For his next trick, Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess chief Bruce Watson got religion. Literally.
With the Bible & Tire Recording Company — whose new video for “I’m Trying to Go Home” from the Sensational Barnes Brothers is premiering below — Watson is shining a light on Memphis gospel music, including other acts such as Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls and the Dedicated Men of Zion. If all goes according to plan, Bible & Tire will, like Fat Possum before it, introduce a contemporary audience to a rich music form that’s still potent despite mainstream neglect.
“Gospel’s in everything,” Watson — whose father was a Church of Christ preacher and who still considers himself “a believer” but not a regular churchgoer — tells Billboard. “To me there’s no reason these recordings can’t appeal to the same audience as we have for (Fat Possum and Big Legal Mess). I feel like the same audience that loves country, soul, rock and hip-hop would be attracted to it. It just needs to be approached in a different manner.”
Primarily, Watson explains, that means taking the music into new and different venues. “A lot of gospel’s suck in church,” he says. “I basically want to take gospel out of the church and take it into clubs and concert halls. I think it can work. Look at modern gospel music; The Barnes Brothers sounds more like a gospel record that was made in the late ’60s or early ’70s. I just want to make gospel records that sound like those gospel records I like to find in junk stores or record stores. There were so many gospel groups out there it’s ridiculous.”
The idea of a gospel label came to Watson as he was moving his operations from Mississippi, first with a vinyl pressing plant and then moving his labels — which had acquired the catalogs of Memphis imprints such as Hi and Designer records. Then Watson set his sights on the D-Vine Spirituals label — which released Elizabeth King’s records during the 70s — and became friendly with its founder, Pastor Juan Shipp. “He was like, ‘I won’t sell it to you, but I will sell you 50 percent and we’ll become partners,'” Watson recalls. He was at the time looking to start another, Memphis-centric label, but “I didn’t want to do garage (rock). The blues things had been done to death. The soul thing is there and people were already doing that. So why not go down the gospel path and see what happens?”
Watson found his contemporary flag bearers for Bible & Tire when he met the Barnes Brothers, Courtney and Chris (Watson added the Sensational), when they played on Hi Records mainstay Don Bryant’s 2017 album Don’t Give Up on Love. Their Nobody’s Fault But My Own, released in September, marked the formal launch of the label. “It’s kind of fate it happened that way,” Watson says. “I didn’t really start out trying to start a gospel label. It seemed like everything went that way, very natural.”
Bible & Tire’s next release will be from the Dedicated Men of Zion, most likely in April, with something new from King in early summer and an album from Memphis’ Elder Ward also on the horizon. “I don’t kid myself that I’m gonna set the world on fire selling a ton of obscure gospel records,” Watson acknowledges, but he’s optimistic about landing sync rights. And he fully plans to fulfill his mission of giving gospel a stage outside of the church confines.
“The trick with these guys is to get them out on the road touring; If I can’t do that it’s probably not going to work,” Watson says. “Elizabeth King has been to France, and I’ve got some booking agents there interested in bringing the Barnes Brothers over. I’d like some kind of package tour at some point in the fall, get everyone together in a van and tour. We did that with the blues guys back in the day at Fat Possum. It’s all about taking it to the people. We know that can work.”