unfamiliar with the Como project, with one notable exception the Walker Family inhabits the a cappella parameters outlined on the earlier entries. However, the lack of guitar and rhythm shouldn’t hinder fans of the Staple Singers’ United and Vee-Jay material from cozying right up to this set. Indeed, the voices of patriarchs Raymond Walker and the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples possess similarities immediately tangible on Panola County Spirit’s opener “The Lord Is Blessing Me.”

Infused with harmony that’s power derives from a lifetime of familiarity, its essence is strengthened by the conversational warmth and conviction in Brother Raymond’s lead voice. The same elements flourish in dynamic counterpoint in “Jesus Gave Me Water”; taken at a faster pace, its effect is increased through the succinctness of duration, one minute all that’s required to reach peak expressiveness.

Brevity is a recurring motif throughout, with the precisely grooving “My Time Will Come” only slightly lengthier than “Jesus Gave Me Water.” The tempo slows as Sister Joella goes it alone on the passionate and gripping “Had My Chance,” a track likely to please ears equally disposed to gospel fervor and deep bluesy feeling

Following is the standard “Chilly Jordan,” bursting forth with vibrant harmony and insuring the self-imposed formal constraint is far from an encumbrance. It’s a sweet glimpse of a living tradition that’s value is heightened by its all too rare appearance on record, the current gospel field hampered by polished genre hybrids and a dearth of enthusiasm.

The Walker Family’s dedication radiates with purity while also being tied to the secular; the link to soul music is certainly extant, but it’s largely articulated in a more implicit fashion than on the Como Mamas’ Get an Understanding. An exception is “Make Me Real,” which is positively drenched in soulfulness and with no dissonance of message as daughter Patricia takes the lead in a lengthy solo spot.

The structural range and mildly humorous quality of “Leave That Liar Alone,” while directly related to church activities, also holds subtle connections to soul, and Raymond’s commanding solo performances of “There Will Be a Fire One Day” and “Jesus Died on Calvary” transcend category (gospel, blues, and soul lovers unite) and provide Panola County Spirit with consecutive standouts.

“Oh Lord Hear My Voice” is a highly rhythmic group recital, elevated by handclaps and nearing the ecstatic. It sits in sharp contrast to the emotion of Joella’s solo “Jesus Walk with Me” and her striking duo reading of “Sweet Home” with Raymond, a pair of selections reinforcing a heaviness of content that through fleet, rousing pieces such as the family effort “Don’t Wonder about Him” never becomes a burden.

The brilliance of the recording is of no small import, absorbing the foot-stomp cadence during “Old Ship of Zion” and more subtly in “Living Testimony” without shortchanging the focus on the spectacular interaction in the former and Raymond’s autobiographical vigor in the latter. Ultimately, Reilly’s strong suits are perception, recognizing that nothing in the Walker Family’s repertoire and presentation needed changing, and a lack of ego, eschewing any urges to put a personal stamp on the proceedings.

The faultless slow-build of energy comprising “Shake My Mother’s Hand” is a treat, and exquisitely capping the album is the use of guitar and bass on the superbly emotive “He Didn’t Have to Wake Me.” In the end this gift of an LP will be of potential interest to listeners of diverse belief systems, and doubters need only recall the etymology of the word gospel; the release of The Walker Family Singers’ Panola County Spirit is surely Good News.


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