Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
0000017c-60f7-de77-ad7e-f3f739cf0000Arts & More airs Fridays at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.Theme music: "Like A Beginner Again" by Dan Barry of Seas of Jupiter

Reverend Robert Jones Brings Storytelling and Soul as a 'Holy Blues' Performer

Peggy Brisbane

When an employee finds themselves with idle hands and time to fill while at work, they might read a book, break out a crossword puzzle, or fall prey to Facebook scrolling. But Reverend Robert Jones found a different way to kill time.

"I happened to be working as a board operator for an educational radio station in Detroit. What I basically did to keep myself sane was to bring my guitar in to the studio and just sort of practice. And I realize that was a blessing now because I worked there for years and I had four years of paid practice," he says. 

Fast forward thirty years later, and the minister has parlayed his paid training into a separate career as a blues musician and storyteller. He says that blues is a lot more broad than its secular tones can connote. 

“Ultimately it’s about feeling – it’s about disappointment joys, frustration, all that type of stuff," Jones says. "So when you think about it, in that broader sense, then it’s not that crazy to have a preacher playing or singing about the blues as you might think first blush.”

Born and raised in Detroit, Jones' first music memory came from his grandmother, whose record collection included music from guitarist Brownie McGhee and harmonica player Sonny Terry

A licensed minister since the age of 17, Jones was forced to change his blues perspective when he became a full time pastor of Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit in 2003. 

"I'm not the first person who sort of fell into the blues and was called in to the ministry. It really sort of led me to this thing called 'holy blues' - and probably because of that my wife was like 'Oh, I'm interested in that!' he says.

His wife Bernice had also been performing separately for years as a gospel singer. With his new "holy blues" perspective, they joined forces and have been performing together ever since. 

"She's sort of my secret weapon when she's around. Powerful singer, and it's really fun to be able to perform with your significant other," says Jones.

In additional to performing gospel onstage, Jones also tells stories about his ancestors and family. Offstage, he leads educational workshops and travels to storytelling festivals around the country.

In "Arnesia's Song," he writes about his grandmother's choice to move from Alabama to Detroit, and what lessons she passed on to her family.
It all fits in with Jones's message of delivering comfort, education, and inspiration through his talents - all while demonstrating a different meaning to what it means to play the blues. 

"This music - I don't care what label you put on it - is really where American music comes from. The idea that you have a person sitting there with an instrument, telling your story, singing your song, and your part of that experience is a really wonderful and intimate kind of experience," say Jones. "And I find it inspiring and I hope other people do too."

Jones will perform at the Kalamazoo Public Library March 19.