by Michael Corcoran –
I had only come into the gospel tent of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2005 to escape the 100+ degree heat. The program said that a group from Bay City, Texas called the Jones Family Singers had just come onstage. An older gentleman with a James Brown step to his drawl introduced the group as his five daughters, two sons and a grandson, and for the next hour I was transfixed. They were a forest of soul with a live volcano in the middle, and when Alexis Jones reared back and erupted with all the passion a voice could hold, I felt as if I was watching the Staples Singers or the Caravans with Shirley Caesar in the 1960s. In an era when popular religious music often sounds like reworded Mariah Carey songs, this family band took it back to the days when the meaningful songs of praise were the galvanizing soundtrack to a struggle against oppression. The Jones Family Singers torched the groove fields of ACL like it was gospel night at the Apollo.
When the Jones Family played South by Southwest the next year they had rock critics wondering how religious music could pound their favorite guitar bands and hip-hop crews into the dust. Good black gospel, the original soul music, is sound’s highest power. Get past the lyrics and you’ll hear all the passion, all the love, all the supernatural talent that screams out the existence of God, if only for five minutes at a time.
In the past 10 years, I’ve seen the Jones Family Singers maybe 40 times in all sorts of settings and have never been disappointed. These women who work fixing hair or in child care jobs became my Pentecostal Phish and I’d drive hours to see them because they had something I needed. Sometimes the crowd got into it and sometimes they didn’t know what to make of all that preaching. But there’s not been a time I’ve seen the Jones Family where they looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. Or a time when I didn’t walk away feeling a little more alive.
Gospel is freedom music, evolved from the songs the original African Americans would sing in the fields of the antebellum south to soothe their souls. While they couldn’t sing openly about their own desire to be free, the slaves could rejoice in the story of Exodus, when the children of Israel yearned to be liberated from bondage. When slaves sang “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land/ Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go,” they did so with a vigor that suggests a deep connection between heavenly salvation and earthly freedom. Those who embraced Christianity were told that great rewards awaited believers who endured great tribulations.
Raised by a father whose life was forever changed after hearing a record by the Mighty Clouds of Joy in the late ‘50s, the seven brothers and sisters of the JFS were born into gospel music the way a Kennedy is born into politics. Their first family group was the Sensational Zionaires, named after the patriarch’s Mount Zion COGIC. When Fred Sr. married Lady Sarah more than 40 years ago, she had four children from two previous marriages- daughters Ernestine, Sabrina and Velma and son Kenny. Fred Sr. is the father of Theresa, Alexis and Fred Jr.
As the teenaged Sensational Zionaires, the Jones family played churches in and around Houston beginning in the late ‘80s, but wanting to separate itself from all the other Zionaires in the gospel field, they soon became the Jones Family Singers. That was in 1998, when Alexis, now 37, was 21. Toiling without complaint in faith that God’s plans for them will finally catch up to the talent onstage, the Jones Family Singers exemplify the anonymity that makes the history of gospel so fascinating. The enthusiast becomes a prospector for golden echoes.
Jones Family Singers with legendary musician Leon Russell (middle) and writer Michael Corcoran (third from right) in Austin, March-16-2015 at SXSW Film Festival
The thing that frustrated me about many of the magical JFS performances I’d seen since 2005 is that there was no record of this family getting completely lost in the music, aside from some shaky footage the Bishop would capture on his phone and post to YouTube. I was determined to get someone to film the Jones Family’s SXSW showcase in 2012, so I asked filmmaker Alan Berg (“Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW”) if he knew any film students who might want to make a documentary about gospel music for a school project. Instead, Berg sent a small crew from his Arts & Labor production company and sat in the audience with his wife Kristin. The Bergs were impressed, especially after meeting the family, who are always laughing, always smiling, and you just can’t help being wrapped in that warmth of family love. Berg decided to make a documentary about the struggles and triumphs of the Jones Family and sent a bigger crew to Bay City to capture the family at home.
There was Alexis Jones, a world class soul singer, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of her parents’ modest house. There were stories of divorce, the street life, mental illness, poverty, church politics. A real family going through tough times and living for those hours of playing music together. The documentary „The Jones Family Will Make a Way“ was accepted to the prestigious SXSW Film Festival and premiered in March at the Paramount Theatre to a standing ovation. The hard-working, house-wrecking gospel group’s time has finally come, as evidenced by the film’s climax, when the group played a triumphant set at Lincoln Center in New York City in July 2014. They’ll make their European debut at the moers festival on May 22nd. They didn’t give up when common sense told them to because the Lord told them to keep doing what He put them here for.