Sensational Barnes Brothers’ Nobody’s Fault But My Own has been hailed
by NPR, Pop Matters, Billboard, MOJO, and No Depression.
and Courtney Barnes – aka The Sensational Barnes Brothers – old school gospel
comes as naturally as falling rain. They’ve sung together all their lives, but
with their new eponymous debut album, the first release of the Bible and Tire
Recording Co. label, things are clicking for the duo like never before.
Bruce Watson of Bible and Tire Recording Co./Big Legal Mess Records at
Delta-Sonic Studios in Memphis, all of the songs on the record were chosen from
the oft-forgotten 1970s catalog of the Designer Records label. This deep well
of material will be featured more in future releases by Bible and Tire, created
to spotlight the rich, living traditions of raw Southern gospel. For now, the
Designer catalog is made new by the unique chemistry of this brother team.
Along the way, they’re joined by a cast of tastefully gritty players like Will
Sexton, Jimbo Mathus, and George Sluppick, not to mention Chris and Courtney’s
brother Calvin, all of whom bring the tough soul-stomping sound of Memphis into
the current era.
And for the
Sensational Barnes Brothers, the new album also expresses an unbreakable bond
with the past: their own father, Calvin “Duke” Barnes. The one song he guests
on could well have been written by the Barnes family themselves. For there, in
a nutshell, are all the bonds that hold them close.
keep on, keep doing what you’re doing. Let it be good,” sings the father on one
track, and his grown boys, standing close by, echo his words. “Let it be good.”
Barnes was a little stunned to hear the song as they combed through hundreds of
Designer tracks with Watson one day. “We were listening to the song and the guy
on the recording sounded just like my daddy. I was like, ‘We gotta do this
song!’ And the message really stuck out to us.”
hear all the conversations he used to have with you through that one piece of
music,” adds brother Courtney. It’s a poignant moment, for only three months
after the brothers invited him to sing on their album, Duke Barnes passed away.
always counting your days, learning how to number your days,” reflects
Courtney. “Count it all joy, and we’re thankful for the life that he lived and
that he gave.”
And give he
did, as Duke made his way through the world with his beloved wife Deborah. She
was the daughter of Rev. James L. Gleese, and music came to her even more
naturally. Yet though she had studied piano and voice diligently, she wasn’t
prepared when the phone rang in the Gleese household one day. “Hello, this is
Ray Charles,” said the voice on the line. She answered the call and for a time
became a Raelette, one of the background singers for the genius of soul, before
love, marriage and children demanded that she leave the touring life behind.
didn’t stop her from counting it all joy. Indeed, Duke and Deborah Barnes
became a sought-after duo around Memphis, especially in the Seventh Day
Adventist community, singing at concerts, church events and weddings. Over the
years, flowers blossomed in their garden, by the name of Calvin, Jr., Chris,
and Carla. “And I was the one who came regardless,” laughs Courtney. “Up there
it was like, ‘Y’all gonna keep acting like you’re acting, I’m gonna send
1990s, the four youngsters, their diverse musical talents steadily encouraged
and coached by the parents, were assembled into a performing group known as
Joy. “We performed a lot,” recalls Courtney. “My mom and dad would sing first,
and we would be the background. Then in the next set it flipped over to where
the children would do our thing, and that would be the Barnes Family concert.”
carried on as musical collaborators for years. Indeed, they still play and sing
together, even with their father gone. “Eventually we let the name Joy go,”
says Courtney. “We started singing together as just the Barnes Family. And in
2015 we released an album, Family Tree, with the four of us and Calvin’s
wife Mischa. Now Chris and I are doing the Sensational Barnes Brothers as a
duo, and I really enjoy it! But we’ve always sung together. We’ve been a part
of different groups and played in different bands — just a lot of different
connections and entities.”
This is an
understatement. Chris and Courtney, on drums, percussion, and vocals, also
front Black Cream, which is reinventing the classic power trio sound in a very
funky Memphis style. Chris also sings background vocals for former Bar-Kays
singer Larry Dodson, and Calvin, Jr., for his part, is a gifted
instrumentalist, singer, and producer. Sister Carla, the only sibling to have
left Memphis, still sings. Music is clearly a family calling.
And now, as
the Sensational Barnes Brothers, they are bringing it all back home to music
they grew up with. Says Courtney, “This new record is more edgy. Our parents
taught us how to harmonize, to be more controlled. So this record opens us up.
It’s more raw. I’m usually not a squaller, unless I’m excited.” It’s hard to
believe when you hear uptempo rockers like “I Made It Over” or the horn-driven
“I’m Trying to Go Home,” even when the impassioned singing is echoed with
honeyed background harmonies augmented by Liz Brasher and longtime Barnes
friend Billy Thompson III.
Chris, “It allowed us to step outside of ourselves, with this free flowing,
rugged, edgy kind of music. It’s gospel, but it’s not necessarily for just a
Christian audience even. You can sing this at festivals and parks, anywhere.
And this type of gospel for us was natural, because we heard this music growing
up. That’s what made it so fun, being able to mimic what we heard back in the
day and bring it to life.”
chimes in, “Even today in our church, you got older people there, and they go
into some stuff where only the organist or the piano player know it. And yet
even then, it’s dancing music.” And so, inspired by their shared past, fueled
by harmonies that resonate with both their blood and their kindred souls, the
brothers see themselves singing, playing, and dancing for a long time coming.