Bushwick’s own Daptone Records is best known these days as the indie label home for acclaimed powerhouse soul acts Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley. But those the company’s has a diverse roster of artists from genres including funk, world beat and gospel–like the Walker Family Singers, who recently put out Panola County Spirit, one of the most moving and deeply spiritual records you’ll hear this year.
Led by Raymond and Joella Walker, the Walker Family Singers are from the small town of Como, Mississippi (population of about 1,300). The couple sings with their five children: Alberta, Patricia, Delouse, Robert and Bobby. On Panola County Spirit, which was mostly recorded at Raymond and Joella’s home, there’s no backing instrumentation, just their soulful voices singing richly meditative gospel tunes. It’s almost as if they were singing directly to you from their living room.
According to the album’s producer, Michael Reilly, the Walkers are well known in Como, as the men in the family have been preachers going back generations. There’s a story that Raymond Walker was supposedly courted by both soul singer Sam Cooke and blues man Mississippi Fred McDowell to sing with them on their tours because of his voice. In the case of McDowell, Raymond declined the offer because he wanted to perform gospel rather than blues. “Faith is very strong in the Walker family. As Robert [Walker] tells me, it’s the ground from which all the music comes,” Reilly writes in the album notes.
I recently spoke with Reilly–a New Yorker who also produced two other albums for Daptone’s gospel series based on music from Como–about the Walker Family and what it was like working with them on this excellent record.
How did you hear about the Walker Family Singers?
At first I was recording with the ladies who would become the Como Mamas, and then they were talking about their neighbors and who else they heard sing in church. Some of the people they kept bringing up were the Walker Family. My ears perked up and I was like, “I have to find them.” They were every bit as amazing as everybody was kind of talking about them.
What was the family’s reaction when you told them you wanted to record their music?
I never really had to have that discussion so much. Initially I had that conversation with the Como Mamas. When I first called them, they were like, “Why would you want to come and record this stuff?” It’s such a small town and such a small community that the word just spread. Thankfully I didn’t have to have that conversation again.
Had the Walker Family Singers recorded before?
I don’t think anything from a wider distribution outside of that area. They kept telling me about some opportunity that popped up and just fizzled. They were potentially being hired to go to out to Chicago to some kind of Blues Brothers something. I can’t find any record of that. That would’ve been the only thing.
What can you tell us about the family, especially Raymond and Joella?
Raymond was a preacher and his father was a preacher. It’s kind of a long-line family business. The story goes that Raymond met Joella in the cotton fields when they were sharecroppers and fell in love. They both have incredible voices. He was rumored to have this legendary quality to get the congregation super hot and bothered. Anyway, when they paired up, Raymond and Joella had an incredible sound and voices. They’ve been pillars in the community and involved in gospel with their own band for a long time.
Apparently Raymond Walker turned down opportunities to play with Sam Cooke and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
It would have been a lot of money. He just seems like a hardcore family man who didn’t want to be apart from that. I think that has something to do with the legend of the Warner Bros.-Blues Brothers thing that he couldn’t leave Como or the family long enough to make that happen.
I believe that this record took about seven years to come to fruition?
I kept going back every year almost just to see, as Robert puts it, ‘milk the cow’—like keep coming back for more and more stuff. You can just tell they have so much, and they sing songs differently every time and sometimes get even more awesomely musical. It was a compulsion of mine and then finally we decided it was done and put it out.
What was the recording setup like?
The first time I went down–with the lion share of everything on the record–I had this incredible audio setup that was lent to me by Gabe [Roth, a member of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings] at Daptone and another guy. It was this really great perfect storm of awesome gear and old gear. It’s a small space—there were couches everywhere–that kind of made for a really great room sound.
Do the Walkers perform outside of Como?
They haven’t just because Raymond and Joella are really unable to get around these days. When I first started recording them, they didn’t get around fast but they still went out quite a bit. And lately it’s tough and painful to even venture around much. A couple of weeks ago we were able to get them into Oxford, Mississippi but that was a feat in itself, it probably wouldn’t happen. The kids might–the two brothers and the three sisters are totally eager to get out and play.
Is there a possible sequel to Panola County Spirit?
Yeah, absolutely. What I think might happen and would be fun is maybe putting a band around them or putting some kind of musical accompaniment–all the while remain true to what they do. It just seems to be begging for it my mind to have some instrumentation. We did it with the Como Mamas and it was totally explosive and awesome. So something like that is in the works, it should happen.
The Walker Family Singers’ latest album, Panola County Spirit, is now available through the Brooklyn-based label Daptone Records.