Facebook can be rather addictive. It can be even more addictive if you join a Facebook group called We Love Our Southern Gospel Music History. Harold Timmons, John Crenshaw, Ann Downing, and Hannah Kennedy are the outstanding administrators of this page, which has now amassed over 35,000 members. These southern gospel music fans and friends share one thing in common, and that is the love of old pictures, footage, and audio of our favorite artists of the past. Every now and then when I have time, I delve into my mp3 archives, cobble some old pictures together, and create videos of some of my favorite artists to share on the page. I learned quickly that probably the most popular clips that I post are of the Homeland Harmony Quartet. And why not? They were good…in fact, not just good, but outstanding. If the die-hard quartet fan wants to hear flat-footed male harmony at its best, they needn’t look any further than Connor Hall and the boys. Why they are rarely discussed these days as one of the greatest quartets in our history is beyond me. Perhaps it is because they retired from full-time gospel music almost 60 years ago. For the next few paragraphs, allow me to make some observations of this legendary group.
The quartet’s roots trace back to the mid 1930s, when BC Robinson, Fred C. Maples, Doyle Blackwood, and Otis McCoy formed a quartet and briefly sang under the name Homeland Harmony, but in 1943 the quartet re-emerged with tenor Connor Hall, lead singer Otis McCoy, baritone James McCoy, bass singer BC Robinson, and pianist Hovie Lister, and the Homeland Harmony began making their impact on the full-time quartet circuit. As with most quartets, the group faced its share of personnel changes through its career. It wasn’t until around 1947 that the quartet made its first recordings on the White Church label. At this time the personnel consisted of bass singer Aycel Soward, baritone James McCoy, lead singer Shorty Bradford, tenor Connor Hall, and pianist Lee Roy Abernathy. Abernathy was far ahead of his time as a pianist, songwriter, and Christian entertainer, and his arrangements and original material written for the quartet set a standard that numerous other groups would follow. He penned the rhythmic “Wonderful Time Up There” (also known as “Gospel Boogie”), and although causing minor controversy among more conservative religious circles, the song became one of the most popular gospel songs of the 1940s.
The 50s ushered in further changes for the Homeland Harmony. Connor Hall and James McCoy remained the nucleus of the group until they disbanded in 1958, and they welcomed many outstanding talents into their lineup including Big Jim Waits (returning for a second stint after performing with them in the mid 40s), Wally Varner, Paul Stringfellow, Bob Shaw, Doy Ott, Johnny Atkinson, Wayne Groce, Harold Lane, George Younce, London Parris, Jack Clark, Rex Nelon, Tommy Rainer, Livy Freeman, Fred Elrod, and others. They recorded many sides for Bibletone Records and later with Stateswood Records. Among the most popular songs by the Homeland Harmony were “Sing Your Blues Away”, “He’s a Personal Savior”, “The Love of God”, “Waiting for His Return”, “The Big Boss”, “My Nonstop Flight to Gloryland”, and “My Heavy Burdens Have Rolled Away”. The Homeland Harmony began their radio programs with “Just a melody, Homeland Harmony…”. Following a warm greeting from Connor Hall, the Homeland Harmony would fill their program by sight reading songs straight from the latest singing convention songbooks, (performing them quite flawlessly I might add), a feat few quartets would tackle even in those days.
Connor Hall is remembered by his contemporaries as one of the greatest tenors to ever grace the gospel stage. He was a stickler for perfection, as well as for selecting songs and precise arrangements that set his quartet apart from the rest of the gospel music world. He possessed the ability to hear even the slightest descretion in pitch. Although health concerns plagued him through most of his later years, his voice remained clear and pleasant until his death. Connor performed at the first gospel concert I ever attended in 1986, and having recently watched the video of his performance that night, I am even more amazed at his remarkably pleasant tones. A true natural first tenor, his musical leadership established the Homeland Harmony as a model for quartet perfection. Following the quartet’s disbandment, Hall became Music Editor for Tennessee Music and Printing Company, one of the leading publishers of shape-note materials in the South. He remained very active in the Singing Convention scene for many years, even serving as President of the National Singing Convention in 1968.
The Homeland Harmony resurfaced on a part-time basis in the mid 1960s with Hall, former lead vocalist Fred Elrod, baritone Jimi Hall, bass Bill Curtis, and pianist Dickie Matthews. Around 1969, Jack Clark and JL Steele replaced Matthews and Hall, respectively. Although the group was not extremely active, they continued tackling new songs and new arrangements and recording new albums. They headlined several “Ol-Timers” events through the 70s and 80s, and performed at the 1989 Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. Connor Hall passed away in 1992, leaving a legacy equaled by very few of his peers.
At least thirteen Homeland Harmony alumni have been inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, with several more worthy of inclusion in its ranks. In fact, as of 2015 they tie with the Statesmen Quartet for placement of more members in the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame than any other quartet. Some of the former members of Homeland were only with the group for very brief stints, yet the Homeland Harmony can still claim this distinction. Many of those Hall of Famers, particularly Wally Varner and Rex Nelon, began or furthered their professional careers with this legendary name. For the die-hard southern gospel fan seeking to learn more about our roots and some of the great groups of the past, I strongly advise – seek out and find music by the Homeland Harmony Quartet!
Thank you so much for your questions and kind words in regard to this column. You can email me at my email. I would love to hear from you. See you next time!