photo by Aaron Crisler/The Judy Nelon Group
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GAITHER & FRIENDS MAKE NASHVILLE STOP ON GIVE IT AWAY TOUR
By Greg Freeman
On Friday, February 8, 2008, Bill & Gloria Gaither and their Homecoming Friends rolled into Music City for a stop on the Give It Away tour. The marquee outside of downtown’s Sommet Center boasted of upcoming events featuring Bon Jovi, Brad Paisley, Linkin Park, Kid Rock and Michael Bublé, but on this night the arena would serve as a worship setting throughout which praise and laughter would resonate.
As seven o’clock rolled around and I took my seat in floor section three, Kevin Williams kicked off the show with his masterful guitar picking. Then Bill Gaither came out on stage, flanked by other members of the tour. They began singing a few Homecoming favorites, priming the audience for the great things that were to come. Pretty soon the Gaither Vocal Band and Ernie Haase & Signature Sound were awing fans with a double dose of outstanding four-part harmony. Their rendition of Suzanne Gaither-Jennings’s “Love Is Like a River” was nearly enough to make a Baptist boy like me break into a Jessy Dixon jig!
Characteristic of every Gaither show, it’s too hard to pinpoint a most memorable moment.
Jeff and Sheri Easter and Charlotte Ritchie testified to God’s faithfulness as they delivered a stirring performance of their big song, “Over And Over.” In a town where the Easters’ country leanings make them sound right at home, I couldn’t help but notice the smiles and bobbing of heads as Sheri sang the lead on the infectious “Livin’ In the Rain.” Lynda Randle’s “Walk With Me, Lord” was enough to make even “Haley” Jackson proud. A tremendous talent, it’s always a joy to hear Lynda sing. Ivan Parker sang his latest, “I Choose,” and the nightly favorite, “When I Get Carried Away,” a tune he made famous while singing with Gold City a number of years ago. Gordon Mote put a hurtin’ on the piano as his fingers left nary a key untouched. When he broke into “The Old Gospel Ship,” buddy, you knew it was time to have church! Janet Paschal, whose brave (and successful!) battle with breast cancer has truly been an inspiration, sang a beautiful arrangement of Cleavant Derricks’s “When God Dips His Love In My Heart.” Southern gospel legend Ben Speer became emotional as he touchingly sang the timeless “Sheltered in the Arms of God.” And Joy Gardner’s powerhouse vocals shined on “Lord, You’re Holy” as she performed with the backing of her friends and fellow church members, the fabulous Christ Church Choir.
Interestingly, my friend, Eva Mae LeFevre, had told me backstage that she didn’t know what she would be singing. As Bill introduced her on stage, Eva Mae told him the same thing! It didn’t take her long to settle on a song, though. Referring to Charles A. Tindley’s classic “Leave It There” as a standard on which she can always fall back, words of testimony flowed from Eva Mae’s lips. As she began the second verse—“If your body suffers pain, and your health you can’t regain...”—the older gentleman seated in a wheelchair in front of me began to cry. When Eva Mae reached the end of the verse—“Take your burdens to the Lord, and leave them there!”—all around me hands began to raise and I heard a chorus of amens. At 90 years of age, Eva Mae is still a queen in gospel music. Hardly a has-been, she continues to touch hearts and lives through her music ministry.
Ernie Haase and the boys in Signature Sound really know how to get an audience going with their exemplary vocals, stage presence and choreography. With selections ranging from the toe-tapping “Glory To God in the Highest” to the swelling ballad, “Until We Fly Away,” which features the soulful lead of baritone Doug Anderson, these gifted guys thoroughly thrilled the crowd in a city where great singers are generally a dime a dozen! Just when it appeared that Signature Sound had reached a climax in their set, the roaring applause of fans demanded multiple encores of “Get Away, Jordan.” Haase (tenor), Anderson (baritone), Ryan Seaton (lead) and Tim Duncan (bass) generously obliged.
The Gaither Vocal Band sang two classics made famous decades ago outside the world of black gospel by Gordon Stoker and the Jordanaires: “I’ll Tell It Wherever I Go,” a Thomas A. Dorsey tune featuring the smooth tenor and soaring falsettos of Wes Hampton; and “My Journey to the Sky,” a Rosetta Tharpe number highlighting Marshall Hall and the rhythmic bass of Mr. Gaither himself! A particularly moving performance was Guy Penrod’s delivery of Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?”
Fast forward past the fifteen minute intermission, and you find all of the Give It Away tour members seated on stage for a Homecoming sing-along. In addition to the artists who had previously performed, I spotted my friend, Calvin Newton, along with Mary Tom Speer Reid, Daryl and Karen Williams, Buddy Mullins, Angela Primm and Michael English!
Gene McDonald’s deeper than deep bass and Ivan Parker’s capable lead got things moving on “Up Above My Head” and, before long, audience members were pointing to the three large screens above. Projected across them were images of George Younce, Jake Hess and Rex Nelon—all of whom are now deceased—singing along from the Memphis Homecoming taping!
There can’t be a Gaither Homecoming without some good, old-fashioned convention songs. “Heaven’s Joy Awaits,” “The Sweetest Song I Know” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” were selections that did not disappoint. Jeff Easter’s harmonica solo and comedy exchange with Kevin Williams and Gordon Mote prefaced the group’s singing of “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms,” a number that got the entire arena involved. Additionally, Ivan Parker sang Ray Boltz’s great hit, “Thank You.” Shaking hands with Eva Mae and Mary Tom, he reverently acknowledged the road these gospel pioneers had paved a long time ago. Gordon Mote’s rousing interpretation of “I Can’t Even Walk Without You Holding My Hand” was enough to set anyone on shoutin’ ground, and another great moment (though subtle to the casual observer) came when Bill gestured for Michael English to sing a part in a song. Michael’s life and career had taken him down a divergent path just years ago, but it’s great to see him back among friends, and it was apparent that they were grateful to have him back home. His very presence was a testimony to God’s grace!
As the night progressed, more images of old Homecoming friends now gone on appeared periodically on the screens to the delight of fans throughout the arena, adding a touch of nostalgia to this wonderful evening.
Some time during the show, I had commented to the couple (who had driven all the way from Missouri) sitting next to me, “This makes my third concert on the Give It Away tour!” They replied, “This is our second or third.” When Gloria Gaither concluded her prayer and the concert wound down, I began to ponder. What makes someone drive long distances for a Gaither show? What is it about these events that draws thousands of fans—young and old, able-bodied and disabled—to spend an entire Friday or Saturday evening in a packed arena when a world of obligations and potential engagements are at one’s beck and call? Simply put, it’s this uplifting, inspiring music and the amazing artists who perform it with such fervor and conviction. Attendees at Friday’s concert in Nashville would, no doubt, attest to the fact that Bill Gaither and all of the Homecoming Friends are genuinely passionate about gospel music and are sure to indelibly impact lives whenever they come to town.
Greg Freeman is a singer-songwriter, author and editor/publisher of SouthernEdition.com