The Holy Rollers are Soul Stirring: Mississippi ‘Roots Gospel’ Is Twisted and Devout

HRCarlandDuffWEB2.jpg"If it’s got more than three chords, you’re going to hell." Guitarist Jerry "Duff” Dorrough is speaking from his compound deep in the darkness of the Mississippi Delta. Dorrough has true faith in The Holy Rollers (Black Dog Records) a 13-song ‘roots gospel’ collaboration with his friend, southern Mississippi singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, Carl Massengale. The disc contains more than three chords, but Dorrough will take his chances. After all, the man knows rhythm and has had his share of blues. 

Throughout his long career Dorrough has endured the premature deaths of his wife, Debbie, and his best friend, saxophonist Charlie Jacobs. Dorrough and Jacobs logged endless musical miles as co-anchors of the Tangents, a hard-driving R&B quintet that stormed southern clubs from the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s. Drummer Bob Barbee and bassists Steve Vines and Dave “Groove” Parker and keyboardist Jim “Fish” Michie created a powerful punch.

HR_Tangentes_WEB.jpgJacobs passed away in 1997 and, after a retreat to the Sunflower River for a stint as a parent and painter, Dorrough surfaced with a gospel disc, The Revelators, and a rock-and-roll CD, Peace in the Lily of the Valley (Black Dog Records). Now, the widowed father of two has nixed the whiskey and mixes spirituals with the secular. He maintains a robust schedule of gigs – from night clubs to nursing homes – with a revolving cast of veteran cohorts. He is also the guitarist in the house band for Thacker Mountain Radio , a music and literature show on Mississippi Public Radio where he trades riffs with legendary producer/pianist Jim Dickinson .

"I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by all the podnas I’ve had," Dorroughs allows in his modest Mississippi drawl. "And I love this new record but I wanted to scream a little more," he laughs. "There’s a lot of pretty stuff, but Carl’s a pretty singer.

“What do you call it?" he is asked.

"I don’t know," he laughs. "It’s just so weird. We were just trying to do a ‘new vintage’ gospel record."

They made it. The tunes unspool as a Sunday School lesson you can dance to. The lyrics eschew the dodge of simply changing "baby" to "Jesus." These are true, dyed-in-the-hem-of-his-garment songs of the spirit. Some are surprises, written by musicians not known for gospel, such as bluesmen Skip James, Johnny Taylor and Blind Willie Johnson. Recorded in Monticello, Miss. by Chris Hudson and Ted Gainey, the sounds are up to date and modern, even on the decades-old chestnuts. "New vintage" is apt. The instrumentation is this year while the sweet harmonies suggest the Everly Brothers and Duff’s sunny string shadings conjure 1965 Beatles.

"Carl’s a great singer and a sincere guy," Dorrough professes. He recalls a visit when Massengale drove four hours from his home in Jayess, Mississippi to the Delta, to sing at a festival Dorrough was producing.
"He and his wife, Mira, came to church with me the next day," Dorrough says, "and they sang for the congregation. We knew then we’d end up doing something." Massengale, like Dorrough, has taken a rock and roll path to self-discovery which has culminated for both men in, among other things, an embracing of Scripture.

"I grew up down in Pascagoula (Miss.)" Massengale recounts, "and I was burnt out on school and working. I met (guitarist) Jim Ellis. I knew him before he accidentally cut off three fingers. He was one of the best guitarists I ever heard. I followed him up to the Delta in 1979 and we ended up in a band with Charlie Jacobs called The Esquires. I was the drummer." Massengale said the Esquires came together quickly when Jacobs booked a gig at a local club knowing he didn’t have a band.

"He booked the gig then went looking for Jim Ellis," Massengale laughs. "We got together and did old Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, James Brown." Massengale recalls those years a generation ago in the Mississippi Delta as fertile both in cotton and creativity.
"Just about everybody you ran into in the Delta back then were creative in some form. Either they were a poet or a painter or an actor or a sculptor or a singer or something. I remember Charlie went out to Oregon to Reed College to visit his sister and he played with some jazz groups while he was out there. He came back shaking his head and said their music just didn’t have the feeling. He said he thought there was some kind of vibration coming up from the ground in Mississippi. That’s how he put it."

Following the dissolution of the Esquires, ("Charlie and Jim got into it over a woman and that split the band up.") Massengale embarked on a cross-country hitch-hiking odyssey that found him busking on the streets of Boulder, Colo and Santa Cruz, Calif.

"That was an exciting summer," he recalls. "Back then both those towns were the hub of the continent. Me being a Mississippi boy, it was all pretty weird, but I had a great time." In 1982, Massengale was playing music on the streets of New Orleans during that year’s Mardi Gras.

