It has been thirty-two hours since the final notes of Louisville’s final National Quartet Convention echoed off the rafters of Freedom Hall. Booths have been torn down, chairs and speakers have been put away, and artists and attendees have returned home.
Louisville, you had quite the difficult acts to follow: The Memphis conventions, where Elvis hid backstage in a broom closet to hear the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen, and the Nashville conventions at Municipal Auditorium, which saw the Happy Goodmans, the Big-and-Live Kingsmen, Gold City, and the Cathedrals their prime.
In fact, when the convention left Nashville after 1993, people wondered if you could ever measure up. But measure up you did.
Freedom Hall seats over twice as many people as Municipal Auditorium. Many thought it would never sell out. But it did. There were days when every seat was filled to hear the Cathedrals, the Martins, and the Gaither Vocal Band.
There might be a few who thought that Freedom Hall was just another stage. There was a little truth to that—the other fifty-one weeks each year. But one week each September, it was a different story.
Southern Gospel has had many unforgettable moments over these last twenty years, and most of them took place in Freedom Hall. There are the moments I’ve only heard about: The Speers retiring. Glen Payne calling in from his hospital bed. George Younce’s final appearance. Gerald Wolfe singing “Redemption Draweth Nigh” on September 11, 2001.
And then, for some of us, there’s the part where we come in.
How I wish every Southern Gospel fan could have experienced at least one night in Louisville. Even the highest-resolution video fails to do it justice. Park somewhere near ten and a half miles from the entrance. Hear subwoofers rattling a few rows over; walk closer to find that it is a grandma rocking out to the Perrys’ Happy Goodmans CD!
Enter, and look for the correct seating section. There’s a delightful incongruity to the Heavenly music echoing through these pedestrian concrete-brick hallways filled with popcorn vendors and irrelevant plaques commemorating long-forgotten sporting achievements.
Find the section, and feel Freedom Hall before seeing the stage. Something’s physically different compared to every other Southern Gospel venue. There’s the hum of the ventilation system in the background, the commotion of fifteen or twenty thousand fans, and the music coming over the loudspeakers. Bones feel the sounds as much as ears hear them.
Reach the top of the steps and look in. The smoke or mist machines create an initial haze around the stage. But eyes quickly adjust to bring into focus the stage where a new chapter is being written in this genre’s history.
How could I ever forget the Florida Boys’ retirement? Being on the front row for the first Brian/Ivan/Mike/Tim Gold City reunion in two decades? The Bowlings’ return after their bus accident, with Kelly still in a body cast? Tracy Stuffle’s return after his heart attack?
The first night I was there in person, I posted, “NQC is something that has to be experienced. Words don’t do it justice.” It’s not just the historic moments that make it what it is. Will anyone who was there ever forget Ernie Haase trimming Tim Lovelace’s and Tim Surrett’s ties or Michael Booth getting “shot”?
But the on-stage moments are only a fraction of the experience. You just don’t forget things like getting locked into the parking lot or witnessing the ghost of conventions past on teardown night!
Louisville, you had a tough act to follow. In 1994, people wondered if our genre’s best days were in the history books, and wondered if you could ever measure up. That kind of reminds me of another point in time . . . today. Can the Booth Brothers, Collingsworths, and some new groups we’ve never heard of yet sell out Pigeon Forge? Can tens of thousands more join via the live webcast, giving NQC a live, paying audience that even Freedom Hall could never have contained?
We don’t know, but we do know this: Louisville, you were so far past expectations that you give us every reason for optimism that Pigeon Forge will do far more than measure up.