An Interview with Keith Waggoner

On a recent trip to Boise, Idaho, I had the opportunity to interview Liberty Quartet’s tenor, Keith Waggoner. Liberty Quartet is a full-time Southern Gospel quartet based in Boise, Idaho. They mostly tour in the West, but in recent years have started doing occasional East Coast tours.

What was supposed to be a 20 or 30 minute conversation ended up lasting about an hour. Here’s your chance to listen in!

DJM: Let’s start by assuming that most of the readers of this blog don’t know much about Liberty Quartet, outside of maybe reading a review or two. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, and about Liberty?

Keith: I was raised in Indiana. My parents were song evangelists; we traveled to camp meetings, churches, and revivals—we did it all. So I grew up in a musical family.

But my parents were big-time Southern Gospel fans. Dad grew up listening to the Speers, the Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen, all the classics.

My first concert was at age four. I still remember it clearly—the Kingsmen quartet, big and live in Kokomo, Indiana, and that was when they had Big Jim Hamill, Little Ernie Phillips…

DJM: My favorite! [Kingsmen tenor]

Keith: Oh, yes—that version of the Kingsmen is arguably the best. They were incredible. I still remember the concert. It’s the first memory I have of Southern Gospel music.

DJM: Did Hamill throw the tenor into the audience at the end?

Keith: No, he didn’t! I would have remembered that. But I just remember him always picking on Ernie. Ernie was wearing these little red cowboy boots. He would pull up his pant legs to show the little red cowboy boots. For whatever reason, that stuck in a four-year-old boy’s mind. So that was my introduction to Southern Gospel.

All of the concerts that came through Indiana, Ohio … we were there. Cathedrals, Talleys, Kingsmen, Gold City, McKameys, you name it. I sang many of those groups’ songs with my friends, growing up in church.  So, I was literally raised on this style of music.

After I graduated from high school, I attended God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati, OH. While I was there, I traveled with a men’s quartet. We sang Southern Gospel music, for the most part. I traveled for four years. We covered songs by the Cathedrals, Gold City, Kingsmen, many of the popular quartets of the early 90s; we were doing a lot of their music.

DJM: There’s at least an outside chance that some of the readers of the blog might have seen that group—what was the group’s name?

Keith: The group’s name was Assurance.

DJM: Assurance?

Keith: Yeah, yeah—we came up with an original name. A couple of times someone showed up at the concert hoping to see Brian Free and Assurance.  I’m pretty sure they were disappointed.

DJM: They were disappointed to see Keith Waggoner?

Keith: Yeah—very disappointed to see Keith Waggoner! But that was a fantastic way to start singing the quartet style. What I sang with my family was more evangelistic; this was straight-ahead Southern Gospel.

After I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Church Music, I worked for God’s Bible School and College as their Director of Student Recruitment. During the five years I worked for the school, I also had the privilege to serve as associate conductor of the college’s orchestra and as a high school choir director.

While I was at GBS, I started a part-time Southern Gospel trio. We didn’t travel much, but for about a year or year and a half, we’d do a few local churches. We sang down in the South some. The name of that group was Allegiance.

DJM: Not the same as Jodi Hosterman’s group?

Keith: No, Jodi Hosterman started his group, Allegiance, about a year and a half after we had called it quits. But, our group traveled a little bit, just small churches here and there. It was enjoyable. We have some great memories! We never did much, but had a fantastic time!

DJM: Did either Assurance or Allegiance make any recordings that you were on?

Keith: Assurance did, Allegiance did not. We [Allegiance] started working on a project, but, about that time, most of us moved away from Cincinnati. Our piano player, Jon Plank, moved to Pennsylvania to start a graphic design company, our baritone / guitar player, Jonathan Bender took a pastorate in Alabama, and I got a call to be a worship pastor at a church here in Idaho. It was odd— within two months’ time, we all moved. So we never recorded.

I did two or three recordings with Assurance when I was with God’s Bible School. Most of our projects were produced by Charles and Rob Novell at Counterpoint Recording Studio.

Anyway, when my family moved out to Idaho, I was Associate Pastor at Grace Bible Church for, oh, about a year and a half.

