GREENSBORO, N.C. — It came to Lillian Livingston like a revelation. Her five year-old daughter, Rachel, had spent hours turning over records by Shirley Caesar, the "First Lady of Gospel Music," mimicking her tone and pitch.
"She says God told her I was meant to be a singer," the now grown-up Rachel Wilson smiled, "and sure enough, I've been a natural-born signer all my life."
For much of her young life, in front of the microphone, Rachel found her peace.
"She has a really rich tone and can do some things with her voice that are incredibly difficult," said Darin Freeman of DAF Records, "but she's still able to maintain the integrity of the song. It's very impressive."
Rachel has never purchased a non-gospel record. The music's message lifted her up - a feeling she rarely experienced during certain times in her childhood home.
As the seventh child of eleven in a single-parent household, she remembers times in her childhood were filled with anxiety and angry.
"We were so poor in Phoenix," she said, "I can remember times of not being able to wash clothes and desiring what other children had. They would smell like Downy and we had to scrub our clothes in the sink with bars of soap."
Even more impactful, Rachel said, than her family's living situation, was the absence of her father. Born out of constant questioning, Rachel said she held resentment in her heart for much of her teenage years.
"I spent so much time wondering how a man could have children on the earth but not want to be a part of their lives," she said, "I was mad at God, and my anxiety and depression at that age put me in such a dark place."
She bottomed out as a 16-year-old, tortured by thoughts of suicide. Rachel knew she needed to leave Arizona for her own sake.
"I knew I wanted a better life. I had family members that were into alcohol, weed, other stuff," Rachel said, "I guess I could have been caught up in it too, but I had made a choice: I wanted no part of it."
In her lowest moments, she returned to the light that had steadied her soul for much of her life. She wrote her first hit gospel single, H.A.P.P.Y., in the midst of her depression.
Fifteen years later, after meeting and marrying her husband, Ronald, from Wilmington, North Carolina the couple moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. He was starting Kingdom Vision Life Center, and she was more than happy to leave her past life behind. After hearing H.A.P.P.Y., Ronald encouraged her to record the song in a studio. The song's local success was enough to continue Rachel's pursuit of music.
In 21 years since, Rachel's singing career has continued to grow. Her "Praise Medley" currently sits on the Nielsen Music Charts Top 100. "Coach Bag" was recently featured on the B.E.T. Video Gospel.
Off the stage, the ministry, she said, helped heal her heart. Rachel has forgiven her father and moved beyond her humble upbringing. With music career blossoming, her new label, Tate Music Group, was promising radio plays, albums and public promotion that would vault Rachel's music past a compilation of successful solo singles.
"We were so excited, but we weren't really schooled in the business side of the industry, so having someone to promote my songs sounded incredible," Rachel said, "but when the royalty checks we were supposed to get weren't coming in the mail, I knew something was wrong."
In May 2017, the heads of Tate Music Group and Tate Publishing were charged with multiple counts of extortion, embezzlement and racketeering. The group had been stealing from their artists for years. The company folded later that year. Wilson was one of more than 1,100 clients left out in the cold.
The two decades of work Rachel had put into building her profile as a gospel singer was now, suddenly, lost. Adding insult to injury, the publishing company had lied to its clients, improperly formatting music, making it ineligible for major radio play, awards and charting.
"It was tough. It's like my career started over," Rachel said, "but now it makes me appreciate the Bobby Jones Show and where I am today even more."
Three months ago, after a stellar live performance on Bobby Jones' gospel television show in Nashville, Tennessee, Rachel's team received a call from Daf Records' Co-Owner, Pastor Darin Freeman Sr.
Freeman wanted to sign Wilson to a new record deal, one more in line with today's online streaming chart standards. The conglomerate is small, with only six artists signed, but the deal would make Rachel's music eligible for national recognition like the Grammy's. After all she had been through, it felt like the perfect opportunity to start over. Her music is now played on radio stations across the country.
"It was just, 'Thank you Lord! God I really needed this,'" she said, "I was trusting in God, trusting in His process, but I can't lie, at the time, I was really down and discouraged. For it to happen like it did, it was a new light in my life."
"If she came along, already rich, already signed, didn't have any trial, she wouldn't have had this triumph," Ronald, her husband, said, "her testimony has weight to it. I think it will give others hope."
The journey, from abject poverty to Nashville record deals mimics the message of Rachel's music.
"It's the reason I am such an advocate for gospel music," she said, "It's all about hope, raising others up, persevering when life looks bleak."
"I really want to share my story with others. Hopefully, they'll look at me and think, 'I can do it too.,'" she said, "I want to be a person that encourages others to search for the peace that I have found."
Rachel will begin touring on the East Coast next month.