I stood on the top deck, leaning on the rail and looking below. A man on the ground was uncoiling a rope the thickness of my arm on the dock – it was almost time to sail! Ever since the Singing At Sea cruise in February I’ve been looking for an excuse to be out on the water again; when the Showboat Branson Belle announced their Carols on the Belle Series in November/December, I knew this was it! The series featured groups such as Triumphant Quartet, Mike LeFevre Quartet, Home For Christmas (Mark Trammell Quartet and Whisnants) and Karen Peck and New River one afternoon each week as the Christmas season approached. As I watched the water slowly separate the Showboat from the shore the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I was thinking how blessed I was to be on the boat the week that Home For Christmas was featured on the Belle. Because 2014 was the first year for the Home For Christmas Tour and the Belle was the very first concert, I had to go! With Branson being fairly close to my home, who would want to miss a “first” for two of my favorite groups when they were so close? While it was a first for MTQ and the Whisnants to be performing their Home For Christmas program on stage – it was also my first time on the Showboat. Since there were a few other music groups opening the first half of the afternoon, I was content to be up on deck. I watched the red paddles go round n’ round, pushing us farther into the lake. The sun was lowering and sending golden gleams of light across the water… It was paradise. From the warm sunny scenery outside, we went inside where Christmas decorations transported you to a warm and cozy feeling of an Ozark Christmas. Our table was up in the tippy top on the third floor. (It was up there because the Belle was SOLD OUT! That’s the kind of seats you get when you order tickets late…) LOL There, I learned from the Showboat’s emcee that the Belle can cruise up to twelve miles per hour, but we wouldn’t be going past six. The meal consisted of salad, pork with pear topping, mashed potatoes, veggies and a frozen pie dessert. (To be completely honest, the food wasn’t as great as it sounded.) While we were eating, folks were entertained by a magician, a hand bell choir and a local high school choir. (I missed the first two from being on deck.) After that was a brief intermission before the main show began.
Back in my seat, I anxiously waited for the next part of the program to begin. When the emcee asked the audience to welcome The Whisnants and Mark Trammell Quartet, I was one happy camper! Both groups came on stage and began with The Faithful Medley and Unspeakable Joy. A moment after the songs ended, Susan stepped forward and greeted the crowd. Her husband, Jeff, added that this show was the very first Home For Christmas concert they’ve ever done. Mark chimed in and asked the crowd if we were full, then ushered the Whisnants into their first song, Without Christ There’s No Christmas. Susan introduced their second song, I Call Him Lord, also her favorite from the new CD! (The Whisnants and MTQ recorded a special project called Home For Christmas together for this tour.) Next, was MTQ’s turn to sing and they launched into Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Mark explained, “We do that song for the folks who like ordinary things, and so this other song is for folks who enjoy the more refined things in life.” Right then, he straightened his tie and made everyone giggle. The sound of a big orchestra filled the boat as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen began. Afterwards, Mark introduced his quartet and then Jeff did the same for his family. Following, the Whisnants sang Jesus Brought Joy to the World, a peppy new song that’s bound to be a favorite if you hear it!
“We came to the place that we were doing a lot of Christmas programs together, winding up together on the same programs at the Christmas season so we just decided to do our own project and our own Christmas program!” – Mark Trammell
Mark then explained to the audience a little about MTQ and the Whisnants and what they do. Considering that 90% of the audience had never heard either group before, it was necessary, then he went on to talk about his mother’s favorite Christmas song. “I’m the youngest of four Baptist preacher’s kids, I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. My Mom, being a Baptist preacher’s wife for 50 years, you would think her favorite Christmas song would be one of the old carols out of the songbook. But that’s not the case, my Mom’s favorite Christmas song is the one we’re about to do. My Mom was my favorite person, she’s in heaven now, lived to be 89 years old, but she got to that place in life when she knew she wasn’t going to get better here. She looked at me and said, ‘Honey, I believe that God knows what’s been best all of my life, and I taught you boys to believe that.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am you have.’ She said, ‘He knows what’s best now too, and it won’t be long. I’m not going to be here. But we’ll be together a whole lot longer than we’ll be a part so don’t worry about it.’ That was my Mama. So when we decided to do a Christmas project I could not do Mom’s favorite song. I’ll tell y’all this, it features me, I pretty much have the solo, (then turning to the others behind him) so y’all just hang out and I’ll be back in a minute.” Mark began singing The Christmas Song, which we recognized from the first line that says, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Since Mark was the only one singing and the other six singers were sitting on their black stools pretending to be bored, you could imagine the mischief they caused! A little while in, Ethan Whisnant brought everyone a Santa hat…except Mark. So Susan graciously decided to share hers with him and placed it on top of his head. There was only one awkward thing – it had a sparkly tiara on it with a lot of bling! The audience laughed and Mark looked like he couldn’t figure out why… If that wasn’t funny enough, when it came to the part where the music played Jeff and Susan jumped up and started waltzing together, which encouraged the others to do so too! Mark tried to break it up and cried, “We’re Baptist! We don’t do that!” LOL “Everybody likes to have fun like we do,” said Mark after all the commotion, “But this time of year is my favorite time of year. People laugh at me in Gadsden, Alabama where we live because I like to play Christmas music. Just last week, I was in my car enjoying the 60 degree weather and some Christmas music with my window down and a guy laughed out loud and said, ‘It barely is Thanksgiving, you’re already listening to that stuff?’ I said, ‘There’s more hope and joy in this than anything you’re gonna play on your radio.’ But I do want to remind us all of the real reason for this season…” Then he read Luke chapter two. The music for Silent Night followed and Susan went on to sing the first verse, with Jeff and Mark joining her on the second, and finally everyone on the third. When the sweet tones ended, Susan asked, “Would you sing this?” then began, “Away in a manger…” The crowd joined in for a verse or two and the Belle was filled with the lyrics of the old carol. Another carol about that night followed, one that MTQ sings with power – O Holy Night. Though MTQ began the ballad as though it featured them, the Whisnants joined in towards the end. I thought, “It can’t get any better than this!” But it did. Susan stepped forward and began to share with the crowd. “Christmas is my favorite time of year,” she began, “but I have watched as some of you have cried through this. I have people come up to me all the time and say, ‘You know what? I love Christmas but it’s a lonely time for me, I lost my husband, I lost my wife, I lost my kid, I lost my mom. It’s lonely.’ Let me tell you, last year December the 21st my father in-law was in an accident and he went home to heaven December the 23rd. A lot of people felt sorry for us but a very good friend of ours wrote a song and sent it to us on Christmas Eve, and I cannot tell you what this song has done for us. If God could give us one glimpse into heaven, we would never wish them back.” The ballad to follow was If You Could See What I See – a very touching song about our loved one’s view of Christmas from heaven. When the song ended Susan prayed and the program ended with the classic, Christmas Time’s A Coming.
Conclusion: The Belle is a very neat venue to see Gospel Music in. (I wouldn’t go for the food though.) *wink* It was very exciting to be in a venue that was sold out. They had 600 people there! I loved how the folks, though not all Gospel Music fans, accepted and encouraged the singers. All of the songs that MTQ and the Whisnants sang were from their Home For Christmas CD and I enjoyed watching each one live and how they planned the set. I felt that everything done on stage was very sincere. You could tell that they all love singing together (and picking on each other!) just like a family would. If you have the chance to see the Home For Christmas Tour when it comes around in 2015, I highly recommend you go. You won’t want to miss it!