The band begins. Its tempo is fast, the music swells. Gospel songs send vibrations from the tile floor to the ice cream maker as the audience sways, mouthing the lyrics. The instant the band's final note peters off, applause erupts. You've never seen a Dairy Queen so lively.
Singing gospel at fast-food restaurants started in Dayton, Tenn., in 1999 at a McDonald's and continues in many corners of the South today, as far as Mike Hixson knows. His own group, the Kindred Spirit Vocal Band, started its own gathering in 2000 at Hardee's, where they played for 11 years. When Hardee's decided to end the band's tenure, Ron Crawford, the owner of the Dairy Queen on Highway 153, stepped in. The gospel gathering bumps business on otherwise slow Tuesday nights with the band's 6 p.m. sets every week.
"It's a win-win for the Dairy Queen and for gospel music and for our folk who come," Hixson said.
Upwards of 70 people, mostly retirees, crowded the Dairy Queen on this night, munching on nearly as many Blizzards. They filled regular tables as well as chairs set up just for the occasion, snaking down the hall to the bathroom.
Customers placing to-go orders stood watching the band as they waited for their food. One young man stood transfixed even after his cone had begun to drip.
"It's a good outreach ministry, believe it or not, in a fast-food restaurant," Hixson said.
Hixson said the community they've built is what makes this group special.
"We have Methodist, Baptist, Church of God, Church of Christ, all the different denominations and they actually look forward to seeing each other every Tuesday," Hixson said. "It's just a great support system."
Hixson experienced that support himself just last week when his stepfather, Frank Massengale, passed away. Massengale rarely missed a week of gospel and, during his sickness, attendees lifted him in prayer. After his death, they lifted Hixson.
"It was comforting for me at the funeral home to see a lot of the folk come by in support of me," Hixson said.
Massengale's regular booth by the front door was now taken by a different couple. His wife, Phyllis, leaned on the wall a few feet back, still present to support her son and listen to the music they loved. Meanwhile, a sympathy card for her was passed around the crowd for signing.
"A lot of people who come and say they look forward to this every week, they plan things around it," Hixson said. "It just is so instrumental in their lives."
"It's just a blessing," Jeanette Liles, a longtime attendee, said. "You feel like you've been to church after."
"We try to make a joyful noise," Hixson said.
With seating completely filled, patrons propped open the back door of the restaurant, tapping their feet from tables on the patio. A breeze carried the band's melodies past the parking lot.