Don’t Sleep On Louisville’s Gospel Scene

Feb 1, 2023 at 3:11 pm
Cyr Wilson of Live Action talks music with Kiana Del of Kiana and the Sun Kings.
Cyr Wilson of Live Action talks music with Kiana Del of Kiana and the Sun Kings. Photos provided by Cyr Wilson and Kiana Benhoff

At a vocal rehearsal for Cyr’s upcoming debut project, Time, he, vocalist Devin Holly, and I drifted off into a conversation about Louisville’s music scene that covered everything from the generational divide across genres, to the ‘venue crisis,’ to pondering why we don’t have ‘sheds’ anymore (more on that later.) The concept of a shed got us into how similar jazz and gospel are, not just in technicality, but in culture. Jazz and gospel are Black artforms, both born out of resistance and a need for connection and community. Getting into the music theory behind it all, they’re harmonically and rhythmically similar to each other, often drawing on the same AABA forms and chord changes. Two sides of the same coin.

     Upon hearing ‘gospel,’ or ‘jazz,’ some might have a stereotypical idea of what sitting inside that sound world feels like: red faux velvet packed tightly on brown wooden pews, the sea of voices mixing between congregation and choir, a strong Black voice preaching call-and-response Bible verses, the smell of age. Perhaps you fall into the throes of a little, dark basement club — smoke illuminated by pink lights and the warmest saxophone crooning quietly over a droning bassli

ne. Although these scenes provide comfort, they’re no longer the sole source of where you can get lost in those worlds. In 2023, there’s a myriad of clear gospel and jazz influence in our current music — from hip hop to R&B to pop hits. And yes, we have a Spotify playlist to prove it. We’ve affectionately named it ‘joyful noise,’ and you can listen with the QR code.

     We realized we had spent far too much time cutting up and not enough time rehearsing, but the conversation got me thinking: why are we sleeping on Louisville’s gospel scene and the incredibly talented musicians within it? Why don’t we collaborate more outside of our chosen genres, and what happened to the sheds?! As a voice crooned, a bassline droned, and the bustle of a crowded cafe sang in the background, I sat down with Cyr at Bean Coffee on a rainy Monday to get the scoop. 

Kiana Del: We’re on the record now. Alright, Cyr… how ya doin’?

Cyr Wilson: I’m doin’ good, how about you?

I’m pretty good

Thanks for having me on the show. [laughs]

You’re welcome. [laughs] Tell us a bit about yourself musically – inside and outside of the sanctuary.

Alright, so… try’na sound bougie. Basically, I’ve been playing since I was two years old… started doin’ recitals. My mom put me in lessons and then I joined Louisville Leopard Percussionists when I was in elementary school and went through that… did the band thing. Then, about eighth grade is when I started my worship stuff. That’s why I started to play bass at the church and get involved in worship teams. Same time I’m doin’ that, I’m doin’ the marching band thing.

Wow. You been busy your whole life

My whole life. I never stopped! Growing up in the gospel scene I was playing bass at the church ‘cuz that’s what they didn’t have. I was a drummer originally, but they didn’t have a bass player so I learned to play bass. I went on to learn how to play piano. When I went to college, I went to the University of the Cumberlands. Out in the COUNTRY! That’s when I got into CCM — that’s contemporary Christian music ­­— it’s real big up there. Gospel-wise, I have this really weird split of traditional gospel music and CCM background and they mix in a really interesting way.

Yeah, ‘cuz CCM is real… like folk-y?

Yeah, folk-y and rock. Those now collide. That’s kinda what we do at Hill Street.

Hill Street Baptist Church, that’s where you’re the music director?

Yes! Hill Street Missionary Baptist Church of GOD. On the other side, I started getting in the marching band thing. I did marching [all through middle and high school], went on to go march drum corps. 

Seriously?! Who’d you march with?

Legends Drum & Bugle Corps. Contracted with Blue Knights and contracted with Cavaliers, but I got injured. 


Yeah, I had to take those summers.

I used to go to DCI [Drum Corps International] like every year.

Oh! I was out doin’ that for a couple years. Then I did indoor, I was doing WGI [Winter Guard International]. Never saw a weekend! Did that for three years with Legacy, and once I graduated college I went and taught. Real connected with the marching arts and that scene. In gospel, when I came home, I became the MD [music director] first at Christ Kingdom Fellowship, then I just recently accepted my posting at Hill Street.


I appreciate it. Yeah, that’s kinda the tracing!

How does that inform the music you write for Live Action?

Alright, that’s a really good one. To understand Live Action’s identity, you have to understand the people in it and where they come from. You know my background ­— a lot of marching arts, a lot of jazz, a lot of gospel. Mostly gospel. When I was at Christ Kingdom Fellowship, it’s where I got connected with a lot of the Live Action guys. Christ Kingdom was me, DéQuan Tunstull, he played keys, I was playing organ.

AKA Ray Keys!

