Liner Note Author: Michael Reilly.
Panola County Spirit is the third volume in Daptone's series of gospel recorded by Michael Reilly in the field. On 2008's Como Now: The Voices of Panola County, Mississippi, there are three tracks by Brother & Sister Walker, aka Raymond and Joella Walker, patriarch (a preacher) and matriarch of the a cappella Walker Family Singers. They are joined by daughters Alberta, Patricia, and Delouse and sons Bobby and Robert (the latter had his own solo cut on Como Now). Reilly returned to Como in 2010 to record the family singing at home. It took several sessions, but he nailed it with warmth and presence.
All of the music here is traditional. In his liner essay, Reilly writes that sometimes the group didn't even know they knew a particular song because it was lodged so deeply inside a repertoire passed on from previous generations. He'd stop and pack up, then someone would remember a song, start singing, and Reilly would have to start over.
Fans of the early Staple Singers recordings will feel right at home here. Brother Raymond, an octogenarian, has a voice eerily similar to Pops Staples in both pitch and timbre. As a young man he sang with the Longtime Travelers, and had offers to tour with Sam Cooke and Mississippi Fred McDowell (he turned them down). He offers a commanding presence on "The Lord Is Blessing Me," "Jesus Gave Me Water," and "My Time Will Come," each tune offering a different aspect of his vocal talent. Joella is in the solo spot on "I've Had My Chance." The sound seems to come from the earth, rising slowly from a groan to reveal the longing and brokenness that also birthed the blues. Patricia's solo on "Make Me Real" is the set's finest cut. It's a passionate affirmation of commitment, but also a desperate plea for spiritual transformation. A celebratory conviction -- complete with handclaps -- drenches the call-and-response in "Oh Lord Hear My Voice." The early Thomas Dorsey African-American gospel sound is heard in "Old Ship of Zion," with its cascading cadences, rhythms, and the root of the sound that inspired Cooke and Ray Charles. "He Didn't Have to Wake Me," led by Joella, closes with a surprise: sparse guitar and bass accompaniment. The dynamic builds from her simmering blues moan to a soul-drenched swell. The family joins in to add a Holy Spirit-filled intensity, sending the record off on a transcendent note.
The Walker Family Singers are truly special. The gospel tradition is an inseparable part of their everyday lives. Until Reilly came along and coaxed them, the music was never meant to be shared outside their home or church. On Panola County Spirit, they've allowed us a glimpse inside their world, one where faith, hope, earthly struggle, and the love of God and one another frame its dimensions. The Walkers believe that music serves an end: to worship and glorify God. This album is their evidence. It can be listened to with pleasure, but it can also be experienced. ~ Thom Jurek