Georgia is a beautiful place. Lush, green mountains, sparkling lakes and views that will take your breath away, but there’s something else that is just as beautiful as God’s matchless creation. Honor. Every now and then, you’ll see a community come together for a special occasion, but often, this only happens after a tragedy or great loss. Not so in Dahlonega, Georgia. This town makes honoring the soldiers who have bravely defended our country (both in the past and in the present) a yearly tradition. Every main thoroughfare leading in and out of Dahlonega is lined with white crosses, each bearing the name of a soldier and where he/she fought. Small American flags fly by each one. These memorial markers are set up prior to Veteran’s Day and stand all the way through July 4th. You will notice these as you drive out of town and make your way up the mountain to New River Park.
Once again we parked in the field and rode an ATV (a.k.a. shuttle) to the front gate. It felt like it was 100 degrees out, but still I draped a sweater over my arm for later. It may be hot during the day, but it was cool on the mountain at night! As we were bouncing along, I couldn’t help but think that the only problem with two-night Gospel Sings is they go by so quickly. The previous night was my first at New River Park and Saturday would be my last (for this year anyway!). Tonight we would not only hear KPNR, but Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Royalaires and The Guardians. We came to a halt, thanked our driver and entered the gate. It was going to be a good night.
The program for Saturday night was set up differently than Friday’s. Whereas Karen Peck and New River were the last group to sing the previous evening, they were first on stage tonight. They kicked off with their fun song Mighty High from the movie Karen was in, Joyful Noise. Then they went right into Joy in My Heart and Sustaining Grace. “We want to dedicate this to all of you here tonight and to all of the workers who made this possible,” said Karen, and then she sang I Want to Thank You. Afterwards, Karen exclaimed, “Are you glad to see Susan Peck Jackson, Jeff Hawes, Kari Gooch, Matthew Gooch and Ricky Gooch? Are you glad to see New River tonight?” The crowd applauded and Karen went on to say that this is one of their most requested songs – I Wanna Know How It Feels. Following that was On the Banks of the Promised Land, which is surely another favorite. “Heaven is a reality,” said Karen. She went on to talk about Norman Holland’s passing at the young age of 54 and the impact he had on SGM. Last year, he was at New River Park for the Homecoming and helped select the songs they sang. Karen explained they have a wall backstage that the artists sign, and where he had written it said, “I love it here.” Karen said, “I think that’s what he is trying to tell us now – I love it here.” (Speaking of heaven.) Then she began singing What a Day That Will Be accapella and asked the crowd to join in.
“We love The Royalaires,” said Karen, getting ready to bring the first group on, “Michelle and I use to travel together with the LeFevres and she works so hard at our homecoming every year.” Then Susan appeared on stage and shared how she sang with Jerry back in the 80’s, “So we thought it would be appropriate to have them sing.” The Royalaires came up and Jerry teased Susan by saying, “When Susan talked we thought she spoke a foreign language.” LOL “But she brought this song with her,” he went on, “and we asked her to join us on it.” So they began with He Wrote My Name and Susan sang with them one more time! They sang a few more like I Know, I Know, I’ve Got Confidence and Life is Like a Mountain Railroad until Jerry proudly shared, “If I live till August the 12th I’ll be 83 years old, my favorite saying is, ‘I want to be alive as long as I live.’ There are a lot of people who are living but not alive. Ernie Ford sang a song and I know I can’t sing it like he did, but I’ll try to remember the words.” That song was This Ole’ House. Afterwards, Michelle sang their closing song, Come Morning.
Karen brought up the next group and made special mention of one of its members. “You’ll remember that John Darin Rowsey traveled with us and wrote songs like Hey, I Wanna Know How It Feels and Eph 1. John was also at the very first Homecoming! The Guardians,” said Karen. This male trio opened with The Lord’s Prayer (The Collingsworth’s version, if my ears heard correctly). “Well, what do you think?” asked John as polite applause filled the air. After a few more he went on to say that it is a pleasure to back at KPNR’s Homecoming. He left the group in 2003 and went from being a part of KPNR to their #1 fan. On the other hand, The Guardians have been together for 26 years and their next song, I Know What Jesus Did For Me, they recorded 25 years ago. After that tune, they did a Talley’s song called Good Things and an old KPNR song that he wrote, Let the Healing Begin. They had the crowd join them on a chorus of I Need Thee Every Hour and then closed with the CCM song, Arise My Love.
“These folks probably are New River’s dearest friends; make welcome Jeff and Sheri Easter.” Introduced Karen. Jeff, Sheri, Morgan and the band kicked off with their song Happy and Over and Over Again before introducing the group. Jeff was proud to announce that (at that time) he and Sheri would celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in a couple of days. The program moved on and Morgan sang a song called It Will Be Okay and then Madison and his wife Shannon sang a duet of a song they wrote together – Letting Go. With their live band, you weren’t going to hear a set without an instrumental! So Jeff and Madison began Amazing Grace with the harmonica and lead guitar, which morphed into I’ll Fly Away. Then they sang On Top of the World and Sheri read a devotion from her new book and sang I Know How It Feels To Survive with no one accompanying her but the band. Because Father’s Day was a day away, Jeff had all the fathers stand up. “I’m fortunate enough to still have my daddy with me,” said Jeff, “He’s 82.” As he was talking, he sat down on the edge of the stage and sang a song Sheri wrote for him about his dad – Like Father Like Son. Their last song was written by Marsha Henry and was called Not a Tavern Anymore. Jeff explained that this was their “partying song” so every time we heard the word “party” sung, he wanted us to jump up and scream and holler. Well, the crowd wasn’t really into all that, but it was a fun song nevertheless.
