Spirit Family Reunion: Secular Spirituals


Spirit Family Reunion throws away the gospel and bluegrass rulebooks

When the folks in Spirit Family Reunion raise their voices in song, they deliver an inspiring message. Their mostly acoustic approach combines elements of rock with hints of bluegrass and country music. They have a feel that approaches the fervent emotions of gospel music, but their messages stay grounded in the secular world. The title of their debut, Hands Together, suggests both praying and applause, a contradiction they enjoy.

“I love gospel music, but I can’t sing those words genuinely,” says guitarist and songwriter Nick Panken. “I relate to the sentiments in gospel music, so we made our own version of it. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the faith he got from religion and delivered it to us in a way that made it a human message anyone could relate to. The sentiments in gospel music can reach beyond the range of people who go to church.”

Stephen Weinheimer, the band’s washboard player, agrees. “Gospel is powerful because gospel singers have the passion of unwavering belief,” he says. “Gospel is amazing music. I think we have a similar passion, but without the God part.”

The music on Hands Together is folky Americana, but with a unique sound. Maggie Carson’s banjo fills the space usually occupied by a lead guitar, giving the music an old-time feel, despite subtle touches from amplified instruments. “Maggie has her own style of banjo,” says Panken. “We think she sounds more like Keith Richards than anyone else. As we developed our sound, we thought, ‘We’ll give the lead to whoever sounds most like Keef.’ I’ve always felt like we’re a little more country than bluegrass, because we don’t play that precisely. We like traditional bluegrass that follows the rules, but we don’t. We tend to be a little bit sloppy, a little more all over the place.”

—j. poet