The gospel truth

Francine Reed gave Lyle Lovett the blues and took him to church

"I wasn't impressed with his singing," vocalist Francine Reed says of her first encounter with mentor and singing-partner-to-be Lyle Lovett. Reed, who has provided lush gospel backing for Lovett's laconic moans for the last quarter-century, was recruited in Phoenix, where she lived at the time, to sing for a demo Lovett was doing in 1983. Lovett was in the studio at the time, but his vocals, which Reed was providing the backing for, had already been recorded. "So I didn't see his mouth move, but they say this guy is singing all these songs, which is very hard for me to believe in this world of electronics," Reed says.

"When he called a couple of months later and wanted me to do Austin City Limits, that was the first gig, and after that show, my first words to him were, 'You really are singing these songs!'" Won over by his voice as well as "his tall hair," Reed has toured the world with Lovett ever since.

Reed's no cowgirl, and nobody has tried any makeovers of the cowpoke persuasion on her. Her celestial warbling, delivered with enough holy-ghost power to blow the doors off a cathedral, is a perfect counterpoint to Lovett's laid-back drawl.

"Gospel is what we were raised on singing as children," Reed says in a call from San Francisco, where she's appearing in an avant-garde production, Teatro ZinZanni, which she describes as "Cirque du Soleil meets dinner-in-the-round on acid."

Reed, who now makes her home in Atlanta, will go back to her gospel roots for her upcoming Atlanta show. Her family has had a choir since she was a child in Chicago. But her father was not a minister: "Oh, no," Reed says. "That's the last thing he was. But he was quite a singer. Oh, my Lord, he had a marvelous voice."

The family never considered themselves gospel artists. "We were R&B singers, but we had to go to church every Sunday. So we sang in church." Her remaining family members – sisters Margo, Melanie and Laverne, and brother Michael – still carry on the tradition. When the family moved to different parts of the country, they seldom performed, but whenever they came together, they always sang together. But as for performing on stage together, it's been years. "It's a thrill to have a family that's so talented and can still get along well enough to stay together for three or four days," Reed says, laughing.

Moving to Atlanta in '94, Reed found a new family. "Atlanta encouraged me to record," she chuckles. "When I got to Atlanta, seemed like everybody I met had a record." Moving in across the street from local blues club Blind Willie's, she was asked to go to Switzerland as a last-minute replacement for a local band member. On her return she had enough blues tunes to do a demo for the now-defunct Atlanta label Ichiban. That resulted in '96's I Can't Make It on My Own, followed by I Want You to Love Me, in '97. It's labeled blues, but there's enough gospel there for Reed to start her own church. Her work keeps showing up on re-releases she's not compensated for, but she refuses to let it get her down. "People go, 'Isn't it horrible about these record companies?' And I go, 'I didn't lose anything.' 'Course, I don't get nothing, but I get the pleasure of knowing that people have me still, 'cause it still keeps my name out there."

Her name, and that celestial voice – a mix of Ella Fitzgerald and Mavis Staples with a bit of Sister Rosetta Tharpe – still fills venues 'round the world. This outing, with longtime backing band Java Monkey, will be a mix of secular and gospel. "Sister Malvie, Sister Laverne, Sister Margo and brother Michael and me all sing individually," Reed says. "They'll be singing some a capella stuff and some with the band. It'll be just one big, drag-out, sho-nuff, stomp-it-up show."