Mike Rimmer went to Nashville to meet a brilliant custodian of the gospel blues tradition, GYPSY CARNS.
Despite the wrong-headed insistence of music historians and sometimes blues singers themselves that "the blues is the Devil's music," there's plenty of evidence that the contrary is true. The Church had a powerful influence on the development of this unique African American music form and by the time recording began in the 1920s, blues giants like Charlie Patton and Big Bill Broonzy included gospel songs in their repertoire while a whole heap of blues gospel "guitar evangelists" like Blind Willie Johnson and Rev Gary Davis were demonstrating that far from being a musical form only suitable for ribald celebrations of sex, bad times and hard liquor it could also be a hugely powerful music vehicle to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. With the birth of Jesus music in the late '60s, gospel blues got a new shot in the arm from newly-converted ex-hippies. Darrell Mansfield and Glenn Kaiser both went on to record superlative gospel blues recordings and though the earthy, gutsy sounds of 12 and 16 bar blues can sound like an alien anachronism to those only attuned to the slick, conveyer-belt outpourings of Nashville CCM, the blues' ability to connect with blue collars and college grads alike mean that the powerful ministries of Bible teachers and blues musicians like Tony Loeffler and Jimmie Bratcher continue to bear fruit. But possibly the best and certainly one of the most colourful exponents of sanctified blues is a guitar-toting pastor called Gypsy Carns. His latest album 'Gospel Train Coming' is a revolutionary overhaul of classic blues songs from way back and ably demonstrates Gypsy's building foundation - shifting vocals and torridly turbulent guitar licks.
General Gypsy Carns has been making music since he started sneaking into bars in the early '60s! These days he's a grey bearded motor cycle riding blues preacher. But he can still recall his early years when as a young boy he dreamed of making music. For five decades he's been playing in bands and sporadically recording. "I recorded my first stuff in '66," he recalls, "and then just never stopped. '70s, I made records and toured and stuff. '80's, made records and toured and stuff and in the 90s, made records and didn't do a lot of touring."
But everything changed for Carns in the '90s. He remembers, "I was living in LA in January '94. The Holy Spirit had been speaking to me for a year or two to dedicate my life and give the party life up and use my music as a medium for the message. I half-heartedly did that. I made a record in '93 for an Italian blues label and had a couple of love songs on there like a lot of people write, that could be a boy-girl or it could be a God thing. So I didn't really give it up. I went to bed one morning about 2:30am and about 4:30am was thrown out of bed by a violent earthquake. It shook and shook and shook. It was the North Ridge Quake. I was living in Hollywood and I really thought I was going to die. I could hear the buildings bending and creaking and people screaming. It lasted and lasted and lasted. And then I started seeing my life go before me and I thought, 'Oh my God I'm gonna die! I'm really gonna die!' I saw myself at five, 10, 15, 20 and so on. I thought, God, I'm never gonna see Caroline again! (Caroline is now his wife.) I screamed to God, 'HEY! SAVE ME GOD!' And it stopped.! Just like that. And it was dead quiet. And I knew, alright, he saved me to do this music thing. And that's what did it."
Pretty dramatic, you have to admit! But did his life change straight away? Carns is honest in his response. "I was moving back to Nashville in a couple of weeks so I moved back to Nashville. And you know how we are, I soon forgot. I slipped back into partying again for several months and then it was like, 'Alright, it's time. Stop all this BS, let's go!' So by '95 I was clean sober, officially saved and joined a church and got into the body of Christ. That's when I really became serious about my life as a Christian and in particular my music. I started writing songs and started recording. I made a record a year but it was five records before I really got a deal."
He's equally honest when describing his life before he met Christ. "I was worldly and wild," he admits. "Everything went, coke, girls, pot, booze, party, play. I pissed away my career, like a lot of people have. If I hadn't had that lifestyle, I would have been focussed on the music rather than having a good time and not thinking about the future. You know, we made good music and played hard and did all that but, to what end? You know? There was no purpose. So once I was saved and dedicated my life and my music to God, to Yaweh, it took about five years to find my niche musically and who I was in Christ, what was my purpose. It didn't just happen. But now I'm a cult favourite at 56 and I'm very happy!"
He laughs and his clear eyes sparkle. He is one of the youngest 56 year olds I've ever met! I first came across Gypsy when I reviewed his 'Gforce' and 'Revelation Blues' albums. Since he was resident in Nashville and I was visiting, we hooked up and now every time I go to the city, it's Gypsy's smiling face that greets me at the airport!
I love to tease Gypsy that his wife Caroline is way out of his league. Caroline Carns is well educated, an English rose and a former dancer. In the '70s she was briefly a member of Pan's People and subsequently starred in the Benny Hill Show. These days she lives a quieter life working for a local law firm, having given up the entertainment business. The couple have been married for 10 years and are active in a local church. She was the reason that Gypsy moved from Hollywood to Nashville.