DJM: And you had replaced…

Keith: I had replaced Doran Ritchey, who had become the piano player for Liberty Quartet. Well, Doran had traveled with a sister Bible College back in the day, so we’d interact at youth camps, conventions, those sorts of things. So, we knew each other.

After a year and half of ministering at the church, I joined the quartet, too. With Liberty taking both Doran and I, we like to joke that Grace Bible Church never has us back to sing. But actually, we have a great relationship with the church.  My family still attends there and I serve on the church board.

DJM: You could just tease that they made sure their new music minister didn’t like Southern Gospel!

Keith: Well, they made sure that the next music minister was a bass, since they knew Royce [Mitchell, bass singer and manager for Liberty] wouldn’t be stealing him!

DJM: Could you tell us a bit about Liberty Quartet?

Keith: Liberty started twelve years ago, here in Boise. Royce has had a long history in Southern Gospel in the area. He had a group called New Creation that was very popular out here in the Northwest. In the early to mid 80s, they toured extensively. I remember him telling me about a particular trip in which they traveled for over 60 days straight with at least one concert every day, sometimes more. They were more of an Imperials–meets–Cathedrals type group. They were doing some contemporary music, some Southern Gospel.

After Royce was done with that, he went into church ministry for several years. He brought in many Southern Gospel groups to Portland, while he was on staff at a church there, and then later Boise.

After Royce had been at Boise First Nazarene for several years, he put together a group out of the church. Well, they started getting pretty popular, and other churches started booking them for concerts. In 1996, Liberty started traveling regularly. Royce left his church position so he could devote his time to managing the growth of this new ministry. He went on with the group full-time from the very beginning; the other guys were part-time—bi-vocational—weekend warriors.

After they’d traveled for about a year or two, some of the members phased out, and slowly but surely he began to work towards going full-time. I think it was five years ago that Liberty ended up going full-time. Since that time, we’ve been singing at over 160 concerts a year.

We’ve had a little turnover across the years, but this particular lineup has been together longer than any other group of four guys within Liberty. We’ve been together about two, two and a half years. When you’ve been together for a few years, it’s like sports—you begin to understand the person’s voice, your blend becomes distinctive. This past year, especially, has been a lot of fun as we have really been able to hone our sound.

That, in a nutshell, is how we got started, and got to where we are today.

DJM: Other than your location, what makes Liberty Quartet unique?

Keith: One thing that defines our sound is our arrangements. We have made a decision to be an in-the-pocket group. Royce is going to be singing notes that showcase the richness of his comfort range. As the tenor, I’m not going up for crazy high notes that sound strained.  We want to be around for a while.  If our voices are tired or blown out, there goes the quartet.

We just finished a recording last week. When Doran sat down to do the arrangements for all the songs, we sang through them to find our parts, and then he adjusted the songs according to each individual’s range. We’re not going to be the highest group you’ve ever heard of, we’re not going to be the lowest group, but we’ll always be in vocal control and have a solid sound.  That’s important to us.

Another stylistic distinctive is that we’ll always be a Southern Gospel quartet. We put out three or four albums per year. Out of those albums, at least two of them are traditional in nature, either a hymns recording, or an old-time Gospel Stamps-Baxter style recording, or maybe it’ll be a cover project, like Say it Again, where we cover some of our favorite Southern Gospel songs sung by other groups with new, unique arrangements.

But we’re not afraid to test the waters. We’ve done everything from a Salsa-influenced number (“Contagious,” on the CD Do You Know Him) to country, to some Black Gospel. Our new album (which will be available in late June) is going to feature everything from some progressive country arrangements, to a Sinatra-style song, even a smooth jazz piece, and then we will have a few straight- ahead Southern Gospel quartet songs. We will always have that traditional four-part harmony, but we’re trying to stretch past some of the stereotypes and get out of the box.

DJM: So when you say that Liberty is a traditional Southern Gospel-style quartet, you’re not so much saying traditional as in only singing convention songs but traditional in the sense of not being contemporary?

Keith: My definition of traditional is what most people think of when they think of Southern Gospel Quartet—the image or sound that pops into their mind, that’s what we’re going to be associated with.

