Gospel group sings praises of Dot roots

The singers of Ashmont Hill include, l-r, Phil Thompson, April Joy Thompson, Deborah Bullock and Wil Bullock. Photo courtesy Big Machine Media

Over the years, the Ashmont Hill section of Dorchester has shared its name with tire stores, trendy eateries, an MBTA stop and even an alt-rock record label.

Now, a newly formed gospel quartet with deep roots in the neighborhood have adopted the moniker.

Ashmont Hill, who released their self-titled debut album in May, includes three former residents with fond memories of the place. In fact, the publicity push behind the new album describes it as "an idyllic community in Boston from which a large, loving family was birthed into musical tradition."

The group includes Phil Thompson, 33, his sisters April Joy Thompson, 31, and Deborah Bullock, 22, and brother-in-law Wil Bullock, Deborah's husband, 26. The four came together about a year-and-a-half ago thanks in part to the encouragement of their father, Bishop Gilbert Thompson, the pastor of the huge Jubilee Christian Center on Blue Hill Avenue.

April Joy Thompson says that the worship and praise singers gave some thought to using the family name. Their dad liked the name, "Bishop's Kids."

"Uhh, we're a little old for that, dad," April recalls explaining.

The Ashmont Hill name was perfect, she says, because, "We wanted a name that would tie us all together."

Phil Thompson explains: "Ashmont Hill is the area that we grew up in, on Roslin Street."

Before moving to Roslin Street, the Thompson family lived on Wainwright Street for about eight years. Today, Phil lives in Foxborough and his fellow group members live in Milton.

"It was just a nice neighborhood and we really had the best of both worlds," Phil says of their Dorchester upbringing. "We were in the METCO program. Ashmont Hill the neighborhood itself was close to Wayland.

"We were wrestling with some names, but that's where we started."

Where the group is headed is another story. The album debuted at number 10 on the Gospel Billboard charts. Ashmont Hill is fresh off a 25 date sweep through the American heartland as part of singer Natalie Grant's national tour. They played churches, amusement parks and high schools in states like Nebraska and Oklahoma - places where the Thompson kids never counted on visiting.

"That was great going on tour with her, because we got the chance to be on a stage in front of thousands of people every night," says Phil Thompson. "We do realize that we're a new group and we're trying to build and get our music out there. I'd love for us to sell hundreds of thousands of records, but we're really hoping that the CD is able to hit the hearts of people who hear it. That's our original mission, to minister to people and, maybe, for some, it will give them hope. As a group, that's really what our eyes are on."

The Thompson children - all eight of them - have been singing together since they were in diapers. April Joy Thompson helps to lead Jubilee in song each week as part of her full-time job as a minister at the church. Phil, a realtor by trade, taught himself to play the piano and has been writing music for the last four years. Deborah recently took a degree in music from Berklee. And Wil Bullock comes from a well-known Boston musical family.

Together, Phil says, their brand of gospel has a pop sound borne of many influences, from Cee Cee Wynans and Fred Hammond to the Michael Gungor Band.

"I think we have more of a pop sound," says Phil, who wrote most of the songs on the album. "We were raised in the church and taught at an early age about the things of God. But we had a relationship with God through our dad. As we became adults that became real to us individually in our own lives."

The group crystallized two years ago, as the four joined their father at a huge prayer service in Pennsylvania. Bishop Thompson asked them to come to the stage and perform before his sermon.

"We had never said let's record together until that time when he asked us to sing," says April Joy Thompson. "We said, 'Man, we sound kind of good, maybe there's something to this.'"

The group then sought out a producer in Nashville and recorded the debut album, which includes songs such as "Blessed Be Your Name" and "Song of Glory." Most of the tacks, April Thompson says, are "vertical in nature, where we're seeing directly to the Lord."

Each of the members of Ashmont Hill have existing careers that may soon be put on hold to support the music project. Phil says that booking requests have been pouring in since the album dropped. Later this week, for example, they will perform at the Eyes of Faith Conference in North Carolina. The rest of July will find them singing to audiences in Washington, D.C., Georgia and Brooklyn, NY. The next local performance will likely be an August 16th concert at Jubilee.

Life on the road - as the group just discovered on their bus journey - can be anything but glamorous. But, April Joy Thompson says it's a future that they are eager to embrace.

"We're looking forward to signing onto another tour, if we're not able to do our own," she says. "Natalie took a chance on us and we're looking for another artist to do the same. It's definitely something we'll do again and again."