Brian Speer just knew he needed to get back on stage.
It didnâ€™t matter that it had been 36 years since he stopped traveling with his legendary family. It didnâ€™t matter that he really didnâ€™t know what direction he would take or who would sing with him. He just knew he needed to keep the Speer Family legacy alive.
â€œAfter all of Brianâ€™s people were gone, he woke up one day and said, â€˜I think we need to do a quartet,â€™â€ Brianâ€™s wife, Allison Speer, says. â€œIt shocked me! We had never talked about it and had never discussed it.â€
But something had been burning in Brianâ€™s heart ever since his uncle, Ben Speer, and his aunt, Rosa Nell Speer-Powell, the last surviving members of the Speer Family, died in 2017. He knew someone should carry on the legacy of the Southern gospel pioneers who were active from 1921-1998.
With Allison, who has had a successful solo ministry for 35 years, fully on board with the idea, the New Speer Family was born, first performing last summer in Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
We caught up with the New Speer Family before their concert at Sand Spring Baptist Church in central Kentucky, less than an hourâ€™s drive from Allisonâ€™s childhood home of Parksville.Â
â€œI had been traveling with Allison and running the sound. I manage the ministry,â€ says Brian, who traveled with the original Speer Family from 1977-1982 before enrolling at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. â€œI really never had any desire to go back on stage. I think the Lord just moved in me and used the risk of losing this heritage in music to prompt me to try to bring it back.â€
It was their dream to revive the legacy of gospel classics such as â€œHeavenâ€™s Jubilee,â€ â€œSweeter Each Day,â€ and â€œI Never Shall Forget The Day.â€ All are included on the New Speer Familyâ€™s inaugural album, appropriately named, â€œA Singing Heritage.â€
â€œGod was working this new thing in Brian,â€ Allison says. â€œHe didnâ€™t want to be on stage. When I would sing, I would beg him to please come up and do just one song with me. He plays guitar, plays a little piano, but he didnâ€™t want to do either. He didnâ€™t want to be up front. He wanted to be on the soundboard. And he was very content there.â€
He was content until he came to grips with the realization that the Speer Family’s influence on gospel music could be lost.
From their farm in Gravel Switch, Kent., — â€œWe donâ€™t want to sound too high-falutin,â€™ so we say we are in the suburbs,â€ Brian quips — Brian and Allison Speer went to work.Â
â€œI had asked every group in Southern gospel music to let me join somehow,â€ Allison smiles. â€œI asked every quartet, every gospel group because I wanted to sing with somebody else. It just never did work out.Â
â€œThe first thing we said was â€˜Who are we going to get to sing with us?â€™ The Speers always had at least four and most of the time five or six singers. So how are we going to accomplish anything musically with just the two of us?â€
They called Ben Waites, a Louisiana native who had never traveled with a group before but had been singing solo for nearly 18 years despite just turning 30 in late May.Â
Waites credits his grandfather, who sang gospel regionally, with turning him toward the music he loves. â€œWe were watching the Cathedralsâ€™ farewell celebration at the Ryman (Auditorium),â€ Waites says. â€œThe camera panned the audience and my grandfather saw Ben Speer. He said Ben Speer has (the Stamps-Baxter) School of Music in Nashville and you ought to go. Two years later, I was 13 and went to my first one.â€
Allison and Brian Speer noticed. â€œHe came every year,â€ she says. â€œHe was very determined to learn this thing called music. We loved him inside and out. We loved his heart, his voice and his determination.â€
The Speers also reached out to gospel music veteran Mike Allen, a bass who had traveled with Allison on the Gaither Homecoming Series. He jumped at the chance.
Each of the singers continued their solo ministries. â€œWe thought it would be something we would do a few times a year and have a little fun with, but it has turned out to be much more than that,â€ Brian Speer says.
The journey began in the summer of 2018 in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where G.T. â€œDadâ€ Speer moved his family after taking a job with the James D. Vaughan Music Company in 1934.
The New Speers have been busy ever since, despite an unusual travel arrangement. Brian and Allison Speer live in central Kentucky while Allen and Waites live in Nashville, three hours away. Waites was also born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, commonly called â€œAMC,â€ a condition that decreases flexibility in the joints. Waites is confined to a wheelchair and his wife, Natalie, usually drives him to shows.Â
Brian Speer says the group makes the arrangement work. There is no tour bus and the singers meet somewhere along the way. â€œIf we are going to Florida, we might meet in Chattanooga,â€ Brian says. â€œIf we are going north, we might meet in Louisville. We work it out.â€
Working it out is a good way to describe the New Speer Familyâ€™s approach to the classics. The concert at Sand Spring was strongly influenced by the Speer legacy and moved what Brian called a â€œreceptive and openâ€ crowd with a rousing version of the Gaither classic, â€œThe King is Coming.â€
â€œThe Speer Family was the first to record that song,â€ Brian says. â€œEvery song we did tonight, except â€˜It is Well With My Soulâ€™ was recorded by The Speer Family.â€ With Waites soloing, â€œIt is Wellâ€Â brought the Thursday night crowd to its feet for an extended round of applause and appreciation.Â
â€œA Singing Heritage,â€ is filled with Speer standards. The liner also contains a photo of the Speer Family that looks to be from the 1930s and includes a photo of The Speer Familyâ€™s 1965 album of the same name, released on the Heart Warming label.Â
The irony in resurrecting the Speer heritage is that Brian Speerâ€™s five-year journey with his family is the only direct connection to the past. His wifeâ€™s introduction to gospel did not include the Speers or most of the other Southern gospel greats.
