Same Roots, Separate Sounds

New exhibit highlights Gospel’s role in our region’s music

In 2020, the Tryon (North Carolina) Fine Arts Center launched its Illuminations Through Music and Heritage exhibit, shining a light on the region’s diverse musicians. The program is funded in part through the Communities Connecting Heritage grant administered by World Learning and the U.S. Department of State. An organization dedicated to supporting youth music education, Pacolet Junior Appalachian Musicians (PacJAM) is a cooperating affiliate organization in the effort. Telling the story through photos, audio and video, one of the program’s core exhibits is “Same Roots, Separate Sounds,” featuring a half dozen musicians. One of the featured music personalities is Gospel vocalist Tonya Staley.

What are the specific goals of the “Same Roots, Separate Sounds” exhibit?
Julia Moore, Program Director: While PacJAM teaches music through using Appalachian song traditions, we want our students and broader community to have a comprehensive understanding of the multitude of voices comprising the region’s musical genres. We have all benefited from hearing the music and experiences of the guest artists in our enrichment program. “Same Roots, Separate Sounds” is our public access archive of these local artists.

What did Tonya Staley bring to the program that was special and unique?
Moore: Our other guests did not link their music with their spirituality. Tonya was a wonderful addition to our program; she did a beautiful job communicating to our youth that the driving force behind Gospel is to bring praise to God.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, what’s the future of the program?
Moore: PacJAM was able to run a successful fall 2020 all-outdoors session, at nearly full capacity. We are at a reduced budget this year, but we’re trying to hold space in our budget to resume bringing guests artists to work with our youth for the spring semester.

Ms. Staley, What’s your background in Gospel music?
Tonya Staley: A lot of what I know about music and what I’ve learned is because I sing. I have a brother who taught me. He’s a writer and musician; he’s a pastor now at our home church in Marion and affiliate of the Gospel Music Workshop of America founded by James Cleveland.

Have you brought Gospel music to people outside your home church before now?
Staley: Yes, with my brother, because he did have a non-denominational singing group called Voices of Inspiration. We’ve been to several states: North and Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Philadelphia, upstate New York, Missouri, Louisiana, D.C. … we’ve been lots and lots of places. It’s not “performance.” It’s ministry.

What form did your part of the exhibit take?
It’s kind of interactive. I did a little background on Gospel music: there’s Southern gospel, there’s traditional, there’s contemporary. I talked to the Polk County students about my experience with Gospel music, what I’ve learned, things that I’ve been involved in, how important it is to me and what it means in our community. Then I taught the students a song – one that most of them had heard anyway, “How Great is Our God” – and we had a sing-along.