Thursday, April 14, 2016

Get Up Off Your Seat .. and Gimme Some of that Ol' Soul Clapping!

                                                        courtesy of the Jones Family website
by Susan Kepecs
The Jones Family Singers – an old-school gospel outfit out of the tiny town of Markham, Texas, a few miles from Bay City, on the humid subtropical Gulf Coast plain – are no small town sound.  For the last couple of years the Jones Family’s been spreading the good news at university theaters, big city culture palaces, jazz festivals and nightclubs around the world.  The family patriarch, Bishop Fred Jones, Sr., doctor of theology, is the pastor (and founder) of Markham’s Mount Zion Pentecostal Holiness Church; with his two sons and five daughters, including lead singer Alexis Jones, he’s traveled a long road – starting in the ‘80s – to get to this place  The Jones Family Singers bring their bursting-with-backbeat sound to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall next Friday, April 29.
The Jones family’s something of a throwback to the early ‘60s, when gospel was the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement – and when rousing, hand-clapping gospel by the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Sister Rosetteta Tharpe and the Staple Singers played on R n’ B radio stations like WVON in Chicago, where I grew up, right alongside the great soul singers, every last one of them rooted in the sounds of the black church – James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Sam and Dave, Garnett Mimms, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett – the list goes on. This is flat-out glory music, and the Jones family – say hallelujah! – brings it all back home.
A whole lotta history’s gone down since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.  There’s a tension today between religious and secular that keeps the spiritual side of black music pretty much segregated in the church.  And there’s a movie about the Jones Family Singers – The Jones Family Will Find a Way, directed by Austin-based indie production company Arts+Labor (it premiered at SXSW in 2014) -- that chronicles the Jones Singers’ long haul to break into the limelight.  Along the way, the movie exposes that tension.  Austin writer Michael Corcoran, who’s passionate about gospel (I’ve never spoken with him, but he’s got a terrific website:, put this band on the map.  And in the movie he tells them – over and over again, in different ways – to dial down the Jesus lyrics and treat their music “more like a soul revue.” 
They never do – the Jones family’s unabashedly on a prosletysing mission, though they accepted Corcoran’s attempts to push them out of the church and into the arms of a global secular audience for the wide-open opportunity it gives them to spread the word.  But Corcoran is spot-on.  Whether you’re a believer or you don’t have a religious bone in your body (like me), the Jones Family Singers are sweet inspiration.

I interviewed Bishop Jones on the phone a few weeks ago. 

CulturalOyster: In the movie you say your grandmother was your first inspiration – and in the movie you’re based in Texas.  Is that where it all started, or are your early roots someplace else?

Bishop Jones: My early roots are in Louisiana.  I’m originally from a little town, Oakdale, Louisiana, made famous by a giant prison break.  That’s where I got my inspiration growing up.  Grandma, she wasn’t in the church choir – she was a deaconess, sort of like the leading prayer woman.  Her expertise was in praying.  People would come to her from miles around just to have her lay her hands on them.  The lord dealt with her a lot. 

CulturalOyster:  I have the impression that you write most of your own songs – is that right?

Bishop Jones:  Yes, that’s right.  The whole family pitches in.  If one of us comes up with an idea we get together and work out the music and then I write the verses, I put all of the verses to the song.  They say “dad, can you put a verse to this?”  I take the song and go in the other room and sit back and listen, and being the preacher I am my inspiration comes from the spirit or the scripture, and I sit down and write the verse so it has congruency with the tune.

CulturalOyster:  Your music comes from the heart – there’s nothing academic about it, but does anyone in the family have formal musical training?  And what about influences – who do you listen to, who’s influenced your sound?

Bishop Jones:  For me, I just feel it.  My younger son went to school for a while and worked with the music department in Jackson, Texas, but for the most part what we do is just inspired by the moment.  But yes, we are influenced – Mavis Staples for sure, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar – a lot of the older gospel singers influence us ‘cause that’s the era I came up in.

CulturalOyster:  I watched the movie twice – you fought hard for a long time to get to success, but you just kept on keepin’ on, in the face of a lot of different kinds of adversity. Why do you think was it so hard – why did it take so long – for you to get established? 

