by Jewly Hight
Six months ago, Mary Tom Speer-Reid was having serious doubts about whether she would make it to the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Awaiting cataract surgery and a knee replacement, the 81-year-old would have to endure a four-hour ride to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge—not Nashville, where the current industry has shifted toward a more contemporary orientation in gospel music. There was also the ticket price to think about. “It’s very expensive—60 dollars for a ticket,” said Reid, the 13th female inductee, in April. “You get one free ticket for yourself and then one other one, and I said, ‘I can’t buy 60 dollars’ worth for 10 people.’ ”
But in the end, the chance to be honored for a musical career begun more than 70 years ago outweighed her health concerns. On Oct. 12, Reid became the final member of the Speer Family gospel group to enter the hall of fame.
“I did fine,” she says of the ceremony. “They gave me a little round gold medal with a red-white-and-blue ribbon to put around my neck. It was really nice.”
The few women performers from Southern gospel’s early years are finally getting credit, though they now make up only 12 percent of the hall of fame’s 107 total inductees. “I know some people would say—and they say it about men too—‘Well, but all that person did was sing,’ ” says Jim Goff, professor of history at Appalachian State University, of the inductee criteria. Goff is also the author of Close Harmony, the definitive written account of Southern gospel music, and historical consultant for the Southern Gospel Music Association, which runs the hall of fame museum.
Reid’s story illustrates the many often neglected histories of women in Southern gospel. Reid and her siblings began their musical careers under their father’s direction as small children. “We learned to sing with daddy’s razor strap across his lap,” she says.
“That was daddy’s heart’s desire to have a singing family,” echoes her sister, Rosa Nell Powell. “So that’s the direction he started us in, and that’s where we stayed.”
The Speer Family, in one incarnation or another, performed from 1921 into the 1990s, releasing more than 70 albums and standing out early on as one of only three gospel groups that featured both men and women.
Until the 1950s, traveling gospel groups such as the Speers faced a severe lack of privacy in transportation and lodging. There were no tour buses—just crowded cars—and groups mostly stayed in private homes.
“We traveled in a car, six of us, and had our suitcases and instruments in the trunk,” Reid says. “I don’t know how we did all of that, but we did it a lot of times. We’d put on a concert on a Saturday night and stay over for their all-day singing on Sunday, and we’d split up, two would go to one house and two to another one, and the two boys would go to another house. That wasn’t the best, but that’s what we did.”
For conservative people, such close quarters made it simpler to keep groups male-only for propriety’s sake. “As far as women traveling with men: unless she was married to one of them, it just probably would not work out,” says Lily Fern Weatherford, another female Southern gospel great, who sang with her late husband Earl in the Weatherford Quartet. “There’s not much privacy on a bus, much less in a car. We traveled in a car until the early ’50s. It was not an easy road.”
Reid was born into gospel music, but other key women in the genre often pursued musical careers alongside their spouses, such as Eva Mae LeFevre, who sang in The LeFevres with her late husband Urias for 45 years.
“You know, I’ve had hundreds [of women] call me down through the years [and ask] ‘How can I get into Southern gospel music like you are?’ ” LeFevre says. “I had to tell them I married into it. I don’t know that it would have ever happened if I hadn’t married the man I married.”
“My husband heard me sing, and he just wanted me to sing with him,” says Weatherford. “He’d always wanted a male quartet. When he’d get a male tenor, well, he would put me out and bring in the male tenor until he played out, and then he’d bring me back in. One day I said, ‘Look, I’m either in or out of the group. So what do you want to do?’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll keep you in.’ ”
Like so many women of the time whose artistic goals were interrupted by childbearing and domestic duties, Reid stopped touring, in her case after marrying a minister. “I sang with [the Speer Family] until I got pregnant, and then I quit,” she says. “I cried my eyes out. I didn’t want to leave Nashville, and [my husband] took me to West Tennessee to this little town. I said, ‘You just made me give up what I been doing all these years to go to a little old church?’ ”
In Christian denominations where preaching and leading were already off limits to women, gospel music careers may have been equally out of the question. At the time, most Holiness and Pentecostal churches welcomed women into the pulpit, while others, such as Independent Baptists, didn’t.
“I think if you look, pretty much all of the older [Southern gospel] women do come out of a Holiness-Pentecostal milieu,” Goff says. “And then it begins to change. You can begin to find some other women if you go to the ’60s and the ’70s.”
Prior to the 1960s and ’70s, all-male quartets were the norm. “By and large, women couldn’t form groups and take them out on the road,” Goff says. “You’ve got to look at them within the context of what was possible. They may very well have been just as important in keeping that group on the road as their husband, but they didn’t always get the credit because their husband got the credit. In other words, what they’re looking for [in hall of fame nominations] is somebody who maybe formed a group or somebody who did something really unique for the industry.”
And that industry is rooted in Nashville—the gospel music mecca—so it’s curious that the hall is situated in Pigeon Forge with a prime location on the Dollywood grounds, greeting visitors as soon as they pass through the front gates. It’s partly a matter of style. These days, the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association is more attentive to the various flavors of contemporary Christian pop, while the SGMA promotes traditional, country-tinged, multi-voice gospel fare. But things haven’t always been divvied up that way.
Southern gospel personnel founded the GMA locally in 1964. Not too long after, they began to fear that they were taking a backseat to Jesus rock, music that attempted to blend Christian themes with a hipper, more youthful sound. Then, in the early ’90s, Southern gospel more or less uprooted itself from Nashville and the realm of contemporary Christian music. The National Quartet Convention, long held at War Memorial Auditorium, left for Louisville, and the SGMA was founded as a separate entity from the GMA.
“It’s kind of strange that Southern gospel started the Gospel Music Association and then we had to go on our own,” says Charlie Waller, executive director of the SGMA and veteran Southern gospel producer and concert promoter. “I don’t know if they left us, or we left them, but somehow or another we got out of the game. I’m going to make somebody mad, but I don’t care. You know, they were doing this heavy contemporary Christian rock. And of course that’s where they were getting a lot of their money, you know. But they just kind of followed the money, I think, and that’s who was getting the attention. And the Southern gospel people, they just said, ‘Well, they’re forgetting us.’ ”
It was fitting that Reid be honored for her pioneering role in Southern gospel, even if it was belatedly, though she didn’t perform at the ceremony. “The Talley Trio sang a song that I always sing on the Gaither videos and a song that Daddy wrote,” she says. “I told them, ‘You sound better than I do singing it.’ ”
Other than her occasional appearances on the Gaither Homecoming video series, Reid doesn’t sing much these days. “I can’t hardly sit down and play at all after I had this guy who ran a red light and nearly killed me. For two years now I haven’t played much, so it’s just about gone. Every now and then I’ll sit down and play something in one or two keys that I remember. In my Sunday school class I sing once in a while, but not very often. It’s just how it strikes me whether I want to sing or not.”