The Glory Road
||"I Do Believe"
||"I Was There When It Happened"
If you're keeping a scorecard here, mark this the fifth release
from the wonderful reissue label The Numero Group, the inventive
and knowledgeable curators who recently gave us the two Eccentric
Soul comps, Yellow Pills power-pop compilation, and
Antena's 1981 electro-samba masterpiece. Fern Jones' album marks
ANOTHER new direction for the label, this time reaching back to
the late-1950s, and the singular, soulful, and surprising rockabilly
gospel hybrid that was Fern Jones. Jones was a poor young southern
girl and a talented guitarist and singer in love with the pop
of Bing Crosby and the Ink Spots, as well as the raw blues and
R&B that was featured in the honky-tonks around El Dorado,
AK, when at 16 she married a short-order cook named Raymond Jones.
Ray soon heard the calling to preach, and Fern and Ray's lives
would be forever changed as they heeded the Lord's call.
But as Ray pulled Fern from the roadhouse, Fern pulled him from
the settled church-life, and implored him to take their message
to the people on the Pentecostal tent-revival circuit. Their ambitions
were modest, touring the south for years in small-time tent revivals,
preaching and bringing the Lord's song to gatherings of a few
hundred or maybe a few thousand souls. As Ray would rise at dawn
to read the scriptures, he would often cross paths with Fern,
just off to bed after a long night singing and strumming and laboriously
writing original spirituals for her show. Fern recorded and self-released
an album of mostly original tracks that the couple sold out of
their trunk throughout the south. When Grand Old Opry star and
ex-Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis had a hit with her "I
Was There When It Happened" (Jones sold him the rights to
the song, and in the custom of the time, he claimed half of the
songwriting credit), and soon after Johnny Cash included the track
on his debut Sun LP, it seemed that Fern's star was on the rise.
The couple decided to give up the life of preaching, hoping they
could make more of an impact with Fern's powerful songwriting
and earthy, emotional and utterly laid-back singing style, and
they settled in California to focus on her recording and touring
Fern released one sole "professional" album, Sing
A Happy Song, on Dot Records in 1959, produced by Mac Wiseman
(a veteran of Bill Monroe's band), and featuring the best of the
Nashville studio scene, including Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland,
Floyd Cramer, Joe Zinkan and Buddy Harman (all fresh from studio
sessions with Elvis). The album, included here in its entirety,
sounds as fresh and beautiful as a Sunday morning, but retains
a raw emotion and love of life that speaks of Saturday nights.
Of course this mix of country-gospel-rockabilly-blues, so fresh
and honest to our ears today, likely was a shock to both gospel
and pop fans at the time, and after several lonely tours on the
theater circuit and typical label shenanigans and snafus, Fern
Jones quietly retired from professional music. We have the Numero
Group to thank for keeping her spirit and soul alive, and this
excellent collection, featuring stunning originals as well as
several wonderful traditional gospel numbers and soul-gospel treats,
all done in the inimitable Fern Jones style, is a treat from start
to finish. A welcome coda to a career that touched many lonely
souls, but was perhaps too artistically pure to reach the mainstream.