Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Congratulations Mark and Paul!!!

I just found out that Mark and Paul Johnson won the Best Inspirational Album Dove Award!! It is so well deserved--both these guys worked so hard and made a beautiful recording. I knew they had a good chance to win. Way to go guys!!!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Product Reviews From Spring Fling

Inevitably, while at Spring Fling, I spent more money than I had any business doing. Product was plentiful for the picking, and I wish I could have bought more. I wound up with three CDs.

Aaron Wilburn - A Miracle In Every Pew. For some reason, I like comics who sing. Aaron Wilburn is also a great songwriter. I looked over the songs that are on this album, and there are some many people may not realize he wrote, like "Four Days Late" (Karen Peck and New River hit) and "I've Got You Covered" (also done by Jonathan Martin). This album's terrific...his singing is pleasant and appealing, the arrangements are nice and there many other fine songs you might not have heard. Quite different from "Puttin' On The Dog", but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Michael Booth (self-titled). - I picked this album because I was particularly impressed with a song Michael did at Spring Fling that was written by Babbie Mason, "Simply I Love You". It has a nice uptempo jazz feel and he did a great job. Michael is a strong vocalist and he is easily comfortable with a number of styles, with songs ranging from contemporary Christian pop to better known worship tunes.

What's interesting here is he covers two songs with the title of "Jesus Saves", one written by Stephen Hill and Daryl Williams and the other by Roger and Debbie Bennett. I knew there were two of that title out there and now I know which one is which.

Jim and Melissa Brady - Classic Love Songs. Let's face it, there's often no better vehicle for great singers to show their vocal flair than to take on the classic old standard pop songs. Jim and Melissa are certainly no exception...they are both very fine singers who shine both as a duo and solo. They understand the songs and treat them with great respect in their interpretations of classics like "For Sentimental Reasons", "When I Fall In Love", "Orange Colored Sky" and many others.

(Mark, if you're out there, a hint for you: Jim and Melissa, Reggie and Ladye Love Smith and even Stan Whitmire on piano have done classic pop standard albums. It would be a thrill to hear you wrap your amazing voice around some of these songs. We know you love these songs. Give it some thought.)

I felt sooo bad about not getting Ronnie Booth's album--I certainly don't want to slight him as I'm lifting up the other two Booth Brothers' solo efforts. But, I simply ran short of money. I'll catch up with his CD at a later time, as I said I am sure I'll be seeing the Brothers again in the future.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Day 3 Sunday Part 2: Comedy Blast

What happens sometimes in Senior Trips is that the events end up being something else entirely than what they were titled. In other words, the "comedy blast" was more than comedy--there were some lovely musical moments, too.

It all kicked off with Mark singing "Be The Miracle" followed by a piano solo by Stan Whitmire. The fun began with Barbara Fairchild telling a story about visting some friends in Arizona and trying to get some information from a fellow at an information booth, who told them "I don't give information." Barbara also sang her "Road Rage" song which she first showed us at a previous Senior Trip.

Music and comedy continued to mix as Mark did his TV themes medley. The reason the Booth Brothers didn't do "Ask the Blind Man" in their concert set was because they saved it for here, along with one of their other radio hits, "Testify". Mark and "Mama" Bev Lowry did "I Thirst", Brenda Ruppe and the sisters brought the house down with "I'm Gonna Make It".

One amazing story: someone put a video featuring Aaron Wilburn doing his song "If My Nose Was Running Money, I'd Blow It All On You" on YouTube. Through that video, someone found the video for "Four Days Late"...and found the Lord through that song.

The main comic sets came from Chonda Pierce and Aaron Wilburn. Chonda has been dealing with depression and in her masterful way managed to find great humor in the situation and mix it with her challenging journey. Aaron Wilburn had the audience in stitches as he covered topics like weight loss, Krispy Kreme, dogs and Disneyworld, among other things.

There was more music from Mark, Jim and Melissa Brady, Aaron and LordSong before a final prayer to send us home.

I learned a few lessons this weekend. God has no standards. God can use any gift and any talent for His is not more important than the other. God doesn't play favorites and I am so glad He loves us all equally.

I want to thank everyone for reading this blog (you too, Mark) and for all the nice comments from those who couldn't be there. You are the reason I do this. In fact, I wasn't supposed to be here this weekend because I couldn't afford to be. But, someone wanted to see this blog continue and made it possible for me to come. I'm grateful.

