Originally created 02/24/01

The evolution of song



It happens to Reese LeRoy when he's running, to Susan Ely while she's driving and to Connie Ryals almost anytime.

A lyric or a refrain will start in their heads. Eventually a whole song may evolve.

And if their creations haven't led to Dove Award nominations yet, it doesn't matter - they are troubadours for God. Their songs of worship have helped others climb higher, they say.

Here is a sampling of Augusta-area songwriters who use their skills to praise God.

SISTERS CONNIE RYALS AND SONYA BAILEY were raised in the mission fields of Ghana and Japan, wheremaking up jingles in the back of the car was a favorite pastime. Later they sang for church congregations.

With their brother Roy, now the Rev. Frierson, pastor of Blythe Baptist Church, they toured as the Frierson Trio from 1978 until 1987.

The sisters also performed three years with Youth With a Mission, an interdenominational missions organization based in Lakeside, Mont. They sang with bands in Europe, Asia, Singapore, Scotland and Ireland until they came to metro Augusta in 1991 to help care for their father. "We never stopped writing and singing together," Mrs. Ryals said.

While Mrs. Bailey bases songs on her experiences, all anyone has to say is "`I need a song about blah-blah' and I will sit down and write," Mrs. Ryals said.

They met songwriter Karry Godwin when they came to Augusta, Mrs. Ryals said.

The sisters teamed with Mr. Godwin and his wife, Pam, to produce a CD, He'Rose. Most of the songs were written by the sisters.

Traditionally, gospel singers sing other people's compositions, not their own, but that is changing, Mr. Godwin said.

"The garage-band era" changed songwriting in every genre, including gospel. "People began to toy with writing. Willie Nelson is known for singing as much as he is for writing," said Mr. Godwin, an accomplished guitarist, teacher and songwriter.

He splits his time between leading worship at In Focus Church and teaching at Worship Discovery, a ministry he started to teach church musicians how to work with a rhythm section.

Gospel music has become more commercial and songwriters should be remunerated for their work, but most composers just want to help others worship, he said.

Writing songs "is just a gift from God, and it is up to us to use it for him," Mrs. Ryals said.

IT IS GRATIFYING TO THE REV. LEROY when someone says "that the words of a particular song express something deep in their heart" the person had not known before, he said.

With encouragement from members of the Vineyard Church-Augusta, where he is an associate pastor, the Rev. LeRoy made a recording, Passion, with help from his former Oral Roberts University roommate, Eric Darken. Mr. Darken is one of the top studio percussionists in Nashville, Tenn., the Rev. LeRoy said.

Although he sang with the Roberts TV ministry, made recordings while in college and later worked at WAGT-TV (Channel 26) as a newscaster for seven years, recording his own project was a bit intimidating, the Rev. LeRoy said. "It is very different when you are pretty much calling all the shots and it is totally original material."

But it was fun to see it all come together, he said. "We had a great time. I was very pleased."

SUSAN ELY AND HER HUSBAND, THE REV. ROGER ELY, pastor of Song of Hope Christian Fellowship in Goshen, have been a musical duo for more than 20 years. They have penned about 150 songs, but none for commercial purposes. "We have used (the music) in ministry. We did the album to help us spread the gospel and Scripture through music," he said.

He had tried songwriting as a youth but gave it up and decided he was really a vocalist. After a year of studying opera at Bowling Green University in Ohio he left school to work for his father's furniture store and married Susan.

He found he had no aptitude for math and left the business, eventually slid out of his faith and into drugs, he said.

When his wife got pregnant, it was a wake-up call for him, the Rev. Ely said. "I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit."

He tried songwriting again. Although he had only been able to do "weak, bubble-gum" songs before, he found he could now write several songs a day.

While living in Tampa, Fla., the Elys started working on their CD, Expectantly, which came out in 1997. There was an opening on a track for a flute solo, but "I couldn't come up with anything," Mrs. Ely said.

Her brother Blue Lou Marini Jr. of the Blues Brothers Band, was working in Orlando. When he called, she told him to bring his saxophone and flute over, she said.

Blue Lou's saxophone can be heard on Watch Expectantly and his flute on You've Put a New Song in My Mouth. The first was written by Mrs. Ely and the second by her husband.

"He had never heard the music. He listened once and laid down his tracks. It was incredible. His playing was meant to go there," she said.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.