Bishop Jones:  Well, I like to tell people it’s because I adhere to a standard.  I don’t want to compromise to please somebody.  I follow what I wholeheartedly believe the bible to say.  Sometimes that’s not popular with a lot of folk.  As a case in point, a gentlemen told me “when you get on the stage leave the messages open for people to make up their own mind.”  And I told him I didn’t come to sing a song, I want it to be clear who I’m talking about, I want it to be explicit, this is where I stand.  I’m not trying to make you be me, but you invited me, you wanted to hear my story, so hear me out.

CulturalOyster:  In the movie you keep trying to break into secular venues and land recording contracts.  You keep getting turned down.  At one point you sound really frustrated, and you say “I can’t reach you if I can’t reach you.” What’s the overarching message you want to reach people with?

Bishop Jones: The first thing I want to say is that I can’t reach you if I can’t get up to you, if you can’t see where I’m coming from you won’t know where I’m coming from.  I have to get up close to you, I have to get in your confidence to share my side of the story, so you have your view and you have mine and you can see which is most advantageous for you.  What I really want to get out to people is that God is really concerned about their wellbeing.  It’s about communication.  I’m His communicator.  The Father wants you to know that you haven’t done bad enough that he doesn’t want anything to do with you, he loves you no matter what and he wants that fellowship with you.

CulturalOyster: In the movie, Michael Corcoran says you play the perfect gospel music for atheists.  And at the end of the movie when you’re at Lincoln Center Outdoors you say you can only do so much within the sacred walls – “if you’re gonna win the world you gotta take that giant step.”  But the movie, over and over again points to the tension between church music and the secular world.  So I’m wondering, now that you’re reaching so many people outside the sacred walls, are your lyrics a little more secular?  Or is that a place you don’t want to go? 

Bishop Jones: I think about Michael’s perspective, very much different from mine – I already knew what road I’m taking, but that’s one of the things we knew at the start.  He has a different mind set, but he’s still precious to God.
Our lyrics are not getting more secular, because we don’t want to lose sight of the objective.  We learn to grow where we’re planted, and we deal with each session with the greatest of care ‘cause we know the mission we’re on.  We don’t lean toward secular, but the door is opening.  It’s not to conform to the other side, but to show the other side that we can come over here and show you a great time, and show you the source of your very existence, and it don’t have to be so dogmatic. 
Young people might not know the Nightingales, or the Dixie Hummingbirds – they may only know Michael Jackson, or the Temptations.  So we take that music sometimes and lay out our own lyrics on top of it and we’ll say “this may sound like something you know, but pay attention to the words,” and we’ll take ‘em right on that journey.  And I say this without hype, they enjoy it.  When it’s all said and done most of the time they won’t let us go out in the crowd after a show, they say we’ll get mobbed.  But I’m a people person, so I get up and go out there.

CulturalOyster: At one point in the movie, before things turn around and start getting good for you, you ask, “am I relevent for today, or am I yesterday’s news?”  Seems to me you have to be relevant today. We haven’t won Dr. King’s battles yet, and in his time there was a lot of secular gospel – the feel, the beat, the inflections, but not the lyrics.  That kind of music brought a lot of people together who aren’t together now.  And we need that.

Bishop Jones:  Everywhere we go, I do sing a song that’s not ours.  I say y’all are looking at the news like I look at it, in the Senate, in the police.  If everybody operated with this one thing I’m about to sing about it would eradicate all this trouble.  That song is “What the World Needs Now is Love,” and I’m calling for all people, if you’re black, white, Plutoinian, or Martian, to feel it.  And when we sing this song I see the message resonate. 

CulturalOyster: What’s coming up for you – travels, recordings – what’s the future? 

Bishop Jones: Well, we’re getting ready to go to Minnesota, and from there to Tel Aviv, we’ll be in the Holy Land for ten days touring throughout various areas, and then we’ll be back in the US, including in Madison – yes, we’ve got to come to Madison and Milwaukee.

CulturalOyster: Is there anything you want to talk about that I didn’t ask you?

Bishop Jones:  Yes.  First I want you to know I like your very interesting questions.  And I want people to know they can get the documentary online, at
I want people to know we’re just regular people on a mission.  People need to know they can come up and talk to us, hug our neck, bring your camera and take pictures – a lot of times theaters don’t like that, but I say let people do it, they’re here, they want to see us.  We want our message to get out and somebody may see us and get inspired.  But most of all we’re regular people, we need a hug, a handshake, a good ol’ “hey, how you doin’?”