Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

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For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.

The truth behind my Top 10

I first heard Rosanne Cash’s magnificent The River & The Thread over a year ago, and if I remember correctly, immediately tweeted that even though 2014 was still a ways away, I already had my No. 1 Album of the Year. That it didn’t turn out that way says less about The River & The Thread than it does about my admittedly bogus methodology in choosing Top 10 Albums of the Year.

But really, what does it mean, Album of the Year? The best album of the year? Who’s to say? By what criteria? Or put it this way: Does the Grammy Award for Album of the Year mean that the award winner actually was the best album of the year?

I’ll let you answer that. As for me, and probably others who put these inane lists together, they’re a combination of favorite albums and those by artists that need a break to get heard in the morass of commercially-released and corporate-supported music. In my case, in general, both are the same, with Cash’s being one of the few that has major distribution.

Back when I was at Billboard, we actually included singles, videos, concerts and events in our Top 10 lists, and often went with ties to squeeze in more than 10. Purists would surely call it a cop-out, but I think my late pal, Billboard editor-in-chief Tim White, once crammed in 12 or 13 titles one year.

This year I was tempted to go the tie route more than once, especially because of Rosanne, and particularly because of Carlene Carter.

How ironic that Carlene, who grew up with Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash after he married her mother June Carter, would come out with her own career album just a few months after Rosanne—with Carter Girl kind of being her The List. This presented a huge problem for me in that I wrote the Carter Girl liner notes for my old and dear friend Carlene—but my old and dear friend Rosanne had thanked me a few years ago on a CD compilation. I’m sure they’d both hate me if I copped out and tied them at No. 1, and I was tempted to go the alphabetical route and put Carlene ahead of Rosanne, except that Rosanne’s album was entirely original, while Carlene’s had several beautifully done covers.

Luckily, NRBQ’s Brass Tacks came out, offering me my own plausible out of the sticky situation. Here’s where the wanting to give deserving artists a break part comes in: NRBQ remains perhaps the greatest under-appreciated band in rock ‘n’ roll history. Founded in the late 1960s, it’s still led by Terry Adams, who’s overcome throat cancer and band personnel changes and needs and deserves the recognition that Rosanne and Carlene already have.

But then came Jimmy Liban. A dear friend from Milwaukee, Jimmy is one of the all-time great blues harmonica players/singers/songwriters, but you probably only know that if you’re a blues fan. He was one of the artists I wrote about the most when I started writing in Madison, Wis. in the late ’70s; that he never achieved household name status remains one of my biggest career regrets. When I listened to I Say What I Mean, his first album in decades, produced and recorded by his former guitarist Joel Paterson, it was clear that this had to be my No. 1.

But it could easily have been Cajun country star Jo-El Sonnier’s The Legacy, or Doug Kershaw & Steve Riley’s Face to Face, both magnificent returns to traditional Cajun music form by two of the most important artists in the genre–and my career: I actually became a writer in order to meet Doug at a rock festival in Oshkosh, Wis., having just met Jo-El on my first trip to Nashville. Doug’s then latest album featured Jo-El’s “Cajun Born.” I was a huge fan of both.

That leaves Maura Moynihan’s Bombay Superstar—a Bollywood inspired pop/dance/techno delight; Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits, which was even better than its auspicious 2010 self-titled debut; and Thompson’s Family, Teddy Thompson’s perfectly realized compilation of new songs and performances by his esteemed family members. Any and all of these Top Nine albums could just as credibly been No. 1 in any other year.

My No. 10, AC/DC’s Rock or Bust, would seem to be the only filler title here, though it’s a most excellent album. But I probably would have replaced it with one of several albums I discovered after making this list originally for the Village Voice, then making another of strictly country/Americana/folk/bluegrass titles for Nashville Scene.

I really hadn’t received or listened to a lot of country-related albums this year, due to having fallen off so many lists in the time since I was with Billboard. Thankfully, the Scene sends along several lists of relevant titles that are eligible for consideration, and I was able to stream Laura Cantrell’s No Way From Here, The Isaacs’ The Living Years, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line, Jim Lauderdale’s Patchwork River and Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ Saturday Night/Sunday Morning—all superb.

At least Joel Paterson was pleased by Rock or Bust.

“Thanks so much, Jim,” he messaged. “And an honor to be on a list with AC/DC!”