There are a lot of memories that come rushing in when I think about the National Quartet Convention…some great, some not so great, but all indelibly etched in my mind. Some of those memories go back to the old Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, circa mid-sixties, but most took root down on James Robertson Parkway in downtown Nashville. That was years before anyone ever dreamed of moving the gospel extravaganza to eastern Tennessee…that would have been unthinkable in those days. The reality was that many of the Nashville hotels were old and poorly situated, parking was a nightmare, and there were few convenient places to eat, especially after an all-night musical conclave. I do recall a couple of greasy spoons and an old “waffle house” so smoke-filled that even the Marlboro man would have gagged.
It’s been more years than I’d like to think that the group I was with drove all night to arrive in time for the Saturday morning talent contest. We had no hotel, so I changed clothes for the competition in a parking garage while my sister-in-law blocked the view with her raincoat. It seemed we stood in line for hours that cool October morning, but it was all worth it for we came away with the first place trophy. The most important benefit we were offered as a part of our winnings was the opportunity to sing the winning song at the opening of that night’s main stage event! We were breathless with anticipation, but alas, one group after another stepped up before us. We were assured that any minute now would be our turn. At 2:00 a.m. we were still waiting, so we gave it up, piled in our cars, and headed on back to Illinois….disappointed, but toting the trophy nonetheless.
There are other memories that stand out…like the year a soloist won the groupcompetition…interesting. Then there was the year Elvis showed up and took a bow… for what I’m not sure…I guess just being Elvis. The auditorium was ablaze with flashing Kodaks and the shouts and cheers were deafening. He didn’t sing and he spoke not a word. He just appeared, took a bow, and vanished. Strange.
I can remember more than one year rude patrons filing out in droves when the Bill Gaither Trio took the stage. It still makes me annoyed when I think of it, and now I’m sure some of those folks would give their right arm for just two seconds of Bill’s time. It’s funny how life and time are excellent ground levelers.
There was the year Vestal Goodman came out of nowhere and literally flew up the center steps of the main stage to pray for wheelchair-bound songwriter, Cleavant Derricks. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was a lady on a mission. (Rev. Derricks was the composer of such gospel greats as “Just A Little Talk with Jesus”, “When God Dips His Love In My Heart”, “We’ll Soon Be Done With Troubles and Trials” and many others.)
Then the year no one will ever forget…the year we lost Big Chief.
Through it all, the good times and bad, there was a constant. It was a week of absolute musical bliss for anyone who loves harmony. Back before anyone used the phrase “southern gospel”, it was sweet, southern harmony. Back in the sixties The Johnson Sisters dressed up the stage in style and brought their Alabama sounds northward. The Weatherfords crooned beautifully and the Happy Goodmans brought the house down like only they could. I can still hear the rich tones of the Blue Ridge Quartet, and the unique stylings of Smitty Gatlin and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Out in the exhibition area they stood high on steel record cases and sold their 33 1/3 vinyl for $5.00, with a glossy black and white publicity photo for 50 cents. They smiled, some blushed, but they all posed with babies and grandmas alike. They stood and signed autographs for waiting fans and most wouldn’t have dreamed of skulking off to hide while underlings dealt with us nobodies.
They dressed befitting the occasion, as did the fans back then…not a sweat suit in sight. They didn’t apologize for looking “churchy”, and the names of their record labels could not be mistaken for anything but gospel.
The seventies brought new sounds like the Imperials, while J.D. Sumner and the Stamps and the Kingsmens were still a commanding presence on stage. The eighties ushered in the Gold City era and their sound became the gold standard. But no matter what year, what group, what city, the tenors screeched high, the basses slid down to their lowest register, vibrated the floor, and we loved every minute of it!
It seemed we walked miles that week and new shoes wore blisters on our tired feet. We met kindred spirits in our fellow fans and made friends of former strangers, some of whom are still good friends today.
I can almost hear what some are thinking now. “Boy, is she clueless about what REALLY went on backstage.” No, I’m not. Trust me. I met the mean-spirited as well as the beautiful, the cad as well as the kind….but like in every other walk of life, there can’t be a counterfeit unless there’s a real thing. Thankfully, I met enough of the “real deal” to convince me that this music is worth saving.
Of the things I want to tuck away and remember all the days of my life about those times, the most treasured will always be the music. I’ll never forget my introduction to Ronnie Hinson’s “Lighthouse”, or the stand-to-your-feet power of of the Couriers singing “Statue of Liberty”, Gaither songs like “Because He Lives” and the Speer Family’s rendition of “The King is Coming”. They were power ballads before that phrase was popular. Most of all, they were classic songs sung by classy singers and it doesn’t get any better than that.
We’ve seen our vinyl disappear to be replaced with 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CD’s, and now a variety of high-tech electronic gadgetry capable of storing every gospel album ever made; but it’s my sincere hope that while the music world continues to change around us that we can preserve our unique heritage and meet in Pigeon Forge (or anyplace else) once a year just to say we’re still committed to, still moved by, and still ready to celebrate his great old traditional sound called “Southern Gospel Music”.
Here’s wishing us all the best NQC ever!