Graded on a Curve: Johnnie Frierson,
Have You Been Good
to Yourself

Unearthed musical obscurities sometimes inspire rigorous debates over their artistic worth, but it’s difficult to imagine a listener absorbing Have You Been Good to Yourself and not acknowledging its creator had talent. The maker? Johnnie Frierson, whose self-recorded and hand produced cassettes emerged in small quantities in his hometown of Memphis at some point during the early 1990s. Featuring guitar, voice, and an occasional tapping foot in full gospel mode, the results are consistently gorgeous and at times achingly heartfelt; seven of Frierson’s songs have been remastered for release on vinyl, compact disc, and digital, available August 19 through Light in the Attic.

Unsurprisingly, Johnnie Frierson’s story is considerably more eventful than what’s offered above, though his tale lacks eccentricities and instead reveals early commercial success; as the guitarist in The Sunset Travelers, a gospel group led by noted soul man O.V. Wright, he assisted in cutting the outstanding “On Jesus’ Program” for Peacock in 1964.

During roughly the same period, Frierson was also part of The Drapels, a secular quartet completed by his sister Mary Frierson Cross, Marianne Brittenum, and Wilber Mondie. Cutting four sides for hometown Stax, The Drapels didn’t catch on, and the label’s attention gradually shifted to Frierson Cross, who became noted Stax solo artist Wendy Rene.

In an attempt to not spill all the beans served up in Andria Lisle’s well-penned liner notes, I’ll reduce the amount of background offered here, though Frierson being drafted to serve in Vietnam is an illuminating tidbit directly relating to his waning attempts at establishing a musical career. And yet as should be obvious by this release, his need for expression through song remained; those collected here get right to the core of the art form as a vessel of beauty and communication.

Light in the Attic’s reissue begins with the title track’s combination of clean, hearty strumming, steadily rhythmic foot and a series of questions directed to the listener, Frierson’s queries so blunt they momentarily exude the air of “outsider” music. However, as the vocals alternate to a series of observations closely allied with a deft instrumental downshift, the environs easily transcend the aura commonly associated with homemade and/ or privately pressed recordings.

“Have You Been Good to Yourself” is an undiluted gem of what the great painter, filmmaker, record collector and bohemian titan Harry Smith called “social music,” his non-rigid categorization certainly including material for dancing but also prominently offering songs of affirmation and the betterment of self and naturally others, often by getting right with God.

In accord with the best of gospel, Frierson isn’t a finger-pointer or a doomsayer but is instead simply a guy concerned with uplift, which is the clear mission of “Have You Been Good to Yourself.” As it gives way to “Heavenly Father, You’ve Been Good,” he combines the positivity with assured guitar and singing, finding a fertile middle ground between meditative and melodic.

“Miracles” is more upbeat as it carries the optimism even further, detailing the subject matter as derived from human potential rather than a divine being. Along the way the lyrics do take an unexpected and yes, somewhat eccentric turn by highlighting the achievements of a specific Memphis resident (“you might know him” “they call him Spaceman”), but what’s simultaneously clear is Frierson’s desire to reach out to and inspire those living in his zip code.

It’s also another well-written tune, and if Lisle’s observation that the selections comprising Have You Been Good to Yourself would fit right into a Church of God in Christ hymnal, “Out Here on Your Word” additionally benefits from a savvy pop sensibility, it’s buoyant strumming recalling pre-Beatle chart action as Frierson’s pipes slide into soul-belter zone.

Likewise, as “You Were Sent to This World” is resolutely concerned with matters of faith, its thrust is still thoroughly accessible. Just as importantly, the modest means of recording and the robust delivery serve as a counterbalance, safeguarding against slickness, with this recipe extending to the emphatic and concise “Woke Up This Morning.”

The lyrics occasionally rail against drug use, doing so in “Out Here On Your Word” and the finale “Trust in the Lord,” and if the album shoulders a lyrical weakness it’s in painting the past as rosy and the present as deficient. Ultimately this foible plays a very small part in the proceedings; instead, the closer sees Frierson, who died in 2010, briefly referencing the gospel wellspring of “Amazing Grace,” adroitly sidestepping triteness partly through unconventional warmth but mostly through palpable skill.

At 26 minutes, the album’s brevity registers as just right; in the end Have You Been Good to Yourself is as rewarding as it is unusual, its contents likely to please fans of hot gospel and deep soul.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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