the reverend lester knox

"Put Your Face in Gwod collects some of the strangest broadcasts from over 20 years of the fire-spitting Reverend Lester Knox’s self-financed radio show in rural Georgia. The man threatens vengeance upon the demons that afflict the lights in the radio station, sings dreadfully out-of-tune hymns on Jandek guitar, exhorts timid yips from a small group of devoted followers in the studio, and regularly speaks in tongues. And all this in the muddiest of Deep South drawls. The tousle-haired indie elite out there in Internet land may already be twisting their mugs into ironic grimaces, but hold back. Put Your Face in Gwod is far more than a novelty record; it’s a fascinating cultural document, alternately charming and chilling, and an engaging musical experience, on par with the Shaggs for sheer misguided exuberance.

Tom Smith of To Live and Shave in LA pored through hours of tape to bring us this tight 70 minute collection, cleverly assembled into a cut-n-paste Ur-version of a Knox broadcast. It begins and ends with an appropriately cheesy radio voice announcing the good Rev for “your spiritual uplifting.” But he couldn’t possibly prepare the listener for Lester’s manic charisma. Knox yelps, caterwauls, and caws for the Lord with a ferocity that will raise the hair on your arms. He delivers his sermons in full-breath bursts with a hypnotic storytelling lilt that badgers the listener. Each burst is punctuated with a slobbering “Amen” that pops as powerfully as a krik krak in Caribbean oral stories.

Between Knox’s semi-coherent outbursts, his flock sings Christian standards, accompanied by lazy guitars, clumsily banged drums, and the occasional wheezy harmonica. Both as examples of American folk music and documents of outsider art, these songs command attention. Particularly compelling is a rendition of “Mother’s Only Sleeping” screechily sung by several old women. After the song, Knox declares that he is “drunk on the power of God,” and the wavering whispers of “Praise God” stuttered by the women in the background floor me every time.

Other winners include Brother Haywood’s creaky-voiced “Give Mother My Crown” (dedicated to Sister Davis) and “I Live in Glory.” The bizarre tunings and time-ravaged vocals should doom these songs, but somehow their sincerity and the sleepy blankets of lo-fi hiss elevate them from curios to head-bobbing ditties that’ll produce sheepish grins of real pleasure.

As good as many of the hymns are, Knox’s frothing sermons star here. His stories of revivals in Indiana, the exaltations of crazed followers (“I wanna get hiiiiiiiigggghhhhh and close to the Lord”), and his severe denunciations of mini-skirts and the “drug bottle” will seep into your brain. And, yeah, a lot of this is pretty funny. When someone fiddles with the doors on his studio and Knox throws a righteous tantrum, I couldn’t help but laugh, and I take this collection far more seriously than most will. But before the record lapses into novelty, Knox delivers disturbing lines denouncing “half-breeds” and Jews, and the listener realizes that this man spoke real words to real people, and these words reflected the attitudes of not only the Reverend, but his audience as well. While this truth is sobering, it adds extra depth to the recording.

Picture yourself slapping mosquitoes in the Georgia heat and spinning the FM dial to hear Lester through the static. He’s only fifteen miles away in Tifton, and you recognize some of the Sisters receiving shout-outs. When you place Knox in his context, you sense how powerful this man was, despite his prejudices and absurdities. So put your face in Gwod and watch out for the dark angel of the Lord.

See you all in the Gloryland world."

(bryan berge, stylus magazine)