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Wherever Sister Fern is now, she's got absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Indie Round-Up for Jan 12 2006: Fern Jones, Bradley Leighton

Welcome to the first Indie Round-Up of 2006!

Fern Jones, The Glory Road

A crucial early scene in the recent Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line recounts Cash’s initial audition for legendary producer Sam Phillips, where Phillips interrupts Cash’s rendition of the popular gospel tune “I Was There When It Happened” to urge him to sing instead something from his heart. The rest was history; but it’s worth at least a pause to consider Fern Jones, the now almost completely forgotten writer of “I Was There.”

Steeped as a child in the popular white secular music of the 30s along with the “race music” that grew into rock and roll, Jones followed her husband Ray (she married at sixteen) into the religious life when he became a travelling preacher. Injecting her country-and-western and proto-rock-and-roll numbers with Pentecostal fervor, she brought a Cline-like swagger and a ringing, seductive vocal style to the religious songs she sang on the road, which included classic hymns as well as her own masterful compositions.

It seems no one else was doing exactly this, which made Jones almost a movement of her own. Indeed it was Jimmie Davis’s version of “I Was There When It Happened” that Johnny Cash knew. When Jones eventually did release an album on a real label (Dot Records, home to Gale Storm and Pat Boone) in 1959, it failed, and her attempt to promote it with a concert tour showed that something about what she was doing didn’t translate well from the revival tent to the auditorium. The songs were probably just a little too devotional. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and other musical greats also had Pentecostal inspiration, but their rebellion against straight-laced religion was a lifestyle, not “merely” an artistic statement. In any case, Jones’s recording languished and was thought lost, but then, like a soul born again, it was found, and after a time Jones re-acquired the rights. Now the album receives a very welcome CD re-release.

It doesn’t do Jones proper justice to think of her as the “gospel Patsy Cline” (though there are vocal similarities). Nor is it correct to say that Jones was deprived by a capricious fate of a great career to which she was somehow entitled. Though Jones the singer can’t quite match Patsy Cline or Elvis Presley for gut-wrenching pathos, her instrument was formidable, her songs (both those she wrote and those she interpreted) were wonderful, and her career ministering to the flocks under the tents seems to have been an unqualified success. We all make choices, and we all do what we can when we can; sometimes our timing is right, and sometimes it isn’t. That Jones’s one album – to which some additional singles have been added for this release – has survived is something of a miracle. With her voice and songs, and some of Nashville’s great musicians (like Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland) backing her up, it’s a fine record independent of its history. She died in 1996, but wherever Sister Fern is now, she’s got absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Bradley Leighton, Back to the Funk

Smooth jazz-funk! Real instruments! Seductive, painless grooves! Bradley’s Leighton’s sonorous alto flute brings back the seventies, when the likes of Maynard Ferguson, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and Boz Skaggs merged jazz and funk into an easygoing blend that softened many a hard heart (and helped remove many a reluctant bra). You’ll have to shake your own earth, but if you’re in the mood for smoothitude, this collaboration between Leighton and writer-arranger Allan Phillips could be just the thing.

The disc’s one weakness lies in the fact that the 21st-century ear is accustomed to more modern – or at least more interesting – beats. It’s possible to lose oneself in Leighton and Phillips’s tasty horn arrangements, the former’s gorgeous flute tone and genteel bop touches, and the simple rhythms, but it’s also possible to wish for grooves that could tickle today’s jumpy sensibilities. However, if any of this description tickles your own fancy, it’s worth seeing for yourself.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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