Last week, I introduced you to one of my heroes, Dr. Ron Fowler. I’ve decided to take a few weeks to share my heroes with my blog friends. Some of my heroes are quite famous, and I’ll admit: I’m hesitant to talk about these friends because it might seem arrogant, braggadocious, or like I’m name-dropping. I can assure you that’s not my intention.
I’m getting tremendous response from my readers and so many tell me they appreciate getting to know me beyond my role at Crossings. So, I’m spending the next several weeks talking about the people who have shaped me and have had a significant and personal impact over a long period of time.
Bill and Gloria Gaither were on the scene of my life before I was born; my dad met Bill and Gloria while attending Anderson College. They became school teachers and Dad moved to Kingsport, Tennessee to pastor his first church.
My parents moved to Kingsport in 1955 and Dad became the pastor of the First Church of God. I came along in February of 1959 and my brother Joey came along 22 months later in November of 1960. Bill and Gloria were writing music and, as a result, Bill, Gloria, and Danny Gaither would often drive from Indiana to Tennessee to do a concert in our sanctuary on a Sunday night. The trio arrived in their station wagon with a U-haul trailer behind which held the albums, sound equipment, and other items needed for the concert.
They became frequent guests at our church in Kingsport along with another singer who had recorded some of their songs, Doug Oldham. Between their annual trips to our church and our annual trip to the Church of God “camp meeting” in Indiana, the Gaithers, Grubbs, and Oldhams, along with other great friends, forged friendships that remain to this day.
My dad is now in heaven. Doug and Laura Lee Oldham are now in heaven. These memories with all of them are very special to me.
My decision to go to college at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana had more to do with the job opportunity rather than a college degree. I went to Anderson for college so I could work at Gaither Music company in Alexandria, which was just 10 miles northeast of the campus. It is important that I tell you how much I enjoyed attending Anderson University; I graduated with a degree in Music and a minor in Business Administration. I would leave the campus every day after lunch for a full afternoon of work, where I started out in the warehouse and later moved into the sales department. When Danny Gaither went out on his own, his bus would pull up onto the campus to pick up my brother, Joey, who played the drums in Danny’s band.
Four years later, Joey headed to medical school and I headed to Oklahoma. Thirty-six years after this move, I’m still in Oklahoma, and after 22 years in Southern California, Joey is now a physician with Integris Hospital in Oklahoma City. Oh, and Mom now lives here too. If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans!
It is easy to see Bill and Gloria as one music powerhouse, but they each spoke into my life in different ways. They are two very unique individuals with gifts that God continues to use to impact the body of Christ.
Bill is a brilliant business man who is able to see where something is headed and get it moving forward. He brings people together. He was once compared to a quarterback: he knows how to get the right people at the table, at the right time, and for the right reason.
He has built companies such as a record company, a recording studio, a publishing house, and TV production just to name a few. He knows when something needs to change. He knows when something needs to stop. He knows when something needs to start.
Even now, at 81 years of age, he has more energy than younger folks around. He is still on the road most weekends with the Gaither Vocal Band. He continues to mentor, encourage, and inspire a young generation of Christian artists.
Both he and Gloria are very humble and uncomfortable with the accolades that keep coming. I asked Bill once why they stayed in the small town of Alexandria all these years, because Nashville seemed the logical place to live. He said, “we stayed in Alexandria because we did not want to risk forgetting who we are.”
On a previous visit back to their home, I got a tour of the farms and farm houses they’ve kept in their family. Bill likes to build fires: camp fires, bonfires, fires in the fireplaces of their home. They gave Christian artist Joey Feek their guest house so she could be in her hometown in her final stages of a ravaging cancer. On a cold, snowy Indiana night, a photo was shared of Bill building a bonfire across the pond that Joey could see from her bed. For some reason, that photo found a place in my memory bank.
Gloria never wanted to sing, and, truth be known, found it a fairly excruciating experience for many of those early years. She had significant gifts and callings that were on hold during those years. She was trying to be a mom to three kids, travel to the largest arenas in the country to sold-out concerts most weekends, and do what she preferred not to do: sing.
But when she spoke, the music came alive. She has written words that connect listeners to the songs. She can take the audience on a journey into worship in a way few have been able to do.
She has authored 40 books. She’s a respected academician. She received a Master of Arts in British and American literature. She has 8 honorary doctorates and her work has been recognized and valued by prestigious universities. She has a passion to help songwriters write music that has deep meaning and will stand the test of time. She has written 100 scripts for videos that have sold millions. She’s a frequent speaker at churches and on college campuses.
She (and Bill) are voracious readers. Some of the finest books I’ve read have been sent to me from her office. And most recently, she became a blogger. You can find her blog and most recent posts at lovesongtomylife.com . Through the blog, we get to enjoy her gift of painting a picture of life with her words and thoughts.
The Gaithers launched me out of a cubicle in the sales department and into a small church in Oklahoma. They launched some more famous names into the music world--they used their stage to launch some young artists whose names you will recognize: Sandi Patty, Amy Grant, Steve Green, Mark Lowery, Marsh Hall, Guy Penrod, and David Phelps, just to name a few.
In my closet, you will find an assortment of record albums, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, compact discs, and DVDs reminding me of the impact of two school teachers living in a small Indiana town. And whether it’s on FM radio, KLOVE, XM Radio, cable television, Facebook, or Twitter, I can’t help but grin when I think of my two friends in Indiana who caused the world to appreciate music that spoke of the love and grace of God. Thus far, they’ve given us over 700 songs and they are still writing.
In 2000, the Association of Songwriters, Composers, and Producers (ASCAP) named Bill and Gloria “Gospel Songwriters of the Century.” In the awards ceremony, Sony Music CEO Donna Hilley claimed, “the Gaithers are to gospel music what the Beatles are to pop music.”
That’s an understatement.
They are the only Christian writers, singers, and performers to have a place at the top of the secular music charts, near the top of the Billboard charts for the most concert tickets sold, most albums, videos, and songs written, and on it goes.
They introduced the world to Christian music. They started what we now call “contemporary Christian music.” And I think the reason many of their songs are so highly valued by the younger generations is due to the quality of the words; their words have meaning.
They walk along the pages of the Bible and tell the story with notes on a piece of music.
Two years ago, a glimpse of the worship taking place at the Passion conference in Atlanta was shared on social media. This conference draws Christian college students and young adults from all over the country each year. There are no words to describe watching 50,000 young people singing “Because He Lives” with hands raised, singing it out as if it was the latest and greatest worship song on the scene. I wondered if those young people knew the song was over 40 years old and could be found in many church hymnals.
What really mattered to me is that a couple of school teachers had written a song and it was timeless; it made perfect sense in 1971 and it is still inspiring the faith of yet another generation. And there are hundreds more like it.
Their fame is overshadowed by their simplicity, humility, and kindness. For some crazy and undeserved reason, I was given a front row seat to the writers of some of the greatest Christian music ever to be written.
And perhaps it is not just the music that continues to capture me, but maybe, just maybe, it is watching two people not only write and sing about Jesus, but live it out graciously, honestly, with impeccable integrity, and astounding generosity.