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.
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.
“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.
“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
Brian Lester notes, “Duane Garren [Southern gospel emcee and board member of the Memphis Quartet Show] helped pull a fast one on us. Little did we know one of the reasons The Lesters were invited to be on the program was to receive a special proclamation from Missouri’s House of Representatives and to be recognized by KWFC-Springfield, one of America’s most powerful gospel radio stations, for our family’s almost 90 years of singing gospel music.”
“We were highly honored and sincerely thank Jonathan Edwards who presented us with the proclamation, and to Dave Taylor from KWFC for presenting us with a plaque recognizing The Lesters as ‘Missouri’s First Family of Gospel Music.’ This is a night we’ll long remember!”
Held in the comfortable surroundings of Stone Castle Hotel not far from the Branson Strip, the event was a carefully planned, conservative effort featuring mostly regional groups. Chapel services took place in the morning, as did the opportunity for artists to sing at nearby Treasure Lake RV Park, a venue increasingly known for its support of Southern gospel and bluegrass music. A Monday-afternoon showcase featured Branson artists including Doug Gabriel, Clay Cooper and Ayo: The Voices of Glory. Mayor Raeanne Presley spoke to Wednesday night guests during an evening designed to honor veterans. Barbara Fairchild also performed the same night.
The event was not without a hitch or two. “It was our first year,” explains Rob Patz, “And our goal was to bring awareness of the event, which we did. But when you put on an event like this it’s more than a one-year plan. Nothing grows overnight and you learn and adapt each time. I think what went right was the community feeling among the artists, the spirit of cooperation rather than competition, and our connection with the Branson community. What went wrong? We had some issues with the ticketing and with knowing how many people were going to show up.”
The convention was free but required guests to reserve tickets online. As a result, the place “sold out” weeks ahead of time. “We turned about 100 people away on Monday before everything got started,” notes Jonathan Edwards. However, free tickets do not require a commitment and many who had reserved online simply did not show up. Still, Edwards remains positive. “If you had told me earlier that we would have an event and get over 200 people in the audience, I would have been in hog heaven and we got that. It was a success. We were just expecting a much higher number.
Overall counts vary with Monday night being the most heavily attended. “Not counting the artists, the board members, media and industry people,” says Edwards, “Duane Garren’s count of guests was 186. In total we were looking at 220 to 230 people.” Numbers went down on Tuesday and Wednesday night as the excitement of Branson shows lured people away. What remained, however, was a level of enthusiasm both from guests and artists.
“We still had around 100 people in that room Wednesday night and they were into it. They were supporting the groups on stage,” noted Edwards. “This was my first convention,” says newcomer Landon Villines, the largely self-taught 19-year old prodigy from Compton, Arkansas. “I got to meet a lot of groups. The Dunaways are really great friends now. I got two singings booked and will be involved in Branson’s Jammin’ For Jesus later this year. It was awesome.”
Most artists echo Villines’ enthusiasm. Nashville soloist Lindsay Huggins explains, “As an artist, I enjoyed seeing friends of mine that also travel in music ministry. Our ministries take us in so many different directions [that] it’s always great when we can catch up with each other after a while. I made lots of new friends with folks from all over who attended the event. I even made connections with some Branson folks and will be returning again soon for other engagements.”
Jamie Layton of Abundant Quartet continued, “Probably the biggest highlight for me was rubbing elbows with everybody. Meeting other groups, being able to be seen and heard by people in the industry. Jonathan and Rob did a really good job of getting industry and media here.”
“All the ministries represented were top-notch and we thought it was a very good start,” says Ron Higgins of the Texas-based Pacesetters Quartet. “We have already expressed our desire to come back.”
“It gets kind of lonesome out on the road,” shares Tammy Dunaway of the Mississippi-based blues and bluegrass infused family group The Dunaways. “We really enjoyed the camaraderie and getting to meet new people. And we love Branson and the Ozarks.” The group, which has been singing together for 21 years, met Rob Patz at the National Quartet Convention last year. “The way we are structured, a lot of people don’t see us,” continues Tammy. “They hear us all the time on the radio but they don’t see us. We wanted to get out there to the people we minister to on the radio.”
Of highlights, there were many over the busy three days. “We felt a sense of celebration,” says Warren Finney of the brand-new group Majesty III of Crossett, Arkansas. “It was an event that took us away from the grind of everyday. We were so impressed with the fellowship and the camaraderie. The other artists embraced my 17-year old son Lane. They had seen his nervousness on Monday night but they took him under their wing and supported him.”
“I was a little bit skeptical of the event,” continues Finney. “I have worked a lot of quartet conventions since I was 16 years old. I’ve seen some events that really did not have the class and dignity gospel music deserves. I’m a concert promoter myself and am a stickler for quality. The thing that impressed me was the overall organization of the event. I can’t say enough good things about the board of directors.”
“When we went on stage Wednesday night,” notes Bradley Davis, also of Majesty III, “We saw not only guests but also fellow artists coming in to support us. These were all new friends because when we arrived on Monday we didn’t know anybody. We were just blown away by the friendliness, the camaraderie. We’re very thankful to the Lord for allowing us to come.”
A top highlight came on Wednesday night when 93-year old Lonnie Cook took the stage to share his memories of serving in the Navy during World War II. Ron Higgins elaborates, “Probably the biggest thing for me was having the opportunity to listen to Mr. Cook. I have been to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial several times — right over the top of that ship. And this gentleman, with his clarity of mind, was unreal. There was no frailty to him at all.”
As an inaugural event, the Ozark Gospel Music Convention is deemed a success. Dates are set for 2015 with many groups pledging their support to return. “Our job is two-fold,” elaborates Patz. “We have a responsibility to the fans but also a great responsibility to the artists. When you see that pledge of commitment from them to return you really cannot get a better pat on the back than that.”
“God has opened some amazing doors for us with this event. Now it is our job to walk through those doors.”
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.” — Psalm 100:1-2
ALL PLATES, 05/05-07/14, Ozark Gospel Music Convention, Branson. Photo credit, J. Heston.
REFERENCES: Goff, James R. Jr., Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC 2002
First published by SGN Scoops in the June 2014 edition.
For more information on the Ozark Gospel Music Convention visit http://www.ozarkgospelmusicconvention.com
For current issues of SGN Scoops digital magazine visit http://www.sgnscoops.com