84th Annual Gospel Convention Brings Hometown Musicians Home
MALDEN – Trace the history of most major-label singing stars and one will likely find “singing in church” listed as their initial dive into the performing pool.
Singing worship songs outside church is a tradition, too, especially for about 34 southern gospel performers and groups who assembled for the 84th annual Missouri/Mid-South Gospel Singing Convention last Friday and Saturday at the Malden Community Center.
The event was hosted for the fifth year in a row by Jerry Mays and his wife, Sharon Barnett Mays, who are known by and large as Heart to Heart.
The Mayses, who won Southern Gospel Duo of the Year 11 times and who were nominated for both Dove and Grammy awards, might live full time at Branson, but their roots are planted deep in Bootheel soil, Jerry Mays said
“I’m just an old farm boy from Parma,” Jerry admitted as a rhinestone-encrusted cross embroidered on the back of his shirt glistened. “But Sharon, she’s from right here in Malden.
“Her daddy is Leon Barnett who played lead guitar with Narvel Felts and the Rockets back in the 1950s rockabilly days,” he continued. “She grew up with Narvel, Roy Orbison and Harold Jenkins, before he became Conway Twitty, running through her house.”
That house was an apartment over a now-razed grocery store on East Laclede Street, Sharon Mays said. It’s a place where both friends and gospel music flowed in abundance.
“I don’t remember a time when I was not singing gospel,” she chuckled. “Gospel music is a way to communicate the idea that God’s love is dynamic and is for everybody.”
Jerry and Sharon both “felt like we had a calling” to move their singing ministry from part-time to full-time, Sharon said.
“That’s a two-pronged calling,” she noted. “God said to travel outside the church and bring every soul in.
“But don’t forget my church inside,” Sharon added. “Don’t forget to feed my sheep inside the church.”
All those sheep are fed with southern gospel influences as often as possible, Sharon said. These out-of-town outreaches are no easy task.
“But we are blessed to do it,” Sharon mused. “Jerry still has family here: his mother, Nova Mays and his sister, Patty Stratman,” she noted. “He has a brother who lives here, too.”
The convention, which Sharon said was called “the largest indoor event in the area” drew performers from all over Missouri and the Midwest, including Poplar Bluff singer-songwriter Tina Sadler; Arkansas singer-songwriter Marsha Sue; and a convention pioneer, Eva Barrow.
“Can you tell I’m country?” Sadler asked the capacity crowd. “I cook that way, too.”
Sadler is country if she’s nothing else. With a voice likened by many to Loretta Lynn’s, the two-time Dove award winner belted out her original “God is Good,” which was a hit for gospel heavyweights The Gaithers.
“This is how they first heard it,” she said of the song. Her recorded tracks sang out from the event’s public address system. Tina sang out, too.
In addition to “God is Good,” Sadler penned another Dove winner, “He’s Watching Me.”
“Ain’t God good?” she asked the crowd as the track continued. “If you know God’s good, raise your hands with me!”
A room filled with believers raised their hands toward heaven while Sadler finished her song.
Meanwhile, just outside the auditorium and beyond the din of the audience, El Dorado, Ark., singer-songwriter Marsha Sue Mitchell, who performs as Marsha Sue, donned a pink cowboy hat and spoke with SEMO TIMES.
“I’ve performed gospel for about 30 years,” she said. “I was saved at 10 at Missionary Baptist Church on Beech Street right there in town.”
And so began a life of her own ministry. At ten years old, Marsha Sue remembers visiting jails to sing to prisoners and share the message of Jesus.
“There were grown men crying in there,” the singer said. “When the anointing fell, I knew it.”
Jumping forward a couple decades or so, we find Marsha Sue holding about 20 awards she earned as a singer, songwriter and media personality. She has enjoyed spending time in the studio.
“I dreamed this song,” she said of her latest recording, “Good News,” included on her Heaven is Real cd. “I recorded it a Baywind Studio in Nashville.
“It immediately hit No. 1 on Radioactive Airplay,” she added. “That’s God at work.”
Throughout the 30-something performances Friday sat a diminutive, 94-year-old woman named Eva Barrow.
Sharon Mays described Mrs. Barrow as “a pioneer” and “an original” with respect to the event.
“My first husband, W.R. “Bill” Middleton, with four other fellas, organized this,” Mrs. Barrows said of the convention. “My sister and I drove down from Illinois to be here today. It’s a grand thing to see how it’s grown,” she said.
She laughed as she drew her time-worn hand up to cover her mouth, “I’d like to tell you how it all began and how it got this way. But I slept since then.”
The 84th annual Missouri/Mid-South Gospel Singing Convention is always a glad reunion of gospel music-loving people of all ages. It gathers them together and sends them off into the world with a renewed sense of their responsibility to spread the gospel message so eloquently packaged in those beloved songs.