Aaron Swain's blog about Southern Gospel Music, News, and other items of interest in the SG world.

Pat Barker Launches Website

July 30, 2014 By: Aaron Category: Pat Barker, SG Artists, SG Industry News, SG Music

For the past couple of days, the online community has been buzzing about a “big announcement” that was promised by Pat Barker. Today, that announcement hit:

(Gadsden, AL) July 30, 2014 – Pat Barker announces the launch of his new online community – You Tell Me. Through the “You Tell Me” campaign introduced on his site, individuals will have the opportunity to share how BIG God has been in their life and read how He has shown up in others. There will be artist video testimonials and prayer requests where you can respond in real time to requests made from all over the world.

Most of you were introduced to Pat Barker eight years ago when he joined the legendary Dixie Echoes. Fans from all over discovered his love for gospel music to be contagious. Fans not only loved his ability take a solo and sing it like no other bass singer, but his spirit and personality off the stage. With Pat’s move to the Mark Trammell Quartet, thousands more were introduced to his talent in some of the largest venues across the country including his unforgettable appearance with the Cathedral Family Reunion. When Pat left the road, many wondered if they would ever have the opportunity to see him again involved with the music he loves so much. Do we ever have good news for you. If you thought Pat would start his own group or launch a solo career, you weren’t thinking BIG enough. Today you can join a community of believers from all over the world through Pat’s brand new site http://HOWBIGISGOD2U.COM!

As a member of the community you will also have access to where Pat will be ministering and his latest products. July 30 is the day where You Tell Me and the rest of the world how BIG God is! You can also join Pat live Sunday August 3rd from 3 – 4 o’clock p.m. Central time to ask anything you like. Ask about the new site or find out what’s going on with Pat in the near future. DON’T MISS IT!! More information on Pat Barker and the You Tell Me campaign can be found online at: http://howbigisgod2u.com or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HBIGYouTellMe

This is certainly a unique idea that goes beyond the normal solo career announcement. I look forward to seeing how it progresses as time goes on. Be sure to check it out!

NQC 2013

September 09, 2013 By: Aaron Category: NQC, SG Artists, SG Music

It’s that time of year again; the National Quartet Convention, which seems to be unofficially considered the “kickoff” of each Southern Gospel music year. Here’s just a few things I’m looking forward to this time around:

  • The Old Paths’ debut on mainstage. They’ve had it coming for quite a while!
  • The revamped Skyline Boys and Freedom as a quartet.
  • The Dixie Melody Boys. Their lineup right now is one to watch.
  • For that matter, I’m looking forward to hearing several groups that have changed members since last year, like Gold City and the Dixie Echoes.
  • The fellowship in the exhibit hall, which is the best part of events like this.

I’ll be headed to Louisville on Wednesday and staying through Friday.

As far as “live coverage,” I’ve decided to take it easy in that department. It’s the NQC’s last year in Louisville, so I’m going to kick back (as much as you can “kick back” at NQC, anyway!) and take it all in. Who knows; I may have a video or two from different things after it’s all said and done, but as far as regular coverage, I encourage you to check out some of the other SG blogs; I’m sure discussions will be taking place there. Of course, the comments section is open here as well!

As always, I’m looking forward to the biggest event in Southern Gospel music, and here’s to a great final year in Louisville!

New Tenor For The Dixie Echoes

March 20, 2013 By: Aaron Category: SG Artists, SG Industry News, SG Music, The Dixie Echoes

Since the departure of Craig Thomas and Jordan James a couple of weeks ago, the Dixie Echoes have been seeking a new tenor and bass singer. Part one of their search is complete, as evidenced by this announcement posted last night on the group’s Facebook page:

The Dixie Echoes are pleased to announce the hiring of George Shelton, Jr. as our new tenor singer. George is one of the greatest tenor singers, and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. We are so proud to have George and his lovely wife, Gail, as part of the Dixie Echoes family!

We are still in the audition process for the bass singer position, so If you have a demo, or a Youtube clip, we would love to hear you! Email a short resume’ and demo to scoot@dixieechoes.com.

