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Walker Family Singers: Panola County Spirit

James Nadal By

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The significance of gospel singing in African-American musical heritage is indisputable and well documented. With a history dating back to the infamous period of slavery, it has served as a sense of relief and offered hope for redemption to the faithful. Rooted in the negro spirituals with their intense sorrow songs and joyful jubilees, they were codified protest messages, as well as hymns praising the Lord. In modern times, as gospel spun off into popular music, for each performer who made secular soul viable and recognized, there are numerous who remained true to their calling to only perform the sacred.

Due south from Memphis, in the Mississippi hill country, is Panola County. Where, in the small town of Como, resides the Walker Family Singers. Known throughout the region as steadfast believers and upholders of the gospel tradition, their release of Panola County Spirit, is an affirmation of their faith, and a testament to their talent.

Back in 2010, producer Michael Reilly, was recording a series of gospel projects based out of Como, and inevitably the name of the Walkers came up. It took some coaxing, and a few sessions, for this record to be completed. Raymond Walker is the family patriarch, who was once offered lucrative singing opportunities by local bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, and later Sam Cooke, but turned them both down to remain a local preacher and family man. His wife Joella is a stirring vocalist in her own right, and between them they instilled a sense of pride and responsibility to their offspring that this was their calling.

The selections represented are not the usual fare heard on gospel records. They are done acappella, and are culled from the personal repertoire of the family, having performed them for years. Raymond sings lead on most songs, and on "Shake My Mother's Hand," he shows what all the fuss is about, with the family moaning approval. His voice has an uncanny resemblance to that of Pops Staples, as a point of reference. Joella is featured on "Had My Chance," and daughter Patricia, with a quivering tremolo in her voice, delivers an emotional rendition of "Make Me Real." No authentic gospel session could proceed without allusion to the "Chilly Jordan," with its incantation about hope and salvation on the other side. "Old Ship of Zion," is done in the classic call and response style most associated with this music, and the fervor is evident as the level of sentiment rises.

"Living Testimony," might be the defining number, as it tells of Raymond's life through song amidst trials and tribulations. The family brings out their instruments for the finale, "Yes He Did." With Joella singing lead, they demonstrate how they can take it into the soul dimension with just a touch of guitar and bass. By any standard, and by all means, Panola County Spirit is African-American gospel music in its purest form, performed by the Walker Family Singers with their renown dignity and grace.

Track Listing: The Lord Is Blessing Me; Jesus Gave Me Water; My Time Will Come; Had My Chance; Chilly Jordan; Make Me Real; Leave That Liar Alone; There Will Be A Fire One Day; Jesus Died On Calvary; Oh Lord Hear My Voice; Jesus Walk With Me; Sweet Home; Don't Wonder About Him; Old Ship Of Zion; Living Testimony; Shake My Mother's Hand; Yes He DId.

Personnel: Raymond Walker, vocals; Joella Walker: vocals; Alberta Walker: vocals; Patricia Walker: vocals; Delouse Walker: vocals; Robert Walker: vocals; Bobby Walker: vocals.

Title: Panola County Spirit | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Daptone Records

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