An Interview with Mark Trammell

At this year’s National Quartet Convention, Mark Trammell was able to spare a half-hour for an interview. He is one of Southern Gospel’s all-time best-loved baritone singers, and with good reason: He was with the three most popular quartets and the most popular trio of his generation—the Kingsmen, the Cathedral Quartet, Gold City, and Greater Vision. Since 2002, he has led his own group, the Mark Trammell Trio. In this interview, he shares about his testimony, his call to the ministry, and how running his own group enables him to fulfill that call.

DJM: I know many people have heard the story of how you became involved in Southern Gospel music, but for those who haven’t, could you start by saying what got you interested in Southern Gospel, as briefly or in depth as want?

Mark: I’m the youngest of four Baptist preacher’s kids. When I was a little boy, my dad would have regional groups from around the Little Rock, Arkansas area come in and sing for us during homecoming and things like that. And I just fell in love with this music.

By the time I was eight years old, I guess, I was going to the Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock, Arkansas, about once every six months, to hear groups like the Happy Goodman Family, the Florida Boys, and the Dixie Echoes.

When I got a little older, the Inspirations came to town. Mike Holcomb and I were just talking this week about the fact that the first time I met him was in 1972. He had just gone to the Inspirations. My dad was sponsoring a thirty minute radio program on Saturday mornings for nothing but Inspirations music at that time. So I got to meet Mike, and that was 1972. So this many years later, here we are. I don’t think neither he nor I realized that it had been thirty-seven years, but it has.

So I grew up in and around this industry. I sang in regional groups for a couple of years.

DJM: Which groups were they?

Mark: The New Horizons, the Masters Quartet (out of Little Rock), and the Arkansas Boys. The Arkansas Boys was comprised of myself, my brother Jerry (who sang with the Florida Boys just after that), and Vaughn Thacker. That was the original bunch.

Then I went from that to the Senators, when I was 15.

DJM: Now were you singing with these groups, playing bass guitar, or both?

Mark: Singing. Actually, with New Horizons, I played the bass. I sang with the Masters Quartet. I played the bass and sang in the Arkansas Boys. Those were the groups I was affiliated with around home, before going on the road.

‘Course, I took a Continental Trailways bus back and forth from Memphis to Little Rock every weekend, when I joined the Senators. We would be out every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The short version of the long story is that I literally continued going to school every Monday through Thursday. Thursday night or Friday morning, I’d catch a bus to Memphis. I’d get on the Senators’ group bus, and we’d get out of town.

DJM: Now were you singing or playing bass for the Senators?

Mark: I sang for the Senators.

DJM: Baritone?

Mark: I sang lead, actually, with the Senators.

DJM: Did you sing baritone with the other local groups, or did you sing lead as well?

Mark: I sang baritone with the Masters and with the Arkansas Boys.

DJM: The Senators—was this the same group Coy Cook started?

Mark: Actually, this was just after Coy sold the group to Ray Shelton. And Ray is who I worked for. Ray kept it—in fact, he still owns that name, I’m sure.

Tim Shelby was the tenor singer; Ray sang baritone, I sang lead, and Rick Fair sang bass.

DJM: Really? The same who was with Palmetto State some years later.

Mark: Yes.

And Vaughn Thacker played the piano for them.

DJM: Did you do any recordings for them?

Mark: I did one called Stand By Me. And by that time, Big Jim Hamill had come into the picture, and I went to play guitar and singing, both.

Big Jim had left the Kingsmen. Foxy and Jim are in Heaven now, so we can tell the real story, because it’s actually funny. Big Jim had got mad because they weren’t taking vacation one summer. So Foxy said, “Go take one!”

And he said, “I think I will.”

And he just stayed gone for about a year before he went to the Kingsmen.

DJM: When Squire was with them?

Mark: Squire was still there. I think they did one or two albums without Big Jim.

DJM: Just in Time, I think?

Mark: Yes. That’s got Parrack, Parsons, Ray Dean, Foxy, and Nick Bruno.

Of course, I went from the Senators back to finish my senior year in high school. During my senior year, I would travel frequently with the Florida Boys. I wound up playing bass with the Florida Boys when I was on trips with them, when Les found out that I could, and it gave him a break. Many years later, I’m really grateful that he let me do that.

In fact, the first time I was on the Gospel Singing Jubilee, I was playing bass for the Florida Boys. During Thanksgiving break, I had a week off, and I went up there to be with my brother, who was still singing tenor for them at the time. I wound up having the opportunity to be on the Gospel Singing Jubilee. So that was a big thing for me, back in those days.

DJM: So did you just fill in here and there, or were you regularly with them for a while?

Mark: No, I just hung out with them, and I’d ride the bus periodically. But that was a lot of fun.

