Singer/songwriter Kelly Thomas isn’t particularly religious, but an element of spirituality motivates her. Early church/ vacation Bible school experiences comprise the bulk of her structured religious experiences, combined with a childhood penchant toward performing in public. But when she considers the creation of her new collaborative Gospel album, Gone Home by the Hayseed Tabernacle Choir, it’s hard to deny at least some divine intervention.
“I don’t think religion has a lot to do with spirituality, but I do believe in things I can’t see,” Thomas — who fronts Kelly Thomas and the Fabulous Pickups — says over dinner at Newport’s Mammoth Cafe. “Last summer, I was struggling and I felt very lost; I lost some friends and there was all this upheaval. I was needing something to get me through those times.”
Thomas lives within walking distance of the Cathedral Basilica in Covington. Although not Catholic, she was drawn to the church’s Sunday evening mass for its meditative quality. One Sunday, feeling particularly melancholy and having prayed nebulously for assistance, Thomas went to the Basilica and her regular pew.
“They got to the part in the mass where you do your little prayer, and I feel something on my face and there’s a sunbeam coming down like a freaking spotlight on me. It was like Monty Python,” Thomas says, laughing. “It was so profound that people in the rows in front of me were like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I was like, ‘All right, baby Jesus, I guess you’re hearing me.’ ”
In that moment, Thomas’ ethereal thought of doing a Gospel album crystallized into reality. Simultaneously, she’d reached a personal breaking point and retreated from music until she was in a better frame of mind.
“I quit playing out for about three months, which was a great choice for me,” she says. “I was just burned out. I’m really glad I did it, because now that I’m back, I appreciate it more.”
With her internal house in order, Thomas assembled the group of vocalists and players that became the Hayseed Tabernacle Choir. The sessions included Pickup John Bedinghaus, local Folk/Bluegrass icon Ma Crow, Brad Meinerding, Forrest G. Horn, Jeremy Pittman and Sylvia Mitchell.
More providence came when Thomas heard about producer Ashley Shepherd’s Audiogrotto studio in Newport from the father of friend Kristen Kreft of the J. Dorsey Blues Band. Having tentatively thought about tracking the album in an old church, one look at Shepherd’s space — located in a 100-year-old church with the largest studio located in the original sanctuary — sealed the deal.
“I walked in there and went, ‘Duh, this is totally perfect,’ ” Thomas says. “And it really was. I told everyone my vision: ‘These are songs that we’re pretty familiar with and I really want that live feel, so let’s practice three times and let’s cut this sucker.’ ”
The collective picked the songs they each wanted to perform, including standards like “Green Pastures,” “Softly and Tenderly” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” plus contemporary choices like Curtis Mayield’s “People Get Ready” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord.” The group did three rehearsals and then hit Audiogrotto on the first Sunday in May to track the album’s 14 songs in a single seven-hour session. It was a perfect storm of like-minded talent working in unison, an almost prophetically perfect studio space and Shepherd’s state-of-the-art equipment to document the magic.
“It’s pure recording,” Shepherd says on the day of the session as we watched the group from the basement control room via Webcam as they ran through a take of “Just As I Am.” “You’re not creating something. You’re capturing it.”
The Hayseed Tabernacle Choir is just another example of Thomas rallying creative people around a great idea. Her impact on the scene has been undeniable, as founder of the Rivertown Music Club (and the annual One More Girl on a Stage showcase of regional female artists), with her bands Second Sister and the Fabulous Pickups and her collaboration with 500 Miles to Memphis’ Ryan Malott. And at last weekend’s Taste of Cincinnati, she was awarded the 2010 Katie Reider Spirit of Music Award to honor her charitable donations and music outreach through Rivertown and her invaluable contributions to the creative community.
Thomas is clearly honored by it all and glad to be a vital part of a vibrant scene.
In the here and now, she's most proud and excited at the results of Gone Home and anxious to do as many live shows with the Hayseed Tabernacle Choir as everyone’s packed schedules will allow. And she’s not alone.
“Forrest texted me the other night and said, ‘Listening to these songs makes me so happy, I want to do a little voodoo dance … is that sacreligious?,’ ” Thomas says. “And I said, ‘Sugar, baby Jesus thinks of us as job security.’ Your humanity and mistakes are very much a theme in these songs, but also that other side of ‘I’m going to get through this and it’s going to be OK.’ I like how all the songs tie in like that. That is the message, I suppose.”
THE HAYSEED TABERNACLE CHOIR celebrates its debut album release at 3:30 p.m. Sunday with a free show at the Rabbit Hash General Store in Rabbit Hash, Ky. Get details here.