Rev. John Wilkins: Saving Us From Trouble 

Zac Ives fondly remembers an evening some years ago, as he and his Goner Records colleagues were preparing for a show outside the late, great Buccaneer Lounge. "This big dude rolled up on his motorcycle," Ives tells me, "helmet on, fringe leather jacket. We were like, 'Whoa, who is this guy?'" They were taken aback by the answer. "He took his helmet off and it was the Reverend! He said, 'Hey, what's going on guys?' We were going, 'Oh my God!'"

"Oh my God" is an apt reaction to the magnetism and talent of the Rev. John Wilkins. "He's this sort of iconic guy in town," Ives adds, and he should know. Goner has booked the gospel blues performer (and pastor at Hunter's Chapel in Como, Mississippi) for their annual Gonerfest at least three times, and he's seen the response that the Reverend elicits from listeners. "In fact, one of my favorite Gonerfest memories ever was when he played the last set at sunset on a Saturday afternoon, six or seven years ago. It was one of those magical moments. We got a lot of punk rockers in leather jackets tearing up, watching this totally spiritual performance."

click to enlarge Rev. John Wilkins - ADAM SMITH
  • Adam Smith
  • Rev. John Wilkins

So, while the Goner imprint is more typically associated with punk or alternative music, it's not a far stretch to imagine the Reverend on the edgy Memphis label. With Trouble, the full-length album due out September 18th, that will become a reality. Amos Harvey, who manages and plays bass for Wilkins, thinks it's a perfect fit. "We're excited about being with Goner because they love Rev. Wilkins and it's local, so they totally get it and respect all the different genres he's mashing together to make this gospel blues."

Harvey emphasizes the diversity of influences on Trouble. While Wilkins is most often associated with the country gospel blues that his father, Rev. Robert Wilkins, perfected in the mid-20th century (including "Prodigal Son," covered by the Rolling Stones), his lifetime of playing on blues and soul records has brought many other flavors to the mix. Not the least of which are the voices of his daughters, Tangela Longstreet, Joyce Jones, and Tawana Cunningham.

"The record is very eclectic," Harvey says. "He wanted to feature his daughters on this record. The first record was him and they sang backup on a few songs, but he wanted this to feature them more. And I think we did a good job with that. Not every song sounds the same. It's almost like a compilation, in a way."

The end result shows the influence of artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Junior Kimbrough, and Bill Withers, among others. In casting such a wide net, it didn't hurt to have a crack band navigating the changes. "We recorded it with this amazing rhythm section. With Charles Hodges [on organ], Steve Potts [on drums], and Jimmy Kinnard on bass. They just locked in. And it was really sweet and fulfilling when each one of them separately said 'We are enjoying this. This is music that we grew up on.' I would play a demo like twice, and then they just had it. And of course, Rev. Hodges interpreted what was needed on organ beautifully. His ability to just feel it was amazing."

The sessions, produced by Harvey and engineered by Boo Mitchell, took place in November of 2018, but couldn't be more timely today. The lead single, "Trouble," was released online three weeks ago and will be followed by "Walk With Me," to be released this Thursday. Both seem particularly salutary in this year of disasters.

"He sings 'Walk With Me' with Tangela, his middle daughter," says Harvey, "and he tells the story of how his dad would sing that on the front porch when he was young. And his mother would sing with them and beat a tambourine. It moves him just to think about it."

And surely such memories have helped the good Reverend weather his own personal struggle this year, detailed in Chris McCoy's July 29th Flyer cover story about COVID-19 survivors. Wilkins has survived his bout with the virus but remains in the hospital for regular post-COVID treatments. He's seen trouble firsthand, but for all that, he knows how best to soldier on. And that can help us all. As Harvey notes, "You don't have to be religious to enjoy this. Rev. Wilkins' music is moving. He and his daughters make something happy, something that you're not expecting."

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