"That happened to be the time that I read the Gospel of John in the New Testament," he says. "That’s where I had a change of experience. I found myself to be in error. I quit music, laid the guitar down and joined the Pentecostal Church and began studying the Bible and praying and fasting and leaving it all behind."

While the itinerant picker/seeker thought he was "leaving it all behind," turning to his wife and two sons and his work as a cabinet maker in Jayess, the pull of the music never left him. He is an avid collector of gospel music and possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the genre.

"There’s just so much good gospel material that is buried, that nobody knows about," he marvels. "I’ve got a big collection of sacred material, been collecting it for decades. I love the old traditional songs but they’re fossils, they’re just not used anymore. They’re just dead unless somebody rakes ’em up and puts ’em out there. That’s the purpose of our record, to take some of the good ole material and put a little air and sunshine to it."

 Indeed, when Carl hits a harp solo on the bouncy Skip James nugget, "He’s a Mighty Good Leader", a nautical sway flows through the song, as if Bahamian Joseph Spence snuck in on the session. On the opening tune, Massengale’s "City of Refuge", the phat organ (Robert Chaffe) and hot horns (Jeff Callaway) would be at home on an Al Green release. The piano and guitar groove on the traditional, "I Want to be Like Jesus", achieves a Van Morrison soul. Massengale’s original "Our Father’s Home" showcases the duo’s harmonies. Later, Beatles-like harmonies, long a hallmark of Dorrough’s vocal style, shimmer on the Rollers’ McCartneyesque take on Andrae Crouch’s "Quiet Times".
"I saw Andrae on TV with just him on piano and a bass player," Dorrough says, "and he was great. I said ‘Man that’s it.’" In addition to both musicians playing guitars and keyboards, in the time-honored folk tradition, Massengale and Dorrough also contribute their own new lyrics to select old tunes.

"I just added a verse if we needed one, " Dorrough says of his contribution on the gospel standard, “Nobody Knows.”   Massengale says he came up with extra lyrics to Johnny Taylor’s “God is Standing By” after visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls in Mobile, Ala.

"I had gotten to Mobile a day early so I took a stroll down by the river and wrote the lyrics. I called Duff immediately and told him I was really ready to record. He said he had some tunes ready too."

"It’s the folk process," Massengale continues. "My City of Refuge” is not the same song that Blind Willie Johnson wrote but it’s inspired by him. You listen to Leadbelly and he’s singing Blind Lemon Jefferson. You listen to Charlie Patton records and he’s singing old Son House songs. Robert Hunter, who wrote for the Grateful Dead, would take “Stagger Lee” and add his own stuff and make it his own. Those songs and those folk images represent shared experiences. In my case, my song is a tribute to Blind Willie. It’s a totally different song."

Other obscure gems the Rollers air out include strong takes on “God’s Promise” by George Scott, guitarist for the Blind Boys of Alabama, and “Any Day Now” by Faidest Wagoner, female pianist for the Soul Stirrers. Dorrough contributes an original, the rocking “He Knows.”  Massengale authored the CD’s powerful closer, “The Horseman.”   A stirring vocal by Massengale on HT. Burleigh’s "Deep River", is the disc’s benediction.

With its potent mix of rock and religion, The Holy Rollers is a worthy addition to an American contemporary gospel pantheon that would include, among others, Robert Randolph, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Lee Brothers, and The Word. Massengale calls the sound "roots gospel."

"I could do another one of these tomorrow, there are so many good songs," he says. He and Dorrough recently celebrated the CD’s release with a live set on Thacker Mountain Radio, in Oxford, Miss. The highlight was a cover of “They Say that Heaven is Ten Million Miles Away” by Stevie Wonder. Massengale introduced the song as a tribute to Charlie Jacobs. Dorrough and Massengale had sung it at Jacobs’ funeral and their re-creation before a spellbound audience was inspired.

Still, a CD of rocking spirituals might be considered a tough sell. How does Massengale hope to avoid his excavation of obscure gems becoming a lost gem itself?

"Christianity has been misrepresented," he says with sad conviction, "and in some ways, has gotten a deserved bad rap. The spirit of Jesus Christ can be conveyed in a way that is free from all that. I want to get away from what’s bad about church and get towards what’s good about God. If you can get it across in a form that is palatable to people through something like roots music, they don’t feel bad about considering spiritual matters."

Amen, brother. May the Holy Rollers rock on.


Photos courtesey of Jim Dees & Duff Dorrough