Shelton filled in with the group two separate times: last summer, when the group was searching for a tenor after Michael Helwig’s departure, and in the past couple of weeks. He was present with the group at a recent date at Lake Gibson Nazarene Church, and I commented to some friends that I thought he’d be a perfect fit if he was interested in the job, which I had thought over the summer as well.

Here are some clips from his fill-in stint this past summer:

Since the Dixie Echoes are still looking for a bass singer, Mark Cates (the fill-in bass from the first three clips above) may be worth a call.

This & That 7/7/12

July 07, 2012 By: Aaron Category: Blackwood Brothers, Dixie Melody Boys, Promise, SG Artists, SG Industry News, SG Music, The Dixie Echoes

Here’s a few items of interest from the past week:

1. The Dixie Melody Boys are offering a limited edition CD of Ed O’Neal’s first ever recording. A copy of the Gospel Harmony Quartet’s debut recording has been found and re-mastered, and is the first of many recordings with O’Neal’s bass vocals. This is being offered in a limited supply of one hundred CDs at the DMB website.

2. Promise has announced that their tenor search is over. Michael Helwig will be joining David Mann and TJ Evans in the trio. Helwig has been with groups like The Torchmen, The Stamps The Homesteaders (Williamsons), The Blackwood Quartet, and most recently filled the tenor position for the Dixie Echoes. I am looking forward to hearing the sound with this new vocalist.

3. Speaking of the Dixie Echoes, a number of videos have surfaced with fill-in members. It is unclear at this point if these men have gotten the job, since no announcement has been made, but here are a couple of those clips:

Those two videos feature Mark Cates on bass and Junior Shelton on tenor. Cates has been on every video uploaded, but Shelton was only at this particular date as far as videos are concerned. This was also one of Stewart Varnado’s last concerts with the group. A video entitled “Dixie Echoes’ new pianist” has popped up, featuring a guy named Ben Hart:

4. Finally, here’s a clip of the Blackwood Brothers featuring new bass singer Butch Owens:

Dixie Echoes Group Shakeup

June 05, 2012 By: Aaron Category: SG Artists, SG Industry News, SG Music, The Dixie Echoes

The Dixie Echoes announced a while ago that longtime pianist Stewart Varnado is leaving the group. Two separate announcements made on Facebook today bring further change to the lineup of the quartet. Tenor Michael Helwig posted this status this morning (Facebook login required):

I would like to announce that my tenure with the dixie echoes has come to an end. I would like to thank Stewart Varnado for the leadership he showed in the group and the element of professionalism he brought to the stage and to the business end of things.

A short while later, bass singer Mike Jennings posted this status (Facebook login required):

I would like to let everyone know that my time with the Dixie Echoes has come to an end. The Lord is blessing our family with another little one and I’ll be heading home to take care of them. I have met many wonderful people across the country this year, fans and fellow singers alike. I hope to see many of you again. I would like to thank my family for their love, support and selflessness this past year. Please keep our family in your prayers as we make this transition. God Bless.

To refresh our collective memories, it was roughly a year ago that the Dixie Echoes were looking for a bass singer and tenor at the same time, and that’s when Jennings and Helwig were hired. Now, both have departed, on top of the group still looking to fill the piano position. You hate to see such a shakeup all happen at once, at it often leads to a lot of extra speculation by fans of the group. Added to that is the fact that the age of social media often finds news being told before a press release is given by the group itself. It will be interesting to watch what may end up being the biggest “reconstruction” of the Dixie Echoes to come along in years.

Michael Helwig’s future plans will be announced shortly, and congratulations to Mike Jennings and his wife on their expected baby!

Update: For what it’s worth, Stewart Varnado left this comment at SouthernGospelBlog.com:

I’m not starting a group with anyone. I am simply coming off the road. Been very busy this week selling tickets for the Memphis Quartet Show. I look forward to time at home. I do wish Randy & Scoot the best. I had no idea when I turned in my notice that they would be losing more members. However, I will still be with the group thru June 16, at the Suwannee River Jubilee.