â€œI was raised here in central Kentucky,â€ Allison remembers. â€œWe got our music from WJMM radio in Lexington and it was not a Southern gospel station. It was contemporary. I am a child of the contemporary music of the 70s and 80s. Reba Rambo was a soloist then. Sandi Patty came along. Steve Green. Larnelle (Harris, like Allison, a native of Boyle County, Kent.), Amy Grant, Twila Paris. I was not familiar with The Speer Family until I started going to Nashville to do music there.â€
Allison began recording for Impact, a sister label to Homeland Records, which was producing The Speersâ€™Â albums. And in the studios, she met Brian Speer, a Homeland accountant.
â€œWe began to date,â€ Allison says, â€œand then my life went completely downhill after that.â€
Brian, sitting next to his wife, erupts with laughter. Allen and Waites join in and share some of their own barbs.Â
The laughter is fitting as The New Speers would incorporate some of Allisonâ€™s famed comedy into a night of heartfelt worship and she tells stories of growing up in rural Parksville. With numerous family members and lifelong friends in the audience, she transforms her powerful voice to one sharing about her grandmotherâ€™s lessons about baking pies.
But she also takes time to offer some commentary on current events and challenges the audience to bolster its faith in Christ, then live accordingly in a world she believes to be growing more hostile to those who live the Christian faith. She reminds the audience of the powerful messages in the traditional hymns and gospel classics.
That passion prompted Allen to accept Brian and Allison Speerâ€™s invitation to join their new venture. The former Marine had been a Speer Family fan since meeting Ben Speer more than 35 years ago. â€œBen and the whole family, Faye, everybody, just welcomed me into the family like I was one of their own. I have been a Speer ever since, in my mind.â€
Through the Gaither Homecoming series, where Ben Speer served as musical director, Allen became even closer to the Speer legacy. He relishes the idea of presenting Southern gospel history to a modern audience.
â€œThere are so many songs,â€ Allen smiles. â€œSo many songs. I would love to hear Brian say â€˜We are going to do this song and that song.â€™â€
For now, the New Speer family is juggling several different roles. Brian and Allison realized they had few reasons to stay in Nashville after Ben Speerâ€™s death, so to be near her mother, they bought a farm near her childhood home. They plan on a summer move into a new home on the property.
Allison and Brian plan to continue her solo ministry while Waites, who serves as a vocal coach in Nashville, and Allen also have solo ministries.
However, a venture that figured to be a few dates a year has blossomed into much more. Brian says the group has done between 30 and 40 concerts in addition to recording its first CD. A glance at www.newspeerfamily.com shows calendar filling with dates ranging from Florida to New Jersey to Texas.Â
Those dates are opportunities but also challenges not lost on the singers.
â€œThe basic thought for me is that we can somehow, even remotely, can continue the Speer Family name and do it justice,â€ Allen says. â€œI mean, they were so amazing that to even try to copy what they have done would be impossible. But to just bring back or continue that name and do it justice and do what they originally tried to do in the beginning and that was to spread the gospel.â€
Waites concurs with that legacy and purpose. â€œThrough that vessel, I hope to accomplish what they accomplished in spreading the gospel and give people the opportunity to know Christ as their personal Savior.â€
During the Speer Familyâ€™s amazing run, G.T. Speer was known for stopping songs to share a testimony, then resume the music by saying, â€œLet the song go on.â€
The New Speer Family is doing just that. Theyâ€™re letting the songs go on…again.
Find out more about the New Speer Family here.
By John Herndon
Published by SGNScoops Magazine in June 2019
John Herndon is a writer for SGNScoops Magazine and also has a website called KentuckySings. John is a Kentucky native who was raised listening to gospel music. As a child, the Sunday morning routine always included the Gospel Singing Jubilee and his summers were filled with all-day-singings-and-dinner-on-the-ground listening to local groups just about every Sunday. He remembers seeing The Prophets at his county fair when he was seven years old and eventually, he became a huge fan of The Oak Ridge Boys, The Imperials and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps. John spent 20 years in the located ministry and during this time, he began writing local sports for The Anderson News in Lawrenceburg, Ky. For the last 16 years, he has been the full-time sports editor of that paper. John has won over 100 awards from the Kentucky Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and Landmark Community Newspapers. He loves listening to gospel music or playing one of his guitars. John lives in Lawrenceburg with his wife, Stephanie, and 17-year-old daughter. He has three grown children and four grandchildren.
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