The Lost Worlds of JCR Records: Bible & Tire Rescues ’70s Gospel Gems 

It's fitting, given that September is Gospel Music Heritage Month, that today marks the release of another stellar album from Bible & Tire Recording Co. The imprint, which debuted last year, expresses the aesthetic of Fat Possum's and Big Legal Mess' Bruce Watson, who sums it up like this: "Deep soul gospel music is soul music without the sex. The message is different, but the spirit is the same. I don’t hear that in modern gospel music. I wanted to start a Memphis-based record label that specializes in finding these artists and presenting gospel in the spirit and sound of the past."
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While that doesn't mean that Bible & Tire releases only vintage recordings, as evidenced by last year's debut album by The Sensational Barnes Brothers, it does mean that the label is open to old recordings right out of the gate. The old school defines its mission, as it promotes an earthy gospel sound that predates synthesizers, drum machines, and shimmering production values.

It's ironic, then, that higher production values were one motivation behind the two labels created by the pastor and WDIA and KWAM radio DJ Juan D. Shipp in 1972: D-Vine Spirituals and JCR.  At that time, more advanced recording techniques didn't yet involve the synthetic sheen that is now so common; rather, they favored a greater clarity and presence in the tones that bands created naturally. Bible & Tire has already released the period recordings of Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls, originally on D-Vine Spirituals. Now we can hear tracks from the sister label, JCR, with today's release, The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Volume One.

As musician and music historian Michael Hurtt writes in his liner notes, Shipp was convinced that "the local artists deserve a better sound." And yet, though he shone the spotlight on many local gospel groups, some didn't have "the texture that I want for it to be on D-Vine." These groups with a little more raw grit were released on JCR. And this latest album presents the cream of that crop.

Given that African-American churches have long been crucibles for the musical talent of Memphis, as explored last December in the Memphis Flyer, these gospel groups are an integral part of soul music's story. And perusing this album offers up a catalog of structures, melodies, and harmonies that are deep in the DNA of soul. The Silver Wings' "Call on Him," for example, seems to be a second cousin to the Stax classic "634-5789."

Other genres are heard as well, such as the blues boogie of "Father Guide Me, Teach Me" by the Pilgrimairs, or "You Can't Hurry God" by the Johnson Sisters, both direct ancestors of the gospel blues of Rev. John Wilkins. But beyond tracing influences historically, these tracks offer a master course in guitar and keyboard tones, grooves, and vocal harmonies that are compelling in their own right. Though they may be superbly recorded by 1972 standards, they are also played with great fervor. Indeed, the electricity of these performances will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, no matter how lousy your speakers may be. That sound is something worth saving. And there's every indication that Bible & Tire will keep releasing more of these saved sounds and saved souls for a long time coming. 

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