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Southern Gospel Group is a Revival in Song

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April 6, 2011 by wcobserver

By Susan McCarthy

A retired Salvation Army receptionist, a drummer in a 1980’s rock band, an owner of a cleaning business and a pastor might not seem like they have a lot in common.  But they and three others share two passions. .. love of music and a love for serving the Lord.   They express both through good old fashioned southern gospel music.

It’s a Saturday evening and The Gospel Sonlighters are about two hours away from performing at a benefit in a church on Crossover Road in Fayetteville.   They’ve never met the man they’re there to help; neither have the dozen or so people who are already seated in the church’s pews and have turned out to hear them play.

For 25 years, The Gospel Sonlighters have gone to prisons and churches; revivals and benefits… most of the time with little or no pay.  The members of the group have changed over the years, but Marsha and James Cooley and Sunny Twombley, all residents of Winslow, have been part of the band since its beginning.  The group doesn’t perform as often as it used to, but these days they do it mostly for benefits.

“We never ask for anything.  We’re just spreading the gospel,” said Twombley who sings alongside Marsha and is a retired Salvation Army receptionist.  Twombley started recording music when she was just 12 and was part of a country western band in what she calls “WWVA,” which she translates to Wheeling, West Virginia.

“It’s the next step before you get to Nashville.  Wheeling is the first step before you get there,” Twombley said.

Ironically, The Gospel Sonlighters have recorded only two CDs, neither of them with the group’s current members.  “We’re still practicing,” jokes Twombley.

Marsha sighs and says,  “[CDs] are a tremendous amount of work.  What’s really neat [about performing], we don’t have to do anything but just come.  However many are here, we’ll sing to them.”

James Cooley is at the back of the room, turning knobs to adjust sound levels while musicians tap out notes on the keyboard, strum a few chords or sing a few bars to test their “mic” levels. As he’s making adjustments he says it’s been a wonderful experience to be able to travel and perform with his wife.

“Not many men get to do that,” he said.

Pretty soon, Cooley strolls to the front of the church and joins his wife, Marsha, and the band’s other five members at the church’s altar.

There’s some quiet muttering behind the microphones about which song they’ll sing to check the sound levels.  And then… “Going Home to Jesus” in four part harmony backed by a four-piece band.  You can see smiles, heads bobbing and feet tapping and that’s just during the sound check.

“If you don’t feel like you’ve been to a revival, then you’re dead in the spirit,” said fan Tillie Clark of Winslow.

Clark says she and her 93 year-old mother, Fleeta Clark, have been to almost every Gospel Sonlighters concert over the past twenty five years.  “I’m their number one,” she says with a chuckle.

As seven o-clock approaches, more people fill the pews in the church.  Marsha passes out a song list to the band’s members with about 15 songs on it, but says the band often doesn’t follow the play list.

“Sometimes, I feel the Lord leading me in a different direction,” she says.

The Gospel Sonlighters got their start in the First Assembly of God church in Winslow.  Marsha credits Alma T. Jones, who is now deceased, for starting the band. She was the group’s original piano player.  That part is now belongs to Willie Ming, who by day owns a cleaning business.  Ming is also one of the vocalists and is one of the youngest members of the band at 48.

“It’s in your blood.  It’s a calling and you can’t get away from it,” said Ming, adding that performing defines him more than his career does.

Ming previously traveled with The Galloways, another southern gospel group, for ten years.

“The piano player…he keeps things pretty messed up,” said Jim DeVore, the band’s guitarist.  “He’s about half crazy and keeps the group loose.”

“Marsha wanted me to fill in while they looked for a piano player and that was about two years ago.  She’s not looking too hard,” jokes Ming.

A lot of the members seem to have been talked into playing in the band by Marsha, who serves as Pastor for Blackburn Community Church in Winslow.  “I love telling people about Jesus,” she says.  “A lot of people will come to hear us singing that wouldn’t come to hear someone preach.”

Marsha says she feels that southern gospel singing is becoming obsolete as younger gospel enthusiasts turn toward more contemporary music. “We’ve held on to southern gospel music,” she said.  “People either like it or they don’t, kinda.”

“We’re old and our blood is thin,” jokes Vernon London, the bass player.  London has been with the group for about a year and like Ming was asked to “fill in.”

London, who lives in Prairie Grove, played in his first gospel group, the Calvary Echoes, in the 1970’s.

“I think it’s a musical deal for serving the Lord.  I don’t sing or anything,” he says.

London also plays in the Glen Faulkner Band.  Despite that he’s recovering from foot surgery and is on crutches, he’ll perform in both bands for the benefit.

DeVore is also a member of both bands.  “I just love to play anyway…the gospel music angle.  I just like it.”

Dennis Smith, another younger member of the band and the drummer is another long time musician, but his roots were in a heavy metal band in the 1980’s called Contagious.

“It’s my calling.   I believe everyone has a purpose in the kingdom, but his is one of ours,” said Smith.

The Glen Faulkner Band kicks off the night’s gospel music.  Then The Gospel Sonlighters deliver what fans and well-wishers have come out to see; a feel-good revival in song that started with “I’ll Fly Away.”

The Gospel Sonlighters will perform next on April 30 at the Winslow Ballpark to help raise funds for an outdoor stage at Ozark Folkways.

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