After intermission Karen Peck and New River sang the second set. Karen told of how it all began in 1991, when they had a live band, and the band stayed with them until ten years ago. This year, the band gathered around KPNR once more to go back and play the older New River songs. “This song was from our very first album!” Karen exclaimed. It was Bend in the River and just as the band kicked off Karen blanked on the first line. One of the sound guys shouted it out and she giggled, “Who knows this one?” LOL Once the first line passed the tune went down just fine and flowed into Look What the Lord Has Done. That one featured Jeff and towards the end he asked the crowd, “How many feel like God has been good to them this weekend and you just want to stand and praise Him?” Well, no more encouragement was needed – in seconds the crowd was on their feet! Susan went on to sing a solo called God Still Answers Prayers and then Karen began to tell some stories of the funny times and the special times as they traveled through the years.
“Susan and I found out on the same day that we were expecting and we went on the bus and sat the boys down (all the guys) and we said, ‘The first thing we want to say is, please don’t quit! We are both expecting.’ Big Dave and all of them jumped up and said, ‘We quit!’
We went to Canada on our first trimester and we were so sick…sicker than dogs. We were in western Canada, in Calgary, we were 52 hours from home and three hours behind our time. So if the concert starts at 7 PM that means it starts at 10 our time, so we were starting so late and there were multiple artists concerts so we would be through at two and three o’clock in the morning. Then we would go to people’s houses and every single night for four nights we had lasagna. Every night! We were so sick. Finally, the last night we were at this promoter’s house and when we left their house it was 4:30 AM our time and Susan had already said, ‘If I have another bite of lasagna, it’s not going to stay down.’ She threw up in the front yard of that promoter’s house as we were walking to the bus…and our guitar player at the time, Joel, he threw up with her! We have never been back to Canada!”
“These are stories after stories,” Karen continued, “but When God Answers Prayer came along it was just at the right time just like…” Then she paused and mentioned how “Y’all know me!” and “This wasn’t on the list!” So we heard a chorus of God Likes To Work (when nothing else will).
The band was introduced next and Karen began with the man who started with them 23 years ago. “Yahoola Baptist Church, Dean Bryant and Neil Head prayed over our ministry and we dedicated this ministry to the Lord on New Year’s Eve, January 1991. This man was here, he’s the band leader and if there’s ever been a brother, he has been our brother. Are you glad to see David Owen?” The crowd applauded and Karen went on, “A couple years later this young man…I’m gonna’ call you young too! He’s the one who gives me the hardest time of anybody, he’s a great arranger, great drummer. Are you glad to see Dale Scragg? “After that came this man,” said Karen, “There is no one that I know who can play the keyboards like Craig Nobles. Especially during the altar services, he has such an anointing for playing the right songs and has such a gift for that.” Then she told him how that was one of the things she missed most when he left. With emotion in her voice she explained, “Because you were always mindful of the services.” She went on to tell the crowd that Craig was the first person to move to Dahlonega to be a part of the ministry.
They also had Christian Booth (Michael Booth’s son) playing guitar with them that night and when Karen introduced their next song she admitted to giving Christian a little bit of a hard time because of it. “This has a double meaning for Christian,” she said with a smile, “Y’all need to help us out on this one…” Then she sang the first line of Is There A Christian In The House with i-phone in hand (to read the words) and then turned to see Christian’s face. The upbeat song was a hit and afterwards Karen said, “How ‘bout it for Christian?” and pushed him up to the edge of the stage to play for everyone. Their songs Everybody’s Going Through Something and Four Days Late followed, then they invited everyone to sing God Is So Good with them. Once Jeff finished with I’d Rather Have Jesus, Karen had Kari sing a song as tribute to her grandparents. This was a very special moment at the homecoming because, even though she has been singing with them for the last few months, she’s never sang a solo all by herself. Kari sang Amazing Grace and the audience stood in ovation. Jeff added how he has watched Kari grow up over the last few years and how she and Matthew encouraged him so much when he first came to the group. At this point, the night was climbing to its climax. Each one of the original band members said a word, Craig speaking last about how when he’s in the position to lead worship in his church he thinks of what Karen would do because, in his words, “I’ve never seen anybody flow with the Spirit like you do.” Karen went on to talk about the time when their dad was diagnosed with cancer and they were at the hospital and he told her she needed to do the emcee work in their concerts. She recalled telling him, “Daddy, there’s no way I can stand up there and talk because nobody will ever take me seriously.” It was a process, she went on to say, and today it’s her favorite part…so why not do it now? They did an altar call and the altar filled. Even Jeff and Susan slipped off the stage to kneel at the benches as Karen sang Here I Am To Worship. Time went on and sweet prayers ascended to the throne, then Karen said, “We can do this because it’s our Homecoming…does anyone have something to say?” A gentleman from the front announced, “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free.” Another added, “This is what it’s all about. A year ago I could not have been here, but I am. They’re not just lyrics, they’re meaning.” Yet another interjected, “Saved when I was 13, I love the Lord.” On and on the testimonies and words of encouragement flowed around the gathering. After the time of testimony Karen, Susan and Jeff climbed up on stage one more time to sing Finish Well, Revival and Robe and Crown.
A lot has been packed into this review, yet, still more remains unshared. I was afraid if I included every moment and detail the length would be a little overwhelming, but I do not exaggerate when I say that the night was a priceless treasure to be stored away forever, regarding KPNR’s ministry. Not only did we hear stories from the early days but saw all the members of this group pour out their hearts both on stage and off. This was my first year to attend their Homecoming, but I say, if it is like this every year, I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t go! I know I will be returning…