By Charlie Griffin
When you speak of Gospel music, there are many great names mentioned. Some names are even generational names of Gospel music such as Speer, Nelon, Easter, Hopper, Goodman and the list goes on. But when you mention the name Stewart, those in the southeast will know it is a heritage name for bass singers.
The Blue Ridge Quartet (L to R: Jim Stewart, Kenny Gates, Elmo Fagg, Ed Sprouse.)
First generation, Charles Ed Stewart, sang with the Smith Quartet and Singing Hills. He was known for a resounding bass and singing the old Convention songs the Stamps Baxter way. Second generation, Jim Stewart, came along, singing bass too. Big Jim was often noted as the bass singer with the booming low notes. His tenure included stints with the Calvary Quartet, Blue Ridge Quartet and Pine Ridge Boys. Then the third generation, Larry Stewart, started following in the family bass singing footsteps. But his story took a few turns, giving a powerful testimony that really mirrors the lives of so many people.
The Pine Ridge Boys 1963: (L to R: Jim Stewart, Wayne Shuford, Darius Shuford-seated, Charles Burke, Miles Cooper.)
Larry Stewart recently shared his experiences of getting started in Gospel music. As a high school sixteen-year-old in chorus, he was offered a job to sing bass with the Bob Hulsey Singers. Larry says, “The piano player was in chorus too and knew I could sing the bass part. It wasn’t too low as they sang everything pretty high. But that was my first taste of Gospel singing, although I had been around it all my life.”
A year or so later, Larry began singing with the Golden Chords. Marion Lanford and three of his children plus the four piece band made up this group. “They wanted a young person to sing bass and they called me.” It was with the Golden Chords that Stewart recorded his first album. He continues, “Marion promoted a lot of Gospel concerts back in the day with the Rex Nelon Singers. I heard this song and later it became my song too, ‘I Love To Call His Name.'” Larry then sang with The Seekers from Seneca, SC. But that was a short lived experience.
Graduating from high school in 1979, Larry got a call from Homer Wofford, who owned the Singing Americans. Larry states, “I drove to Asheville, tried out and was selected. I drove every week to Asheville to practice. But we never sang anywhere. I got tired of that and quit. But as fate would have it, Charlie Burke bought the group and moved it to Maiden, NC. He calls me three times to come sing bass. But I said no. I mean, I had already gone down that road. Yet after the third time I turned him down, one month later he signed a record contract.” Larry admits, “I really thought my chance had come and gone. I didn’t sing much after that.”
The Gospel Notes were not finished with Larry. For a time he began driving tour buses for Burke Charters in Maiden. It was also home to the Singing Americans. He was always around when the Singing Americans were home. But things really began to change in 1988. Larry states, “My baby girl was just a month old and Mr. Burke called me saying he needed to meet with me. That Saturday morning he asked if I would be interested in driving the Singing Americans bus. I said yes.” He continues, “I had the time of my life. It was fun. Then one day we all were goofing off on the bus and I was singing, ‘Where The Roses Never Fade.’ Then one night, the group called me on stage to sing that song. After that, it was an every night thing.”
In 1990, things changed even more when Dwayne Burke went to Larry telling him the Anchormen Quartet was looking for a bass singer. Larry shares, “We were in Maryland when Dwayne told me the Anchormen were looking for a bass singer. He asked if I was interested. I thought for five seconds and said yes. The Anchormen were in Pennsylvania, not far away. We rented a car and off I went. I stayed with them for about a year. After that I went back to driving the bus for the Singing Americans and singing my one song a night. In 1991, Dwayne decided it was time for him to come off the road. So Mr. Burke came to me and said the bass position was mine if I wanted it. It didn’t take long for me to say yes. I sang bass and managed the group until 1994 when Mr. Burke disbanded the Singing Americans.”
On stage, The Singing Americans (L to R: Buddy Burton, Dale Forbes, Larry Stewart)
Larry’s dream happened. He sang full-time professional Gospel music. He sang on the National Quartet Convention Stage and in many of the big churches and concert halls in America. He was nominated in major fan awards. Yet to Larry he thought his dream had really come and gone this time.
Now, salvation came at the early age of 13 for Larry Stewart, during a church revival. Yet, when you talk to Larry you find his story is not too different than most Christians today, as you are about to read. Larry left Gospel music after the Singing Americans, thinking he was finished. He and his wife, Anne, were living in Lawrenceville, GA. There he shares, “I got away from God, doing the things I wanted to do and not what everyone else wanted me to do. I was living large.”
