Denton musicians Cassandra Berry and Mark Graham met when Berry was putting a project together for Denton County Friends of the Family.
Berry, an alto who grew up in the black church singing a sprawling musical catalog, was building a project for healing through the arts that culminated in a choir coined Lorrie’s Joy. Graham was tapped as the group’s music director.
Soon after that, he was dialing Berry’s number to perform solos at special worship services at First Christian Church, where Graham is the music minister. It didn’t take long before the singer and the pianist were talking about a side project. They perform their first “Gospel Hour” concert in a week.
“Our first rehearsal was July 3, 2018. My mother’s first birthday in heaven and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ before we went on to the other music,” Graham said. “I told [the Rev.] Russell [VanHoose] ‘We sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ and it’s going to sound weird, but it was like we were sanctified because of it.’”
Berry, a member of Morse Street Baptist Church in Denton, said she and Graham wrote two songs during that first rehearsal. The duo forged a friendship around their common love of music.
“We talked about doing a show together, and decided, ‘Let’s focus on our two main areas,’” Berry said. “For me, the main thing is gospel. I’m not formally trained, and Mark is. So it’s nice to work with someone for whom that’s not a barrier.”
Graham has spent a career in music, playing everything from jazz to classical and Broadway before returning to his Denton hometown and a church gig that allows him to bring all of those musical flavors into the liturgy.
“I’m working on about six set lists of music for us,” Graham said. “I’ve got a jazz set, a gospel set, even a country set.”
Berry cracked a smile.
“You might not think so, but there’s a lot of country music I just love,” she said.
“There’s so much overlap between country and gospel people don’t know about,” Graham added. “At any rate, Cassandra kept telling me, ‘I want to do a gospel hour.’ So we’re doing it.”
The pair is keeping their song list close to the vest, but promise that their hour on the patio of Sweetwater Grill & Tavern will include some familiar gospel standards. Berry said she expects the audience of their upcoming “Gospel Hour” to include faithful Christians and people who’d sooner pass a church than drop in for worship.
“Gospel doesn’t hit you between the ears. It hits you in the heart,” Berry said. “A lot of people might think that gospel will be like church and be about condemning and about sin. That’s not what this music is about. It’s about a thunderous passion for living life to the fullest. Gospel tells a story with a happy ending.”
Berry said she won’t be singing to convert the audience. She’ll be singing about love and hope.
Graham said the pair might seem unlikely — a white pianist who coordinates music at the local Disciples of Christ congregation and a black vocalist who’s been singing gospel almost from the cradle.
“We’re a package deal,” he said. “We’ll put on a show. But we’re playing songs of love, hope and unity.”
Karen Meredith, co-owner of Sweetwater Grill & Tavern, said love, hope and unity are just what people need right now. When the local watering hole reopened after years of different ownership, Meredith said the Tuesday and Thursday night jazz shows have been part of the return to the original Sweetwater.
Graham said he wanted to bring the Gospel Hour to the famous Sweetwater patio because of its status as a beloved local hangout.
“Years and years ago, I’d come over here with my laptop — they had good Wi-Fi — and I wrote music here. I wrote song lyrics, I wrote short stories. I’d stay here for hours,” Graham said. “It’s like being on your grandmother’s back porch.”
Berry said she hopes some of her friends will attend.
“When I talk to my friends, adults, a lot of people have never been to Sweetwater,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t feel welcome in downtown Denton — and now, especially with that [Confederate soldier] monument, a lot of people don’t feel welcome. I’d like to see that change.”
Meredith said she plans to book Berry and Graham every second and fourth Sunday for their shows.
Graham said he’ll probably weave some 1960s pop songs with positive messages into the show. There will be some somber numbers, he said, but he promises some toe-tapping music, too.
“This is gospel music,” Berry added. “You can go from lamentation to celebration in one song.”
Graham said he looks forward to a long partnership making music with Berry.
“There are all these great musicians around here,” Graham said. “But you know, that doesn’t always mean there’s chemistry.”