DJM: So you had already gotten to know Big Jim Hamill during your Senators days. Was that the connection that brought you on board the Kingsmen bus?

Mark: Oddly enough, no.

DJM: Really!

Mark: Jim McCauley left, just prior to my getting married in 1978. Someone had told Foxy that the year prior to that, I’d been playing bass for the Florida Boys when I had time to be off.

We saw the Kingsmen in Little Rock. I went up to Foxy, and I told him, “I understand Mac’s left.”

He said, “Yeah.”

And he said, “Are you Jerry’s little brother?”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “Hmm. Somebody told about you. Are you interested in the job.”

I said, “Well, yes, sir.”

So I went to work for the Kingsmen about a month later.

DJM: So were you hired on the spot, or did he try you out?

Mark: No, actually he hired me on the spot. Big Jim wondered why he did, because I didn’t know the keys to everything they did, and I guess Big Jim thought I needed to, two weeks later.

I went home and practiced with the albums, and I knew most of everything. But when you worked for Big Jim, you had to be ready to whatever he said on the spur of the moment. If it was a song that they had done twenty years ago, it didn’t matter that you were brand new, you should know it.

DJM: So how long were you with the Kingsmen?

Mark: I was there for two years before I went with the Cathedrals. It was ’78 to July of ’80.

DJM: Had you just sung enough on stage that the Cathedrals heard you and offered you a full-time singing position?

Mark: Yes, because when I went to the Kingsmen, Big Jim put me to work doing both. I went there to play, but he also had me singing his high notes on the end of songs. Gary Dillard was playing steel back then; once in a while, he’d bring us up and we’d sing a song with Ray and Ernie.

A lot of nights, if he was tired, he’d have me come up. We called Gary “Beaver”; I’d give Beaver my bass guitar and go up and sing Big Jim’s part.

So it literally was boot camp for me, to be involved in the Kingsmen, and to get me situated where I could do what I do now. And in 35 years of doing this, now, I look back and I see some of the elements of what Big Jim was trying to do—even in his crude way of doing it—were very beneficial, because it prepared me to be able to do what we’re doing now. So it’s kind of a funny circle that it has all made.

DJM: Right now, I’m forgetting the year Ernie Phillips joined the Kingsmen. Did you overlap with Johnny Parrack?

Mark: No, Ernie was there when I went there. He had been there for about a year. I think ’77 is when Ernie went there.

DJM: So you just missed being able to say that you had performed with both the Parrack father and son, and the Phillips father and son. [Johnny and Jay Parrack, and Ernie and Eric Phillips.]

Mark: Just did miss it, yes.

DJM: That would have been something, though!

Mark: Oh yes, absolutely.

DJM: So you joined the Cathedrals in July of 1980, and you were with them for about eleven years?

Mark: Yes. Almost eleven years.

DJM: Now here is another part of your story that many have heard, but I’m sure some have not. It was about the middle of your time with the Cathedrals that you came to know the Lord, is that correct?

Mark: 1988, actually. July 13, 1988.

DJM: Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Mark: April of 1988, we were at a Starlight Crusade in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And I had really gotten interested in a lot of the taped messages from Dr. Bailey Smith, who was doing all of the Starlight Crusades at that point.

Jim Murray of the Imperials became a very good friend of mine. We played golf together, and things like that. Jim had been saved, I think, a year and a half or two years prior to that, after hearing a message called “Wheat or Tares?” that Dr. Smith preached.

The night that we did that Starlight Crusade in April of ’88, Dr. Smith preached a message called “God Will Burn Your Barley Fields.” The next night, we were with them again, and that night, the message was entitled, “What happens when God says ‘Enough.’” That was pertaining to the sin unto death—entertaining the idea that even a child of God can do things that are so reprehensible to God and against His will that God will take us out before our time, to keep one of His children from bringing reproach upon him.

I could not imagine doing that. What could I do that would be so horrible that God would take me before my time? How could a merciful God do that? And it really provoked thought.

That night, after it was over, Jim Murray came to me, and he said, “Wow, what a powerful message!”

And I said, “Yes, very thought-provoking, and alarming, as a matter of fact.”

And when I said it was alarming, he just kind of smiled, and said, “Have you heard his ‘Wheat or Tares’ message?”

I said, “No, I haven’t.”

He said, “I’m gonna go and get a cassette, and I’ll meet you at your tape table.”

So I went on over to the table, where the rest of the Cathedrals were. Jim came by in a few minutes and brought me this cassette. That night, I drove from Spartanburg to Atlanta, because our driver had been up all night the nigh before, and I listened to that message.

I didn’t realize it, but I had fallen under the grips of the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I understood, from that point forward until July 13, a level of misery that I had never understood before. I was with the #1 Quartet for America. I wanted for nothing. I had won awards, not only with the group, but baritone awards, producing awards, things like that. I literally had everything I wanted in life, but I was miserable.

