Last year, the Legendary Ingramettes played in Serbia and Bulgaria. Neither country might mark the sort of spot a young musician dreams of playing, but the Ingramettes have their own story to tell, and winding up in Serbia turned out to be not just the pinnacle of a long career, but the spiritual completion of a decades-long hope.
Almeta Ingram-Miller leads the Richmond-based gospel group, but you have to go back a generation to get its start. The group in one form or another has been singing for 64 years now, starting in pre-Civil Rights Florida and Georgia and continuing today.
Ingram-Miller’s mother, Maggie Ingram, started the group all those years ago, in large part to support her family after her husband had left. Ingram and the kids sang, and they set out on a journey that would take them out of their home, connect them to the Civil Rights Movement, and spread their faith.
In line with that work, Ingram-Miller became an ordained Baptist minister in 2003.
“The call to a preaching-of-the-gospel ministry, for me, is an extension of the singing ministry that we began,” she explained. “It was a clear call where God says, ‘You know what? I love what you’re doing with the singing, but you’ve gotta do more.’
That ministry of preaching and singing goes outside both the church and the concert halls. The Ingramettes currently have relationships with the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland and the Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George County. The group initially began going simply to sing at the minimum-security camps, but soon began helping arrange visits between the inmates and their families by providing rides out to the institutions.
“All of these things have grown out of my mom’s initial investment in the singing ministry,” Ingram-Miller said. “It’s all grown out of the fact that you just need to do the right thing.”
Even before Maggie Ingram’s passing in 2015, the transition to a new era was beginning as she passed the baton on to Ingram-Miller, who references the story of Elijah and Elisha and the double portion from 2 Kings. She thinks of Elisha’s need to cross the same water his predecessor did, but he knows what works, and that’s what Ingram-Miller has done in continuing her mom’s music.
That Legendary Ingramettes sound comes from a very particular place, and not just “gospel” in general. They’ve built a sound on a traditional male quartet structure, like that used by the Dixie Hummingbirds (an act they “grew up listening to and singing on stage with”). Ingram-Miller explains how putting the tenor on top in a quartet allows “the tones that come out [to be] a little more intense … they pack a little more punch than in choral singing.”
The current lineup hasn’t gotten far from those roots, and it’s one of the few groups left singing that way. Ingram-Miller said the group is “very versatile,” but it hasn’t made the “change to the urban contemporary gospel style.”
“The best of us comes through in the quartet singing,” she explained.
And the best of the Legendary Ingramettes is something special. The new album, “Take a Look in the Book,” was produced as part of the Virginia Folklife Program; the singers also recorded a live album together in 2011. Program director Jon Lohman explained that creating this album was “a great honor and pleasure,” and he added that Ingram-Miller’s “voice is incomparable, and I’d say she’s my favorite singer.”
The album includes original compositions, traditional songs, and pieces by Ola Belle Reed and Bill Withers — all done in a big, potent style. The Withers cut, “Grandma’s Hands,” includes additional lyrics to personalize it, bringing in Ingram-Miller’s own grandmother’s life picking cotton.
“Anyone can sing someone else’s song,” she said, “but it’s more important that you share some of yourself. Every song might not reach every person, but it is our prayer that you’re just a little better, you feel a little lighter, because you heard an encouraging word, even in the midst of struggles. My pastor always says, ‘You cannot climb high on a smooth mountain.’ You need crevices.”
Ingram-Miller would know. She remembers a time when her mom wanted to vote for John F. Kennedy, but couldn’t afford the poll tax, so she came home and cried. She remembers the hard work just so they could go to school; she still doesn’t like butterbeans because she had to shell so many of them. And she certainly remembers the time she couldn’t go out to play because they were waiting for some deacons to come cut down the man who had been lynched in their yard.
But in those times, her Grandma would lay her hands on their heads in blessing.
“That’s what a blessing really is,” Ingram-Miller says. “To speak into someone’s life.”
She carries a sense of blessing with her in her art and in her life. While she can look back on something like the lynching or the poverty, she’s more excited to bring up positive stories, like the time an unlikely white man protected and helped her family at his “whites-only” service station as the family traveled from Florida to Richmond. Remembering those experiences “puts a smile on your face.”
“It keeps hope within you, and hope does not disappoint,” she said.
The music, the service, the ministry: it adds up to important work for the artists, looking both forward and backward.
“You have to keep telling your story,” Ingram-Miller said. “We’re keeping that alive, but we’re also keeping that hope alive. There are people in this world who do care about other people.”
Some of that hope comes from her mother’s story.
“She could do all that with a third-grade education,” Ingram-Miller mused. “But when she passed away, she had been given an honorary doctorate. … How can that figure in the mind of a 16-year-old girl who gets married to a sharecropper?”
And “all that” brings the story back to Serbia and Bulgaria. When Maggie Ingram left Florida at the call of God, she had Genesis 12 in mind, when God tells Abram that if he leaves his land, then, through him, God will bless people all over the world. That’s what Ingram held on to. She never left the country, but her daughter did, and she was “overwhelmed,” even when changing planes in Vienna before reaching Serbia. She was thinking of an ancient promise, held onto for 60 years and now fulfilled.
“These aren’t things that it takes billions of dollars to do,” said Ingram-Miller. “It just takes a heart that says, ‘Here am I. I’ll do that.’”