The Branchettes: Stay Prayed Up | Spiritual Helpline; Oct. 15

“Singing is the thing I’ve done all my life,” says Sister Lena Mae Perry, “and I’ve seen that a song will do things for you.”

Few would know better than—or, perhaps, be foolish enough to dispute—the octogenarian vocalist and leader of long-running Johnston County gospel group The Branchettes.

“If you don’t feel well or something isn’t going like you wanted it to go,” she says, “you jump up on one of those old songs and you start singing and everything just goes back to smooth sailing.”

Sister Perry has spent the last 50 years doing just that at area churches, hospitals, and nursing homes—and the occasional far-flung locale like Ireland and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—though The Branchettes have more recently gained attention from outside those circles, in part thanks to Music Maker Relief Foundation appearances and collaborations with Durham’s Phil Cook at Eaux Claires and other festivals.

Perry’s potent voice, infectious enthusiasm, and uncompromising faith are now poised to win over even more hearts thanks to the release of The Branchettes’ first live album, Stayed Prayed Up, and the concert film that shares its name.

Recorded two years ago at Newton Grove’s Long Branch Disciples of Christ Church, The Branchettes’ home church, Stayed Prayed Up finds The Branchettes—Sister Perry and pianist Wilbur Tharpe, who passed away in May—in spirited form, accompanied by Angela Kent and Rev. Kenny Nichols and backed by Cook’s Guitarheels, which features familiar locals Brevan Hampden on drums, Michael Libramento on bass, and James Wallace on organ.

A grant from the North Carolina Arts Council helped fund the release of the album, which also serves as the debut of Cook’s Spiritual Helpline label and platform. Crackling with energy, the soaring, spirited half-hour set might persuade even the most agnostic listener to shout, sing, and testify.

Featuring interviews and footage of live performances, the accompanying film slowly grew into a feature-length documentary over the course of the pandemic and has begun being screened at festivals, with a wider release currently set for spring 2022. Following the world premiere of Stay Prayed Up at the famed Telluride Film Festival, Sister Perry—joined by Cook and Kent—delivered a Sunday morning program of southern gospel hymns.

“Oh my goodness! There were so many people hollering and clapping their hands,” she remembers. “The spirit got up in there and I had to holler. I tell you what, that was an experience!”

Through Spiritual Helpline, Cook hopes to help create more of those types of experiences for audiences and underrecognized tradition bearers alike. He attributes Sister Perry’s impact on his life with inspiring Spiritual Helpline, which he describes as “a platform for collaboration, connection, and community” involving storytelling along with more music and film releases, with a particular focus on Black gospel music.

Cook mentions that several components of the project are currently on hold due to the ongoing nature of the pandemic, which itself led to the unexpected launch of his Sunday morning radio show. Also under the Spiritual Helpline name, Cook’s DJ sets—which are currently available on YouTube and are centered on gospel music—were born from a desire to do something different after experiencing burnout from live-streaming his own solo performances.

As with Stay Prayed Up, Cook isn’t sure what shape his efforts will eventually take.

“I don’t know exactly how or when they will be coming out, or in what format, but it feels pretty wide open right now, in a beautiful way, and I’ve grown to love the openness of it,” he says. There’s plenty of room, he believes, for Spiritual Helpline to work alongside like-minded organizations like PineCone and Music Maker, which introduced him to both Sister Perry and Charlotte’s Thomas Rhyant, who will be featured on Spiritual Helpline’s second release.

“North Carolina has a vast cultural wealth that is absolutely fading away, day by day, as people die,” Cook says, stressing the urgency to preserve the state’s heritage. “COVID-19 has also expedited the amount of tradition bearers who are no longer with us, especially due to its impact on the Black community.”

Cook is frank, too, about his hopes to “repair the exploitative practices” of the music industry when it comes to taking advantage of Black performers.

“Everything has to be based on relationships,” he says about Spiritual Helpline’s work. “The relationships that are built are the only way that the projects will stay honest and true.”

Though Sister Perry’s admiration for Cook is clear—“He’s wonderful to work with, and it’s just like he’s one of my children, the way I love him”—there’s another essential element in their relationship: “We know that God is in it and you’ve got to put him in front of everything you try to do or want to do.”

Even in conversation, Sister Perry seems to be offering mini-sermons, alluding to the times she’s asked God to open a door for her to step through, a prayer she professes she continues to make.

“As the song goes, it’s a long time coming but a change will come,” says Sister Perry. “My change has come and I’m just as happy as I can be. I’ve had such a good time on this journey and I don’t regret not one day of it.”

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