Welcome back to the second part of our “Musician Extravaganza” here at the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog! Like we did two weeks ago, we’ll cover several supposed Church of Christ-ers today as I continue working my way through my backlog of topic suggestions. As always, feel free to share the blog with your friends, or to suggest additional celebrities, if you like what you’re reading!
First up today is Marty Roe (1960-), lead singer of the country group Diamond Rio. Beginning in the early 1990s, Diamond Rio released a string of hit singles, including songs like 1991’s “Meet in the Middle.” Vocal harmonies feature prominently in the group’s sound, and Roe’s voice in particular has played no small part in the band’s success over the years.
Like many country musicians, Roe cut his teeth, so to speak, singing in Churches of Christ. The band’s official autobiography describes an incident in which a high-school-aged Marty, while singing as part of a traveling choir, visited the Granny White Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. (1) After graduation, Roe enrolled at David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University) in that same city. (2) He participated in the school’s a cappella choir and its chorale, “choosing his membership each semester based on which chorus had the most attractive destinations booked for its promotional trips.” (3)
Roe has also retained his faith over the years. A 2001 feature by CMT offers several quotations from Diamond Rio members, including the following from keyboardist Dan Truman:
The way we look at life and the way we look at music is similar… I appreciate Marty for where he’s at. He’s Church of Christ, and I’m Mormon, and we have some serious differences, but in our hearts we’re the same. We’ve all helped each other through the years. You hear stories about how other acts can’t live on the bus together, and I’m thinking, “I’m buoyed up when I go on the bus with these guys.” (4)
Next up is Ray Walker (1934-), bass singer for the vocal group the Jordanaires, which functioned for years as Elvis Presley’s backing group and had an impressive career in its own right. Walker’s biography on his personal website relates quite a bit about his history and involvement with Churches of Christ. Walker’s parents both graduated from David Lipscomb College, and his father served as a minister in a variety of Churches of Christ during Ray’s youth. Ray himself would later attend Lipscomb, participating in the college’s quartet (Pat Boone, featured in our previous entry, was also a member) during his time as a student. (5) Additionally, Walker has remained a leading figure in the Churches of Christ music scene, aiding singing groups at Freed-Hardeman University and Harding University and serving as a minister at the Waverly (Tennessee) Church of Christ. (6)
Our third celebrity du jour is Sonny James (1928-2016), a country musician from Alabama who was best known for the 1957 song “Young Love” and for his remarkable streak of 16 consecutive #1 hit singles. After his passing in early 2016, James’s memorial service was held at the Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, (7) the congregation where he and his wife had been members since the 1990s. A feature in the Churches of Christ publication Christian Chronicle recounts a story in which an administrator at Lipscomb University had an unusual encounter with the country legend at the Ashwood Church of Christ:
He and his wife, sitting in front of us, visibly chuckled that morning when my precious daughter, not yet 2 years old, amidst the silence of communion, started singing ‘Happy Birthday,’” England said. “I’m sure we were shushing like crazy, and the more we shushed, the more they giggled… After church, they turned to speak to us and to reassure us that all was well. Sonny also complimented Melody’s singing voice. And I thought, ‘My goodness, we’re talking to the Sonny James!'” (8)
Marching right along, our fourth subject today is another leading light in the country music world, singer Loretta Lynn (1932-). Lynn, among numerous other achievements, is well known for the song “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” as well as for the film of the same name in which she is portrayed by actress Sissy Spacek. (Spacek won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the movie.)
