Loyal readers, thanks for tuning in for a special twofer entry of the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog. This post was inspired by a rather unfortunate confluence of events- the deaths on September 8, 2017, of country musicians Don Williams and Troy Gentry. Williams, nicknamed the “Gentle Giant,” passed away at the age of 78 from emphysema; (1) Gentry, of Montgomery Gentry, was killed that same day in a helicopter crash at the age of 50. (2)
Both Williams and Gentry frequently appear, like many other country musicians, on lists of celebrities with supposed connections to Churches of Christ. This is perhaps no great surprise, as both country music and Churches of Christ have strong ties to the southern United States. Too, congregational a cappella singing introduces members of Churches of Christ to musical performance at a young age, perhaps inspiring an above-average number to go on to careers in music. So what of this week’s celebrities in particular?
Don Williams performing in concert.
Let’s begin with Williams. Making our search more difficult than anticipated is that there have been several notable Don Williamses in Churches of Christ over the decades, including one of the earliest proponents of youth ministries in our fellowship. (3) Many articles in Church of Christ publications refer to him, meaning that they are little help for us here. Too, writings specifically about Williams (the musician) tend to focus, as one might expect, on his musical output rather than on his religiosity.
One lead comes from Michael W. Casey’s and Douglas Allen Foster’s The Stone-Campbell Movement: An International Religious Tradition, which includes Williams in a laundry list of country musicians with ties to Churches of Christ. (4) Tracing the authors’ citations takes us to Barry McCloud’s Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers. However, the entry for Don Williams gives no indication of Williams’s faith–or even that he was a person of faith at all. (5)
Fortunately for us, a second source also connects the singer with Churches of Christ, leading us on a path toward more conclusive evidence. The entry for Don Williams on Musician Guide lists his religious affiliation as “Church of Christ.” (6) Following the citations here takes us to a 1986 article in TexasMonthly, which describes Williams as “Country Music’s Hermit Saint.” The author of the article notes that “Williams wears Sunday suits when attending the Church of Christ, but at other times he clothes himself in blue jeans and Western shirts.” (7)
Shifting gears, Gentry’s band, Montgomery Gentry, released a song called “My Town” in 2002. Readers familiar with the song will know that its lyrics contain two references to Churches of Christ: “Come Sunday morning service, at the Church of Christ, well there ain’t an empty seat to be found” and “We’re off to Sunday service at the Church of Christ, and if we want a seat, we better leave right now.”
However, the obituary from Gentry’s funeral reveals quite clearly his religious beliefs, describing the musician as a “follower of Christ [who] faithfully attended Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn., when he was not on the road.” (8) It seems, then, that the reference in “My Town” was simply a way of evoking rural, small-town life, a cultural touchstone listeners might recognize from their own experiences–not a statement of faith.
That brings us to a close for today’s entry, with a final score of Proving 1, Debunking 1. As always, feedback and shares are greatly appreciated! Next time, we’ll move from music to sports as we look at a pair of former Alabama coaches with possible connections to Churches of Christ. See you then!
(1) Stephen L. Betts, “Don Williams, Country’s ‘Gentle Giant,’ Dead at 78,” Rolling Stone, September 8, 2017, accessed September 21, 2017, https://www.rollingstone.com/country/news/don-williams-countrys-gentle-giant-dead-at-78-w501990 .
(2) Megan Friedman, “An Official Report Details What Went Wrong in Troy Gentry’s Fatal Helicopter Crash,” CountryLiving, September 14, 2017, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/news/a44788/troy-gentry-helicopter-crash-official-report/ .
(3) Erik Tryggestad, “Youth ministry pioneer ‘Big Don’ Williams dies at 75 (updated),” Christian Chronicle, November 15, 2012, accessed September 21, 2017, http://christianchronicle.webdextero.us/article/youth-ministry-pioneer-big-don-williams-dies-at-75-updated .
(4) Michael W. Casey and Douglas A. Foster, The Stone-Campbell Movement: An International Religious Tradition (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2002), 43.
(5) Barry McCloud et al, Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1995.
(6) Elizabeth Thomas, “Don Williams Biography,” Musician Guide, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.musicianguide.com/biographies/1608000455/Don-Williams.html .
(7) Dick Reavis, “Country Music’s Hermit Saint,” TexasMonthly, October 1986.
(8) Quoted in Jimmy Carter and Liz Lohuis, “Troy Gentry killed in helicopter crash in NJ,” WSFB, September 8, 2017, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.wfsb.com/story/36322812/troy-gentry-killed-in-helicopter-crash-in-nj .