Twenty-four years ago, a dream was realized. In 1991, Rickey and Karen Peck Gooch, along with Karen’s sister Susan Peck Jackson, formed the musical ministry known as Karen Peck and New River. Little did they know that this ministry would literally take them all over the world. Since that time, New River has been awarded three Gospel Music Association Dove Awards and three Grammy Award nominations. Karen has been named the Singing News Fan Awards Favorite Soprano an unprecedented eleven times. Despite their numerous accolades, one single thing stands above all else. Their ministry is centered on proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ through song. Through all of their joys and sorrows, they have remained true to their calling and follow the footsteps of Jesus every step of the way.
Long before New River became a reality, a little girl named Karen was too small to be seen while singing about her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Karen says, “They used to stand me in a chair when I was three years old. Mama used to sing in church and my first time I remember singing, I sang ‘I’m Bound for That City.’”
Karen and Susan’s first recollection of Southern Gospel music was attending the All-Night Gospel Sing in Atlanta. Karen states, “I remember my Mom and Dad used to take me and my sisters to the All-Night Gospel Sing in Atlanta. Literally, they would be all night and we’d be in the Municipal Auditorium in Atlanta, Georgia, and they would last until six o’clock in the morning. I remember being mesmerized when Vestal Goodman came out on the stage.” Susan echoes Karen’s comments by adding, “I would get so excited when the Goodmans would walk out on stage and start singing. Vestal would step up to sing and her voice would fill the building. She was my favorite!”
Rickey Gooch says his first memory of Southern Gospel music was when his mom had a group come to their house to practice when he was a very small boy. Ricky Braddy shares that he’s always wanted to sing Gospel music, even as a child. He says, “I was four years old when I first blurted out the alto part to a song my sister was singing. She and I sang ‘When I Need Someone to Talk To’ in our little old church. I’ve done a lot of types of music, but nothing satisfies like singing about Jesus.”
While New River has created their own style of music, there have been other artists who have had a positive impact on their lives and ministry. Karen says, “Having the privilege of singing with the Nelons, I was able to sing with the best of the best. To be able to work with Lari Goss, who produced a lot of their projects, challenged me vocally. Alphus LeFevre was my first boss in 1980 and he influenced me as well. I grew up listening to the Hinsons, Happy Goodmans, Inspirations, and Kingsmen. I just loved Southern Gospel music. I’ve always had a love for it.”
Even though Karen has always loved Southern Gospel music, her parents are the ones who instilled a love for music at an early age. Karen says her greatest influence has been her parents. She comments, “I owe so much to my Mom and Dad. Daddy took me to most of my piano lessons and rehearsals when I’d sing. He passed away in 1993. He was an influence and Mama has been a big influence. Both of my parents were musically inclined, but Mama was the person that put me into piano lessons when I was in the fourth grade. She saw a little bit of talent in me and I owe so much to her.” In much the same way, Rickey had a similar upbringing, having been influenced by his mom. Rickey says, “My mother taught me to love God and always work for what you have.”
On the other hand, Ricky says that he cannot choose just one person. He explains, “I don’t know that there’s one single person who has influenced me the most. I am who I am today because of all the wonderful people who have loved, encouraged, and supported me throughout my life.”
Many may be wondering, who is Ricky Braddy? In case you have not had the privilege of meeting him, he is the newest member of New River. Karen relates how he joined the group: “Once we announced that Jeff was leaving, Sherry Steele of the Steeles messaged me and said, ‘I’ve got a friend that knows a guy that lives in Nashville that was on American Idol a few seasons ago and wants to audition.’ So I told her to have him send us a demo. When I heard his demo, I thought he was very good, but we were on a long trip, so I wasn’t able to be home to audition anyone. This guy was persistent and sent me another demo. I started realizing that this guy must really want this job because he really pursued it. So when we came home, we talked on the phone and set up a time to meet. We were at a fair in Lebanon, Tennessee. He came and stayed the afternoon with us, and we asked him to go with us the next weekend. Now he’s been here ever since!”
Ricky recalls the first time he saw Karen: “I remember Karen when she was with the Nelons. I’ve always been blown away by her talent. The first time I met the group was actually over FaceTime while they were on their bus. I met them in person at the Wilson County Fair the next week, and sang with them the following weekend. I filled in with them four weeks in a row, and then they asked me if I’d join them full time! I felt a connection the first time I stepped foot on their bus, and singing with them has been a huge privilege.”
“He sings under the anointing of the Lord,” Karen adds concerning Ricky. “He’s got power behind his voice. He’s a really good Christian man. We can always find a singer, but you’ve got to find someone who can live on that bus with you. It’s a lot more than singing; it is personality and whether or not someone has a heart for ministry. We want someone lighthearted as well, because we like to have a lot of fun. We took a vote on the bus and it was unanimous. Everybody voted Ricky Braddy.”
