Feature Stories

The Relatives Come Back From the Dead With the Help of Their Fallen Leader

The Relatives have long been in the business of resurrection. The members of this Dallas psychedelic gospel band  are men of God, but they've walked different paths. Founding member Reverend Gean West found his way to the church after a five-year prison sentence, and got a new lease on life. His band would later reunite after nearly 30 years apart, and enjoy the biggest success of their career.

But finishing the Relatives' second album depended on a real resurrection. Goodbye World is ready to see the light of day — but it will happen without West, who died during recording.

"We were at the end of the album,” recalls Earnest Tarkington, another one of the Relatives’ founding members. It was early 2015 and the Relatives, now based in Austin, were in the studio completing the record when West fell ill and checked in to the hospital. “We had two more tracks before he got sick.”

Losing West is yet another in a long line of misfortunes that stalk the band. Founded in 1970, the Relatives played together for 10 years, releasing only a smattering of singles and never managing to break out of the regional circuit. It was only in 2013, four years after they had reunited and enjoyed an unlikely comeback following a fiery series of shows at South By Southwest, that they finally released their first full-length album.

West, who had suffered an array of heart health issues for several years prior, fell into a coma and stayed in the hospital for weeks. Goodbye World was put on hold. “[West] got out of the hospital and told us he had seen God,” Tarkington says. “God sent him back to finish the album. We thought it was a strange thing. We just kind of laughed and joked about it. But he said God had a little more work for him.”

West’s health was still fragile when he left the hospital, but he brought the group back together in a Dallas studio the week after his release. His bandmates say he had a sense of urgency.

“He was rushing us,” Tarkington says. “We were trying to tell him he wasn’t well. It was cold outside and we told him to stay home. But he said there was no time, God sent him back to do this. He was like, ‘Ya’ll come on, we’ve got to get this album done.’”

Tarkington remembers West being in a great mood in the studio after leaving the hospital. “He kept telling us he had been somewhere,” Tarkington says. “We said, ‘We know. You have been in the hospital, Gean.’” But West insisted that he had really been somewhere else and God had sent him back. “He said, ‘He told me I’m not done, I’m not going to take you now because I got a little more work for you to do.’”

Despite the shock from the other members of the Relatives, West kept pushing them. Tarkington remembers a difficult situation by the time the sessions came to an end. West struggled to make it through the final recordings, and almost went straight from the studio to the hospital.

On February 3, 2015, a week and a half later, he died. He was 78.

One of West’s last songs, “I Can’t Feel Nothing,” was released ahead of the new album, which arrives this Friday, April 29. But there was never any question that the nine-piece band would continue after he was gone, adding new members as needed: “'I don’t want you all to just slack up,'" Tarkington remembers his saying. "'I want you all to keep going. I want you to keep the dream alive. Don’t stop. You can do it.'”

Still, it took time for the Relatives to get back to performing — more than a year, in fact. Just last month, they returned to the stage at SXSW.

“It was real emotional. It was like when we first started. We didn’t know what to expect," Tarkington says. He and Reverend Tommie West, Gean's brother, are the only remaining members from the band's original lineup. “He always stayed on us. He was the leader of the group, making sure we were rehearsed and ready for a good show. We got onstage and prayed. His spirit was with us.”

But all doubt fell away after completing their first set.  “We knew we were ready then,” Tarkington says. “We knew he was looking down on us, smiling, saying, ‘Great job, well done.’” Reverend Gene West’s brother, Tommie, quickly stepped up and took over as the Relatives’ new leader. “He brings energy to the group,” Tarkington says. “We all love him. He keeps us alert.”

A few weeks ago, the Relatives performed again at Club Dada. A proper tribute show for West is forthcoming, but the band dedicates every show to him.

With Tarkington and Reverend Tommie West approaching 70, the Relatives are working on recruiting younger members to make sure the Relatives continue. Regardless if they are in a church or venue, they are dedicated to a mission of spreading the gospel and saving souls. “We change hearts, spiritually, with what we sing,” Tarkington says. “We write about stuff that is happening in the world today and show people there is a right way and a wrong way. We inherit what God is saying.”
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Jeremy Hallock