By Bob Marovich
Gospel’s Troy Sneed and country’s Roy Acuff share similar back stories.
Both grew up in the South. Both aspired to be professional athletes. For Sneed, it was football; for Acuff, baseball. The pro careers of both men were halted by injury or illness. Each turned to music instead. It became their life’s work.
“That tragedy was a new beginning for me,” Sneed said recently. Sidelined by knee and ACL injuries, the freshman at Florida A&M traded his gridiron jersey for a choir robe and joined the university’s 200-voice gospel choir.
Part of Sneed’s interest in the gospel choir was why most young men join music groups. “I went to my first choir rehearsal,” Sneed laughed, “and thought, ‘Wow! Look at all these girls! This is where I need to be!’” Sneed met his wife, Emily, in the choir. The two have been married 22 years.
Troy Sneed, ‘Lay It Down,’ from the artist’s 2012 album, All Is Well
The gospel choir also awakened Sneed’s musical talent and opened up a door for him. His introduction to music as a profession happened in Los Angeles, when the Georgia Mass Choir shared a program with the Florida A&M Gospel Choir. Sneed recalled: “Rev. Milton Biggham, founder of the Georgia Mass Choir, heard me sing and asked if I would be interested in being part of Georgia Mass Choir when I graduated? I said, ‘Yeah, as long as I don’t have to move to Georgia!’”
During his twelve-year tenure with the Georgia Mass Choir, Sneed did a little of everything. “It was where I got my feet wet in the music industry,” he said, “because I had a chance to study and learn. Whatever they asked me to do, I did it. I came in as a musician, and after a while, I directed a couple of songs. Then I started singing lead on some songs, writing songs, and they allowed me to produce a couple of tracks. I learned the industry side while I was there.”
Although he had a bigger passion for the mechanics of the music industry than for singing, Sneed cut a couple of solo albums for Savoy Records. He and Emily then decided to step out on faith and start their own label. They called it Emtro Gospel, an elision of their first names. “We didn’t have any investors,” Sneed said, “we just had ourselves and did whatever we had to do to generate revenue. God took that little bit and allowed us to build our company.”
Troy Sneed, the title track from All Is Well
Emtro’s first major success came in 2005 with Alvin Darling’s spirited and churchy “All Night.”
Sneed said, “At first, I really didn’t think [“All Night”] was going to work. We put duct tape and glue and everything else on that track, but sure enough, it just took off! It stuck! It launched Alvin’s career—he had been around for years, writing hits—but he never had success as an artist until then.”
In the late 1990s, Sneed organized a group called Youth for Christ. Even though the ensemble garnered a Grammy nomination for its debut album, its records did not sell well until The Struggle is Over. Recorded live in Baltimore, the album featured Jonathan Nelson on the title track. It won a Stellar Award in 2006.
“There wasn’t a building period; we had immediate success,” Sneed reflected. “Things took off really fast. So when business tapered off, we weren’t used to it!”
Troy Sneed, ‘My Heart Says Yes,’ a live performance from SpaceCherryFilms.com
Sneed put his solo career on hold while juggling responsibilities at Emtro. In 2010, Emily coaxed him back into the recording studio, where he recorded his composition, “My Heart Says Yes.” The single was a hit and signaled his return as an artist. “‘My Heart Says Yes’ made it to number two on the charts,” he said. “The song that kept it from going to number one was Kirk Franklin’s ‘I Smile.’”
His songwriting sweet spot, Sneed said, is writing about what people are going through and keeping the message uncomplicated “so anybody can understand it. I don’t make it deep. It’s better to keep it simple.”
Another sweet spot is single releases. Sneed likes to mine as many singles as possible from his albums. For example, his latest hit, “I Know You Hear Me,” is the third single from All is Well. “I’m going back old-school,” Sneed laughed. “I’m going to keep rolling out singles!”
As a vocalist, Sneed cites many inspirations. “I listen to all kinds of music, from country to classical. I’m a fan of Luther Vandross, DeBarge, the Isley Brothers. Those ‘70s and ‘80s artists, that’s where I am, so you’ll hear a lot of those influences, that old-school R&B groove, in my music.”
Troy Sneed, ‘In This Place’
Although he continues to move forward with his solo career, Sneed has “put the record executive hat back on” to release a new album by the Arkansas Gospel Mass Choir. He also anticipates another Youth for Christ CD. Meanwhile, Emtro signed Larry McCullough and CG out of Greenville, South Carolina, “a very progressive young adult group,” Sneed commented. Tampa, Florida’s Cepeda McKay and NO LIMITS is another recent Emtro acquisition.
Sneed likes to provide a platform for new artists, but advises them to “find your sound. Be original. There’s so much music out here that a lot of it’s starting to sound alike. Do your research and make sure you understand how to make a record. You can be a great singer, musician, or songwriter, but if your song is recorded incorrectly, it will negate all that.
“And build your audience. It always starts at home. How are you going to sell records in New York, Detroit, or LA and they don’t even know you in your own backyard?”
For more information, visit www.emtro.com.
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer and author. His “Gospel Memories” radio program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago’s WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at the station’s website. Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard online at the Gospel Memories Radio Show. Bob is also founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog.