Salvation in the Hollow: Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle find comfort, grace in that old gospel sound
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Life isn’t an easy journey.
As working musicians trying to make a living doing what they love, Jeff Barbra and his wife, Sarah Pirkle, know that well. The couple, who live in the Barb Hollow community of Walland, have scraped and clawed and hustled to get the word out about their songs, both locally and regionally.
Sometimes — as in the case of “Come Home Good Boy,” a song written by Pirkle that was recently cut by bluegrass maven Dale Ann Bradley and praised specifically in a New York Times review of Bradley’s album — life opens doors of opportunity. But at times it also slams other doors shut, with such cruelty and force that darkness spreads like fingers of night over their rural home.
Such was the place the two found themselves roughly 18 months ago.
“After three miscarriages, we were not in a good place,” Pirkle told The Daily Times during a recent interview. “I expected that my whole purpose in life was that I would become a mother, and I was having to let go of that vision of what my future would be like. I didn’t feel like I had a purpose at one point. I didn’t care about my health, didn’t care if I ate myself to death or drank myself to death, because I wasn’t going to have any children or grandchildren, so I didn’t think there was much left to live for.”
Fast-forward to this month, when the couple releases “Family Singing (The Gospel Collection).” It’s a spirited album of country-gospel, lifted up on Barbra’s smooth tenor and his wife’s warbling soprano, a beautiful record that alternates between solemn hymns and caught-up-in-the-Spirit passion. It’s the sound of rejoicing, and a reflection of the grace the two feel they’ve received since those dark days.
Their walk may be no easier, and their struggles are still earthly in nature. But thanks to Christian charity, unconditional love and a newfound sense of faith, they also realize that they do not walk alone.
“I like to share the joy I’ve got in my heart with everybody,” Barbra said. “I’m not saying every day is great or perfect, but I’ve got a place to go. I can talk to my God, any time, 24/7. Life still has its ups and downs, and I struggle just like everybody else does. But I’ve gotten some comfort, and that’s the greatest gift I could be given.
“There’s just a bigger plan now, and we do what we’re doing with it. We’ve been blessed with these songs; we can’t take credit for any of them, for any songs that move somebody on any level.”
“We didn’t write them; we just wrote them down,” Pirkle added.
The two have been together since meeting at Murlin’s Music World in Maryville, where Pirkle was a young fiddle teacher. Barbra’s dad, Donnie, also taught there, and the young couple bonded over music. They found instant musical chemistry when they played together, and by 1997, they were married. Over the past several years, they’ve made inroads into the local grassroots scene, first through the WDVX-FM program “Behind the Barn,” a live broadcast they hosted for years.
They started cutting albums together — “Dog Years” in 2000 and “The Barb Hollow Sessions” in 2004; Barbra released a solo album, “Country Music for Country People,” and cut one album with local honky-tonk outfit The Drunk Uncles. Pirkle teamed up with some amazing local ladies and played in groups like the Maid Rite String Band and the Naughty Knots, and last year she released her solo album, “Walking Tall Through High Weeds.”
But the light of their accomplishments was dimmed by the personal anguish they felt over the lost of each unborn child. In their grief, however, they found helping hands reaching out to grab hold of them.
“A lot of church-going people were ministering to me in a non-judgmental way,” Pirkle said. “There are maybe 20 of them I could think of off the top of my head calling to check on us and telling us they were praying for us. One lady paid for a whole month’s worth of (violin) lessons she didn’t get, just because she knew we needed it.”
And then opportunity came knocking, and the two found a task that helped them set their self-pity aside. A cousin of Pirkle’s had a child with a chromosomal disorder and needed $5,000 to get the kid medical care; Pirkle decided to organize a music benefit to help raise the money.
“I was expecting to raise maybe $1,000, but we raised $3,000 that first night, and by the end of the weekend, we’d raised the whole thing,” Pirkle said. “And it was nothing I did. There was a greater force at work there.”
One of the participating musicians was an old friend and bandmate of Barbra’s in The Drunk Uncles — Blount County boy Eric Keeble, who also plays with The Moonshine Cherrys and any number of other local outfits. As a thank-you — to Keeble for his efforts, and to God for the blessings of that weekend — they agreed to attend church with Keeble and his family the next morning. They hadn’t been to church in years, and in the past, they said, their own insecurities and questions made the experience an uncomfortable one.
This time, though, they were ready. Walking through the doors of Faithway Fellowship in Jesus Name on Sevierville Road, a non-denominational, low-key gathering of like-minded Christians that took the couple in. They felt their spirits bloom like flowers fanning their petals to soak up the sun, and they kept going back.
“From the minute we walked in, it felt like every word and every song was for us,” Pirkle said. “It was a transformative experience. It was exactly what we were needing to get through the things we had been dealing with.”
Today, they host “In the Spirit,” a Sunday morning radio show on WFIV-FM, 105.3 i105, and they’re celebrating the release of “Family Singing” on Oct. 22 in Knoxville and Nov. 3 in Maryville. They haven’t changed on the outside — they’re still the same simple country folks they’ve always been. But there’s a light in their eyes that wasn’t there before, and more importantly, there’s a light in their spirit that keeps that darkness from swallowing them whole.
“We’ve always wanted to do it, but Sarah and I both agreed that we weren’t comfortable making a gospel record unless we were 100 percent into it,” Barbra said. “Now, I haven’t written a secular song in probably a year and a half. It’s not that I don’t want to; this is just what’s on my heart.”
“Our pastor says all the time that we’re all just people,” Pirkle added. “None of us are perfect, and this is something for people to seek out on their own. For me, it was a huge relief to realize that being in control of one’s life is really an illusion, because it was a big burden to try and control every detail of my life. Now, I just feel like the purpose for my life is not my own.”