Gospel jam: Music-first service draws instrumentalists to Brainerd Church

Gospel jam: Music-first service draws instrumentalists to Brainerd Church

March 19th, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Gospel Jam founder, Laura Young, waits for fellow musicians to tune up during the Sunday evening service at Brainerd Church.

Photo by Connor Choate /Times Free Press.

Banjo player Gordon Nichol plays during a service at Brainerd Church.

Banjo player Gordon Nichol plays during a service...

Photo by Connor Choate /Times Free Press.

There's no pretense it's a church service that offers everything to everybody.

There are no screens, no computerized equipment, no contemporary pastor in blue jeans. You won't find responsive readings, creeds or even a weekly offering.

And there are often more musicians than attendees.

Welcome to Gospel Jam, a weekly Sunday evening service at Brainerd Church that gathers acoustic instrumentalists from across the region to play the gospel music they love.

"There's not a lot of young people," says Richard Young, 68, one of the founders of the service along with his wife, 66-year-old Laura. "The music caters to people our age, from [ages] 50s to the 70s."

Even the setting, the musty McFerrin Chapel, the church's first sanctuary with its yellowed stained-glass windows, is a testament to the lack of modernity in the proceedings.

At a recent jam, the evening has an easy casualness, with musicians raising their voices to speak across a middle aisle to one another.

"Is that in the red book or the blue book?"

"Key of G!"

"I'd like to do a harmony on that."

Further, there's no program. The musicians find out what the next song is when someone suggests it.

"They're primarily old gospel tunes and hymns that you don't hear anymore," says Evelyn Madewell, 75, who plays the fiddle. "A lot of players really like these. All the musicians seem to enjoy the participation in the group sings.

"You have to be involved to understand how much you enjoy doing that," she says.

A thank-you offering is taken at the jam once a month and given to the church.

Betty Harris, 67, who plays the autoharp and the mandolin, says the chapel "is such a wonderful venue to play in."

"It's the whole atmosphere," she says. "It's the people. It's such a blessing to be around these folks. There's such a sweet spirit."

Laura Young says other area churches host gospel jams, but she is not aware of any in which a worship service is woven within the music.

"The structure of our gospel jam service is unique," her husband says. "It's not dictated from the top down. We made our own structure."

Oh, sure, there are elements of a traditional service -- pastor Dennis Flaugher offers a five-minute devotional and Episcopal lay minister Chris Hull often closes with a prayer -- but make no mistake, the music is primary.

Indeed, the volunteer musicians come from Georgetown and Hixson and Collegedale and elsewhere. They come with guitars, mountain dulcimers, violins, banjos, harps, harmonicas, bass guitars, hammered dulcimers, autoharps, mandolins and Irish whistles.

"I think the only thing we're missing is someone who can play spoons," says Flaugher. "It's a very eclectic group."

Neither a majority of the musicians nor those who come to listen are members of the church.

"We look at it as an outreach opportunity," Flaugher says. "It's not necessarily to bring in new members but for those who want to worship God in this particular venue. For some, it's their [weekly worship] service."


The Gospel Jam had its genesis in singalongs, Appalachian Christmas programs and alternative services that the church, then known formerly as Brainerd United Methodist, hosted between 2000 and 2005, the couple says. Then-associate pastor Mike Feely once told members, "Let's jam at church."

Following a time when the church alternated an acoustic alternative service with an electric alternative service, the Gospel Jam began on July 5, 2005.

For some of the musicians, it's their weekly outlet to play, the Youngs say. For others, it's one of several opportunities. A few of the musicians, for instance, play at the weekly Mountain Opry on Signal Mountain.

"They like to come [to Brainerd] because they like to play gospel music -- the old-time gospel songs," Richard Young says.

"Welcome to the Gospel Jam from high atop Brainerd United Methodist Church," sound man Bill Lane says at the start of a recent service. Regular attendee John Covington offers a weekly poem, then they are off and running.

The selections include popular hymns such as "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"; camp songs like "Do Lord"; and gospel standards such as "I Press Through the Crowd," "Mansion Over the Hilltop" and "Jesus and Me."

Early in the service, elementary school-age Addison Conley, the granddaughter of a regular musician, gets up to sing "In the Highways." During a later number, attendee Glennice Stebbins steps out of her seat, lightly swings her arms and taps her feet as she walks part of the way around the room and back.

"She loves to dance," Laura Young says.

Following the devotional and prayer, a time of visitation around a snack table provided by faithful attendee Nell Williams and others unites instrumentalist and listener.

"It's a time of fellowship," Mr. Young says. "It really brings community."

Then, after most of the attendees leave, the chairs are rearranged in a circle and the musicians go at it again. For the next hour or 90 minutes, they take a turn at playing a secular or sacred favorite.

"It's more of a typical jam session," says Richard Young.

Madewell, whose fiddle case bears the sticker "Music Really Does Make the World a Better Place," says she and her husband, Carson, 74, who plays guitar, have made a "host of new friends" at the weekly gathering. And "learning to play [the fiddle] without music is good for the brain."

Harris and her husband, Jerry, 65, were early participants, then left for a while but came back a couple of months ago.

"When we leave each week," she says, "we feel like we've gotten a blessing."