Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Song: Fern Jones

So why hasn’t anyone ever heard of Fern Jones? How is her record selling on Ebay for less than $15? How is it possible that rockabilly scholars can tell you every detail about the players on Fern’s album, but not a single thing about her? In what world can a musician be covered by Jimmie Davis, the Blackwood Brothers, Jimmy Swaggart, and even The Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash, and yet not register so much as a footnote in any history of country or gospel music?  How could something so wonderful be so impossibly obscure?
     - liner notes to The Glory Road reissue by Numero Group

In 1958 Fern Jones recorded her only proper album, Singing A Happy Song, with an elite group of Nashville studio musicians who had just put to tape a session with Elvis Presley. It's hard to imagine without listening: how her music makes that jaw-dropping bridge between the swagger of Presley and convictions of an evangelical life. Here's Steve Klinge writing in the 2009 Oxford American Annual Southern Music Issue on Fern Jones:
And her talent was prodigious: She had a voice built to reach three thousand people in a hot tent, to command attention and to attest with conviction; powerful, swinging, and rocking. It's the rocking that surprises now, half a century after her album came out. She's a rockabilly Patsy Cline, a gospel Wanda Jackson, a female Elvis Presley, although she was about a decade older than each of them, and honed her style before they popularized theirs. Neither an influence nor a descendant, she's a forgotten peer.

Fern and Ray Jones, with their two children, spent the '40s and '50s traveling the Deep South as evangelists, settling down occasionally to pioneer new church communities, often hosting religious radio shows. Ray would preach to the crowd, then sing with Fern, accom­panying her on rhythm guitar and high-lonesome backing vocals, usually joined by pickup bands with pedal-steel, slap bass, sometimes horns. Fern was the attractive honky-tonk angel with the earthy voice of a sinner saved: hard, loud, gritty, sexy. A voice made for tents, not churches—at least not white ones. According to their daughter, Anita Faye Garner, who grew up singing alongside her parents, Ray would introduce Fern by saying, "This is my angel with a golden voice, and she was sent by God to sing this way."
Anita Faye Garner edits The Glory Road site to honor her mother's work and spread the message--it's an excellent introduction, complete with a great deal of contextual information and links. More information on the exhaustively-researched Numero Group reissue of Mrs. Jones's work can be found here.