I am still in business with Scoot on the Gospel Jubilee Cruise. All is well between me and the Shelnut’s. I don’t want any speculation there. I’ve grew up with them and they are like family to me. They know that if they ever need a fill-in in a pinch, I’ll hop on the bus anytime.

Further update: There has been speculation around the various SG sites as to whether the Dixie Echoes will continue since they are tasked with filling so many vacant positions, and even if they will remain a male quartet. Their Facebook status clears up those questions:

The Dixie Echoes are now accepting auditions for the bass and tenor positions with the group. If you would like to try out, please send a demo and short resume to scoot@dixieechoes.com.

Please pray for the group during this time of transition. Dad and I will continue to give our fans the great quality quartet music they’re used to. In 52 years of ministry, God has never failed us, and I KNOW He never will!

Stewart Varnado Leaves The Dixie Echoes

May 07, 2012 By: Aaron Category: SG Artists, SG Industry News, SG Music, The Dixie Echoes

Any time that there is a lull in the stream of news in Southern Gospel music, you can be sure that it is the calm before the storm. We’re already waiting on the announcement of a new Kingsmen tenor (more on that later, but it’s gonna be good!), but another lineup change has hit and is making shockwaves. In a Facebook post yesterday, Dixie Echoes pianist Stewart Varnado made this announcement:

I’d like to thank the Dixie Echoes for allowing me the opportunity to live out my dream for the past 14 years. I joined the group when I was 17 years old. Randy and Scoot Shelnut have became like family to me, and it’s been a blast traveling with some great guys through the years. I realize that when people put out statements saying they want to spend more time at home, it seems to be a cover for unhappiness within the group. That is not the case here. I simply have the desire to come off the road for a while. I wish nothing but the best for the Dixie Echoes, and pray that one day, if it’s God’s will, I can return to Gospel music.

I have no future plans at the moment and will be filling in for the group until a replacement has been found. Thanks also to the many friends that I have made while traveling! It has been an honor to get to meet so many fine people. I will still be active behind the scenes promoting the music that I love. Anyone interested in auditioning should contact Randy Jr. at scoot@dixieechoes.com

In a later update, Stewart also confirmed that he will still be involved with promoting events like the Memphis Quartet Show and the Gospel Jubilee Cruise.

Remaining for fourteen years with one group is no small feat, and I appreciate Varnado’s longevity and commitment, qualities that are arguably a rare find in the revolving door of SG group changes. While I’m certainly shocked by this announcement and am sad to see him go, I’m sure that he’s probably ready to rest after being on the road for so long! Perhaps we’ll see him back playing again in a few years.

As far as a replacement… the return of Andrew Ishee, anyone?

NQC 2011: Thursday Observations

September 15, 2011 By: Aaron Category: NQC, SG Artists, SG Music

Some thoughts on the day’s events:

1. I caught the Gaither Vocal Band reunion on the webcast this afternoon. I largely enjoyed it, Penrod’s absolutely unmentioned/unacknowledged absence aside. Buddy Mullins and Marshall Hall split most of the duties for his parts; I’d forgotten how darn talented Mullins is as a singer. Larnelle Harris has got to be nearing or past 60 years old, and the dude can still bring it! Unfortunately, sound issues plagued the set. It took at least four songs for Lee Young’s mic to be properly turned up. Head over to Southern Gospel Back Row for a song list.

2. Set of the night, from a musical standpoint, probably could go to the Dixie Echoes. The newly revamped lineup with new tenor Michael Helwig and new bass Mike Jennings brought their A-game tonight, along with an expanded band with guitars, drums, and a harmonica in addition to the usual piano and bass guitar. Best song of the set came in the form of “Walk With Me,” highlighting a tenor sound that is fuller and more robust than previous tenors for the group have been. Truly a powerhouse sound. Though the baritone/bass mic seemed to not be mixed in correctly for the ensemble singing, the group still showed that they have come through these changes with a fine sound.

