Near the North Carolina/ South Carolina line lies Columbus County, a sparsely populated, fertile lowland known for its agricultural festivals: pecan, watermelon and strawberry. The black water of the Lumber River snakes along its western border; just 50 miles to the east, the Atlantic Coast beckons. The county seat, a rural metropolis of nearly 6,000, is Whiteville, pronounced by locals with an understated, front-of-the-mouth drawl: "WYATT-vul."
It's a long journey from Whiteville to the Triangle's jazz cafes, rock clubs and upscale music venues, one measured not so much in miles as in self-reinvention. The bumps in that road are intimately known to vocalist Jo Gore—given name Crystal—who was born in a small African-American enclave outside Whiteville.
The name Jo, an homage to Josephine Baker, is an artistic moniker Gore chose for practical reasons. "Honestly, I wanted something really easy for people to remember. Because Jo Gore and The Alternative is a very long band name," she says.
On Wednesday, Sept. 19, Gore makes her first appearance at the Durham Performing Arts Center, opening for legendary soul singer-turned-preacher Al Green.
Famously, Rev. Green's career took him from secular, sexual heartthrob to made-over man of religion. But in some ways, Gore's journey is pulling her in the opposite direction. It began in the small church where her father played piano, and where both of her grandparents were preachers; there, she cut her teeth on the pure, 19th-century spirituals her father loved.
"There were no drums, nothing was amplified, so it was just an upright piano and a choir and that was it. But we would rock this church," Gore says.
Having left that insular community for the Triangle, Gore has struggled to find her own voice, but she's now poised to release the first album she's proud of: The Herstory of Josephine Gore: Return of the Articulate Kinsman Vol. 1. An official party for the three-disc release, which includes a studio album, live album and DVD, is scheduled the day after the Al Green show, on Thursday, Sept. 20, at Cat's Cradle.
As its title suggests, The Herstory is a liberation and a return to her roots. The subtitle hints at an epic piece of storytelling ("I'm a huge Star Wars fan," Gore admits) that loops back through her rural childhood and religious upbringing. Musically unfettered, the album wanders rampant across genres, yet hangs together as a modulated whole. "I tried to work the [structure of the] album almost like a church service," says Gore, who sampled cassette tapes of her grandparents' sermons on a couple of tracks.
"I think I'm coming back from a very dark place," Gore concludes. "And not only that, but I'm coming back home. For a long time I worked really hard to get rid of my accent. It's like I have to find my voice again, I have to find that language. So the Return of the Articulate Kinsman is me going back to the rural South, in that basically I'm just Crystal from Whiteville, Columbus County."
The songs themselves, composed by Gore and her guitarist, Bo Lankenau, aren't just sing-along hooky; they get under your skin. Gore's lyrics are contemporary and idiosyncratic, adding fresh fizz to the songwriting duo's retro groove bag: gospel and spirituals, country and Piedmont blues, '50s doo-wop, '60s rock, '70s jazz-pop and '80s soul.
At the same time, Gore's peripatetic sound comes with a price tag. "I knew that I'd have a problem of my music not having a home," she says. "There have been a few folks who've said, 'We'll put you on our radio station if you take the pedal steel off of [the song] 'Columbus County,' or if you would like, give this more of a hip-hop beat.' And it's like, you know, I can't compromise anymore."
Gore says, she wants control—over her image, her sound and her role in the music business. She wonders: Is that too much to ask?
"I don't want to be beholden to anybody, and I also want to know what it feels like to sing the same song night after night," she says. "What does this really mean to make this your career, and spend eight hours a day working on your music? And so that's what I've been trying to do.
"I don't think the music industry's that different from everything else. I used to think it was like, really different. It works the same—there's winners; there's losers. OK, so, there's McDonald's on every corner. Why are people eating that crap when you have great places like Guglhupf, or something? It's like, I don't know. It's just that way with everything. And it doesn't mean that Guglhupf can't be successful, but they have to find their own niche," Gore reasons.
To that end, she taught herself to manage the business side of the band, build web pages and run her own sound. Venue operators are often bemused—or puzzled—at the sight of the petite Gore in hair curlers, carrying in her own sound equipment.
"I used to think that I was supposed to be the classic girl singer who shows up in the pretty dress and then that's it. And then once you start seeing how things work and how all the pieces fit together, and it's like, oh, it isn't rocket science. I can learn how to do that," Gore says. "Now I can talk to the sound guy, and I can say, 'This is what I want my voice to sound like,' and it's great. I'm so empowered!"