The Stewart Family
One day he drove to Gallatin, TN to interview for a job driving tour buses for the big names in Country music entertainment and Christian Rock groups. He got the job and loved it. Larry shares, “But the big job was coming up. World Wrestling Entertainment, the WWE! I was driving a new bus, and making money hand over foot. I bought my wife a new house. Life was good and I was living BIG! I had all I wanted and I was happy, so I thought. But right here, remember the man in the bible who had more than enough, and would not listen to God. He wouldn’t share his blessings? That was me.”
Now the story takes a down turn. Larry says, “I could buy what I wanted, when I wanted. (I just had to tell Anne first!) I started going to the bar to have a drink. Before long I could drink with the big boys and their big drinks. It got to the point I was spending $300.00 plus a week just on alcohol alone.” Larry was with the Bus Company and WWE for over six years.
In just one phone call, Larry had no idea how his life was about to change. Stewart continues, “One day my boss called and wanted me to go by the shop before going home.” Little did he know that trip was his last trip. He had been fired.
The big new house, all the things he had bought from the big job, was gone in six months. He applied for jobs and looked everywhere for a job. But there was no job for an older bus driver and former Gospel singer. In January 2010, he took a job delivering tires. It was a job.
Again things began to happen. In the south, snow can happen in late winter and can be rough. March 2010, he awoke to a heavy snow fall. He called in to see the work schedule. His boss said, “People really need tires now.” So Larry went to work and around 10:00 am his life had another major turn of events. In the snow, a car T-boned his delivery truck at the driver’s door. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with bruising of the brain in the front and left side.
Over the next few months, headaches were common place; day after day, the same headaches. Larry states, “I went from one drug to another. Now I was hooked on narcotics. I wondered so many times how could my life get any worse? I mean I was mad at myself. I was mad at God. I was mad at everyone. Life was not supposed to be this way.”
“Now I see that God needed my attention. But then I was not hearing of Him or anything about Him. Little did I know His master plan was in the works. One night, Dad and the group were singing in North Georgia. I told Anne I wanted to hear him sing. Remember I had not heard or been around Gospel music since 1994. Sixteen years later, God really got a hold of me that night. Conviction rained on me and I truly re-dedicated my life to Christ. All that depression, hate and anger was gone. He did a work in and on me that night,” says Stewart.
But God had more in store for Larry Stewart. After that night the headaches began to ease and each day was better than the day before. With improving health in August 2010, Larry and Anne traveled to Denver, NC to hear his Dad (Jim Stewart) and the Pine Ridge Boys sing at the Rock Springs Camp meeting. Larry says, “Camp meeting is a big thing in that area. Well, that night, Dad sang like he has never sung. It sounded like angels were with him. It was his best night. But after the singing Dad suddenly got real sick. He asked me to fill in the rest of the week, but I had only taken jeans. So I said no.”
“In a few short days, Dad was diagnosed with cancer. We were all just stunned. Then Dad asked me if I would take the group. Manage the group, sing bass and keep the Pine Ridge Boys going? Well I was torn with some doubt, fear and concern. I mean I had not sung any since 1994. I was really unsure. Then as Anne and I talked about it, she said ‘You need to ask God what He would have you do. Just pray about it.'” Jim Stewart retired in 2012. “We have been carrying on the Gospel music tradition now for some time. Now-a-days Dad comes around and sings a song just like he used to let me do with him. Thanks Dad!” says Larry.
The silver-lining of Larry Stewart’s life events is simple, “We serve a God of second chances and forgiveness. His grace and mercy are amazing; I mean look what He’s done for me. I can’t wait to sing and experience God’s blessings each night anew. When you are living life with a purpose, life’s journey is sweeter. I am blessed and thankful for my wife and family. I love singing with the boys but it’s more than that. There is joy in serving Jesus!” says Stewart.
At Creekside Music Convention (L to R) Larry Stewart, Karl Rice, Ivory Luke, Wayne Shuford
Yes, today Larry Stewart is “Still Enjoying the Journey!” When you hear him, you will hear rich bass tones that are truly the Stewart Family heritage. But when you talk to him, listen close and you will hear a bass singer with a renewed purpose and excitement for Gospel music and Christ. “I want to always do what God wants me to do. I want to stay behind the cross and let God shine through Me,” says Stewart.
The Pine Ridge Boys 2015: (L to R) Duane Rizzo, Wayne Shuford, Ivory Luke, Larry Stewart.
Today, the Pine Ridge Boys are truly experiencing a renewed excitement about the music they share. Travels and concerts are allowing the group to expand across America while meeting new friends. The music is vibrant, rich with quartet harmonies that are almost a lost musical art form. And people are talking about their music. But listen close and you will hear about the work God has done in the life of one lost bass singer who is no longer lost, Larry Stewart.
Pine Ridge Boys contact information:
Larry Stewart, 864-473-8849 or Larry@PineRidgeBoys.com