The more I thought about it, the more I turned in to myself, and I didn’t talk to anybody for a while. I didn’t like anybody. I remember being at First Baptist Atlanta, Georgia, and hearing Dr. Stanley preach a wonderful message on the walk of faith. I didn’t like him after that day—I decided, “I don’t even like that guy!”

I didn’t understand what was going on until July the 13th, and then it hit me: I know what’s wrong with me.

So I just asked the Lord, plainly, that I’m gonna put this fleece out, just like Gideon. It’s a poor excuse for having faith in God, but I had to do it. And my fleece was: “Lord, if you’re telling me that I’m lost, please let me play golf with that preacher.”

The preacher was Tom Elliff. Dr. Elliff was, by that time, pastor at First Baptist Church in Dell City, Oklahoma, and that’s where the Cathedrals were singing, in the Starlight Crusade for that area. Dr. Smith was not there for that crusade; Paul Jackson from Little Rock preached on Sunday night. Then on Monday night, Dr. Elliff preached the message, “Build an Ark and Save Your Home.” The first point of that message was: Before you can do anything for the world, for your community, and even for your family, you had to settle one question, and that question is the question of your salvation. Are you truly saved? Do you know the difference between religion and relationship?

Man, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m list.

That was on Monday night. Monday night, I didn’t sleep till about 5:00 in the morning. After wrestling with myself, I said a very simple prayer: “Lord, if you’re telling me that I’m lost, let me play golf with that preacher tomorrow.”

Dr. Elliff was the last guy to the golf course out of sixteen people that were to play golf. And I’ll never forget it: When he drove up, it was just like God said, “Hey, you asked for this, and you got it. Now what are you going to do?”

So after the third tee off on the Willow Creek Golf Course, I got on my knees alongside Dr. Elliff, and prayed, and asked the Lord to save me, and He did. And it was the most revolutionary thing that has ever happened in my life—I’ve never been so free as I was that day.

DJM: What do you think now, looking back on your recordings prior to being saved? Do you view them differently, or do you think the message of the songs still rings true, even though you were just talking the talk at that point?

Mark: The big thing was, I had walked the aisle, I had filled out the card, and I had said a prayer with my lips that I really didn’t mean anything of with my heart. And that’s where the difference is made.

But I wrestled with that.

A few weeks later, we went on an Alaska cruise with Dr. Stanley. We were on the back of the ship, getting ready to leave port in Vancouver, B.C., and I found him back there, just resting. I said, “Dr. Stanley, please forgive me for bothering you. Can I ask you a quick question?”

He said: “Sure!”

I said: “I was just saved.”

He said, “I heard.” And he smiled.

I said, “I’ve been religious all of my life, and it puzzles me that God would use me in these areas, all this time in my life. I knew all about Him, but I didn’t really know Him. I didn’t know Jesus as Savior. I knew all about the experience, and I knew all about the process. I’ve led people in the sinner’s prayer! Does that mean they’re not saved?”

He looked at me and said, “No, no, no. Remember that God used a donkey one day to preach.”

It reminds all of us that if God will use a donkey, we’re not so much! He’ll use whatever He has to use to get His message and His point across to humanity.

He said, “So what you did, if you led people to Jesus, and in their heart they genuinely believed that the Lord saved them from their sin, just be reminded that we’re all just a vessel. Nothing more, nothing less.”

And that gave me the freedom that I needed to be able to understand where I had come from, and what God had done in my life.

But I will tell you this, Daniel: The night after I was saved, we went back to the Starlight Crusade that evening. When we walked in the doors, I heard the choir singing “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross / And exchange it someday for a crown.” And there is a world of difference in hearing that with lost ears and hearing it with saved years. It touched my heart like it had never been touched before. The reason why is because the Holy Spirit of God, living inside of me, woke me up. It did something to me. Hey, I’m a Southern Baptist. I’d never felt that way in my life!

But literally, when I walked in there and heard it, I was overcome with emotion. I could not help but stand there and just weep for joy. I’d been singing that song all my life, but now I know what means for the first time!

That changed me.

DJM: So the next major change in your life, then, would be starting Greater Vision with Gerald Wolfe.

Mark: Yes. That was 1988, and then a year and a half later is when Gerald and I started Greater Vision.

In fact, I called him in September or October of that year, in 1990—after convention, I guess it was. God had been dealing with me about this. Gerald had left and gone into full-time solo work. The Daywind people—actually, it was Riversong, who Norman Holland was with at the time, and he’s involved in Daywind now, so I always get it mixed up—but the Riversong folks were talking to Gerald at the time about the possibility of forming a trio. Gerald had told me to help him pray about it, because he didn’t know what to do, or if he even wanted to something like that.

