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Creekside Gospel Music Convention

Lesters Hit A HOME RUN!

Written by Staff on April 2, 2015 – 12:29 pm -

Lesters threeBy Craig Harris

Veteran tenor singer Matt Felts joins his hometown brethren

When the Lesters were in search of a tenor singer last fall, the long-time family group couldn’t have envisioned all of the pieces to the puzzle fitting together as seamlessly as they did. Into the picture stepped Matt Felts.

Matt Felts

Matt Felts

“It truly is like coming home,” Felts says. “I joke because we’re all from St. Louis. We all get each other’s humor. We all get each other’s food connections. We are watching Cardinals (baseball) games non-stop on the bus.

“You can watch people how they treat people on and off the bus. The way they treated me and my family coming in has been unbelievable. The ministry is why they do it … period. I’ve traveled with lots of great guys, lots of great singers. These are without a doubt the best. Every week feels like a family vacation. I’ve never had more fun.”

Felts spent the previous five years with the Dixie Melody Boys. “When they were looking for a tenor (when the Lesters became a male trio), I heard they were looking, and I instantly called my wife (Jennifer),” Felts remembers. “I said, ‘The Lesters are looking, and I want to take this job.’ It wasn’t the right season (at that time), so I said, ‘We’ll just wait.’

“Justin (Wells, the group’s previous tenor singer) actually texted me and said he was resigning. We were in the car, and I looked at my wife and said, ‘That’s it.’ I felt the season (with the Dixie Melody Boys) was coming to an end. I texted Brian (Lester) right then and said, ‘I’m interested in the job.’ He asked me to come up the next week.”

Lesters oneFelts – a St. Louis native – was born less than a mile from the Lesters’ residence. “We were amazed to watch God’s plan unfold as we began to search for a new tenor,” group manager and lead singer Brian Lester – who stands alongside his son Jonathan as the other vocalists in the trio – shares. “Matt and our former tenor, Justin Wells, have been close friends for years, so they already had a connection, which is how Matt first learned we were looking. Matt is not only from St. Louis but lived just a couple miles away from our home. It was truly a perfect fit. He has fit in so well very quickly.”

Felts adds, “The Lesters were in our house. We knew who they were. They were a household name for us. The earliest group I knew was the Lesters.”

Felts’ first experience in Southern Gospel Music came as a member of the Ohio-based GloryWay Quartet. That was followed by one year with the Skyline Boys, three years with the Monument Quartet and a six-month stint as part of Perfect Heart. Then, he joined the Dixie Melody Boys. Felts admits that those past experiences have helped shape him as an artist.

Matt Felts

Matt Felts

“I’ve tried to glean vocally – but not just vocally, also life – I’ve tried to look at how they did it in this industry for a lifetime,” Felts shares. “It’s been positive for the most part. Ernie Haase has been a like a brother, and there’s Allison Speer and Mike Allen.

“Ed O’Neal gave me free reign. He said, ‘You have ideas … go.’ Not everything works, but you learn.” That creative freedom was essential for Felts, who has a background in marketing. “They (the Lesters) knew my background,” Felts says. “I had a great support staff around me, and what we were able to accomplish with Ed was great.

“They (the Lesters) basically said, ‘What are your ideas? What can we do?’ That’s something (positive) for a guy who is in marketing. We’ll just be talking and new ideas will come. There is a momentum swing right now for new opportunities and new growth.”

One of those new opportunities involved the Lesters filming a live CD and DVD in Boston, a project that is now available. “It’s exciting to bring Southern Gospel to Boston,” Felts points out. “They eat it up every time.”

Felts’ marketing foundation was molded while he was a student at the University of Missouri. Felts also played baseball for the Tigers, graduating in 2001. Felts – a first baseman and relief pitcher – had the opportunity to play professional baseball, spending time in the minor leagues as part of the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, Springfield/Ozark (Mo.) Mountain Ducks and Canton (Ohio) Coyotes. Felts is related to former New York Yankee great Don Mattingly – who is now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers – and his wife’s family is related to Major League Baseball Hall of Fame member Honus Wagner. “We are a baseball family,” Felts says.

However, that coveted opportunity on the diamond proved to be a trying period of time for Felts. “I grew up a pastor’s son,” Felts explains. “That lifestyle in baseball is very different. I felt that was what I wanted to do, but I knew that wasn’t for me. Music was always at the front. I always wanted to be in music. The Lord was in music.”

Included among Felts’ favorite Lesters songs are “He Is,” “It’s Gonna Be Wonderful,” “My Savior First of All” and “He Didn’t Throw the Clay Away.”

“Clay was my testimony,” Felts points out. “Coming out of baseball, I felt like I had thrown my life away. I felt like I had made too many mistakes. That song just ministered to me.”

While Felts changed careers at that time, he most recently transitioned from a career with male quartets to becoming a third of a male trio now. “It’s stretching your wings artistically,” Felts says. “I love quartets. It’s nothing against that, but that’s all I’ve ever done. In some ways, you become stagnant. The arrangements they (the Lesters) do, it awakens something in you. It’s exciting.”