Day 3 Sunday, Part 1- Sunday morning, Booth Brothers

Woody and Vonnie Wright got us ready for the morning service with some praise music. Woody also got a couple of fun tunes in as well...after all, God does have a sense of humor.

Andy Andrews, who I last heard at Praise Gathering, was our morning speaker. His style was warm, intimate, humorous and engaging. His talk focused strongly on one of the "Seven Decisions": making the choice to be happy. Why was it that some people were successful and happy and others were not? How much of a part does perception or fear play into being who we are? If we can affect others' perceptions, how can we change ours? Andy reminded us that in between the mountaintops is where the growth happens...even in our worst times, hope remains. Using a football game metaphor, he said we should thank God for the first half of our lives. The tragedy is when someone doesn't come out for the second half because they've given up and quit. Everything we do matters.

Andy told us to strive for being a person others wanted to be around, noting Jesus grew in stature and in favor with God and man because He was this kind of person. One suggestion he made for us was to smile when we speak.

I admit to being slightly concerned when Andy said earlier in discussing success that encouragement was fine, but proof was better. As an encourager and coach, I would submit that in some instances I've found encouragement a necessary agent to eventually bring out proof. However, later on when he spoke of people whose lives were getting worse, that some of those never received encouragement, who received more "no" than "yes" from people. Thus, I was glad he did clarify and affirm the importance of encouragement.

The Sisters sang the Lord's Prayer, and then the "Moms" (Bev Lowry, Brenda Ruppe) provided a major God showing up moment for us. Brenda Ruppe testified and sang "We Were Born To Serve The Lord", with each daughter, Kim, Valerie and Heather, sharing what they learned from Brenda--primarily about how to serve the Lord. Bev and Mark did some good natured needling of each other. Mark explained that sometimes they do get into rather intense disagreements because they love each other so much and want to challenge each other. Bev sang "He Who Believeth" and declared she wanted that sung at her funeral--by herself, via video! Brenda and the Ruppe daughters sang the moving "Under His Wings" and Mark sang "Mary Did You Know".

After a lunch break came the Booth Brothers concert. Barbara Fairchild and Woody Wright opened with a few songs. I've never seen the Booth Brothers in a full concert prior to this, just in brief showcase settings or with the Gaither tour. You must, must, see their regular concert. Michael and Ronnie Booth and Jim Brady together and solo are wonderful singers, great entertainers (Michael is quite the character)and effective and sincere ministers. Some of the highlights for me were: a cover of the Imperials "I'm Forgiven", with a little Earth Wind and Fire "September" flavor thrown in; Jim Brady soloing on "For Sentimental Reasons" from the album of standards he made with his dear wife Melissa (great songs, great singing = sold. I headed to the product table for this one).

I really appreciated the sensitivity Michael Booth showed as he explained that he knew the love songs they sang wouldn't apply to everyone in the audience, such as those who lost love or have yet to find it...he was just trying to encourage those who are married to stay strong in the midst of so many divorces.

The Booth Brothers didn't sing their signature career tune "The Blind Man Saw It All" in this concert set, but I liked the one they sang which was written by the same composer and similar in style, called "He Would".

The Booth Brothers will be back in the "comedy blast" night...and so will I to report later.

Day 2- Saturday night: The Grand Ole Opry

Well, I must say that my personal highlight of the weekend happened outside of the Grand Ole Opry House. I was at the entrance and I happen to notice two women being interviewed by someone with an XM satellite radio microphone. That usually gets me curious enough to observe. I edged in closer and heard the interviewer say this is for the show that takes place in between the Opry performances. Aha. "Inside the Opry Circle" and it was host Shannon McCombs. Position, position, position. I waited for her to wrap up and caught her glance. I said "I listen to your show" and she said "great, let's talk on the radio." So we did a little interview and then she asked if I knew a bit about country music trivia and could I match songs with performers. Music trivia and writing happen to be the two talents I have confidence in. A couple of them were sticky, but with slight hints managed to get those answers, and I blew her away by being able to pretty much call what year some of the early 60's songs in the trivia came out (that's a quirk to the talent I have). So like I said once, if you've got a bet riding on some 60's or 70's or maybe 80's music trivia question, I'm your first call. Shannon asked me what artist I was at the Opry House to see, and I of course said "Mark Lowry". Only thing is, I didn't get a chance to hear the broadcast because it airs when the early Opry show I was at ends. But it was fun and it was a personal boost I needed. Thanks, God.

