Helping communities across the state connect their heritage arts and traditions to local development, education, and active citizenship
By James Martin, Jr.
Warrenton, Warren County, NC
Skills: Demonstrating Artist, Public Presentations
“If there was a group around town that anyone talked about or said anything about when I was growing up,” remembers bassist Julian Smith, Jr., “it was the Warrenton Echoes.” Founded in 1957, the Echoes have long been celebrated performers on the Upper South’s gospel circuit.
“When we first began, it was only four guys,” remembers June Foster. “[Original member James Harris] made a guitar out of haywire, and when we'd break for lunch [from farming], we would go to his house and sit on the porch before it was time to go back to work, and play. That's how he learned how to play.”
“I used to sing behind the mule in the fields, and I'd get happy singing behind that mule,” says Smith, Jr. Most of the songs, he recalls, originated in the fields and revolved around rural life––for example, cutting wood and plowing crops.
“There used to be a group that came on the radio every day—the Selah Jubilee Singers. My daddy used to fuss at me all the time because I'd stop the muling and go to the house to listen to the radio.”
By the 1960s, the Warrenton Echoes refined their own unique style that featured traditional African American hymns in tight gospel quartet harmony. Despite their far-reaching acclaim—the group regularly traveled the East Coast and played with groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds—the Warrenton Echoes remained a homegrown enterprise. June Foster’s son Previs explains that the Echoes’ sound “really came from traveling to community churches, to the homes and families in the communities of Warren County.”
Over time, the group’s line-up changed as older members retired. Younger musicians with ties to the Echoes replaced those who left; as Smith, Jr. explains, “These were the type of guys that inspired me to play, so to grow up and actually play with them is something special.” And while the Echoes’ musical range is quite broad, hymns stand at the group’s heart.“To me, [the Warrenton Echoes are] like a big bowl of jambalaya,” says Previs Foster. “There’s no other way to explain it. It's just good.”
The Warrenton Echoes perform regularly at gospel programs and celebrations throughout North Carolina, and will consider all engagements.