Voices honed in the heart of Mis­sis­sippi

A cap­pella gospel mu­sic re­fined in the churches, fields of Como

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Bob Mehr

Tonight, a col­lec­tion of cit­i­zens from Como, Miss., will travel to Mem­phis to take the stage of the Le­vitt Shell at Over­ton Park, to per­form an evening of a cap­pella gospel mu­sic.

While many of the singers have long per­sonal his­to­ries in mu­sic — hav­ing played or sung for most of their lives — they are, es­sen­tially, am­a­teurs. They’ve never sought pro­fes­sional ac­claim, the glare of the spot­light or a record­ing con­tract. In­stead, they’ve honed their art in the churches and cot­ton fields of Como — and there’s some­thing of that pu­rity in­her­ent in their voices and their songs.

For Michael Reilly, pro­ducer of the new com­pi­la­tion CD Como Now — which doc­u­ments the city’s gospel scene — this was the al­lure of the project from the start.

A na­tive Texan liv­ing in New York City, Reilly had dab­bled in mu­sic and even­tu­ally pur­sued a pro­fes­sional ca­reer as a lo­ca­tion sound man for film and TV pro­duc­tions. In the fall of 2004, he and a cou­ple of film­maker friends took a cross- coun­try trip from the Big Ap­ple to the South, hop­ing to make some Alan Lo­max-style field record­ings along the way. “We wanted to doc­u­ment the trip and hoped to visit with lo­cal mu­si­cians in small ar­eas,” he says.

One place Reilly had marked on his map was Como — a town of 1,300 in Panola County, 45 miles south of Mem­phis. He’d been tipped about a group of teens there mak­ing a brand of coun­try hip-hop, who were ac­tu­ally rel­a­tives of Miles Pratcher, a singer Lo­max had en­coun­tered in the 1950s. “But when we got there, the kids were off at school, and so we got to talk­ing to their mom and a cou­ple of their aunts,” says Reilly. “Turns out they’d been singing all their lives as well.”

Turn­ing his at­ten­tion to this group of ladies — Ester Mae Smith, An­gela Tay­lor and Della Daniels — Reilly saw an op­por­tu­nity to fol­low up the thread that Lo­max had started a half cen­tury ear­lier. “Of­ten you go down search­ing for some­thing, think­ing the story is one place, and then it’s re­ally just ad­ja­cent to it,” says Reilly. “Af­ter talk­ing to them, I knew I wanted to come back down and do a proper au­dio record­ing and see if th­ese ladies were in­ter­ested.”

Reilly did even­tu­ally come back in the sum­mer of 2005 and recorded the three ladies as a group, dub­bing them the Como Ma­mas. Re­turn­ing to New York with the tapes, Reilly says he was “awed” by their voices, and set about try­ing to in­ter­est a la­bel in putting out the project.

Even­tu­ally, he hooked up with Brook­lyn-based retro-soul la­bel Dap­tone, which pro­posed send­ing Reilly back to Como to put out an open call for singers in or­der to cap­ture more of the lo­cal tal­ent, with an eye to­ward re­leas­ing a com­pi­la­tion CD of the re­sults. “So in (2006) we put ads in the lo­cal pa­per and lo­cal ra­dio to see who would come out to a record­ing we set up at the Mt. Mo­riah Church,” says Reilly. “It was kind of a shot in the dark. I didn’t know who would show up un­til I ac­tu­ally got to the church that day. But ev­ery­body that did show up is on the fin­ished record — it was al­most un­be­liev­able how good every­one was.”

The re­sults of the ses­sion, re­leased in Au­gust by Dap­tone as Como Now: The Voices of Panola Co., Mis­sis­sippi , are a re­mark­able doc­u­ment of the rich tal­ent con­tained in the re­gion — rang­ing from the sweet, sad vo­cal style of Mary Moore, to the har­monies of the Jones Sis­ters, to the dy­namic Walker Fam­ily, which in­cludes lo­cal oc­to­ge­nar­ian leg­ends Brother Ray­mond and Sis­ter Joella Walker and their son, the Rev. Robert Walker. “I’m still to this day kind of blown away that such a per­fect cross-sec­tion and va­ri­ety of singers showed up that day,” says Reilly.

Al­though he’s con­tin­ued to re­turn to Como to record more mu­sic, even Reilly hadn’t imag­ined bring­ing the Como singers to the pub­lic stage. For­mer Le­vitt Shell di­rec­tor Chip Pankey did, how­ever, and booked the Como artists for a con­cert at the Over­ton Park, part of the venue’s “R&B, Gospel & Soul” mu­sic se­ries. “He was to­tally sold on it, and as a re­sult (the artists) got more and more ex­cited about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of per­form­ing,” says Reilly, who will be in town to record the show. “If the (Mem­phis) show goes well, I’m hop­ing there will be more op­por­tu­ni­ties for them.”

Mean­time, Reilly is ready­ing fur­ther al­bums from the Como artists, in­clud­ing sep­a­rate discs from the Como Ma­mas and the ex­tended Walker fam­ily. He hopes that Dap­tone will con­tinue to release the ti­tles. “The la­bel’s been great, and it’s re­ally a risk on their part to put out a hard­core a cap­pella gospel record and ex­pect it to sell,” says Reilly. “Hope­fully, it will, but even if it doesn’t, I’m bound and de­ter­mined to get the other stuff out even if I have to spend my own money. This mu­sic is just too good and im­por­tant for peo­ple not to hear.”

—Bob Mehr: 529-2517

Matt Rogers

The Como Ma­mas have long, per­sonal his­to­ries in the mu­sic of Como, Miss.

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