Lesters twoThe 37-year-old Felts admits that the support he has received has been overwhelming. “We are thrilled to have Matt and his family join the Lester family,” Brian Lester shares. “He has already been such as great addition, and our fans have embraced him.”

Felts adds, “It breathes new life into your career. The entire industry, the day I announced I was going over to the Lesters, I had people all over the industry congratulating me. A lot of quartet fans couldn’t understand how excited I was, but I knew there would be a lot of variety to the program. That’s exciting.”

 

Be sure to see The Lesters when they are in your area. For more information visit the Lesters website. 

Written by Craig Harris.

First published by SGN Scoops magazine in February 2015. For the current issue of SGN Scoops go to the homepage. 


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Ozark Gospel Music Convention 2014

Written by Staff on August 12, 2014 – 8:14 am -

ozark 3

The Abundance Quartet of Branson

By Joshua Heston – Special to SGN Scoops

“Precious memories how they linger / How they ever flood my soul / In the stillness, of the midnight / Precious sacred scenes unfold.” — J.B.F. Wright, 1925

Branson, MO —Traditional gospel music and Ozark Mountain culture go together mighty well. From brush arbor singing schools to pine-enshrouded churches where country folks sang from well-worn hymnals every Sunday morning, the sweet sounds of gospel music form an emotional basis for many of us; reminders of childhood, dinners on the ground, exciting tent revivals, and for some, simple evening singings as the family would gather together and let their voices ring.

But times change. People change. The world, it seems, simply picked up its pace and recordings, radio, TV, internet, and job and family responsibilities removed the opportunity to spend time with family and friends. The chance to leave an industrious world outside — even for just a few hours — was lost. Tattered hymnbooks were replaced by projection screens and four-part harmony swapped for an endless stream of praise and worship songs. Families didn’t gather around a piano anymore and besides, the music on the radio, then the entertainment on TV, then the library of digital music, was all more professional, more polished, and never required practice but simply the touch of a button.

The Williamsons of Wetumka, Oklahoma

The Williamsons of Wetumka, Oklahoma

Gone for most was the shape note singing, the tent revivals, and the conventions. Conventions? No, not Tupperware conventions. A generation or two ago, gospel music conventions, specifically quartet conventions, were commonplace. Small and large, these gatherings originated from 19th century songbook companies’ efforts to sell books. This was after the Civil War and the population was ready to embrace music that spoke of hope and peace.

Professional quartets traveled from church to church, then from convention to convention, stunning largely rural audiences with the now-trademark sounds of a powerful, rumbling bass, soaring tenor, lead and baritone vocals. As quartets polished their skills and styles, white Southern gospel music was born. With it, of course, came those singing conventions, the largest of which ultimately became the National Quartet Convention, an event that packed out the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis for many years. Here was the equivalent of a rock concert arena. Thousands of fans pouring into the venue to see gospel music greats like J.D. Sumner, James Blackwood of the Blackwood Brothers, and more.

The Ascension Quartet of Lebanon, Missouri

The Ascension Quartet of Lebanon, Missouri

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years / Bright shining as the sun / We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / Than when we’ve first begun.” — John Newton, Amazing Grace

Like many other elements of our rural population, Southern gospel conventions became fewer and farther between in the last generation. Now, the words “singing convention” are typically met with a bit of bewilderment. Southern gospel is still a small but powerful genre of music but many of the artists now travel from church to church, not from convention to convention.

The National Quartet Convention is still going strong, moving this year from Louisville to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, but Southern gospel singing west of the Mississippi? Western region groups have struggled for years, honing their styles, their harmonies, their ministries, but laboring largely in the shadow of “top tier” groups with more convention affiliation in the east. Now, the efforts of Branson-based Jonathan Edwards (of Faith’s Journey), Donnie Williamson (of Wetumka, Oklahoma-based The Williamsons), Ava Kasich (Texas-born Beacon award winning soloist) and Rob Patz (of the Seattle-based SGN Scoops Digital gospel music magazine) teamed up to create a heartland Southern gospel convention here in Branson.

Jonathan Edwards holds a framed proclamation from the State of the Missouri, honoring The Lesters for 89 years of distinguished service in gospel music.

Jonathan Edwards holds a framed proclamation from the State of the Missouri, honoring The Lesters for 89 years of distinguished service in gospel music.

“For most of us who do gospel music, the goal is to see lives changed. But we can’t do that if we don’t have people to sing to. One of the goals of the convention is to expose more groups of the Midwest to an audience,” says Williamson. “That’s why we honored The Lesters during the first night of the convention. We want to highlight the quality of groups from this area.”

“Near the cross I’ll watch and wait / Hoping, trusting ever / Till I reach the golden strand / Just beyond the river.” — Fanny Crosby, Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross Read more »


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