Country Churches, Gravel Roads and Gospel Music

Elvis' hometown church in Tupelo
Elvis’ hometown church in Tupelo

I asked Michael what I should blog on tonight. He immediately texted back ‘gravel roads, gospel music and country churches.’ Awww … man, I texted back that I didn’t want to take on churches. But, he persuaded me to take on the challenge. I love improvisational blogging, so let’s see what I can do.

The first country church I remember was the little church where I grew up. It’s now a big church, and I’d hardly call the area country anymore. It’s more of a strip mall land with a few rural areas interspersed in between the daiquiri shops, car washes and fast food joints. But I remember the church very well. I didn’t start attending there until I was a teenager when my mother left the Catholic Church due to birth control issues. She had four kids and didn’t want any more, and she couldn’t resolve herself to go to church somewhere when she didn’t follow the doctrine. Actually, the Catholic Church we attended was a little country church, too. It seemed larger than life, but when I drove by the old building as an adult, I realized it was a tiny, little place. But, I digress. We started attending the Methodist Church in my hometown about the time I hit puberty.

I know that church is supposed to be about God, but as a teenager I remember the church being about community… specifically, boys. I knew which boys went to church at which service, and I knew which Sunday School class they attended. And, don’t tell me the other gals weren’t there for boys either. I remember distinctly the length of the dresses I saw, and I know that God would not have approved. There was definitely an ulterior motive. I would go to the morning service with my family, but the one the young people attended was the evening service. I sang in the youth choir. Now, I’m a horrible singer. But, it didn’t matter. As long as you showed up for practice and sang, they’d let you in. At the evening service, we sang a lot of the old time hymns like Morning is Broken and Amazing Grace. I remember those services being very moving, and, even if I went there mainly for boys, I often got religion.

The old church had a room in the back ostensibly for babies, but it really ended up being for young people who came in late and wanted to sleep in the back of the church. It was also a great place to hide from the adults who sat up front and listened to the preacher. One was constantly preaching about the end of the world. It scared the be-Jesus out of me. I just knew I would never grow up because the way it sounded, we were headed for the rapture any moment. I doubted I’d ever even be able to grow up and get out of high school before the four horsemen came and tormented me to death. It was very traumatic for me, and, once I grew up, I remember wondering what ever happened. Did they cancel the end of the world? Because, I tell you… it was definitely happening according to that preacher. And, he had the facts to back it up. There wasn’t a Sunday evening service that teenagers weren’t lining up at the altar to make sure we were covered when it happened. There was crying and sorrow and redemption spilling out the windows every Sunday night.

We had Youth Group on Sunday nights. Now, I imagine the purpose of Youth Group must have been to teach us something about the Bible, but the nights when Youth Group rocked were when we went bowling from midnight to 4 AM or when we took the church bus to MacDonald’s. It was a 15-20 minute trip to Denham Springs, but those bus trips were a lot of fun. Bowling all night was the bomb. It was hard to get an evening away from your parents, and it was cool to be up all night. The trip back on the bus was even cooler. If you were lucky, you spent the evening getting acquainted with one of the local boys. I’d usually manage to get myself kissed a few times on the way home. We learned a lot of things that I don’t think are anywhere in the Bible but they sure seemed to lift my spirits.

The music is what I remember about that little church. There were singing groups and choirs that traveled around the whole country. Some of our young people had phenomenal voices. I was not one of them. My sister and I attended a gospel music concert at Graceland during Elvis week a few years ago in Memphis. Supposedly it was the group that Elvis sang with, and, according to the internet, it was the JD Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. They were amazing. It was that summer that it was so hot all over the south that you could literally fry an egg on your car. We sweated through the 107 degree temperature that morning and rocked to some phenomenal gospel music along with an unbelievable crowd of Elvis fans from all over the world. Elvis, from a little country town in the deep south, loved gospel music, and, surprisingly to a lot of people, he has many gold records with his gospel music albums. Listening to him sing How Great Thou Art brings me back to those Sunday evening services that I remember so fondly. Our choir wasn’t that good, but we did sing that song … and we probably thought we were that good. Who knew?

They’ve apparently moved Elvis’ country church to his birthplace ‘park’ in Tupelo. There are country churches all over this country. I’ve found them on hiking trails in the middle of the woods. I’ve found them down gravel roads. I’ve even seen some in city parks. Some are abandoned and boarded up, hardly recognizable. Others have been preserved to varying extents. I love walking around the old church graveyards to see the names and dates of the people who went to church there. In really old graveyards, there are lots and lots of babies and kids. It always reminds me how lucky we are to have modern medicine. We take it for granted that kids grow up, and women usually survive childbirth. That wasn’t always the case. But, I imagine the churches were the hub of the community. They were the places where people grieved and sang, cultivating hope and love amongst the living. I’m sure they had potluck dinners on Sunday afternoons.  And maybe … just maybe … those old churches were the birthplaces of some teenage romances. I think Jesus is the kind of guy who would like that.

Note to Michael: I know I had to work really hard to get gravel roads in there, but I managed. How’d I do?

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