“This music, when you listen to it, you can’t help but tap your foot. You can’t help but feel good.”
Bruce Watson is the general manager of Mississippi record label, Fat Possum, as well as Big Legal Mess Records. Courtney Marie Andrews, A.A. Bondy, Jimbo Mathus, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Alex Rose are just some of the artists on the labels, as well as legacy recordings by the likes of R.L. Burnside, Fred McDowell and Junior Kimbrough.
A recording engineer and producer, Watson is steeped in roots music and, along with Matthew Johnson, he’s worked at Fat Possum to acquire an impressive back catalogue of music, including material from Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Townes Van Zandt.
In his mid-50s, Bruce Watson is pressing on with a major new project. He wants to introduce an Americana audience to black gospel music. To do so, he’s established a new label, called Bible and Tire, which seeks to promote both older artists and new ones, all the while breathing new life into the genre.
We got chatting to Bruce to find out what it’s all about:
Gary So I wondered if you could maybe just tell us a little bit about Bible and Tire and how it’s different from Fat Possum. What does it aim to do?
Photo: Jim Weber
Bruce Well, I guess it started when I moved to Memphis four or five years ago. We were opening up a vinyl manufacturing plant and I bought a 150-year-old building and put an office and a recording studio in it. And I kind of looked around and thought, what am I going to do here that’s different? Now we’ve done the blues thing. There are plenty people doing kind of a neo-soul kind of thing. And hip hop is really not in my wheelhouse. Modern country, I don’t really care for too much, and the garage rock thing was being done by Goner Records.
So, I just kind of looked around and I started noticing how much talent there was in the gospel community around Memphis. About the same time, I was fortunate enough to buy the masters to the D-Vine Spirituals catalogue. We’d been buying gospel masters was for a while – we had acquired the rights to Designer Records probably about 10 years ago and did a box set on that some years ago. And then we released the Pitch / Gusman recordings from the stuff down in Georgia. And we did Bishop Manning and the Manning Family, we’ve done Theotis Taylor. So, there was quite a bit of gospel stuff here.
So anyway, I wanted to put together a label that was solely based on gospel. But there’s always confusion, when I say, oh, the name of my record company is Big Legal Mess! So I decided to come up with a label that’s a little more friendly, and with Bible in the name. And I wanted a label that was just solely releasing gospel music.
Gary So, where does the word Tire come in?
Bruce Well, it’s just like a play on words. It’s like something I saw one time on a roadside stop and it was always in the back of my mind. Bible and Tire, yeah, kind of like “retread your soul!”
The first two things I released were Elizabeth King, the reissue records from her D-Vine Spirituals stuff. And then I did the Sensational Barnes Brothers, who are younger guys from Memphis who I’d been using as back-up singers on a lot of stuff I was producing. They were really strong, with a gospel background. Their father was a well-known gospel singer in the city and their mother had been a background singer for Ray Charles, a Raelette.
Gary I’ve listened to their album, which is fantastic.
Bruce Yeah, man, they’re great. It seems like gospel music started changing in the late 70s and it became more modern in a way that it’s really easy to blame it on five string basses and synthesizers. But, you know, it was deeper than that. People were trying to keep up with the times. But the stuff that I record, I really try to take it back. So, if there’s gonna be an organ on it, it’s going to be a Hammond organ. It’s gonna be a Fender P bass. And we try to record it so it sounds like it was recorded in the 60s or 70s.
And sometimes that means me using my own group of studio musicians like we do on the Barnes Brothers. And the Barnes Brothers is all songs from the Designer Records catalogue.
So the next thing I did, which is coming out the end of April, is the Dedicated Men of Zion, from Greenville, North Carolina. They’re amazing. But instead of the Designer catalogue, we use songs from The D-Vine Spirituals catalogue. They came down and made a record with my band in Memphis. So that’s the next release. And we’re also working on a full-length Elizabeth King. Oh, she’s still amazing after all these years. She sounds great. She’s getting close to 80 now and she’s got 13 or 14 kids, 30 or 40 grandkids, but she’s awesome. You know, she just toured France as a replacement with the Como Momas when one of them got sick. And that’s really the first time she’d been out of the United States. Anyway, we have high hopes for her.
We’re releasing a JCR Records compilation. JCR Records was the catalogue where Pastor Shipp said, well, if you’re not good enough to be on Divine Spiritual, I’m gonna put you on JCR. This is my favourite stuff. It’s really raw, it’s not right, it’s totally messed up. I love that kind of stuff. We’re calling it the “first shall be last and the last shall be first!”
So that’s coming out probably June, July. And then we have a D-Vine Spirituals boxset and documentary that is coming out hopefully in the Fall. It’ll all depend on how fast I can get the documentary finished. There’s a lot of things going on! I just got back from North Carolina and we set up a mobile recording studio in a small town called Fountain, and recorded eleven gospel groups in eight days. So, we’re doing a North Carolina Sacred Soul record compilation, and a documentary that goes along with that as well. And this stuff is so raw. It wasn’t recorded in a studio, it was recorded in a 100-year-old building. We just put some blankets up on the wall. But this stuff is amazing. There’s so much talent in that part of North Carolina, it’s ridiculous. So, we got a lot going on!
Gary Yeah, you sure have. And what is the audience that you think you are appealing to here, Bruce?
Bruce You know, that is the big question. I’d obviously like to appeal to a younger audience. What’s going to have to happen is these guys are going to have to get out on tour. We’re going to have to get this out of the church and into the rock clubs and into the theatres. You know, when we did Fat Possum in the early days, blues was pretty much stuck in the blues club. And we took guys like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough out on tour with Iggy Pop and Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion, the Beastie Boys. And that opened those guys up to an entirely new audience. So, with this stuff, too – take it out of church. And we’ve already started that. There’s a good quote in the recent Vice magazine article about us that said that gospel music is so deeply entwined with black music that there’s no reason that the same audience that goes for hip hop and rap and country can’t embrace this.