Raaay Keeeyyys! Right! Then, Cam Gooden [bass guitar] — DéQuan actually brought Cam on. Then, I knew Deavan from the church we used to go to. We all played at church together for about a year and a half. Then, I started writing music and I was like, ‘Aw, these are the dudes to do this!’ DéQuan of course, and Cam, big jazz backgrounds. Then DeAven [Allen, drums] and me had a lot of gospel. Then we picked up CJ Cantrell, and he’s deep in gospel organ, You’ve got three of us that are really heavily gospel players and two that are really heavily jazz players, and that makes it. That’s how we get that ‘Live Action’ sound.

And DeAven’s like 16?!

Yeah, he’s 16, so he doesn’t get to do all the fun things, but he is the drummer on the record.

Wow, yeah. You’re an educator as well… and I think that teaching really keeps my own skills sharp. I learn a lot from my students. How does teaching influence your playing or your writing or both?

Teaching forces me to expose myself to things I wouldn’t otherwise listen to.

That’s huge! Oooh, yeah.

When a lot of people ask me, ‘What are you listening to?’ ‘Who are your influences?’ My answer is usually I’m listening to whatever I have to learn that week.

To teach?

Yeah, or to play! Being the MD at Hill Street, that’s a new set every week. I also play at a church in Bowling Green every so often, That’s another setlist. I’m gettin’ seven, eight songs a week. Then, when it’s time for me to teach and I have to teach world music, for instance, then it’s like, ‘Okay, well, we’re doing Africa right now so I need to go research some of that for class.’ Then I find cats like [inaudible] and take this little harmony or take this motif and mix that in. 

Nice, very cool. Who are you really diggin’ right now?

Honestly? Ray Keys! I worked him into my curriculum. Actually I teach his stuff at Shawnee [high school]. He’s the main thing playin’on my playlist right now. 

What do you listen to to get inspired?

Y’know, that comes from the church music. Talking about Time, 

Time is your upcoming project!

Right! The first song on that, the title track, when I think about that chorus, that’s a gospel walk-up. That is literally something I learned to play for church. We just pull that into the project. The gospel stuff is what’s pushing that project — that and R&B.

Nice. Let’s not even get into general public. I’m thinking of musicians first. If you were to offer me a jazz duo gig right now, I would have a handful of cats in my head, but only one of ‘em plays in church ­— being Ray Keys — but gospel musicians like REALLY GOT IT, y’know what I mean? Why do you think there’s such a divide between gigging musicians playing what we’d call ‘secular music’ and church musicians? 

I think there’s two answers to that. The first answer is religious shame. For years when musicians in the church have played in these secular venues and avenues, they’re very looked down upon in the church community. The ‘church folk’ are thinking, ‘This is something that should be reserved for our God, and it shouldn’t be done anywhere else.’ On that other side of that, you got church musicians who need to pay bills. Y’know…the church shouldn’t be a business, but if the church isn’t payin’ you, you gotta make your money somewhere. They started to play in clubs. We started to see that in the ‘20s; then, as it progresses it keeps happening.

The other side of that is… looking at it from the outside perspective, the jazz scene can seem elitist.

Yeah. Absolutely it can.

It’s separated by education, but mostly by exposure. What I mean is, being in the gospel world, I have played with people far better than me, but they don’t know any of the theory of what they’re doing. They don’t understand what they’re doing. They know the sound they want and they can execute that sound, but when it comes to throwing a chart in front of you, can you read the chart? No. Can you read the music? No. Do you understand what extensions are? If I say I need a ‘B-flat thirteen,’ do you know what that means? No, they don’t, unless they hear it. That’s another thing that keeps the gospel people out. We don’t understand it and we don’t want to be labeled as stupid or ignorant. It’s a different scene.

It’s just so wild, because I have seen a musician who came up in the church listen to two minutes of a song and play it down, whereas sometimes when I work with jazz musicians they’re like, ‘Do you have the chart, do you have the changes, can I look at this?’And that’s no dig at one way or the other, it’s just wild that we’re not collaborating more. Even though it’s two different sides of the brain, they could just mesh so well, and I think they do in your project, for sure. Do you think the divide exists on both sides? Do you think sometimes church musicians prefer not to work with secular musicians?

Most definitely! [chuckles] One of my mentors, Jarrell Baggard — insane pianist. There are some things his brain does that are crazy! I was playing “Ladies Rock the Night” for Erica Denise and [we needed someone to make the tracks], so I thought, ‘I’ll call Jarrell,’ ‘cuz he makes the loops for church!’ I then found out that was the first time he had done anything in a club, and he’s at least 10 years older than me. You’re lookin’at mid-thirties, and you’ve never played a secular gig in your life?! They’ll stay away. The gospel musicians will stay away from it.

That’s another thing, because it’s a well-rounded… I want to say education, but you learn by trade playing gigs. Say you never set foot in a classroom, the best way to sharpen your skills is to play a bunch of different types of music. I think that applies to church musicians and secular musicians. They need to expand outside of their boxes, too, to gain a better understanding of what they’re playing.

Absolutely right.

We talk about crossover all the time. I was just talking about a jazz/punk crossover the other day — Chance the Rapper is a main example of secular music that is heavily gospel-influenced. Why is that so difficult to achieve on the local level?