While Ricky is brand new to New River, he is no stranger to the music industry. He started singing with his mom, dad, and sister. He graduated from Belmont University in 2007. Then in 2008, he auditioned for American Idol. Ricky reminisces about his American Idol experience: “I ended up making it into the top 36 of season eight and onto the Wild Card show which placed me in the top 15. I remember during Hollywood week, several of us contestants would gather in one of our hotel rooms and worship for hours. I was able to share testimony and encouragement with a few people out there. After American Idol, I started working on original music. I’ve done a lot of studio work and I’ve led worship for area churches. I’m thrilled about this new chapter with Karen Peck and New River! I think God’s been preparing me for this. I’m so thankful that He is faithful to His promises, and I’m ready and honored to be a part of what He’s doing.”
So what happens when you put a husband and wife, son and daughter, sister, and somewhat of a complete stranger on the bus together? Karen says that traveling and ministering with her family is over and beyond anything she could have ever imagined. She adds, “I just never dreamed that the Lord would allow me to sing and have my husband and kids travel with me. My kids have always lived my calling and God is beginning to work in their hearts and their lives and now they have a calling. To be able to travel with my sister Susan; she has been a tremendous blessing in my life. She really is a rock and I depend on her more than she knows. I’ve been very, very blessed.” Rickey echoes Karen’s sentiments when he said that the best thing he likes about traveling with his family is that they get to go to different places and meet great people.
Recently, Karen has taken on a new role as a part-time actress in faith-based films. “The movies have been a positive thing in our ministry,” Karen states. “It opened doors that would not have opened otherwise. The first one, Joyful Noise, was a tremendous blessing. It literally landed in my lap. They called out of the blue and offered me the part. I was so blessed to be able to be a part of that movie. Of course, singing is my calling; being on the road, that’s what I do, that’s my job. But to be able to do a movie on the side – I was ready to do it again the next day. It wasn’t two years later that I had the opportunity to be in the movie Redeemed. It’s very contagious. I may have to wait two more years to be in another movie, but I hope the opportunity comes along!”
Even though she has garnered many honors through her musical career, Karen says her greatest accomplishment in life has been her kids. “They are my treasures,” Karen says lovingly. “I am so thankful to the Lord for allowing me to have them. I am a proud Mom. I love being with my kids 24 hours a day. We’ve always been very close. Matthew’s been on the road since he was two years old, and Kari’s been on the road since she was three weeks old. It was hard at times; it wasn’t easy taking care of the babies on the bus, but I would not have it any other way. I homeschooled so I could have them with me while I traveled. If I had it to do over again, I would do the same thing.”
Looking towards the future, Karen hopes her children will teach her grandchildren to love the Lord. “If they would just fall in love with Jesus, they will never have to worry about anything in life,” Karen adds. “I tell my kids all of the time they just need to fall in love with Jesus.” Additionally, Rickey said he hopes his grandchildren are taught to love God and sing about him.
For New River, family time is something to be cherished. Whether they are on the road, at home, or on vacation, they enjoy spending time together. Rickey says one of his favorite vacation memories was going to London on the way to Sweden where they were scheduled to sing. Karen shares that one of their favorite vacation spots is Destin, Florida. She says, “We have our routines, we love to go to movies, we love to go out to eat, and of course, we spend the day at the beach.” Susan adds, “I remember as a child growing up we always had a family vacation during the summer. The same time every year we would go to the beach. It was so much fun. We still keep the beach trip tradition going. I enjoy the family time together, making memories.”
When they are at home, they attend church as a family on Wednesdays at Free Chapel Worship Center in Gainesville, Georgia. As a mom, Karen said she loves to look over and see both of her kids praising the Lord. She says, “They travel on the road 200 days a year, but they love going to church on Wednesdays.” Karen continues, “We just love being around each other and I love the fact that my kids like being with their parents. Even though we travel together on the road all the time, we’re working, so it’s different being together and off on vacation.” Rickey adds, “It is an honor to have such a great wife and kids. I’m truly blessed.”
Susan’s family enjoys spending time together as well when she is home. Her son, Joseph, recently started attending Toccoa Falls College. Susan says, “It is a wonderful college and he loves it there. He is fitting right in and getting involved in sports. David and I are trying to get adjusted to our quiet home. There was always something going on when Joseph was home. I miss him so much but I believe God has great things for his life. Praying, trusting and believing God is in control, helps me to let go when I keep wanting to hang on. I am excited to see what God has planned for Joseph. My husband David is still doing what he loves, building steel guitars. He tells me every day that he is blessed to do what he loves to do.”
Ricky enjoys time with his family as well. He says, “I have the most wonderful family in the world. Both of my parents have always encouraged me to follow God’s call on my life. They trust The Holy Spirit to speak to me and lead me, so they’ve consistently supported me in my pursuit of what that looks like. The relationships I have with my whole family are some of the most valuable things to me. I love them.”
Anyone who has met Karen, Susan, and all of New River know that they enjoy a successful musical career, all while maintaining a close-knit family with Jesus Christ at the center of it all. So what if Karen wrote a book including many of her experiences through the years? Well, she would title the book, I’m Really a Blonde! Karen says, “I do think there’s going to be a book in my future. As a matter of fact, I’ve already started getting some thoughts together. I will say that I’ve had a good life, and I’ve been a very blessed person and I’m thankful for that.”
