The Old-Time Herald Volume 12, Number 7

Ginny Hawker and the Sacred Soul of Country Music
Tracing the Sacred Roots of a Master Country Singer and Mountain Balladeer
By Peter Winne
Photo: George Touchstone

Ginny Hawker removes a CD from its case and loads it into a boombox. It’s a field recording of an Old Regular Baptist congregation in eastern Kentucky. What emerges from the speakers is a fine example of the “old way” of hymn-singing: unaccompanied, without harmony parts, and at times lined out by a song leader. Singers often add their own little ornaments, turns, and slides – flourishes Ginny’s husband Tracy Schwarz playfully calls putting some “possum fat” into the notes. When the hymn ends she takes the CD out, replaces it with a Patty Loveless album, and presses play. The music is secular and features a full country band, but there’s something about Loveless’ voice that bears an uncanny resemblance to the old Baptist hymn singing. Present are the same mournful slides and melismatic ornaments. Even the melody recalls the hymn. In other words, there’s possum fat in Patty Loveless’ voice.

Ginny later explains that Loveless grew up in a part of Kentucky with a strong Old Regular Baptist presence; hence, she would likely have been exposed to this music as a child. Further research reveals that Loveless’ grandfather was in fact an elder in his church, and some of her earliest memories of music are of lined-out, unaccompanied hymns. In other words, she got her start on Sunday morning before making it big onstage Saturday night – a progression that resembles the careers of so many American artists and a trend that has been well documented in popular media.

Looking at a timeline of American music genres reveals a similar progression from sacred to secular. You can hear the shouting style of Little Richard and other early rock-and-roll and R&B singers in the “hard” gospel style that preceded them in the ‘40s and ‘50s. You can find the high-energy rhythms of hard rock and upbeat soul in the ecstatic hand-clapping of the Holiness and Pentecostal churches. The multi-layered a capella harmonies of black gospel quartets gave rise to doo wop. Churches were the first to use the Hammond B3 organ, and now the B3 can be heard in just about any style of popular music.

Of course the story of how religious music helped give rise to commercial music has already been told many times. But what really struck me about the comparison Ginny drew between the Old Regular Baptist and Patty Loveless recordings was a finer, less explored point: the extent to which the church has served as a singing school of sorts for commercial artists. In the weeks following my visit with Ginny I’ve begun to see how a childhood spent singing in the church could help provide an artist with a range of vocal tools. The abilities to project, sing in tune, and harmonize, not to mention the intangibles – learning to connect with an audience, blend with other singers, and convey emotion – are all skills honed through congregational, choral, or small-group religious singing.

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