I’ve known Earl Wheeler, and his son Mark, for nearly 40 years. Earl has stood the test of time. Through decades of changing musical styles, he has planted a flag in the ground that says, “I ain’t changing!”
Earl still sings and teaches shaped notes, and has attended the same church for nearly 80 years. The Marksmen Quartet sounds like a Southern gospel quartet with bluegrass instrumentation. When you hear Earl and the Marksmen today, it’s like taking a time machine back 50, 60 or even 70 years. I’m proud to introduce you to my friend, Earl Wheeler.
Les Butler: What is your earliest musical memory?
Earl Wheeler: In 1946, Wahoo Baptist church ran a bus to Lyman Hall School where they held the Stamps Baxter singing school. I went for two weeks. Wahoo Baptist also had singing schools from 1946 into the 60’s. They taught voice, theory, piano, etc.
Butler: Did you grow up in a musical family?
Wheeler: Yes, everybody in the family could sing and my granddaddy was Georgia’s champion banjo player two years in a row. My mom played guitar and sang alto, and my dad played guitar and French harp, and he pastored until he was 82. My other grandpa played a harmonica and all of my cousins sang and played.
Butler: How long have you been singing, and do you recall the first time your ever sang in public?
Wheeler: It would have been 1944 or 1945. Granddaddy sat me on a piano stool and said, “Sang, boy!” And I remember thinking I’m a singer now. I believe that’s what I was born to do…sing. The first group I ever sang with was in our church. We had a quartet and had a radio show in Gainesville, Georgia. I did some recording and traveling with a group called the Gospel Hearts Trio in the early 60’s. We were Southern gospel; three singers and a piano player.
Butler: Early on, were you more of a Southern gospel fan or a Bluegrass gospel fan?
Wheeler: Both, because I listened to the Blue Ridge Quartet on a radio station in Spartanburg, S.C. and Carl Story and the Ramblin’ Mountaineers on a Knoxville, Tenn. station. We didn’t have a TV when I was growing up, so I would go to my bedroom and listen to the radio and read. I ended up being friends with Carl. When the Marksmen recorded for K-Tel records, we recorded a Carl Story song. We sold tons of those albums and he liked getting those checks!
Butler: When did you start the Marksmen quartet, and were they originally a Southern gospel quartet or a Bluegrass quartet? If it started as a Southern gospel quartet, what happened to change your musical style?
Wheeler: I started the Marksmen in the fall of 1967. We were a Southern gospel quartet; four guys and a piano. Around 1977, our son Mark played guitar, and we had a piano player quit one weekend and we sang with just the guitar and bass. Our tenor singer said he used to play mandolin in a Bluegrass band, so we never went back to a piano
Butler: Your son Mark is a master musician. Do you play any instruments?
Wheeler: I play a little guitar and bass.
Butler: Give me your all-star quartet, filled with your favorite singers on each vocal part.
Wheeler: My all-star quartet would be James Sego on lead, Steve Gulley on tenor, Jack Laws on baritone and Ray Dean Reese on bass. James Sego could really get to singing and it looked like he was riding a horse. We used to sing a lot with the Kingsmen.
Butler: What is your favorite song and why?
Wheeler: “Oh, Happy Day” (the page 86 in the red book version) because it says it was a happy day when Jesus washed my sins away…and it was.
Butler: You teach shape note singing. When and where did you learn and how is it going today?
Wheeler: (I learned at) Stamps Baxter singing schools. It does well when you can get people to listen long enough to learn it. We are teaching it at our Marksmen Mountain Music camps and a lot of young people are catching on.
Butler: When you’re not singing, what are you doing?
Wheeler: (I’m working) with my cows and my VW beetles, and eating my wife Shirley’s cooking. She cooks the best biscuits I know of.
Butler: How much longer do you see yourself traveling?
Wheeler: (Until) I can’t do it any longer.
Butler: Give us a brief testimony…
Wheeler: I had struggled with my salvation for about eight years (until) finally on August 10th, 1956 the Lord saved me in the morning service of a revival meeting, in the choir at Wahoo Baptist Church.
By Les Butler
First published by SGNScoops Magazine April 2019.
Read the May SGNScoops Magazine Online HERE