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Four-time San Diego Music Award winner Earl Thomas started singing in a Pentecostal church while growing up in Pikeville, Tennessee.

"They spoke in tongues and rolled on the floor," says Thomas. "We didn't handle snakes, but we did everything else.... I used to love going to church. I loved everything about it -- the music, the fellowship, hanging out with my relatives and friends, the food after church."

Yet, Thomas balked last year when his friend asked him to sing at a Lutheran church in Minnesota.

"I refused to go into a building where people are going to call me names," says Thomas (who is gay). "Their opinion of what God wanted didn't work for me.... I grew up knowing that I was equal to everyone except when I went to church."

Thomas eventually agreed to sing at the Lutheran church.

"It was a paying gig. When I got there and actually sang, I got this tremendous feeling of joy; everything that Christians are always telling you you can get, like joy and peace -- I got it. I really got it. People started crying and so did I."

The experience moved Thomas to record Plantation Gospel, a 17-song collection of 300-year-old spirituals.

"We only used instruments that would have been found on the plantation, like violin, banjo, piano, acoustic guitar, and human voices....

"The only sadness I have is that my mom and grandma never got to hear me sing this music. My grandmother wanted me to be a gospel singer. I hadn't sung in church since 1985, at my grandma's funeral. This music has brought me peace. I made peace with my whole life. It's not about religion; it's about peace."

Earl Thomas, who divides his time between San Diego and Northern California, appears at his CD-release concert at the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre on Saturday. He'll perform blues and gospel songs.

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