The Opry was great, as it usually is. Little Jimmy Dickens is amazing at age 87. Only the top of his hat was visible as he stood by the announcer's podium when someone was on stage. The Opry announcers, by the way, are all 650 AM WSM DJs that I listen to each day or evening (Keith Bilbrey, Mike Terry, Eddie Stubbs--who I guess was in the later broadcast), so it was fun to watch them do their thing here. The artists were all excellent, though I had my favorite songs -- I was glad to hear the Whites do "Big Wheel" and Lorrie Morgan sing "Dear Me". I always love seeing Bill Anderson and Connie Smith, two of my big favorite artists, and the Opry Square Dancers were very entertaining. One pretty young singer, Emily West, may be one to watch for--she was very impressive and obviously thrilled to be making her Opry debut.

The main attraction was of course, Mark. Since he wasn't Vince Gill or some other top name Opry attraction (yet), as with last year there was nothing stopping me from making a dive to the front of the stage to kneel down and take lots of pics...and of course, cheer him on. LordSong and Stan Whitmire joined him on stage for "Sweetest Song" and "Be The Miracle".

Sunday's shaping up to be busy...more later.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Spring Fling, Day 2: The Big Surprise

Hold on, dear readers. This is going to be a long one with lots of information. I'll do the best I can to capture the day but realize that my brain is over 50 and just can't process all the information. But here goes:

After opening songs by Mark, The Sisters (LordSong)and Stan Whitmire, Mark sang a song from his upcoming CD--it was a jaw dropper. "Nothing To Lose, Nothing To Prove, Nothing To Hide" was a beautiful tribute to the things parents taught you growing up and what you are grateful for after they are gone. Having lost my dad three years ago, I can certainly relate to many of the sentiments in that song. Of course, I can't wait to hear the rest of this CD.

Mark began to sing "Bein' Happy"...and in walked the surprise of the day (that is, unless you were outside the doors early and watched who came through): the Gaither Vocal Band, who of course backed Mark up on this song as they did on the recording. We were a lucky bunch of folks indeed to be treated to about a dozen song set of incredible singing from the GVB and a very special time of sharing between Mark and Bill, Guy, Marsh and Wes. To top it off, Kevin Williams also showed up to play and offer up his classic zingers toward Bill Gaither.

The highlights were many but I will name just a few: "Journey To the Sky", where Marsh Hall has a few false starts to the song due to constant interruptions by Bill;"Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go" with killer vocal harmonies; Songs from the new GVB project "Lovin' Life" including the Carribean-flavored "Build An Ark", where Bill talked about building an "ark" of protection around your family from the difficulties of the outside world; "Difference Is In Me", so new a song from the GVB that some of the guys needed a lyric sheet (but it didn't matter--they knocked it out of the ballpark)--Mark read the lyrics beautifully before the guys sang it; "Jesus and John Wayne", a song describing the tension between trying to be the best child of God and missing the mark; Mark joining the group for "He Touched Me".

Kudos to Guy Penrod from me for two things: strongly affirming Mark's vocal abilities and sharing a spontaneous message of God's love for us based on Mark's comment on how Guy's eyes can be powerfully expressive, especially toward his children.

The GVB portion of this concert reminded me so much of the first Senior Trip, when Bill and Gloria Gaither showed up. That too was a special time with the audience that was so warm, sincere and relaxed, just as if we were all sitting in someone's living room in conversation. Far be it from me to not want to see a CD from Mark come out ASAP, but the CD's delay was a reason for a gap in the program which led him to seek out Bill and the Vocal Band. So thanks, Mark, for this awesome treat.

Later on, continuing the celebration of Mark's 50th birthday was a surprise "This Is Your Life" roast of Mark with appearances by many people associated with various phases of his career, such as Roy Morgan (the promoter who could "book a pork chop into a synagogue", according to one of Mark's routines), Kathy Troccoli, Bill Gaither, Lynn Barrington, Lynn Keesecker, Paul Johnson, and Joy Gardner. Also paying tribute were superfans Kate Dunavant and Lucy Fantazier, and Romona Holland, Mark's third grade teacher who inspired him and told him God liked him. At the end was a "parade of cakes" to the stage by some of those who brought birthday cakes for Mark that went to the audience to enjoy. Some cakes displayed events and sayings of Mark's career, but I went the traditional route with mine. I told him if he liked it, I made it; if he didn't, I bought it.

