By Jessica Connor
UNION—The music starts with a chaos of energy—the smooth strum of the guitar, the delicate strings of the mandolin, the burst of melody from the banjo, the deep thrum of the bass.
As they gather there for their weekly jam session, with sunny afternoon light streaming into the Union County Arts Center through the windows of downtown Main Street, the four men lean into their instruments and let the music pour through them. Smiles spread across their faces as they build the piece into a chorus, voices harmonizing while the strings provide a backdrop. The Spirit is tangible in this place, and the light shimmers and builds as the music wraps to a crisp, vital close.
This is Gospel Grass, and 10 years after they began, the bluegrass quartet of United Methodists is going stronger than ever.
It s a real blessing to get to do this, and to think it s a ministry is awesome “ to realize someone is being blessed, and to look out at the crowd and see that in someone s eyes, see that smile, said bandmate Bob Love, noting each member of Gospel Grass feels the presence of God when they come together to play. We feel it everywhere in this.
The band got its start back in 2003 at Grace United Methodist Church, Union, when two members, Clark Beavans and the newly arrived Love, teamed up for a guitar duet at a Fifth Sunday music program. Soon enough, fellow Grace member Philip Arnold joined them, along with their pastor, the Rev. Gary Byrd, also a musician. Their four-part chemistry was instant, both on a friendship and a musical level. Arnold plays bass and banjo, Beavans plays mandolin and guitar, Byrd plays guitar and Love plays guitar and bass.
We ve got all the voice parts, and we can switch around, too, Love said, noting how seamlessly the foursome was able to navigate the music, even though none of them except Arnold were accustomed to playing in a band. Arnold s other band, Split Rail, plays up and down the East Coast.
I ve always dreamed of playing in a band, but I didn t think I could. But we started working on a song, and I realized I could halfway do it, and then I could actually do it, Byrd said, recalling how the weekly practice and strong brotherhood of encouragement kept bandmates spirits strong when they might have faltered from inexperience.
Even after Byrd retired as Grace pastor in 2008, the band didn t lose pace. His bandmates gave him a Martin six-string when he retired, and they all kept right on playing, even now that he serves as a retired supply pastor for Aldersgate UMC in Inman.
Today, they play most anywhere for whatever reason, Arnold chuckles, from church events and community fundraisers to state fairs and folk art centers. They give most of their proceeds to charity, though they might treat themselves to an occasional post-concert ice cream.
Crowd favorites include Gospel-centered bluegrass renditions of I Found the Way, Crying Holy, He Arose and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
The band members say God is at their core, whether in the light they bring to their audience or the brotherhood they share as a group.
It really moves you when He comes and gets down into it, Love said. It gets us closer to each other, and gets us closer to God.
Arnold said no amount of money could possibly bring him the level of joy he gets from connecting with the audience while singing and playing old-time hymns.
You go out there, and everyone s clapping and singing and smiling, and you just want to go back again and again and again, Arnold said.
Beavans said the fellowship and fun are so powerful for him that it s hard to imagine his role in Gospel Grass is contributing to an actual ministry; after all, there is challenging music to play, and he gets to play with three other men who are truly his friends.
I m glad it s a ministry, but I feel selfish because I feel really lucky. I want to come play every time, I want to practice, and I m really glad other people think it s a good thing, because I d be doing it even if they didn t, Beavans said, laughing. It s more of a blessing to me than anything.
Byrd said beyond the strong fellowship the men share, he really appreciates that Gospel Grass is representing Grace UMC as a gift they can share with the world.
I just want everyone to know about us, Byrd said.
Love agreed: God really blesses us with this, and if we can bl
ess someone else, too, that s a bonus, he said.
To see if Gospel Grass can play for your next church event, contact them at 864-576-0260 or email [email protected] .