You see it on a much larger level with, you know, Kanye’s gospel records, regardless of what my opinion might be of that. I’m not crazy about it, but I’m glad.
Gary I mean there’s so many genres and subgenres of what you might call Americana these days, you got to think that if you can get the music out there, there’s going to be an audience for it.
Bruce That’s kind of what I’m hedging my bets on. Of course, the music’s got to be good. That’s a big right part of it. But I think we’re on the right track as far as that goes.
Gary So what would you say is the power of gospel music? Why has it got the potential of appealing to a wider audience beyond the church?
Bruce Well, man, I’m not particularly religious, let’s say that. But this music, when you listen to it, you can’t help but tap your foot. You can’t help but feel good. And I’ve always tried to work in music that moves me. There’s not a whole lot out there now that moves me. But this actually moves me. I’m really kind of doing something based on emotion. I always just follow the music. It moves me and I hope that will move other people.
Gary That’s a very refreshing thing to say, Bruce, in these days of spreadsheets and numbers and all of that.
Bruce Well, we’ve been fortunate to have been in business for 30 years, so we can kind of branch out and try to experiment. So it’s nice when we have the luxury to do that.
Gary When you talk about gospel music, you’re looking at a sort of 60s, 70s sound, but for for some of the artists you’ve talked about, for them, the Christian content, the lyrical content is very important. So how does that play out when you take it out of the church into the clubs and concert halls?
Bruce Honestly, so far we’ve only done two or three shows. But it’s been amazing, really. Because it’s something different. It’s not like your typical indie rock thing you can see almost every single night. It’s something different. And people will come out for that, especially if it’s raw and emotional. I just think it really hits a nerve.
Gary That’s very interesting. And I understand you have a collaborator in Pastor Juan Shipp. I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about him.
Bruce Pastor Shipp is Memphis born and bred. He was a postal employee, but he was also a part-time deejay and he saw the need for a Memphis gospel label. The honest truth is, he wasn’t very happy with the production aesthetic of Style Wooten who owned Designer Records. So Pastor Shipp started D-Vine Spirituals as a reaction to that. He founded a recording studio called Temple Recording Studio that was owned by a guy named Clyde Leopard, who was a Sun Studio artist and engineer, in downtown Memphis. It’s a studio you don’t hear much about, but all the D-Vine Spirituals stuff was recorded there.
Rev. J Shipp (Photo: Jim Weber)
Anyway, Clyde and Pastor Shipp became really good friends. And basically, Clyde taught Pastor Shipp how to record, so Pastor Shipp started the label. That was around 1968 until about 1977 or 78 and he released around 150 singles during that time. He eventually shut down the label in the late 70s and went on with his life.
Clyde Leopard had the master tapes. I found out about Pastor Shipp and D-Vine Spirituals from a friend of mine named Mike Hurtt who’s a collector and a writer. He wrote the liner notes to The Soul of Designer Records boxset for me. Mike found Pastor Shipp about seven or eight years ago and asked him about the masters. Well, Clyde Leopard had passed away and the bank was in the process of foreclosing on his house, but Mike and Pastor Shipp managed to get the master tapes and save them within 24 hours of the house being in the hands of the bank! Anyway, eventually after some years, I was given the tapes and I called Pastor Shipp and introduced myself.
We met, hit it off and worked out a deal, where I would be partners in D-Vine Spirituals and JCR. So then we started transferring all the tapes. We’d take two days a week and transfer a hundred fifty tapes. And the stuff is amazing. D-Vine Spirituals is one of those labels that you don’t really hear much about, only hardened gospel people know about it. But it really has some of the best stuff I’ve heard as far as black gospel is concerned from that period.
So you would listen to this stuff and go, oh, my goodness, I can’t believe no one’s ever done anything with this stuff! So anyway, Pastor Shipp and I became business partners. We put on a big show at Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, a night of Memphis soul gospel. And it was very successful, with about five or six hundred people turning up. People going crazy! We had the Barnes Brothers; we had four or five of the old D-Vine Spirituals artists who are still around. There was Elder Ward. Elizabeth King, the D-Vine Spiritualettes, and Reverend John Wilkins. It was a big night.
Gary John’s the son of Robert Wilkins, right?
Bruce He is. I made a record of him probably about ten or twelve years ago and he’s really good. It’s been a great partnership. He’s co-producing the new Elizabeth King record. And they go back for years, and he’s kind of acting as a manager for her right now.
Gary Now just to clarify, Bruce, obviously, there’s a whole genre of the blues that you might call gospel blues from Willie Johnson through to Robert Wilkins and, you know, right on through to potentially Kelly Joe Phelps today. Is that something that comes onto your radar with Bible and Tire or are you really just looking more at the 60s, 70s sort of gospel stuff?
Bruce I’m totally open. I haven’t found any good gospel blues that interest me. But I’m not limiting things. And if I find a great white gospel singer, I’m going to do that. To me, I always follow the music, But if it’s on Bible and Tire, it’s going to be gospel. If it’s good and I feel like I want to do it, I don’t really care what gospel genre.
Gary Very good. So tell me this then, Bruce, how do you manage to be the general manager of Fat Possum and then have the energy and the time to get a venture like this up and going? It sounds like quite an enterprise.
Bruce I’m still at Fat Possum. But as far as some of the day to day management, I’m not having to deal with that. I don’t have as many irons in the fire as I used to and my focus is really on this right now.
Gary Excellent. That’s fantastic, Bruce. I wish you all the best with it.