Monday, August 25, 2003

For the past few weeks I have been totally enthralled with a forgotten southern gospel band called The Sunshine Girls. I wish I could link to a site describing this phenomenal band but I can't: other than an uncredited lyric file on a Southern Gospel website, which I can at this writing no longer locate, there is absolutely nothing available about the trio.

For those who are not immersed in the singing traditions of the south, especially as recorded in the 50s, the genre is characterized by very high-pitched, almost keening, style of singing, with very close, deceptively complex harmonies. Some of the best examples of this would include the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, and of course the Louvin Brothers, widely considered the sine qua non in brother duets. It is in this within this stylistic group that the Sunshine Girls, Louise Clark, Margie Francis, and Sue Rock, belong, a tradition that has deep roots within the Baptist religion and shape note singing, a singing style that does not require instruments. A prominent sect in the southeastern United States, many Baptist churches at the time eschewed musical instruments (indeed, some still do), many country singers are immersed in this type of singing from the time they are children. Developed sometime in the 16th century, shape note singing uses a simplified 4 tone scale. The actual notes, as written on the musical staff, take the shape of triangles, rectangles, and circles in order to make sight reading easier, giving the style its name. It is a participatory style, as opposed to performance. The singers sit in what is called a hollow square, facing each other. the melody is "lined out" and in harmony, the singers raise their voices in song. When sung in the high-pitched, almost keening style of the Southeastern United States, these songs, typically hymns, can send chills of devotion down the spine of the most hardened sinner.

As for their story, the liner notes to the album were all I had to go on. And what an intriguing story they told! The trio was apparently discovered by a television producer, who brought them to the attention to Sam Phillips , the man responsible for Elvis and Roy Orbison. The Sunshine Girls however were not recorded at Sun, but at Sam's personal studio in Memphis. Nine of the 12 songs are originals, written by Ms. Clarke, and in my opinion, there is not a dud on the album. Thus, it was frustrating that my search for materials on the band proved fruitless. I tried Google searches; searching within the results of Google searches; writing to specialty record labels; and writing to internet discussion groups: dead end, dead end, dead end.
Until the day before yesterday. I myself am a bluegrass picker, and belong to a listserv called bluegrass-l. It should be stated here that while bluegrass has its share of celebrities and stars, the genre is characterized by a strong bond between performer and fan: many of the younger celebrities of bluegrass, such as Alison Kraus, actually started out as fans themselves. At festivals, stars such as Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, and Ricky Skaggs not only make themselves available to sign autographs and shake hands with fans, many bandmembers appear at festivalgoers' campsites to pick and sing until long past midnight. It is thus that many bluegrass performers actually belong to the bluegrass-l, and soon after I posted my request, Sonny Osborne dropped me a line.

There was a group called the Sunshine ? Singers who sang with Red Foley in the late 40's/early 50's. One is the Grandmother of our fiddle player...Derek Deekins...have no idea if this is the same group...I will mention it to him and perhaps he will respond if it is in fact the same.

Two days later I got an encouraging note from Sonny:
You hit paydirt this time...

Derek Deekins will get all the information you want on these people. This is, in fact, the same group you are talking about.

His Grandmother, one of the singers, comes to our shows and to the Opry occasionally.

If possible, I would like to have a tape of that album. I don't remember whether you said you had it or not, but if so, I would appreciate it.

Contact him at the above address and he will help you.