Worldwide, gospel is among the most diverse and far-reaching styles of music. North Carolina is a fertile field in which many forms of gospel music, both traditional and contemporary, have thrived. Gospel music in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains encompasses a wealth of traditions. These forms share origins in old community singing traditions (such as shaped-note singing) and in deep-rooted forms of quartet harmony.
Styles of gospel found in the North Carolina mountains and foothills include:
- Cherokee gospel. On the Cherokee tribal lands of the Qualla Boundary, and in the Snowbird Community near Robbinsville, gospel singing is a cherished heritage. Congregational singing is carried on, as well as smaller-group multi-part harmony singing, such as that performed by the Welch Family, who alternate verses in English and Cherokee. At the annual Fading Voices Festival in the Snowbird Community, gospel singers from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians perform and host Native American singers from other states in an event not to be missed by lovers of traditional gospel music.
- Bluegrass gospel. Ever since the earliest days of bluegrass, gospel songs have been at the heart of the style. Tight multi-part harmonies are drawn from the quartet forms that were popular among Southerners of all races in the early twentieth century. In bluegrass, gospel singing is often a capella (sung without instruments), and at other times is accompanied by full-band instrumentals. Cherokee, North Carolina native Clyde Moody played guitar and sang on the Blue Grass Boys’ first records in 1940, including their first gospel recording, “Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord.” Since that time North Carolina bluegrass musicians have continued singing gospel songs as a staple of their repertoire. Today, North Carolina bluegrass veterans like Mount Airy’s Easter Brothers perform traditional gospel music, as do younger-generation bands like Balsam Range and Mountain Faith. In the North Carolina mountains and foothills there is also a strong kinship between bluegrass and Southern gospel singing (see below), and many artists perform both styles.
- Southern gospel. Though the phrase “Southern gospel” could be used to describe a wide array of musical styles and artists, it most often refers to a very specific tradition, one that has deep roots in the North Carolina mountains. Growing out of popular early-1900s methods of small-group gospel harmony, Southern gospel music today is often referred to as “quartet singing,” regardless of the number of voices engaged. (African American quartet singing, a tradition closely related to, but different from, “Southern gospel,” also has a very rich heritage in North Carolina, particularly in the eastern half of the state. North Carolina singers have played very important roles in the development of the Southern gospel genre—especially The Inspirations, The Primitive Quartet, and members of the Easter family. Every year, The Inspirations host a large festival of Southern gospel music, Singing in the Smokies, in their home of Bryson City.
Visit the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area’s Traditional Artist Directory to learn more about North Carolina mountain artists who have helped shape the world of gospel music.