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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: A look at past, present of gospel music in East Texas

"The impact of the music has a way of putting them in a place where they can relax for a moment and have that inner connection with God," said Pastor Caraway.

TYLER, Texas — What originated inside Black American churches has now graced the stages of mainstream award shows. 

East Texas has its share of gospel musicians, both past and present that have impacted the region. 

Ralph E. Caraway Sr., senior pastor at St. Louis Baptist Church in Tyler, said the praise and worship portion of service helps connect those to God through music. 

"I believe when people come to church on Sundays, you never really know what their week has been like," Caraway said.

Through the trials and tribulations of the week, Caraway believes music can help ground someone in the midst of chaos. 

"The impact of the music has a way of putting them in a place where they can relax for a moment and have that inner connection with God," Caraway said.

Originating from traditional church hymns – gospel music has long been a part of the Black church, gaining recognition in the 1930s

"A lot of the hymns tell biblical stories," Caraway said. "There was always a call for God to come to the rescue. Even in the times we live in now we still have that same call; for God to be our refuge, strength and restorer."

For Nancy Michelle, she began singing when she was 4 years old. 

"I grew up in the church my whole life," Michelle said. "My mom's a singer."

However, it wasn't until 2020 when she was suddenly faced with divorce that she took her praise to the booth.

"I just hit a very dark place in my life, and it was song that i wrote back in 2013 that uplifted me during that time that made me realize I need to do this," Michelle said.

And moment by moment, she hopes her music will encourage others to push through.  

Gospel music has deep soulful history in East Texas – home to "The Country Boy" himself.

Many can remember hearing his infamous introduction: "We're bringing you all the way from Tyler, Willie Neal Johnson 'The Country Boy.'"

His former bandmates, "The New Keynotes" said the crowd would always get energized as soon as Johnson came on stage. 

"When he come out, the crowd goes berserk," said Kenneth 'KT' Talley, lead guitar player. 

Johnson performed with other gospel greats like Kirk Franklin and was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame – all before passing away in 2001.

But for his former bandmates, now known as "The Talley Boyz," he was just Willie. 

"Whew, Willie was a fun man to be around," Kenneth Talley said. "We spent more time with him than our own family so we're practically family."

"Willie was electrifying; one of a kind," Sheldon Talley Sr., guitar player, added. "He got you motivated just watching him."

Willie Johnson and the New Keynotes toured the world together. 

"We been to Bahamas, Switzerland, Italy," Kenneth Talley said. "You name it, we've been there." 

They eventually won a Stellar Award for their achievements in the Gospel music industry. 

"It was exciting cause we were like 'man, we won a Stellar!'" Sheldon Talley said.

Though "The Country Boy' has passed away, his legacy lives on at the Texas African American Museum in Tyler. 

"We appreciated all of the great gospel music that this young man put to the public, to the African American community," said Gloria Washington, TAAM executive director. 

Whether traditional or contemporary, East Texans say gospel music from past to present heals the broken. 

"If I'm down, if I have something on my mind that I need uplifted all I have to do is listen to gospel music," Washington said. 

And gospel unifies the Black community. 

"It's a message of love, of hope, of inspiration and all those messages point back to Jesus," Michelle said.

"It feels like the gospel music is a message from God ... that you can overcome," Washington added.

With every hymn, Caraway said the music is instrumental for the mind, body and soul. 

"With our minds, the music helps us relate, our hearts we believe that and then it gives our soul reassurance," Caraway said.

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