The festival begins at 7 p.m. Friday, May 11, 6 p.m. Saturday, May 12, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 13, at the location where many members of The Lewis Family bluegrass-gospel group were born and reared: 1935 Lewis Family Road.
Tickets are $20 on May 11 and May 12; $15 on May 13; kids 12 and under get in free with a paying adult. Visit jeffandsherieaster.com for more details.
Gospel music fans know Parker from his many appearances on Bill Gaither’s televised Homecoming shows and for his many recordings with The Singing Americans, Gold City Quartet and The Gaither Trio and his own solo projects.
His signature song, Midnight Cry, written by Georgia brothers Greg and Chuck Day, has become a gospel music classic re-recorded by scores of singers.
In February 2009, I was at the Rev. Michael Guido’s funeral in Metter, Ga., and heard Bill Coen, the music minister of First Baptist in Statesboro, Ga., deliver a beautiful, strong version of Midnight Cry during the service.
Then the very next month, I was at a wild game supper at Sweetwater Baptist Church in Clearwater, S.C., featuring Guido’s close friend the Rev. Dennis Swanberg, a Christian comedian, and I was telling some friends who loved Guido about Coen’s fantastic version of that song.
And amazingly just as I said that, right on cue singers Connie and Bert Sansom and the Sweetwater Praise Band launched into Midnight Cry. Perfect timing.
“I was singing down in south Georgia – I can’t tell you where – and there was a group on the program that night called The Accords,” Parker told me last week while talking about the song.
“Greg and Chuck Day were in that group,” he continued. “Greg approached me during the evening and said, ‘I’m a songwriter. Here’s a cassette tape. I’d like for you to listen to some of my songs.’
“I got to listening to that tape one day, and Greg had checked the ones he wanted me to hear. I listened to the checked songs, and then I let the tape play and the last song on the cassette was Midnight Cry.
“I called Greg up and asked him, ‘Why didn’t you check Midnight Cry?’ He said, ‘I didn’t figure you were interested in that one.’ I said, ‘That’s the only one I’m interested in.’ ”
Parker estimates, from the time he and Gold City recorded it in 1987, that he has sung it about 200 times a year or in other words about 5,000 times.
The gospel music star grew up in Broadway, N.C., near Sanford, as the youngest of six children (five boys, one girl). He said Broadway didn’t have a stop light, but had two caution lights; one entering the town and one leaving.
“My dad played guitar and was sort of a wayfaring musician,” Parker said. “He threw his guitar on his back and hit the road and would just show up in a town and play. He loved country and bluegrass music.
“God called him to preach years later and he pastored a lot of little country churches. My mom could sit there and sing a song to you with no music and stay on pitch, but she never has been one to go out and sing publicly.”
The five Parker brothers sang together in various group configurations. Parker and his brother, Danny, in fact, were singing as a duo called The Noblemen when a Maiden, N.C.-based national gospel group called The Singing Americans in 1982 offered him a chance to join them.
“Michael English (another gospel music star today) left to go with The Happy Goodman Family, and they needed someone to take Michael’s place,” Parker said. “I hated to leave Danny, but he knew this was a dream I wanted to pursue. That really didn’t make it any easier. Danny has a group now called The Harvesters.”
The Gold City quartet in 1983 lured Parker away from The Singing Americans to hire him as lead vocalist.
Parker launched his solo career in 1994 but detoured briefly in 1996 to join prolific gospel songwriters Gloria and Bill Gaither as The Gaither Trio.
The opening lines of Midnight Cry are, “I hear the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and it’s closer now than it’s ever been.”
Well, the “rushing wind” for Parker turned out to be blown by Bill Gaither creating his Homecoming gospel singing specials and by the growing cable television industry that made those TV specials and accompanying DVDs internationally popular.
In 2007, Parker became the first soloist ever to perform on the main stage of the National Quartet Convention at the 50th anniversary of the gathering.
“I think they just felt sorry for me,” he said jokingly. “That goes back to how God really has blessed my career from the very beginning. They wanted to try something different at the 50th anniversary, and they had received a lot of requests from my fans to see me there. So they tried a solo artist and it worked.”
It’s appropriate that Parker’s current album is titled The Joy Ride, because that’s the way he sees his fabulous career and the love shown by his many loyal fans who have followed him from the beginning.
“That’s part of the joy of doing gospel music,” he said. “You don’t retire. You sing until you die. Record companies of other kinds of music judge your career on about a four-year span, but with gospel music you sing until you get done.”
WRAPPING UP NANYEHI: Country music star Becky Hobbs wrapped up her three-weekend run of her new musical Nanyehi, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee in Hartwell, Ga., with the last show on April 29. She e-mailed, “We got standing ovations at all six shows and lots of tears were flowing.”
Augusta-area historical romance novelist Janelle Taylor of Grovetown, Ga., who repeatedly has made The New York Times best seller lists with her books about Native Americans, went to the final show.
“WOW! You were right,” Taylor wrote me. “Nanyehi was awesome, moving and unique. We hung on every song and the narrative. Michelle Honaker in the title role gave a lifetime performance. Becky, Duane (Sciaqua) and Nick (Sweet) wrote some of the best songs I’ve ever heard. … Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving us this opportunity to see an unforgettable show and heartwarming experience.”
Now, I wish some local theatrical group would stage this show in this area where so many Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Catawbas and Cherokees once roamed. You can reach Hobbs at firstname.lastname@example.org.