Although Lynn frequently appears on lists of Churches of Christ celebrities, actual documentation is much harder to come by than for our three previous individuals. McGarvey Ice over at the Christian History Institute mentions that Lynn and a few other musicians “were all raised in or converted to Churches of Christ.” (9) Another tidbit comes from a Tulsa, Oklahoma, newspaper, which ran a feature story on a long-time Churches of Christ preacher who retired after 40 years with the Memorial Drive congregation in that city. That article notes how Lynn’s band director introduced the singer to the preacher during a difficult time in her life:
When Loretta Lynn’s band director heard [Terry] Rush speak at a church in Nashville, the man asked if he would talk to her because she was “going through a rough time,” Rush said… Once when Lynn was in Tulsa, she asked Rush to sit and talk with her for four hours while she waited for her time to perform… When he attended one of her other concerts, she stopped the show, introduced him as her pastor and asked him to stand up. (10)
Fifth on our list of six is Kitty Wells (1919-2012), one of the most successful female vocalists of all time in country music, who was perhaps best known for her 1952 song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” As with Sonny James, the location of Wells’s memorial service offers us a clue as to her religious heritage; the service took place at the Hendersonville (Tennessee) Church of Christ on July 20, 2012. (11) In addition, the Christian Chronicle notes that Wells was a member of the Goodlettsville (Tennessee) Church of Christ and a patron of the Churches of Christ-affiliated Goodpasture Christian School. (12)
Finally, we arrive at our sixth and final Church of Christ celebrity, Randy Travis (1959-). The country music singer has also spent considerable time in the world of Christian music and has dabbled in acting, racking up a variety of awards and a spot of the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his efforts. Sadly, Travis has also dealt with several legal and addiction issues, which have (at times) threatened to derail his musical career.
A CMT feature offers considerable insight into Travis’s spirituality, noting with some irony that the singer, “who was not much of a choirboy early in life, recently visited churches and Christian bookstores” in support of his first gospel album. In that article, Travis describes how he came to faith after a particularly rough period:
“First came thinking about my life and what I had been doing. Later, I began reading the Bible a lot and watching preachers on television. Then I started attending church. About five years ago I got baptized. I still have a long way to go [spiritually]…” The baptism took place at a Church of Christ congregation in Ashland City, Tenn., near Travis’ home. (13)
That draws our two-part extravaganza to a close. (Whew.) Thanks for reading all the way to the end!
(1) Diamond Rio with Tom Roland, Beautiful Mess: The Story of Diamond Rio (Nashville, TN: TRB Partners, 2009), 50-51.
(2) Beautiful Mess, 52-53.
(3) Beautiful Mess, 54.
(4) Lisa Young, “‘Stuff’ Happens: Sluggish Single Gives Diamond Rio ‘One More Day’ to Craft First-Rate Collection,” CMT, June 21, 2001, accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.cmt.com/news/1444670/stuff-happens/ .
(5) “Ray Walker… Bassman,” Jordanaires, accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.jordanaires.net/RayWalker/raybio.htm .
(6) “Ray Walker,” Waverly Church of Christ, accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.waverlychurchofchrist.org/raywalker.html .
(7) “Memorial Service: Nashville, TN — February 25, 2016,” accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.sonnyjames.com/hof/memorial-service-nashville-tn-february-25-2016/ .
(8) Erik Tryggestad, “This ‘Southern Gentleman’ was ‘the perfect Christian gentleman,'” Christian Chronicle, February 23, 2016, accessed March 8, 2018, https://christianchronicle.org/country-gentleman-sonny-james-was-the-perfect-christian-gentleman-friends-say/ .
(9) McGarvey Ice, “Did you know?” 2013, accessed March 8, 2018, https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/did-you-know-stone-campbell.
(10) Bill Sherman, “Tulsa pastor didn’t set out to minister to celebrities like Loretta Lynn, but God just put them in his path,” Tulsa World, July 7, 2017, accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.tulsaworld.com/homepagelatest/tulsa-pastor-didn-t-set-out-to-minister-to-celebrities/article_74db6e88-e619-589e-a6c8-c99a135b9792.html .
(11) “Kitty Wells’ Hendersonville funeral service,” Tennessean, accessed March 8, 2018, https://www.tennessean.com/picture-gallery/news/local/hendersonville/obituaries/2014/03/23/kitty-wells-hendersonville-funeral-service/6811263/ .
(12) Bobby Ross Jr., “Kitty Wells, Church of Christ member and Christian school supporter, dies at 92,” Christian Chronicle, July 17, 2012, accessed March 8, 2018, https://christianchronicle.org/kitty-wells-church-of-christ-member-and-christian-school-supporter-dies-at-92/ .
(13) Michael Gray, “Forever and Ever, Amen: Randy Travis Keeps the Faith With Release of ‘Inspirational Journey,” CMT, June 10, 2003, accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.cmt.com/news/1472469/forever-and-ever-amen/ .