Now, outside of that, another interesting thing would be our concerts themselves. We have never done the same concert [twice], ever. Every night is a different order, and every night there are going to be some different jokes. The beauty of having Doran and Royce is that, for better or worse, they say whatever comes to their minds. We’re fortunate in that is funny—they’re gifted in those areas.

Doran is perfecting the puzzled, bumbling, slightly dumb role—a mixture of Mark Lowry, Rodney Griffin, and Jerry Lee Lewis all rolled into one. Royce is the dry humor, the straight man. I’ve had several people leave a concert and say, “I didn’t know you could have that much fun in church.” You can count on quite a bit of comedy at a Liberty Quartet concert.

We are ministry-focused. At every concert an invitation to accept Christ is given. Now, we don’t preach and we don’t give some long, drawn-out, guilt-trip inducing plea.  I believe the Gospel speaks for itself.  If someone who’s never had their sins forgiven comes to hear us sing, they will have a chance to experience a life-changing encounter with God.

Two years ago, we sat down with a consultant and put together a strategic plan for our future— where we want to go, short-term and long-term goals that will get us there, that sort of thing. One of those goals was to bring us back to the fact that we are not a Southern Gospel entertainment group as much as we are an entertaining Southern Gospel ministry group.

DJM: Outside of Liberty Quartet members, if you could put together a dream-team quartet, with or without yourself singing tenor, who would you pick?

Keith: Oh, hear we go…I would be the manager, because I enjoy singing tenor, but I know I’m not the best tenor in the world. I have favorite tenors!

Are we saying living or not living?

DJM: Do one of each if you like.

Keith: My favorite bass is George Younce. As for today’s basses, I’d still go with Royce. I know it sounds like I’m kissing up, but we’ve sung with most major groups, and he’s still one of the best. He and Gene McDonald are both up there. Gene’s lower, but Royce has one of the smoothest voices you’ll ever hear.

When it comes to the baritone part, Mark Trammell has been my favorite for years. However, I will say one of today’s smoothest baritones is Jim Brady. I’m probably going with Brady today, and Trammell for the classic group.

From the past, George Younce, Mark Trammell. For lead, I’ll go with the 80s and early 90s version of Mike English. I loved his voice. For tenor, back in the day, my favorite tenor is Danny Funderburk. I love Danny. So that’s my past group.

Current group, I’ll go with Royce, Jim Brady at baritone. For lead—wow, that’s a tough one.

DJM: You could pick a tenor first, then pick a lead to fit the tenor.

Keith: Yeah. He’s not really considered Southern Gospel anymore, but David Phelps is the best tenor I’ve ever heard. You just want a guy who can give you a pathos with the energy with the quality of tone, you have to go with Phelps.

Now I need a lead who can go with Phelps. I like Guy Penrod, Jonathan Wilburn, Scott Fowler.

Boy, this is a tough one! I might have to with Arthur Rice.

DJM: Arthur Rice and David Phelps. Wow—what a combination!

Keith: Well, Arthur has one of the most incredible ranges I’ve ever heard—say, have you heard the album Stand Up Live at Opryland with the Kingsmen?

DJM: Yeah—where he sings “Place Where the Hungry are Fed”? I think he was hitting a high B-flat there.

Keith: It’s unbelievable. It’s either a B-flat or a C, and I think it might be a C.

DJM: I had thought it was in E-flat, and he was going to the fifth, but here’s my problem—my record player’s speed is slightly off. So I could be hearing B-flat even when it was originally a C!

Keith: Whatever the case is, it was a crazy high note. And he holds it forever.

Arthur Rice is consistent. When you purchase a recording featuring him, you know what you’re getting. Arthur is always straight-on, spot-on good. So I’ll give Arthur the nod.

But it’s a tough question. In fact, I think there are more great baritones today than I can remember. You have Marsh Hall, who is smooth, Doug Anderson, smooth, Jim Brady, Mark Trammell, Daniel Riley—we are blessed today as much as any other era of having incredible baritone singers.

For piano players, back in the day, I would have given the nod to Anthony Burger. I think the best piano player in Southern Gospel right now is Kim Collingsworth. However, I wouldn’t put her with this quartet, since I think her style wouldn’t fit. Her style fits the Collingsworths to a T. But I would give the nod for this group to Gordon Mote. I don’t know if you would consider him Southern Gospel. But for quality and clean licks, Gordon Mote gets the nod. Now, our own Doran Ritchey is an awesome piano player. He’s going to be up there in the top five, that’s for sure.