Well, part of it is the avenues. Where do we do it? But the other part of it is how do we do it? I’m in a very unique place myself where I have the ability to speak on both sides of that, almost like a — 

Both: Code switch!

Yeah! When I’m talking to DéQuan [Tunstull], I’m talkin’ numbers, I’m talkin’ chords, I’m talkin’ voicings… when I’m talking to CJ [Cantrell], it’s like, ‘Look at my hands!’ When you put people in a world without a bridge like that, it’s very intimidating for either side. 

What is the bridge?

Just somebody that can speak both sides… It’s almost like having an ASL interpreter — we know we’re trying to say the same thing, but we’re speaking two different languages. You need somebody there to [connect it] if you want it to be successful. 

Right. Then I think the musicians that want to be a part of both sides need to be more open to accepting both schools of thought. 

I agree!

Right, yeah. We can’t say that one is more correct than the other. Y’know, sometimes music theory can be very limiting and you just need to be able to hear, y’know? It doesn’t matter how much you can write down on a page if when you play it feels robotic.

And you know as well as I do that theory is the aftermath of the creation. When you go back and look at the theory behind jazz, this is the stuff that the gospel dudes were already doing!

Oh my god! [laughs] Sometimes I come to an impasse and one of my bandmates will say, ‘Well, it’s not theoretically correct,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, but am I trying to abide by the white man’s music theory or am I trying to make ‘em feel somethin’? Y’know what I’m sayin’?

Right! Don’t it sound good?! That’s what it is!

Does it work though?! (laughs) What is a shed? 

A ‘shed’ is… random people get together and just play. Playin’licks, doin’all this stuff we don’t get to do on Sunday. You just trade off, people will get up and switch out and share gear… it’s crazy! It’s crazy.

That’s beautiful. Can you talk a bit about the importance of shed culture and how we need to get back to it?

Shed culture connects us, [for] one. Human-to-human connection… I’ve met some of the most incredible drummers I’ve ever seen ‘cuz I just pulled up at a shed. Everybody is different. We all have our own fingerprint. There’s been times where [a drummer at a shed] will play something and I’m like, ‘Alright! Let me go write me go write that down.’ We can trade voicings or they’ll show you things and it adds to [your] knowledge. So you got your interpersonal connection, you got your knowledge sharing. Beyond that, you have different communities of musicians coming together to make new sounds on top of that. That’s how you get stuff like the Live Action joint — three different church sounds coming together in one group. 

And it’s intergenerational! I think that’s so important. I cannot stress how important it is to collaborate with musicians outside of our age group… It’s like synergy. 

And it’s a new sound! Because the OGs play a lot different than we do.

Yeah… it is my life’s mission to combat the elitism ­­— in our jazz scene, but in music in general ­—with intergenerationality. Y’know, the cats that I look up to in the jazz world were being invited on the bandstand by cats that they looked up to.  And maybe they made a fool of themselves, y’know what I mean? Like, the Miles Davis at 16, 17 was not the Miles Davis that we listen to on Kind of Blue. [You have to be] allowed the space to mess up [so you can learn.] I think that’s important. If you could only give Louisville ONE reason why they shouldn’t sleep on our gospel scene, what would it be?

The one reason is that Louisville doesn’t have one style. [When] you go to New York they play one way across that whole state. When you go to Chicago, they play one way. When you go to Dallas, they play one way. When you go to LA, they play one way—

Don’t have the other-state people fightin’ me now!

Nah, it’s true! In Louisville, we don’t have a strong ‘this is how we play.’ You get a mixture. When I was playing at First Baptist Jeffersontown, [there was this] Mississippi organ style and this New York piano style sittin’ on top of a pocket drummer from New York sittin’on top of a bass player that grew up listenin’ to those three play together. That’s what sets Louisville apart and it makes us adaptable. We can fit into other peoples’ sounds ‘cuz we have to do it here anyway. 

How do you support the gospel community musically if you’re not religious?

I think it’s important to remember that religion is a piece of the culture and to look at it through a cultural lens. The philosophy we have at Hill Street is ‘just come.’ If you are religious, great. If you’re not religious, come. If you find your religion here, that’s awesome, we’re here for that, we’re going to support that growth. But at the same time, off the top of my head of the four of us that play Hill Street every week, only two of us are actually religious. They’re still here, they’re still learning, and it’s very easy to transfer that outside. 

I also understand that not every church is inviting like that and it’s honestly a problem in the gospel community, not the church music community, but the gospel community as a whole. [Separating ourselves from the sinners is] not the message. Our message is to go where the sinners are. We’re not supposed to partake in those activities but to go out where they are. It should be more of an outreach. It’s insane how many churches have ‘missionary’ in the title but they don’t leave their building. I think it’s important that we make a space for people to come into the church. You don’t need to be a member to come sing at Hill Street.

You can keep up with Cyr and Live Action on Instagram by following @liveaction502. Keep an ear out for his upcoming debut project Time.

You can find Kiana almost anywhere at @kianadelmusic and with her band @sunkingsmusic.