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Wesley Smith of Hillsboro, left, the new tenor for Palmetto State Quartet, sings with Kerry Beatty, Rick Fair and Burman Porter. The group performed at St. Luke United Methodist Church on Jan. 6.
Daily photos by Jonathan Palmer
Wesley Smith of Hillsboro, left, the new tenor for Palmetto State Quartet, sings with Kerry Beatty, Rick Fair and Burman Porter. The group performed at St. Luke United Methodist Church on Jan. 6.

'What a blessing'
Local singer Wesley Smith adds new tenor voice to Palmetto State Quartet's 60 years of harmony

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com · 340-2468

The satisfying sound of four-part Southern gospel filled the gym Jan. 6 at St. Luke United Methodist Church.

Palmetto State Quartet, four singers plus a keyboard player, seemed to dip listeners into memories, stand them at the foot of the cross and boost them into the sweet by-and-by.

“I’ll sail away to a land at the end of day,” sang Wesley Smith of Lawrence County, joining singers Kerry Beatty, Rick Fair and Burman Porter.

Smith, 33, is now the tenor for the oldest continually touring national Southern gospel group.

The concert was the nearest one to home for Smith since he joined the group in September, fulfilling a dream to sing gospel professionally.

Introducing Smith, lead singer Beatty asked, “How many know where Fish Pond is?”

Audience members laughed and many raised their hands.

Smith interrupted to say that Fish Pond, near Smith’s Hillsboro address, actually doesn’t have a pond.

‘Country’ boy

Beatty cut him off, calling Smith “country.”

“When we found him, he was as green as a gourd. We had to put shoes on him and teach him how to talk,” Beatty said.

“My mama’s going to kill you,” Smith said.

The crowd laughed hard.

Backed by the group, Smith launched into a tenor solo, “Sweet Land of Rest,” describing a place “far beyond all space and time.”

The crowd rose to their feet, clapping. He smiled and nodded acknowledge to friends and kin.

After 1½ hours of singing, members of Palmetto State stood at the back of the gym greeting well-wishers. Smith got hugs, back pats and handshakes.

“Lord, you haven’t changed a bit,” Danielle Yager of Decatur told him.

She said he was a cutup at East Lawrence High School. She and another former classmate, Tina Parker of Decatur, said they are happy for Smith.

Bonita Mitchell of Trinity said she is proud for Smith to get such an opportunity. She said she often heard his earlier group, King’s IV, which she described as “fantastic.”

Opportunity calls

In an interview, Smith said a 10 a.m. phone call more than a year ago helped change his future.

A member of Gold City phoned him at TRAX in Trinity, where he was the parts manager, to ask him to sing with the group that evening in Gadsden. The tenor had a death in his family and the group needed a replacement, quick.

He agreed.

He listened to CDs and hastily studied lyrics. He jumped on a plane in Hartselle piloted by Billy Lawrence, then-bass singer with Gold City. They got there in time for the concert, and somehow he got through it, Smith said.

The experience was challenging, he said, but he realized he wanted to sing professionally and now was the time. He figured he should do it while still young enough to enjoy the constant travel.

Palmetto State, founded in South Carolina about 60 years ago, is based in Nashville. Its bus has sleeping quarters, a microwave and satellite TV, said Beatty, who owns the group. Palmetto State does 200 concerts a year, traveling almost the whole country.

Smith already knew the lifestyle. He started King’s IV in 2000, taking it over 10 states. The group did about 100 dates a year sandwiched between members’ jobs, traveling in their own bus.

Smith said he shut the group down when the Palmetto State opportunity came up.

Tenor audition

The work isn’t exactly a calling, not like God impressing someone to preach, Smith said, “but it takes a special drive to be gone that much.”

He auditioned for Palmetto State at the Grand Old Gospel Reunion in Knoxville, competing with other tenors. He said singing “I Am Sailing Away” with the existing members felt natural. He got the job.

His first concert came after he’d been a member seven days. He learned 25 songs but rehearsed only six with the group.

They performed with the Florida Boys and others in Lebanon, Pa. He felt psyched up but nervous, he said. The venue, though, has always been genial, and people told him that he seemed as if he’d always been there, Smith said.

Two weeks later, the group was at the top event for Southern gospel, the National Quartet Convention in Louisville. They sang for 20,000 people.

The group recently toured in Montana, California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington. They will perform in the Southeast for the next few weeks. Smith said that Southern gospel is both ministry and entertainment, and it endures despite competition from newer types of Christian music.

“It’s just like anything else — it goes in cycles. A style of music will be popular and then it tapers off. People just always seem to come back to it,” Smith said.

High and lows

Being a divorced dad, he said, it’s not easy being away from his 7-year-old daughter so much. She teases him about singing like a girl because he hits high notes, Smith said. Smith has lately been in a studio near Nashville, recording a track to replace the former tenor’s voice on a favorites CD.

He describes the group’s sound as having an aggressive edge, with more “punch” in arrangements and instrumentation than typical Southern gospel.

The Palmetto State song “Knock, Knock, Knock” hit No. 1 in radio airplay in 2004, according to Singing News. A reviewer for Southern Gospel Music Forum called the group “one of the top male quartets today.”

Smith said the group was to start recording a CD this week with nine new songs and one old one, “I Got It,” which was popularized by tenor Rosie Rozell and the Searchers. Smith said people have compared him to Rozell but he considers that a farce because of Rozell’s status in the business.

But the one singer Smith said he would like to emulate is his late father, Billy Smith, who sang gospel and preached at Old Bethel Baptist Church, Leighton. Wesley Smith sang from age 15 with his dad and brothers. Billy Smith also sang with a popular local group, the King’s Messengers.

“If I could sound like anybody, I would like to sound like my dad,” Wesley Smith said.

“He was very loved and was an awesome tenor singer.”

‘A blessing’

In St. Luke’s gym, Beatty said the group is blessed to carry on Palmetto State’s heritage of sharing the gospel all over the country.

“We love the Lord, and if that were not true, we would not be here tonight,” Fair said.

Wesley Smith told the crowd he was “having a great time” and appreciated the hometown support.

Palmetto State concluded with older favorites, winding up with “How Great Thou Art,” which brought listeners to their feet again. The Rev. Ron McKay, pastor, said he was pleased with the crowd of about 200, given that the concert wasn’t scheduled far in advance.

Ann Edwards of Somerville bought four CDs. She said she’d not heard Palmetto State before.

“They were absolutely wonderful. What a blessing,” she said.

Local residents on Southern gospel circuits

  • Wesley Smith of Hillsboro is one of the newest local singers to tour full time with a gospel group, but he isn’t the only one doing it currently.

  • Brent Mitchell of Moulton is a member of Mercy’s Mark.

    That group recently sang at a chapel service for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo. It also had a song on an album produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

  • Jeremy Lyle of Decatur sings with Crystal River. Singing News subscribers nominated the group for Horizon Group of the Year.

    Southern Gospel News also nominated the group for Breakthrough Artist of 2006.

    Both Crystal River and Mercy’s Mark were up for new artist of 2006 in the Harmony Honors from the Southern Gospel Music Guild.

    - Melanie Smith

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