3. From an emotional standpoint, the award has to go to The Isaacs. They sang a new song, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” which the kids wrote in honor of their mother’s fight with breast cancer (which she has survived for a number of years.) Halfway through, different artists came on stage with large signs: Dean Hopper held one up with the number of years Connie Hopper has been cancer-free, and others held signs of their own to signify their cancer struggles: Scoot Shelnut, Jeff & Sheri Easter, etc. The one that got me? Ray Dean Reese’s sign: “Diagnosed in 2011. Would appreciate your prayers,” or something to that effect. He was, understandably, looking very emotional, and I had to wipe away a few tears myself. What a moment…

Heading out tomorrow to see the NQC for myself tomorrow and Saturday. Looking forward to a great weekend!

First Look: Dixie Echoes 2011

August 14, 2011 By: Aaron Category: First Look, SG Artists, SG Music, The Dixie Echoes, Youtube

Stewart Varnado just posted this clip of the new lineup of the Dixie Echoes, featuring new additions Michael Helwig on tenor and Mike Jennings singing bass. This standard for tenor singers features Helwig, although Jennings can be heard on the chorus. This clip is a great show of the potential that this new combination of singers has. It is worth noting that this is their first full concert together, and the first time that they have sung this song.

Update: Another video has just been posted from the same concert, this one featuring Mike Jennings. He is singing a song I don’t believe the group has staged since Pat Barker’s time with them: “How Big Is God.” This both gives a better insight to Jennings’ voice, and gives Helwig some of Wesley Smith’s higher notes to hit. Check it out:

Dixie Echoes Hire New Vocalists

August 10, 2011 By: Aaron Category: Blackwood Quartet, SG Artists, SG Industry News, SG Music, The Dixie Echoes

Last week, the news broke that the Dixie Echoes had filled the vacancy left by departing bass singer Trent Adams with a relative newcomer: Mike Jennings. See Daniel Mount’s post about the hire, which includes videos highlighting his sound, here.

Today, the announcement was made about a new tenor for the group following Wesley Smith’s move to the Palmetto State Quartet. In a surprising move, the group has hired a lead/baritone singer: Michael Helwig. You may remember him from groups such as The Wilburns, The Stamps, and The Williamsons (formerly The Homesteaders.) In all of those groups, he sang lead or baritone. Most recently, Helwig was the lead singer for the Blackwood Quartet. I was at the concert where he debuted with the group, though interestingly enough, he was the quartet’s new tenor, coming in after Dale Evans left. He did a fantastic job, but moved down to lead when David Mann went to Statement of Faith. Here are some videos of Helwig with the Blackwood Quartet:




Daniel Mount has linked to another video in his post about the move which highlights Michael’s tenor singing. Needless to say, Helwig has quite a range. I have been impressed with his vocal ability for quite a while and will be looking forward to hearing him as a Dixie Echo. I agree with Daniel: look for this lineup of the Dixie Echoes to generate buzz soon.

Dixie Echoes Seeking Tenor & Bass

July 07, 2011 By: Aaron Category: SG Artists, SG Industry News, SG Music, The Dixie Echoes

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that Dixie Echoes bass singer Trent Adams had turned in his notice, and the group was taking auditions for a new bass. Now, the group is seeking to fill the tenor position after Wesley Smith has left the group. To quell any rumors before they start, here is the announcement from the group’s Facebook page last night:

“The Dixie Echoes are now seeking a Tenor & Bass 🙂 Just to answer any questions, nothing is going on here. Nobody has been fired, nobody is on bad terms, just unfortunately Wesley has turned in his notice, leaving us with two open positions. Interested singers can email demos to stewart@dixieechoes.com. We appreciate your prayers through this transition.”

Update: Right after I hit the publish button, I noticed that Daniel Mount had posted an update to his post about this, in which Stewart Varnado commented on the current plans of the group. To sum it up, the group is traveling as a trio this weekend, and former Dixie Echoes tenors will be filling in until a new tenor is found. There should be a bass announced within the month. Wesley Smith has joined a group much closer to his home, and an announcement is forthcoming.