Gore first made the leap from her hometown to Chapel Hill to attend the University of North Carolina—a transition that opened doors, but brought with it serious culture shock.
"I came from a very rural conservative area, to a very liberal progressive institution, and that was a very difficult time. I didn't understand what the hell people were talking about half the time," Gore recalls.
In college, she dove headlong into jazz, adopting Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan as her heroines. She also went to Africa on a study abroad program. Gore still spins tales about her time visiting Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and Zanzibar. Many of her stage gowns—half-sleeve, off-shoulder numbers with vaguely vintage appeal—were custom-made for her by dressmakers in Accra and Capetown.
Coming from a working-class family, Gore had financial difficulties in college. She dropped out after three years, just short of a degree.
"I had the grades, but I did not have the money, so I kept falling through all these little cracks," Gore says. "I'm really not angry at the system, I just think that I was misinformed."
Gore was already singing around town in the blues and jazz scenes, so she turned to music full-time. Eventually, she crossed paths with Lankenau, and the two formed a creative partnership.
"At the first rehearsal with Bo, I felt like there was something here. And not only that, but he's, like, sane. He's got this great balance. He has all this experience and has been through all the crazy crap already," Gore recalls. "So you get all of the music, all the talent without the madness. It was like hand in glove, and that's exactly what I needed."
Her backing band, The Alternative, draws heavily on musicians who were active in the former jazz scene at The Know, a now-defunct Durham bookstore that hosted a community jam session. "Brother Yusef was the main guy over there, and on his stage, everybody was welcome," says Gore's trombonist, Weldon Kollock. "That was how I got to know Jo and [bassist] Kip [Perry] and everybody. It was not how you played, it was what kind of heart you bring to the stage. That was the connection."
Gore values their musical brotherhood and collective wisdom. "Being in a band where everyone is literally twice my age, it's great. [They tell me,] don't do that, because this is what will happen, or this is what I did," she says.
Depending on the gig, The Alternative may appear as anything from a bare-bones vocal-and-guitar duo to a six-piece band with drums, trombone, bass, acoustic guitar and either electric guitar or piano/ organ. When customers request it, they cover soul and jazz standards, but they're hoping the Herstory release will push their originals to the fore.
"Jo has a very individual style. So it can be a song you've heard sung by five or six people, [but] Jo will have an interpretation that's unique. That's what I love," says Ben Reese, a regular at Beyu Caffe, where Gore often performs.
"My favorite song on the [studio] album is 'The Blood Song,'" Gore says, "because it's so sincere. And it's just a spiritual." Under her haunting, a cappella vocal, producer Doug Carter layered Allyn Love's ghostly pedal steel and 'Amen corner'-type shouting from her grandparents' sermon tapes. The effects are hair-raising. "I just love how it turned out," Gore says.
From the live album, Gore's favorite is "The Card Dealer," a song about her father's illness and death. "The words, they just flowed out of me. I mean it was just like water," Gore recalls. This song reveals Gore's deepest metaphysical questionings about the religion she grew up with.
"There's no magic anymore for me. I don't have answers to the big questions. I just know that it's not what I thought it was. I don't really think that there's this invisible man with a penis that I talk to that fixes my problems. You can print that. I don't know why God constantly has to have a penis. It's always this man that I constantly have to keep talking to. I'm definitely sick of that, and I think that's reflected in the title of the album, Herstory," Gore says.
"And at the same time," she acknowledges, "I respect the religion because I respect the culture that came out of religion, and I wouldn't be the person that I am now if I hadn't had those experiences."
While Gore uses Al Green as a simile in her bouncy love song "So Glad" ("Like Al Green, we'll stay together"), truth be told, she has her differences with the classic soul icon.
"Al Green is great, but it's like, you know, I can't have that much sex. Music that's just for ... maybe convincing some woman to go to bed with him or something. So, I just kind of get tired of that after awhile," she says. "I'm looking for girl power—women who do not apologize, who are beautiful, who are strong, and confident, and who acknowledge their weaknesses, and just bring it all together and give you a full picture."
In other words, it's her story.
[Correction: Photo credits were omitted from this story in print.]
This article appeared in print with the headline "A new hope."