“It’s Not a Performance, It’s a Ministry”

Foothills archival series highlights gospel’s role in our region 

SONGS OF PRAISE
Gospel ambassador Tonya Staley.
Portrait by Jack Robert

This year, the Tryon Fine Arts Center launched its virtual “Illuminations Through Music and Heritage” exhibit, shining a light on the region’s diverse musicians. The program is funded in part through the Communities Connecting Heritage grant administered by World Learning and the U.S. Department of State. An organization dedicated to supporting youth music education, Pacolet Junior Appalachian Musicians (PacJAM), is a cooperating affiliate. Telling the story through photos, audio, and video, one of the program’s core exhibits is “Same Roots, Separate Sounds: Archiving Song Traditions in the Foothills,” highlighting a half-dozen musicians, including gospel vocalist Tonya Staley.

What are the specific goals of the “Same Roots, Separate Sounds” exhibit?

Julia Moore, Program Director: While PacJAM teaches music through using Appalachian song traditions, we want our students and broader community to have a comprehensive understanding of the multitude of voices comprising the region’s musical genres. We have all benefited from hearing the music and experiences of the guest artists in our enrichment program. “Same Roots, Separate Sounds” is our public-access archive of these local artists.

What did Tonya Staley bring to the program that was special and unique?

Moore: Our other guests did not link their music with their spirituality. Tonya was a wonderful addition to our program; she did a beautiful job communicating to our youth that the driving force behind gospel is to bring praise to God. 

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, what’s the future of the program?

Moore: PacJAM was able to run a successful fall 2020 all-outdoors session, at nearly full capacity. We are at a reduced budget this year, but we’re trying to hold space in our budget to resume bringing guests artists to work with our youth for the spring semester.

Ms. Staley, What’s your background in gospel music?
Tonya Staley: A lot of what I know about music and what I’ve learned is because I sing. I have a brother who taught me. He’s a writer and musician; he’s a pastor now at our home church in Marion and affiliate of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, founded by James Cleveland.

Have you brought gospel to people outside your home church before now?
Staley: Yes, with my brother, because he did have a nondenominational singing group called Voices of Inspiration. We’ve been to several states: North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Upstate New York, Missouri, Louisiana, D.C. … we’ve been lots and lots of places. It’s not “performance.” It’s a ministry.

What form did your part of the exhibit take?

Staley: It’s kind of interactive. I did a little background on gospel music: There’s Southern gospel, there’s traditional, there’s contemporary. I talked to the Polk County students about my experience with [the genre], what I’ve learned, things that I’ve been involved in, how important it is to me and what it means in our community. Then I taught the students a song — one that most of them had heard anyway, “How Great is Our God” — and we had a sing-a-long. 

Tryon Fine Arts Center, 34 Melrose Ave.“Same Roots, Separate Sounds: Archiving Song Traditions in the Foothills” can be accessed at the following link: tryonarts.org/same-roots-separate-sounds/. Also see the venue’s website for the upcoming ZOOM program “This is America: Music and American Culture” (second Tuesdays, 4-5:30pm, through March) and “This is America: Art and American Culture” (third Tuesdays, 10-11:30am, through March). E-mail marianne@tryonarts.org for more information. 

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