The Sensational Barnes Brothers – An Introduction Alex Greene
For Chris and Courtney Barnes — aka The Sensational Barnes Brothers — old school gospel comes as naturally as falling rain. They’ve sung together all their lives, but with their new eponymous debut album, the first release of the Bible and Tire Recording Co. label, things are clicking for the duo like never before.
Produced by Bruce Watson of Bible and Tire Recording Co./Big Legal Mess Records at Delta-Sonic Studios in Memphis, all of the songs on the record were chosen from the oft-forgotten 1970s catalog of the Designer Records label. This deep well of material will be featured more in future releases by Bible and Tire, created to spotlight the rich, living traditions of raw Southern gospel. For now, the Designer catalog is made new by the unique chemistry of this brother team. Along the way, they’re joined by a cast of tastefully gritty players like Will Sexton, Jimbo Mathus, and George Sluppick, not to mention Chris and Courtney’s brother Calvin, all of whom bring the tough soul-stomping sound of Memphis into the current era.
And for the Sensational Barnes Brothers, the new album also expresses an unbreakable bond with the past: their own father, Calvin “Duke” Barnes. The one song he guests on could well have been written by the Barnes family themselves. For there, in a nutshell, are all the bonds that hold them close.
“Son, just keep on, keep doing what you’re doing. Let it be good,” sings the father on one track, and his grown boys, standing close by, echo his words. “Let it be good.”
Chris Barnes was a little stunned to hear the song as they combed through hundreds of Designer tracks with Watson one day. “We were listening to the song and the guy on the recording sounded just like my daddy. I was like, ‘We gotta do this song!’ And the message really stuck out to us.”
“You can hear all the conversations he used to have with you through that one piece of music,” adds brother Courtney. It’s a poignant moment, for only three months after the brothers invited him to sing on their album, Duke Barnes passed away.
“You’re always counting your days, learning how to number your days,” reflects Courtney. “Count it all joy, and we’re thankful for the life that he lived and that he gave.”
And give he did, as Duke made his way through the world with his beloved wife Deborah. She was the daughter of Rev. James L. Gleese, and music came to her even more naturally. Yet though she had studied piano and voice diligently, she wasn’t prepared when the phone rang in the Gleese household one day. “Hello, this is Ray Charles,” said the voice on the line. She answered the call and for a time became a Raelette, one of the background singers for the genius of soul, before love, marriage and children demanded that she leave the touring life behind.
But that didn’t stop her from counting it all joy. Indeed, Duke and Deborah Barnes became a sought-after duo around Memphis, especially in the Seventh Day Adventist community, singing at concerts, church events and weddings. Over the years, flowers blossomed in their garden, by the name of Calvin, Jr., Chris, and Carla. “And I was the one who came regardless,” laughs Courtney. “Up there it was like, ‘Y’all gonna keep acting like you’re acting, I’m gonna send somebody!’”
By the 1990s, the four youngsters, their diverse musical talents steadily encouraged and coached by the parents, were assembled into a performing group known as Joy. “We performed a lot,” recalls Courtney. “My mom and dad would sing first, and we would be the background. Then in the next set it flipped over to where the children would do our thing, and that would be the Barnes Family concert.”
The family carried on as musical collaborators for years. Indeed, they still play and sing together, even with their father gone. “Eventually we let the name Joy go,” says Courtney. “We started singing together as just the Barnes Family. And in 2015 we released an album, Family Tree, with the four of us and Calvin’s wife Mischa. Now Chris and I are doing the Sensational Barnes Brothers as a duo, and I really enjoy it! But we’ve always sung together. We’ve been a part of different groups and played in different bands — just a lot of different connections and entities.”
This is an understatement. Chris and Courtney, on drums, percussion, and vocals, also front Black Cream, which is reinventing the classic power trio sound in a very funky Memphis style. Chris also sings background vocals for former Bar-Kays singer Larry Dodson, and Calvin, Jr., for his part, is a gifted instrumentalist, singer, and producer. Sister Carla, the only sibling to have left Memphis, still sings. Music is clearly a family calling.
And now, as the Sensational Barnes Brothers, they are bringing it all back home to music they grew up with. Says Courtney, “This new record is more edgy. Our parents taught us how to harmonize, to be more controlled. So this record opens us up. It’s more raw. I’m usually not a squaller, unless I’m excited.” It’s hard to believe when you hear uptempo rockers like “I Made It Over” or the horn-driven “I’m Trying to Go Home,” even when the impassioned singing is echoed with honeyed background harmonies augmented by Liz Brasher and longtime Barnes friend Billy Thompson III.
Notes Chris, “It allowed us to step outside of ourselves, with this free flowing, rugged, edgy kind of music. It’s gospel, but it’s not necessarily for just a Christian audience even. You can sing this at festivals and parks, anywhere. And this type of gospel for us was natural, because we heard this music growing up.That’s what made it so fun, being able to mimic what we heard back in the day and bring it to life.”
Courtney chimes in, “Even today in our church. You got older people there, and they go into some stuff where only the organist or the piano player know it. And yet even then, it’s dancing music.” And so, inspired by their shared past, fueled by harmonies that resonate with both their blood and their kindred souls, the brothers see themselves singing, playing, and dancing for a long time coming.