Billboard Interviews Tony Brown About How Gospel Music's Message of Hope and Unity Could Define...
The 2023 CMA Awards
By: Tom Roland
One thread among finalists for the 57th annual Country Music Association Awards, airing Nov. 8 on ABC, is the sound of gospel choirs.
Think of it as three chords and the gospel truth.
The most interesting, and most under-recognized, thread among finalists for the 57th annual Country Music Association Awards, airing tonight (Nov. 8) on ABC, is the sound of gospel choirs. For the first time in history, the single of the year category features two such groups: The historic Fisk Jubilee Singers appear in the background of Jelly Roll’s song about a spiritual crossroads, “Need a Favor,” and a makeshift choir arranged by Nashville soul singer Jason Eskridge underscores the power of redemption in the back half of HARDY’s murder ballad “wait in the truck,” featuring Lainey Wilson.
In addition, The War and Treaty, whose sound is loaded with church-y timbre, picked up their first nomination for vocal duo of the year. The genre, it appears, is circling back to its unbroken origins and reclaiming the sound of gospel at a time when society is particularly divided.
“I think most people inside their hearts are crying out for something to ease all of the anger,” says producer Brent Maher (The Judds, Dottie West). “How it all lined up for this [awards] show — that could be coincidence. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that there is a need for that.”
Maher has had a hand in country’s gospel trend. As producer of A Tribute to the Judds, he enlisted BMI executive/arranger Shannon Sanders to assemble the Fisk Singers for Jelly Roll’s closing duet with K. Michelle, “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
But there’s plenty more spiritual sound to go around. Miko Marks and the Resurrectors employ the Fisk ensemble on “Jubilee”; Elle King’s album Come Get Your Wife features a pair of songs with an Eskridge-led choir, “Try Jesus” and “Love Go By”; Cody Jinks’ “Outlaws and Mustangs” slides a choir into its final minute; and producer Tony Brown (George Strait, Reba McEntire) compiled a Gaither Tribute album, paying homage to late Southern gospel icon Bill Gaither in a 10-track project that has Ronnie Dunn leading a choir on “Because He Lives.” For extra emphasis, The Oak Ridge Boys have launched their farewell tour, preparing to cap a successful country career that hinged on harmonies founded in their gospel origins.
In country’s formative years, the genre’s artists tended to include gospel segments in their shows, or record entire faith-filled albums. That approach offset the drinking and cheating themes that were also prominent in the format’s lexicon, demonstrating the push and pull at work in its creative soul. “Country music and R&B have never shied away from the fact that the dark and the light always run close to each other,” Brown says.
That’s apparent in both “Need a Favor” and “wait in the truck,” which feature desperate characters dealing with addiction and murder, respectively. It’s appropriate that the Fisk Singers are part of this moment: the group was established over 150 years ago to raise money and awareness for the historically Black Fisk University, established during Reconstruction. The Fisk group existed decades before the country format coalesced, and its foundational role in Nashville’s development as a music center is one of the reasons why Jelly Roll chose to perform with them on the single, as well as on “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
“He really wanted that to happen,” says Sanders. “It meant something to him to be a son of Music City, to have the Fisk Jubilee Singers — that was on his creative bucket list. That’s what made it that much more satisfactory.”
Adding to the satisfaction of the moment is the subtle message rendered by the nominations. Morgan Wallen’s 2021 incident in which he used a racial slur, and Jason Aldean’s current single, “Try That in a Small Town,” with a video that led many to view the song’s vigilante message as bigoted, contributed to a widespread belief that country is unwelcoming. Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown and Darius Rucker have all fielded racist attacks on social media, and in 11 Minutes, a Paramount+ documentary about the massacre at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest festival, Black concertgoer Jonathan Smith recalled another attendee dismissing him: “I didn’t know your kind liked this music.”
But that message runs counter to the stated interests of the industry at large, which has signed more artists of color and developed several programs to more quickly boost minority creators and executives. The choirs provide aural support for that position. “Country’s evolving to this more inclusive place,” Sanders says.
Eskridge — who has toured with the likes of Lyle Lovett, Zac Brown Band and blues artist Jonny Lang — agrees. “I’ve been the only Black dude in a group of 60,000 people, and those groupings of people are not indicative of the negativity that you’re seeing. It’s always been primarily a very loving and a very accepting atmosphere,” he says. “The negativity always gets the loudest voice, but I don’t necessarily believe that that’s the norm.”
The recording industry marketed country and the blues separately beginning in the 1920s, but the two forms grew out of the same Southern soil. Black performers — particularly Country Music Hall of Fame member DeFord Bailey — helped create the informal, back-porch sound of early country, and country artists such as Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash were trained by Black musicians. The late Carl Perkins, who can be heard singing and playing on the Judds tribute album, recalled gospel figuring into life as a sharecropper in racially blended West Tennessee.
“It wasn’t a whole bunch of white people picking cotton together in one field and all kinds of Black people in another field,” Maher says. “They were all mixed together. And, he said, when [they] would take a quick lunch break, it’s not like ‘I’m going to my house, you go to your house.’ They would just congregate somewhere, and pretty soon, somebody started singing a tune. They’d all be singing, and most of them were gospel songs.”
The gospel story is one of transformation, and the return of gospel’s sound to country is a natural reaction to division, outward evidence of a desire to heal long-held grievances and to bolster community. Gospel allows people to hear pain from the past, asserts The War and Treaty’s Michael Trotter Jr., “in the voices that [have] long been gatekeepers of the soul.”
But, he adds, it also helps them “remember the feeling of surety, peace, love — and that feeling, above all, that encourages us to drive on, which is hope! Hope belongs in country music, and that’s what Tanya and I are here for.”
It’s not a mistake that the sound of gospel is most evident in quartets or full-blown choirs. The message seeks out harmony, and harmony only comes through multiple voices working together.
“Our world is a crazy place these days,” says Eskridge. “I think anytime something promotes or echoes unity, I think people are probably drawn to it a little more.”
That’s enough to explain the current rise of gospel. “Need a Favor,” “wait in the truck” and “Love Can Build a Bridge” all represent individuals aspiring to a higher calling, and the choirs bring that home. “Putting a gospel choir on something is like putting strings on a song to make it sound bigger,” Brown says. “It represents something bigger than you.”