“Then I ask him if he would do me a favor… / when he get to heaven / will you shake my mother’s hand?” Traditional southern gospel music possesses a haunting, yearning quality, something few (if any) other genres can match. On Panola County Spirit, the Walker Family Singers of Como, Mississippi, recreate spirituals and songs of old, many of which would be considered rarities, particularly in the age of contemporary gospel with its slick, flawless production. Here, instrumentation is minimal, with the majority of these traditional songs sung a cappella or merely accompanied by foot stomping with backing vocals to fill the void of instrumentation. The result is something with more character, memorability, and artistry than music more elaborately assembled. Engineer and producer Michael Reilly coupled with the Walker Family assembles something truly special.
Comprised of 17 tracks, Panola County Spirit introduces and reintroduces traditions, taking the audience back to simpler, more innocent times. Hums, grit, lyrical repetition and perfectly ‘imperfect’ nuances establish the script. The LP opens with “The Lord Is Blessing”, easily the set’s least-obscure selection. Compared to interpretations of popular gospel selections these days, “The Lord Is Blessing Me” is slower, impacting the soul with both reverence and grit. Other popular traditional songs like “Jesus Walk with Me” and “Old Ship of Zion” provide familiarity, at least to listeners familiar with the southern gospel idiom.
“The Lord Is Blessing Me” sets the tone for numerous brief, minimalist gems including “Jesus Gave Me Water” and the “My Time Will Come”. Both thrive off of repetition and ambiance without necessarily being representative of the ‘standouts’ of Panola County Spirit. That considered, there are some clear-cut moments of perfection. “Had My Chance” is a home run, clearly constructing a snapshot of the African American worship experience of the past, finding solace in God. Similarly, the magnificent “Make Me Real” is the set’s valedictory moment, finding singer Patricia Walker nailing it note for note, nuance for nuance. “Make Me Real” feels like the invitation to Christian discipleship, with Patricia confirming and strengthening her own relationship with God.
The excellence continues throughout Panola County Spirit. The various solo voices on “Leave the Liar Alone” are all diverse, but that’s part of the beauty. While age shows notably from the two elders’ perspective, it also shows the natural, legitimately human nature of the music—it’s real. Another highlight is penultimate number “Shake My Mother’s Hand”, from which the opening lyric hails. The song serves as the affirmation of walking the Christian journey, with the ultimate reward upon death being Heaven. The album concludes powerfully with call-and-response song “He Didn’t Have to Wake Me”, characterized by commanding lead vocals and repetitive, spiritually rousing backup vocals by the family.
Ultimately, what makes Panola County Spirit exceptional is its indisputable authenticity. While the album has its musical imperfections, whether it’s pitch or timing (it’s not flawless compared to a classical performance per se), it’s those imperfections and rawness that make it superb through and through. Panola County Spirit perfectly captures traditional gospel music and the character of their performances. The Walker Family are torchbearers—they masterfully preserve the music without question.