"It's soul music without the sex," says Bruce Watson, general manager of the stalwart Mississippi indie label Fat Possum, of the new, gospel-focused imprint that he and Big Legal Mess Recordings are just getting underway.
That imprint, which they're calling Bible & Tire Recording Co., is launching imminently with the Sept. 20 release of its two debut albums; one is a collection of recordings from the 1970s, originally recorded on the D-Vine Spirituals Recordings label by Elizabeth King and The Gospel Souls. The other is The Sensational Barnes Brothers' Nobody's Fault But My Own, a newly recorded collection of songs originally released on Designer Records, a Memphis-based gospel label active between 1968 and 1978.
"I wanted to start a label that captured the feel and vibe of great soul music," says Watson, on the phone from his home in Oxford, Miss. "I've worked with blues and R&B singers and musicians throughout my career — and while I love early blues, the gospel stuff is incredible. It sounds cliché, but gospel is a melting pot of so many different styles."
Watson is no stranger to roots music. A recording engineer and producer who has recorded R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, CeDell Davis and others, Watson helped sign The Black Keys early in the band's career and has, along with Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson, worked to acquire an impressive catalogue of titles, including selections from the soul music vaults of Hi Records (Al Green, Ann Peebles), releases by folk legend Townes Van Zandt and the Designer Records gospel label.
"With the new label, what I had in mind was to do something that is message-based," Watson says. "I wanted to concentrate on recording new artists, but having it sound like it was recorded 40 years ago, and also to preserve all this great music that was recorded but was never released," he says.
For the label's new recordings, Watson produced the Sensational Barnes Brothers himself, at Delta-Sonic Sound studios in Memphis. With siblings Chris and Courtney Barnes on vocals, the album features contributions from R&B singer Liz Brasher, guitarist Will Sexton, Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers) on organ, and others. (The duo has a formidable family history, too: Raised in the church on heaping doses of gospel and soul music, their mother Deborah was one of Ray Charles' Raelettes.) The songs on the album are covers of sides recorded originally on Designer Records, including songs first cut by the Memphis Spiritual 4, the Spiritual Harmonizers and the Fantastic Gospel Travelers.
Compared to the original recording of "I Am Trying To Go Home," by Delta gospel legends O'Neal and The Dean Brothers, the Barnes Brothers deliver their update with a vibrant and punchy horn arrangement on top of a thick soulful groove. On it, Chris and Courtney and the band lay down a funky Southern Saturday night vibe, only to wake up to church on Sunday morning.
While the recently recorded debut by The Sensational Barnes Brothers sounds as if it were recorded in the '70s, the Elizabeth King and The Gospel Souls record Watson is releasing actually was.
"While she recorded a bunch of songs, King never released a full album on D-Vine," says Watson. He managed to get his hands on the one-hundred-plus songs recorded for the label, "and from it," Watson says, "we decided to take everything she recorded for the label and made this record out of it. Only four songs have ever been released. The rest of it has never been out."
Below, listen to "Stretch Out," a guitar fueled stomper that has a Chuck Berry-styled "Maybelline" riff which drives King's powerful vocals and the song's soulful harmonies.
The Sensational Barnes Brothers' Nobody's Fault But My Own and The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings from Elizabeth King and The Gospel Souls will both be released Sept. 20 through the Bible & Tire Recording Co.