For fans of the Mississippi blues, Hunter's Chapel Church in Como, Miss., is something of a landmark.
The late country blues giant Mississippi Fred McDowell was a parishioner there and in 1966 cut a record, the classic spirituals collection Amazing Grace, featuring its choir. Other members of the church have included the deceased fife and drum masters Napolian Strickland and Othar Turner.
And then there is the man in the pulpit. Last weekend the Rev. John Wilkins marked his 27th year leading the congregation at Hunter's Chapel, a low-key occasion celebrated with a service, an evening reception, and no doubt plenty of singing from the man himself.
"I do a lot of singing in my service," says Wilkins, who is often backed by his daughters, the gospel-singing group Tan & the Violinettes. "I like to get them fired up."
Most anyone who goes to Hunter's Chapel knows that Wilkins' musicality is a legacy from his father, the revered Memphis blues man Robert Wilkins. Fewer know about Wilkins' own early music career. But that's beginning to change as the reverend, like his father, who enjoyed his own late-life career revival, has begun preaching the gospel of the blues to worldwide audiences far removed from his small country church.
Last year Wilkins, 68, released his debut album, the vaguely spiritual country blues set You Can't Hurry God, on the Oxford-based Fat Possum Records' offshoot label Big Legal Mess. And now he finds himself taking breaks from preaching to hit the road, playing before blues fans and college kids in New York City, Chicago, and Atlanta.
"The only thing I hate about it is that I waited until I got so old," says Wilkins, who plays his hometown of Memphis Saturday, opening for his alternative rock labelmate Jack Oblivian and his band at the Hi-Tone Café. "But it's like I always say: What God has for you is for you. It's just a matter of time."
Wilkins is the next to youngest of six surviving children born to Robert Wilkins, a Hernando, Miss.-born singer and guitarist who came up in the influential Memphis blues scene of the 1920s alongside Furry Lewis, the Memphis Jug Band, and Memphis Minnie. A popular and versatile performer -- he was known to jump from country blues to ragtime to minstrel tunes to gospel -- the elder Wilkins, nevertheless, walked away from a secular career in the 1930s after one particularly violent Hernando gig. By the time young John came along in 1943, Robert Wilkins was only playing gospel music.
"There was always music around the house, though," remembers Wilkins. "And I learned from watching him. I started playing guitar when I was about 5 years old. They bought me a toy guitar, and I've had one ever since."
John Wilkins made his performing debut in church "around the the age of 12." When he turned 18, he traveled down state and began playing the blues in a cousin's honky tonk, establishing the same tension between the secular and spiritual worlds that marked his father's music career.
"(Dad) never did say anything, but mother always had some concerns," says Wilkins. "She always told him I couldn't play both of them. I had to choose which one I wanted to play, the blues or gospel. And she though I should be playing gospel. But dad never said anything. He understood. He was the same way."
Throughout his 20s, as his father was being rediscovered by a new generation of blues enthusiasts, Wilkins made a modest name as a sideman, playing with the "Mother of Beale Street," Ma Rainey II, and fallen gospel great-turned-soul singer O.V. Wright, with whom he memorably cut the 1965 single "You're Gonna Make Me Cry."
By the '70s, however, Wilkins had returned to gospel as a member of recording artists the M&N Gospel Singers. In 1985, just two years before Robert Wilkins passed away, John became the preacher at Hunter's Chapel.
Oddly, it was his duties as a preacher that led Wilkins to return to the music business. When his parishioner Turner, who had in his final years become an internationally recognized blues performer, died in 2003, Wilkins officiated at his funeral. Blues fans, who had long heard that Robert Wilkins had a son who sang and preached, approached him after the service and started the ball rolling on his return.
"I knew of John through his father's recordings, but I had never seen or heard him perform," says says Big Legal Mess’ Bruce Watson, who engineered You Can't Hurry God for producer Amos Harvey. "When Amos played the demos they had been working on, I was blown away. I immediately wanted to work with him and put out the record. It was refreshing because he is coming from the same place as guys like Fred McDowell, Joe Callicott, Ranie Burnette, and R.L. Burnside. I knew I had to be involved."
You Can't Hurry God features several Wilkins originals as well as his distinctive takes on two of his father's songs: "Prodigal Son," a reworked earlier, secular tune that was covered by the Rolling Stones on the classic Beggar's Banquet album, and "Jesus Will Fix It," well known from the Doobie Brothers' version. The album has made Wilkins, already planning a follow-up release, an unlikely star on the blues circuit.
"It makes me feel good," he says of his newfound celebrity. "It makes me feel good because I think about daddy and about how I'm the only one in the family that's taken on this music A lot of people still ask me about my father. A lot of places I go, they bring up a cassette or CD or something they got on him. It just makes me feel good to carry it on, and I hope my children and grandchildren will be able to carry it on, too."
Jack O & the Tearjerkers with the Rev. John Wilkins
9 p.m. Saturday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar Ave. Admission: $8; advance tickets available at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call (901) 278-8663.