On a chilly November evening, I’m offered two starkly different choices for a Friday night out in the small Western North Carolina town of Columbus.
“Football or gospel?” asks the beefy man directing traffic outside Polk County High School, home of the Wolverines.
“Gospel,” I call out.
A couple hundred other people choose the same route, filling about three-quarters of the seats in the school’s auditorium to hear three homegrown Southern-gospel acts.
There’s a down-home feeling as fans stop by tables set up in the lobby to chat with performers or buy their CDs. Inside, singers and musicians stroll through the auditorium greeting other fans. Most of the largely white audience is middle-aged or older, though there’s a sprinkling of people in their 20s and a few families with a half-dozen or more elementary-school-age kids.
Retirees Dave and Helen Barboza of Lexington, S.C., drove nearly two hours to hear The Primitive Quartet. The nationally known group, based in Candler, is distinguished by its smooth harmonies and bluegrass-infused sound. After sharing a few words with the mandolin player, the Barbozas (who themselves sing in a quartet called The Memory Singers) discuss their longtime favorites.
“Their music, their message and songs are so down-to-earth, so to speak,” Dave exclaims.
Hendersonville residents James and Carolyn McDowell, meanwhile, sing the praises of the Jody Brown Indian Family of Robbinsville.
“Jody Brown — sometimes I just sit and cry when I hear him sing,” says James. “You can feel the spirit yourself.”
And once the show begins, these fans are obviously not disappointed.
Soloist Mike Upright croons heartfelt lyrics about the power in Jesus’ blood, then asks the crowd, “Is there anybody in here the devil don’t give a hard time?”
“Sock it to ’em!” one woman shouts back.
The Jody Brown Indian Family’s rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” — sung in both English and Cherokee — sparks an equally warm response. And The Primitive Quartet — by turns serene and fervent — brings the crowd to its feet as they clap to the beat, soak up the rich, rounded tones, and nod to the lyrics of salvation.
“I can guarantee we’re having a better time tonight than those folks at the football game,” the bass player proclaims.