Monthly Archives: May 2011

Thomas Family serves up sweet gospel in Elgin, Texas

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The best music isn’t always found in night clubs or concert halls. Sometimes all you have to do is go to church.

The Thomas Family of Elgin, Texas is a perfect example. The group has been serving up great gospel music in church and in public for generations.

The family of musicians is an integral part of the service each Sunday at the Greater Mt. Vernon Zion Church. They also perform at benefit concerts and festivals such as Hogeye and Western Days.

Patriarch of the group is Monty Thomas. He is 66 and has been singing gospel for about 50 years. He plays guitar, bass guitar and steel guitar.

Although he is passionate about gospel music, Monty’s top priorities are his church and his family. “When I was in the Gospel Tones we would sing in Houston or Dallas and get back at 5 a.m. I was not able to go to church,” he said. “I am here with my family. We sing and worship together. Most gospel singers say they belong to a church and the church doesn’t even know who they are. I don’t sing for style or getting the money. If I made lots of money and no soul got anything out of it, I have not benefited at all.”

In addition to Monty, the Thomas Family’s musical contributions come from his wife Ivory (piano); daughters Barbara (organist), Denise, Deborah Edwards, Montie Franks, Gloria Hill (when she comes down from Dallas); grandsons Sterling Monty Thomas (drums) and Donavan Monty Thomas.

Ivory was already a musician when she and Monty met in high school. She has been playing piano in church since age 11.

Monty’s grandson Sterling, who will graduate from Elgin High School next week, plays drums in the EHS jazz band and will soon study sound engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos. His grandson Donavan, 12, also plays drums.

Drummers have a great advantage as singers, Monty said. “You’ve got to have good timing, a beat within yourself. A person that does not have timing can’t be a very good singer or musician.”

Barbara Thomas, who serves as organist for the group, also works as a DJ for KAZI 88.7 FM under the name “Pepper.”

Monty sang with the Taylor-based group, the Gospel Mourners in 1963. They still produce music, though only two of the original members are still living: Monty and R.L. Killingworth.

His second group was the Elgin-based Gospel Tones, from 1985 to 1995. In addition to Monty, the group featured Rev. Roy Rogers, Walter McDonald, Wayne Davis, Bobby Reed and the late Brother Aires.

Monty and Eugene Stark, husband of Rev. Bunnie Stark, are members of the Taylor Quartet Association. On the second Sunday night of each month, they travel to area churches like Hornsby Bend Church. Monty is also part of a group of musicians who provide backup for gospel groups who don’t use instruments.

Monty has an encyclopedic knowledge of gospel music. His favorites include the Dixie Hummingbirds (the group that sing backup on Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock”) and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Monty is also a big fan of the Soul Stirrers, a group made famous by member Sam Cooke – though he is quick to point out, Cooke didn’t “make their sound.” He was in and out of the group, which featured other great singers like Paul Foster. Two versions of the Soul Stirrers still perform, one based out of Chicago and one in San Antonio.

Although he’s a fan of the blues, Monty is a dedicated gospel player. He has been asked to play blues before, but refused. He says gospel music has challenges and advantages that blues doesn’t.

“You can take a blues singer and put ‘em in a gospel band and they don’t make it too well,” he said. “You never seen a gospel player look down at his guitar. When I play, I forget about my guitar and concentrate on my voice.”

Even some of the blues greats don’t have that skill, he said. “BB King, as good as he is, doesn’t sing and play at the same time. John Lee Hooker didn’t either.”

He reads music, but prefers not to except when he’s learning new songs. “Bass guitar and lead guitar, if you’re reading word for word it’s not gonna be as good. You’ve got to memorize and go according to the Spirit. We never sing our songs the same. We always do something different.”

Getting to know the music and singing from the heart is important for the congregation as well as the gospel singer, he said. “If you see a person singing and looking down at a book, very seldom he gets happy and shouts. The spirit can’t come in.”

The Greater Mt. Vernon Zion Church at 215 A Church Street will have a Homecoming celebration on the fourth Saturday in September and will receive a plaque commemorating the congregation as one of the oldest in Elgin.

Check out the Thomas Family’s music 

The Thomas Family has put out two CDs of their music, both released by Figment Studio in Austin: “There’s Not a Friend” and  “Hold On” — the second one has proven quite popular, said Monty. “This CD has been very good to us.” The family doesn’t market the albums, but they are available at shows. If you can’t make it to one of their shows, you can order a copy directly from Monty at (512) 281-3153.

Here are some freely downloadable songs, posted with permission:

“There’s Not a Friend”


07 – There’s Not a Friend

“Til We Meet”


15 – ‘Til We Meet

“Tell the Angels”


05 – Tell The Angels

Gospel Recommendations

Say you kind of like the sound of gospel, but your experience is limited. Maybe you’ve only heard a song or two from Aretha Franklin or caught a few verses of something while dialing through on the car radio; you liked what you heard but didn’t know where to go next. Monty Thomas has a few recommendations to get started down the gospel road.

Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers of Atlanta, Georgia

The Dixie Hummingbirds

The Soul Stirrers – Chicago version and San Antonio version. “The Soul Stirrers are still good,” he said. “There was a split years ago. The one in San Antonio has more volume. The one in Chicago is more traditional. You won’t catch them doing hip hop.”

The Sensational Nightengales of North Carolina.

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Attention graphic designers: Ain’t no saguaros in Texas!

Please stop doing this!

I was watching a TV show the other night that involved Texas. I was kind of getting into it when they went and committed one of my biggest pet peeves. They put up a little graphic of Texas and wouldn’t you know it had a dad gum saguaro cactus on it. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people do that. Usually it’s people who aren’t from here, but even people who grew up in Texas will put them on restaurant menus, signs and postcards. They never saw one except on Roadrunner cartoons, but I guess they figure it’s a big state, maybe if they had gone over the one last hill they would’ve seen saguaros. We have plenty of cactuses and other prickly things, but no saguaros. Sorry to disappoint.

Apparently I’m not the only Texan bothered by cacti confusion.

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Art wall at Sparky Park

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Recently discovered an interesting place in Austin, a pocket park known as Sparky Park, located at an abandoned power substation on Grooms Street, near 38th Street. The park features an an “art wall” that turns a utilitarian concrete wall around some electrical transformers, into something that is very cool, very Austin. Local artists took karst stone, mirror balls, fossils, bits of glass and other found objects, and made a sort of “grotto.” Check it out sometime. It’s easy to miss, but it’s worth looking for. Makes me happy to know they haven’t run the bohemians completely out of town.

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Coming soon: country blues, gospel music feature and an ‘angelic’ interview

Not necessarily in that order… Lots of good stuff coming up. It’s going to take me a while to digest it and put it together.

Just got through interviewing Monte Thomas of the Elgin, Texas gospel group the Thomas Family, I love the music I’ve heard from them so far. I’m working on a story for the local paper and I’ll blog them and put up some downloadable mp3s (with permission).

Tonight, I’m going to see a group called The Chubby Knuckle Choir, a group that has members from Elgin and Bastrop. I’ll be writing them up for the paper and this blog in the near future. I’ve heard a little of their music before, and I can’t describe it easily. Kind of a rootsy mixture of blues and country and maybe a bit of funk?

Then Sunday morning, I’m going to the Mt. Vernon-Zion AME Church to take a picture of the Thomas Family performing. That ought to be quite a segue from Saturday night.

I’ve also been editing an interview with Joanne Gabriel aka Caterwauler, one of my favorites from the old days at T61.

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Black Angels and the psych revival (Psych Fest 2011 wrap-up)

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Well, as they say, better late than never. I finally got a report on the Black Angels show at Psych Fest from concert buddy Chris Kinney. He’s been busy with his pool league. He was impressed with the Black Angels’ performance, and by the skill and grace they showed as hosts of the music festival held April 29-May 1, 2011 at Seaholm Power Plant in Austin. He didn’t write about them, but snapped a nice pic of a group that impressed him called Sound Mass, which played at the end of the last night. Like me, he was also totally blown away by the venue itself. It’s right in prime development territory, so there’s a danger  that cash-strapped Austin might sell it and let it be demolished and replaced by a high rise. I sure hope not. Let’s hope Seaholm becomes a fixture in the Austin live music scene.

Chris Kinney on The Black Angels:

My first sighting of Christian Bland, the lead singer of the Black Angels, in his nice little conductor’s hat, was directing security on how to deal with incoming musicians. Christian Bland was always there orchestrating the bands.

That is when I realized my excitement for the whole festival. Bands were already playing and everyone was on the precipice of entering the venue. I walked into a sea of vintage merchandise and vinyl records. At that point, the vastness of the power plant overcame me. I felt a sense of awe due to the space. All I wanted to do was explore it and suddenly, I didn’t care about the music. The harsh reality of daylight filtering in through windows and doorways…..Once the daylight was gone and the artificial lighting came on, it created a sense of the surreal. Entering a building the size of an aircraft hanger was inspiring.

The Black Angels – The prodigal children of the Austin psychedelic music movement found their roost. They were received like some of the greatest rock acts I’ve seen live. Christian Bland was overcome with the success of the festival. He gave great thanks to the audience and all the bands that participated in such a wonderful happening. The way he spoke, it sounded as if he found the festival to be something beyond his imagining. Then they broke into their set and throughout it, they did not miss a single beat. With the few breaks in their set, he expressed his elation about how the entire festival turned out. All eyes were on the Black Angels. They did not disappoint.