Although New River fans may have to wait a while for Karen’s book, they can be watching for a new project from New River. In recognition of the 25th anniversary of Karen Peck and New River, they will be compiling a special project featuring 25 of their best songs, one for each year they have been singing as a group. Karen says, “We’re very excited about this project and it will come out next year.”
While New River enjoys many happy moments together, this year brought about one of the most difficult challenges they have ever faced, which is why they cherish time together now more than ever before. Karen shares, “A moment that I cherished this year was Rickey’s first chemo treatment. The kids and I, we sat down with him as he had his first treatment and that was a special moment in our family. Because the kids saw that life is not always easy and life is not always going to be happy and joyful, but there’s going to be hard times. But we are family and we stick together and they really saw that this is real life. We’re going to have challenges, but the Lord is our Helper.”
Surely, no family wants to hear the words, “You have cancer.” But through faith in the healing power of Jesus Christ, the journey becomes a little easier to bear when God intervenes in His perfect timing. Rickey says, “When I first discovered that I had cancer, the devil was telling me that it was bad and I wasn’t going to make it. But the more I prayed and quoted scriptures, the less the devil came back. Anyone that has cancer or any other life threatening sickness needs to stay in the Word and pray, pray, pray! Keep us in your prayers. They really work.”
The latest project from Karen Peck and New River is titled, Pray Now. When this project was recorded, Karen and New River never realized how this project would minister to them in such a personal way. “We’re very blessed that ‘Pray Now’ is the number one song,” Karen says. “We are also very blessed that the Lord has helped us through Rickey being sick this year and that the doctors were able to get the cancer. We’re rejoicing. The Lord gave us a new lease on life. I want to tell everyone to spend time with your family and stop being so busy, slow down to take time to be with your loved ones. Pray Now, the whole album relates to where we are now. When we recorded these songs in January, we had no idea what we would be facing at that time.”
When asked if there was a song or experience that stands out in Karen’s mind and makes her realize it’s all worth it, Karen said, “One of the first times we ever sang ‘Four Days Late,’ we were up in North Carolina. There was a nice, older gentleman there and he came to me when we came off the stage after we had sung this song. He said, ‘I have to tell you something.’ He had lost his job and had lost his family. He had been sitting in the front seat of the car and was about to end his life. He happened to turn on the radio and ‘Four Days Late’ was playing. He said he pulled off the side of the road, prayed and cried out to the Lord for help. Within 48 hours, God restored everything back to him. I knew from that moment this was going to be a special song.”
“Just last week, we were at a fair in Dyersburg, Tennessee,” Karen continues. “There was a lady and she was a fair worker. Her boss told her to set up a lemonade stand on the side of the stage. She told her boss she did not want to go where a Gospel sing was going to be. He made her go, so she went down there and was working that lemonade stand and she got saved. She accepted Jesus as her Savior. She said, ‘I’m so glad I came down and I’m so glad I worked the lemonade stand.’ We were rejoicing. These kinds of testimonies are really what keep us going.”
Looking back over the past 24 years, Susan states, “We never imagined when we started Karen Peck and New River that we would be where we are today. God has blessed us in so many ways. We have met wonderful friends along the journey, friends that support and pray for us every day. It has been a great journey and we are just getting started! I am blessed!” Karen says she looks back and sees how God opened doors for New River. “In the scriptures in Revelation, it says that whatever doors God opens, no man can shut,” Karen says. “I can really see how God opened doors, but I can also see the fact that we were willing to go through those doors. There have been many times that I’ve thought, my goodness gracious, I don’t know if I can do this or not. But the Lord always made a way. I love where we’ve been, but I’m excited about where we’re going.”
Certainly, the ministry of Karen Peck and New River has only just begun. Rickey says, “Ten years from now, I hope we are staying the course and finish well.” Their zeal for the Lord’s work is the heartbeat of their ministry. They fix their eyes on Jesus, striving daily to do His perfect will. Through the Holy Spirit’s anointing on the lyrics they sing and words they speak, they continue to see lives changed. Karen says, “I pray that we can all stay faithful to the Lord and be obedient to the Lord’s will. I hope that more people will be saved and that more lives will be touched and changed through our music and our testimonies.”
If you could talk to Jesus Christ face to face, what would you say?
Karen: Thank you. I look forward to wrapping my arms around Him and telling Him how much I love Him.
What song has encouraged you during the difficult times in your life?
Rickey: “My God Will Always Be Enough.”
What advice would you give to a new artist?
Susan: To always keep God first, work on your craft, never stop learning, and strive to do your best in every situation.
What is your best experience with New River thus far?
Ricky: Honestly, watching the way Karen and Susan pray and encourage people has really been amazing.
Special thanks to Ashley Dawn Edwards for submitting the Special Fan Question, “You’ve been singing and traveling for over 20 years now. In those 20 some years, is there a song or experience with an audience that stands out to you and makes you realize it’s all worth it?”
For more information on Karen Peck and New River, please visit www.karenpeckandnewriver.com. Also, sign up for the New River newsletter and like their Facebook page!
By Jennifer Campbell
First published by SGN Scoops in the October 2015 issue.
For an indepth look at Ricky Braddy, read the SGN Scoops November 2015 issue.
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