I also gave Mark an exclusive 50th birthday edition of Wendy V's Ponder Cast on a CD. The Gospel Music Channel was on hand to film some of the birthday celebration events, so keep your eyes open there for that coverage.

This evening, it's off to the Opry. More later, laptop willing.

Spring Fling, Day 1 - Friday Concert

(It's 2 am as I'm writing this, I've been battling this computer ever since the evening's event ended to try to get it to work, and I've finally won. So, my apologies if I am tardy on subsequent reports and if this report is slightly incoherent. Don't blame me, blame my laptop.)

There was a lot of mingling and visiting with old and new friends before the night's concert. Even Mark himself was out and about. (For those of you who are wondering what he thought of my new look, I guess he liked it. He did notice it, and when I noted that I wondered if he'd recognize me, he said "Why wouldn't I? It looks like Wendy." I was afraid for a moment there he was going to respond the way my pastor did, which was: "It doesn't look any different.")

I couldn't stop staring at the stage--even before the concert started. The background was a beautiful starlit effect that kept changing colors. Michael Lord welcomed us by assuring us it was going to be a great weekend. The show kicked off with Mark and LordSong singing "God Calls Us All", followed by "In the Garden".

Spring Fling is, by the way, a key event in the year long celebration of Mark's 50th birthday (which is actually in June). Mark told us that somebody owed him something, so we were in for a few surprises over the weekend.

After LordSong did "Lord of the Dance", Mark poked fun at all the denominations represented by the crowd ("Tell Mary I said hey, and thanks for the song"). Stan Whitmire fired us up with a rousing piano number, and Mark did his parody "You Gotta Have Skin" which he interrupted a couple of times by musing about a couple of things he'll be dealing with at age 50: necessary medical checkups and belching.

The first of the regular Senior Trip "family" members, Woody Wright, came out and did "Back Home Again" (starting with a hilarious impression of Bill Gaither requesting him to do the song during a taping in Colorado). He then reminded this makeover queen and all of us that no matter what we look like on the outside, God is looking at our hearts. Woody then brought out his lovely wife, Vonnie, a very fine singer (check out their "Unbounded Love" duo album). They have been married five years and shared how they both dealt with fear...Vonnie became a widow at age 44 after Danny Gaither's passing and Woody experienced a difficult divorce. Singing "You Belong To The Lord", they encouraged us not to let fear get the best of us.

We can always count on Barbara Fairchild, another beloved Senior Trip favorite, to always powerfully mix humor, music and a serious message. She sang "He's Alive", told a very funny "blonde man" joke about three construction workers who jumped from a building in frustration over the same hated lunches every day. Two of the wives claimed they didn't know their husbands hated their lunches, the blonde man wife said "don't blame me--he made his own lunch." Shifting gears, Barbara sang "On the Other Side of the Hill" and then using the example of the thief and Jesus on the cross, shared a testimony how important forgiveness is, especially if we want to be forgiven.

Mark sang "Whatcha Need", and then came the Perrys for, as always, a strong and powerful set. The musical highlight for me here was when Mark sang lead on "Who Am I", backed by the Perrys. As I told Mark afterward, if I had been Randy Jackson judging that performance, I'd have said "that was da bomb, dude...that was hot, dawg!" I mean, the guy is truly an amazing singer. Other Perrys set highlights were
a Happy Goodmans medley and one of their signature tunes, "I Rest My Case At The Cross."

Libbi Perry Stuffle is my hair hero. I really wanted my hair to look like hers. But Libbi told me her look changes constantly and gave me a few flatiron tips. I also had to disagree with Tracy Stuffle's assessment of being "a poor excuse for an emcee"...I always enjoy his on stage work and gentle humor.

In the second half, we heard "Sweetest Song", "Jump Across Jordan" (with a couple of front row dancers, sort of). Mark asked Stan to play "Misty" for him, and he got a little Johnny Mathis impression in at the end. The sisters of LordSong, Kim, Heather and Valerie, did a lovely song, "Your Grace Amazes Me", from a forthcoming release. The evening ended with "Isn't It Amazing" and the Heaven medley from Mark's hymns CD with Woody and Barbara joining everyone back on stage. So, a great evening of music.

We have been promised some big surprises for Saturday's concert. I suppose it's cool for some people to be in the know on these things, but I say surprise is good. I've heard rumors and may have a guess or two, but I'm looking forward to being surprised.