I’ve listened to many bands and done the research on what inspired them and the term “psychedelia” came up many times. I was watching ME television, a public broadcast station in Austin that is now defunct, and saw the video for the Black Angel’s song, “Black Grease.” I found inspiration as well as speculation because they sounded like something from a different era, with a hint of our generation. I found a hook and I purchased their album. It made me reassess psychedelic music. There was the rawness of a garage band and the correlations to bands such as Jefferson Airplane and artists such as Syd Barrett. For lack of a better term, this wasn’t pussy-produced, pre-fab music. This was a band who knew how to play their instruments, sing, write a good song, and bring back something that has been dead for a long time and make it new. The Black Angels are solely responsible for reviving a form of music that has influenced some of the best new music of our newer generations.

On the venue…

With this building, I have trepidation because it’s near perfect. It is frightening because of its vastness and there are open pits with particle board walls to keep you from falling fifty feet down. You look into these pits and you see stairways that you do not find in an everyday building. Their angles are difficult and they go to platforms with shear drops without railings or walls.. Someone had the aesthetic sense to include ambient lighting in the bottom of these deep pits, thus creating an aspect of the underworld below the foundation, akin to Dante’s Inferno done by Dore.
On May 28th:, there will be a Pink Floyd laser-light show at the Seaholm. This will be the last event there before bureaucrats create a space that is accepted by our community.

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Friday the 13th – did I have mine early or is tomorrow really gonna suck?

If tomorrow turns out to be more unlucky than today, I’m in big trouble. Lightning struck the building and shut down our Internet at work. I had to drive into Austin to get a new router and when I got back it didn’t fix the problem. No Internet from 10:30 a.m. till maybe tomorrow morning if the guy from Time Warner knows what he’s doing. Then I went out in the middle of nowhere to take a picture and the flash card in the camera picked that moment to die and I didn’t have a backup. I’m scared to go to sleep I don’t know what I will find when I wake up.
At least the Friday the 13th “holiday” has inspired some great music:

Edit: Believe it or not, Friday the 13th is on track to becoming a worse day than yesterday. Internet is intermittent at work, as is the ability to get on the server. Time Warner it turns out didn’t say they’d send someone at 8 a.m., they said between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. It’s after 4 now, so I guess they meant 4:59:59 p.m.

And… The County Commissioner from our town just died. Hell of a nice guy, which makes me sad. I guess that more than qualifies this as a crappy day. I needed to update the website about the commissioner and could not. Had to come home and do it. Forgot I had taken my modem to the office and had to go back and get it and come back to my place again and finally got it done. Now I’m headed back to the office and hope things can get fixed before it gets really critical.

Any other bad luck Friday the 13th stories or Friday the 13th songs?

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Daniel Knox’s Evryman for Himself is out today

Daniel Knox’s new album Evryman for Himself went on sale today on the La Société Expéditionnaire. It is available on both CD and vinyl. I’ve heard the album already and it is fabulous. Do yourself a favor and get your copy. The promo below is just a taste of what he can do:


He’s already won me over as you can see from my writeup a while back. Check out some of his other music on his website. I highly recommend Disaster.

Daniel is currently on tour in the UK with the Handsome Family and he’ll be returning to the U.S. for shows on the East Coast.

05.11.11 Gateshead, UK Sage (Hall 2) w/ Handsome Family
05.13.11 Norwich, UK Arts Centre w/ Handsome Family
05.14.11 Reading, UK South Street Arts Centre w/ Handsome Family
05.15.11 Exeter, UK Phoenix w/ Handsome Family
05.16.11 Bristol, UK Fleece w/ Handsome Family
05.17.11 London, UK Tabernacle w/ Handsome Family

05.18.11 Belfast, IRE Errigle Inn w/ tbd
05.19.11 Dublin, IRE Bewley’s w/ Saramai Leech
05.20.11 Cork, IRE Pine Lodge *Evening with Daniel Knox* FREE SHOW

05.26.11 Chicago, IL – the Hideout *Release Party* w/ Judson Claiborne
05.28.11 Grand Rapids, MI – Hoi Poloi w/ Soil & the Sun, Jacob Bullard, Judson Claiborne
05.29.11 Pittsburgh, PA – Garfield Artworks w/ Show is a Rainbow, Judson Claiborne
05.30.11 Washington DC – Looking Glass Lounge w/ Live You, Me, Them, Everybody Series Show
06.01.11 Philly, PA – Kung-Fu Necktie w/ Lewis & Clarke, Judson Claiborne
06.02.11 Brooklyn, NY – the Rock Shop w/ Lewis & Clarke, Judson Claiborne
06.03.11 Cincinatti, OH Northside Tavern w/ Judson Claiborne

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