Anyway, there you have it!

DJM: There is one other aspect I wanted to cover. It’s not too often that I get to—or for that matter, that any Southern Gospel interviewer—gets to interview a full-time Southern Gospel singer on the West Coast. How would you describe the audiences you get on the West Coast? Do they tend to be totally unfamiliar with Southern Gospel music, and Liberty Quartet is their first introduction to anything like classic Southern Gospel singing? Keith: Our audiences aren’t as Southern Gospel-educated as what we witnessed when we were in Texas, New Mexico, or even in the Midwest. I would say that we are introducing Southern Gospel to more people consistently on a weekend than any group that travels the South or the Midwest.

However, I just saw a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, which said the most popular selling music in the U.S. is country music. Southern Gospel obviously has country roots. There are enough similarities that when people hear us, we’ll get a lot of, “Man, I didn’t know a quartet would sound like, but I love the sound. It reminds me of”—and here’s where we’ll get Statler Brothers, who are very popular because of their TV program that they did back in the day—the Oak Ridge Boys, a lot of country groups. Out here, that’s a lot of audiences’ only reference point to the style we’re singing. But they love it!

Now the state of Gospel music on the West Coast is improving incredibly. We have more good groups out here, just in the last year or two, than I can ever remember. There is a fantastic trio based here in Nampa, ID called Testament, one of the best groups you’ve never heard. They’re never going to be a full-time group, always going to travel part-time, but they’re doing a wonderful job.

There’s a group called Evergreen State Quartet out of Washington. They’re making great strides and getting better every time I hear them. The Herb Henry Family is an incredible family group. There are some fantastic groups out here!

One reason that things are looking up is due to the fact that Claude Hopper, Dean Hopper and Les Beasley have done a great job with the Great Western Southern Gospel Fan Festival, the west’s version of NQC. It’s a fabulous production. They’re doing a great job keeping people interested, and to an extent, connected to the groups in the South.

We’re seeing more and more groups beginning to tour through here on a regular basis—Legacy Five, the Kingsmen, the Hoppers, Greater Vision, the Beene Family, the Booth Brothers. They’re finding out what we have seen on a consistent basis: some of the best Southern Gospel fans are in the west.

DJM: On the East Coast, to some extent, the popularity of the national groups through that part of the country helps the local groups. They can say, “We sound like the Gaither Vocal Band,” or something like that. Sometimes it opens doors for local groups to become regional groups, and then to become regional groups. Take Old Paths, compared to Gold City and the Kingsmen. Especially because that one’s a valid comparison, people have started to listen to them. The popularity of the little groups helps pull the little groups up.

Out here on the West Coast, would you say that the popularity of the Regional groups—well, I shouldn’t say that, since Liberty is full-time—and, by the way, do you know of any others that are full- time?

Keith: The only other full-time group out of the West is actually from Southwest Canada, Sweet Presence. The only full-time groups in the west (outside of us) that I can think of are from Canada.

DJM: So would you say that people having heard Greater Vision and Legacy Five is more likely to open doors for Liberty Quartet, or that people who have Liberty Quartet are more likely to check out Legacy Five or Greater Vision? Of course, it goes both ways, but which do you see more of?

Keith: I see more of us introducing people to the style of music who’ve never heard of Greater Vision, Legacy Five. We’ve started carrying the Singing News for the past few months. They’ve told us that we are consistently one of their top sources for new subscriptions. So we are helping establish new markets for groups like Legacy Five and Greater Vision.

Now the reality is, while these groups are starting to come more often to the West Coast, they might only be doing one stop in each state, so it’s a little harder for people to follow the groups. Now, Royce was the first one to bring the Cathedrals to Idaho, he was the first one to introduce Legacy Five, Greater Vision, the Hoppers, Crossway, and Phil Cross. We have been responsible for bringing a lot of groups out here. What we’re doing has opened a lot of doors.

Right now, 90% of our dates are in the west, so there’s no doubt that we are creating interest in the genre.

