Possumhaw: Southern gospel singing



Shannon Bardwell



"We in the South live in a society that is rich in contradictions, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech."  


-- Flannery O'Connor, author of "A Good Man's Hard to Find" 




Saturday night a week ago Sam and I headed to a gospel singing at the City Auditorium in Vernon, Alabama. We looked at the map and checked the distance. If we left by 4 o'clock, we would be sure to make it in time to hear Jessica Horton, Shaeffer's Chapel's praise and worship leader, sing at 5:30. Jessica's talent and charisma compelled us.  


An excursion like so had become a rarity, as we leave home infrequently except to go to town or, in Sam's case, fishing. Sam tells people, "Shannon can't leave home, you know, we have the cats."  


The way seemed unfamiliar as Sam pointed out landmarks. "That's where Bobby used to live," or "That's the road we take to Nate's house." Then I saw a road I remembered and said, "That's the road to Bloomer's. Caryl and I fixed a bag lunch and ate it on a picnic table there. I bought the metal wall-hanging that looks like a church window." Otherwise, nothing looked familiar.  


Along the way I asked, "Where exactly is this? All these houses?" 


"Just the road between Columbus and Vernon," Sam said.  


It was a winding road, and I wondered what it'd be like returning in darkness. 


The City Auditorium was easy to find by all the cars in the parking lot. Outside, a kindly man handed us a card and asked for our vote. We thanked him, saying we were unable to vote in Alabama so perhaps he'd like to have his card back. Inside were men dressed in spangly jackets and women with sequins, chiffon and stilettos. I whispered to Sam, "We might be underdressed." 


The sparkly men and women turned out to be performers. A folding table served as a concession stand. There were cupcakes, sandwiches, bags of potato chips and drinks. Music came from a large room with a stage, colored lights, music vendors and folding chairs. The program listed 13 different performers singing in 15-minute intervals. Besides Jessica, there were other locals performing like the McKay Project, Leslie and Dennis, and Kenny Gardner. Amy Richardson from Starkville was there. They all had some mighty powerful voices. The performers were as varied as the people who listened. 


In front of us was a couple, perhaps 80ish. They held hands, except when the Mrs. waved her hands and swayed to the music. She had a fancy ring on every finger. Behind us and across the aisle was a mother, fresh-faced, her hair in a long blonde braid. She wore a maxi jean skirt and cowboy boots. Her husband and four fine boys sang along with the gospel numbers.  


Jessica came on stage. I snapped a picture of her singing and sent it to our preacher-man who was back home studying for the next day's sermon. My text said, "There's Pentecostals here, toe-tapping Southern gospel fans, and then there's one long row of us Methodists."


Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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