In his new city, Gypsy's new musical purpose also included a change in direction for his music. "Being a blues man, I wasn't aware of any Christian blues. Obviously it was going on - Glenn Kaiser and Darrell Mansfield and those guys had been leading the charge there. I quietly just went about developing my own brand of what I call 'Messianic Blues'. You call it 'apocalyptic' and they're both correct for what I do."
It's April 2003 and I am in Memphis, visiting for a few days and ministering in a church. A few days earlier I'd met Gypsy for the first time and invited them to visit the church in Memphis where I'll be preaching where I want Gypsy to sing a couple of songs in the service the next morning. It's a sunny afternoon and I'm in Ardent studios visiting Skillet while they record there. Gypsy and Caroline arrive and have a tour of the studios before we all decamp to a friend's house for what they call a "cook out". We English call it a barbecue. Church folks mill around filling their plates. Children run and play and as the sun sets, Gypsy gets out his guitar and plays a few songs sitting on the wooden deck at the back of the house. There's something perfect about the Tennessee setting, the sunset and this authentic blues music. It was on this trip that Gypsy gave me the nickname Memphis Mike! Perhaps I need to start singing the blues.
His most recent album, 'Gospel Train Coming', reveals Carns as the blues preacher that he really is! He's always been comfortable as a wandering solo performer playing a dobro, stamping on his stomp box, blowing his harp and singing his raw, powerful blues. His albums have run through the whole gamut of blues influences and have always been pretty electric. This new one sees a slightly softer side come out. "It's more laid back," he confesses. "It's totally acoustic. No dobros plugged through the amp, no stomp box. Only one track has harmonica on it. I recorded most of the songs on two silver-toned guitars from the '40s, which are the actual stuff those guys used. We recorded in one room. One mic, one take, no flash. The Spirit was there. I rehearsed a lot like I always do and went in and did it in one day - December 23rd, 2005."
At this point, I have to hold my hand up and admit to a role in the inspiration for Gypsy's latest release. A while ago Tony Cummings gave me a box set of music from legendary American blues preachers to review. I was totally inspired by what I heard on these old recordings and immediately thought of Gypsy. I tracked down a copy on Ebay and sent him a copy as a gift just because I thought he'd enjoy it. I didn't realise that it would influence his next recordings! Gypsy remembers, "It was a five-CD set. I just listened to it and absorbed it and two songs really stood out for me. 'Gospel Train Coming', which is the title, and 'Your Enemy Cannot Harm You' by Reverend Edward W Clayborn from 1927. He evidently had got stepped on by one of his friends really bad because a lot of his songs were about friends going wrong and friendship gone bad and that sort of thing."
Gypsy's own relationship with the blues began as a young boy in the '50s. He remembers, "I was five and I lived in Anniston, Alabama. I was born in Arkansas and moved to Alabama. I used to stay up late when I got a transistor radio when they first came out in the '50s, and listen to WLAC, which was in Nashville, a few hundred miles away. They played a lot of rhythm and blues and blues. Did I understand at five years old? I don't know. But that kind of made a pattern on my soul; the style and the emotion. The real life of what the blues are. Of course in the '60s I got away from that and played rock. I'm a rock guy too. I can rock! I CAN RAWK! I bring that edge to the blues. I played rock in the '60s and '70s and the '80s. It wasn't until the '90s that I really got back into the blues. Even when I was saved and started making records, they weren't blues, they were rock. That five-year period, I sort of just moved into the blues and started feelin' it. The Spirit led me there. It was like, 'You're not quite there Gyp! You gotta keep workin' at it and it ain't rock boy, it's blues!' So once I understood that I really went back in depth and listened and learned and went to school for the blues in '97, '98, '99. I'm always, when I'm travelling, looking for new records and listening and learning."
And now that he's in his mid-50s, what better music to make than the blues! He's got white hair, a long white beard so he isn't going to be a pop star! Some people might be surprised to find that 'Gospel Train Coming' was all recorded in one day. "That's the way they used to do it. That's the way I always do it! Every album I've made I've done in one day in one city. Stomp box or whatever. I usually fast two or three days before and get my mind right. Get in there. Clean studio. Say prayers. Set up. Get a sound. Take a deep breath and go! And by the end of the day it's done. Then you gotta mix, master and do all that. But the actual process I do in one day."
When Gypsy tells me about his hell raising days, I always find it hard to believe because he's one of the gentlest, most humble men I've met. As someone who's been on the receiving end of his hospitality, he's also one of the most generous. He's more likely to give somebody a copy of his album than try and sell it to them. He laughs, "At gigs, I just bring a box up and say, 'Hey, if you like it, take it! Write me on the website. If you want a copy I'll mail it to you.' Pay for the postage myself." It's almost as if he uses his CDs as gospel tracts to share his faith with others. "I can do that," he says, "because I make money from another source. For me it's not about selling records, it's about spreading the Word of Christ."
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