DJM: That brings up an interesting question. At the dates in the South and the Midwest, are you starting to see more name ID for Liberty in those areas, or is it mostly still in the West? Are you starting to see more people coming in who know who Liberty is?

Keith: Oh, absolutely.

DJM: Did that start a few years ago, or within the past year—when did you start to see more interest in traditional Southern Gospel circles?

Keith: I’d say in the last couple of years. I think part of that is due in part to blogs, Southern Gospel fan sites, XM channel 34 (Enlighten), and Southern Gospel message boards—they have been huge for us. Singing News did an article on us in the April issue; that was great and took our website visits through the roof, but it was the first time we received national recognition outside of a national Southern Gospel sites here and there.

That’s been a big thing for us, since we’re not with a label, and we’re not with some big radio promotions company.

DJM: Have you considered either?

Keith: We’ve considered a label, to a degree, but we’re selling as much product as many of the national groups without having a label. I guess it would come down to how much creative control we would have to sacrifice for distribution. It would have to be a unique offer.

But you guys—bloggers and word of mouth—have helped spread the word. We were in Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana, and several of those concerts were packed, just packed. It was crazy!

It’s been an interesting thing for us. We’re getting a lot of calls now from back east and down south. We’re trying to be very careful, because we don’t want to give up what we’re currently doing, but we are starting to break into some new areas.

DJM: Do you know how many states Liberty has performed in?

Keith: I was just talking to Royce about that the other day. I think it’s something like 33 to 35 states. That might be just one concert, but I think it’s something right around there. It’s in the 30s.

DJM: There are many Christians who have never heard of Southern Gospel music. As someone who has done a lot to introduce Southern Gospel to new audiences, suppose a rich philanthropist gave you an unlimited budget to expand Southern Gospel, to introduce it to new audiences across the country. There are a lot of people across the country, as you said, who like Southern Gospel once they hear it. What would you do to get it into their hands?

Keith: Bill Gaither’s almost done that. He’s almost developed his own genre.

DJM: There are mega-churches out there who will play Christian rock in the Praise & Worship section of the service, but when the people go home, they’ll be listening to a style of music a lot closer to Southern Gospel. How would these people be reached?

Keith: I think there are two things. One is with your concerts. Liberty is starting to get involved with secular promoters, state fairs. Go to the state fairs and sing straight-ahead Southern Gospel—but there will be people who are gonna like it.

The second thing is to transform Southern Gospel radio. It would, to a degree, be subjective. Not everybody’s gonna be happy. But there are certain standards that need to be met lyrically, when it comes to the arrangements, when it comes to the production, when it comes down to vocal quality.

I wish there was a Clear Channel of Southern Gospel radio. If I had money, I’d sink it in there. Get powerful stations, put in quality controls, and really push the music. We need good DJs who know the music, know the groups. We need people who are knowledgeable about the music and are going to get it out there.

DJM: One more question. You were a fan for many years before becoming a performer. What would be the biggest change or the biggest surprise since stepping (so to speak) to the other side of the microphone?

Keith: I guess one of the things I’ve noticed is how difficult it is to find great songs. There are fantastic songs being written, don’t get me wrong. But, they don’t always fit our sound. Rebecca Peck, Kyla Rowland, Twila LeBar, Rodney Griffin, Phil Cross—I love their songs. But when we get pitch sheets, the songs that fit us are few and far between.

We know what we’re looking for in a song. It has to fit us stylistically. It has to connect with us message-wise—it’s a process.

The other thing that has just been a blessing to me is the fact that most of the groups that we work with are the genuine thing. As a fan you hear all the gossip about those hypocritical groups, you hear all those kind of things. You can visit those online forums and see gossip about this person doing this, that, or whatever. But I’m telling you we have some of the most sincere Christians, the most ministry-minded people out there. You take Legacy Five, Scott Fowler, Frank Seamans—Frank is one of the most genuine, godly guys I know. Greater Vision—Rodney Griffin, a wonderful man of God. Booth Brothers—I mean, you can just go down the list. The men and women you see in concerts aren’t just out there performing. Behind the scenes, they’re living what you see. And that, to me, has been a huge boost.

DJM: I couldn’t think of a better note on which to end this interview. Thank you for your time!

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