So I called him and told him, “You know, God’s been dealing with me about something.” And I said, “I’m tired of wrestling with it, and I’m gonna put it to rest.”

He said “What?”

I said, “You’ve been thinking about starting a trio.”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “You’ll never do it unless I move to Morristown. You’re too big of a chicken.”

And he just laughed—chuckled, you know. He said, “Ah, but first of all, you won’t do it, so I don’t have to worry about that.”

I said, “Don’t tempt me.”

He said, “Are you unhappy there?”

I said, “Oh, no, no. By no means! I live three doors up from George Younce. What more of a dream can you have?” I said, “But I am beginning to understand that my time here is about over.”

When I told George and Glen, we were all grieved, because they both told me, “We really want you to pray about this. We don’t want you to go. We really want you to stay right here, where you are.”

And I told them, “It’s not about what I want.”

And God began to put things in order. He sold my house in seven hours after it went on the market. He began to put things in order that made me understand, “This is what I want you to do.”

It was a very educational process for Gerald and I to start Greater Vision. I loved Gerald literally like a brother. I have three brothers, and I’m literally every bit as close to Gerald Wolfe in my heart. Another man that’s not my relative, but I’m every bit as close to him in my heart as my brothers. That’s how God linked us up.

Gerald was a wonderful, wonderful testimony, an example in my life, during those days of conviction. Because Gerald was with us when I was saved, on the golf course, and he literally wept when we got back from the golf course that day. He sat and just wept, hugged my neck, and … it was a bond that was formed there that’s still strong today.

December 17, 1990 is when I actually loaded up my truck and moved to Morristown, Tennessee. And by New Year’s Eve, we were singing!

DJM: After feeling the leading of God to start the group, what led you to join Gold City a couple of years later?

Mark: Three years later, Gerald and I were in the midst of a growth process. It was one of those things where you just knew, “Okay, I’m here for a season,” and again, God challenged me.

I argued with God the first time that I realized he was challenging me in two areas. The first area was the area of evangelism. I thought, “God, the last thing I want to do is preach.”

I told my dad when I was 16, after watching him go through a church split, that the last thing I ever wanted to do was be involved in that kind of life, and that kind of ministry. Because I saw what it did to my mom and dad. It aged them. It broke my mom and dad—it literally broke his heart to go through that process.

But God wouldn’t have it any other way. He wouldn’t leave me alone about it.

So in October of 1993, I surrendered to preach on the Isle of Patmos.

DJM: I’ve heard of that, but hadn’t know when it was. So were you on a cruise?

Mark: We were on a Journeys of Paul trip with Greater Vision, with Dr. Charles Stanley. We went to the Isle of Patmos, and I went to the cave where they say John wrote the book of Revelation.

I was standing in that cave, and it was as if the Holy Spirit of God said, “I had something special for you to do. You can do it and be at peace, or you can fight. What do you want to do?” And it was literally that clear to me!

On the way home, we got on the plane in Zurich, Switzerland. I went to the restroom, came back and sat with my wife on the plane before it took off. We were heading back into the states from Zurich.

I began to weep, and I told my wife, “Things are gonna be different when we get home!”

She said, “What are you talking about?”

I said, “They’re just gonna be different,” and I began to just cry.

And she said, “So, does this mean we get to move again?”

And that’s all she said. God had prepared her for it. I said, “But what if we do?”

She said, “If you know you’re following God, I’ll go.”

When we got home, I didn’t know what was going on. But I had a phone call from my old buddy Tim Riley. Of course, Tim and I had sung in the Southmen for a few months, after I got out of high school, right before I went with the Kingsmen.

DJM: Did you make any recordings with them?

Mark: We’re All Going Home in the Morning was the only one I was on. He was on that one as well.

Tim had called me and just asked me to keep my eyes open for a lead singer and a tenor, because Ivan and Brian were leaving. So I started thinking about it.

Well, I had sixteen messages on my answering machine, and before I got to the end of it, he had called back, and said, “Never mind, I’m looking for a baritone singer. I’ve found a tenor singer, and my baritone singer’s going to the lead part.”

I just looked at my wife. She said, “So you’ve surrendered to preach in the area of evangelism, not pastoring a church. Greater Vision sings every Sunday. What are you gonna do?”

I smiled and said, “Well, it looks like I’m gonna call Tim Riley!”

Because Gold City at that point didn’t sing very much on Sunday.

DJM: So singing on Sundays was a big part of the reason you moved to Gold City.

Mark: That evolved from me being able to begin preaching and continue to sing—that’s the talent that God has given me—into me being able to start this, eight and a half years later.

It was just a wonderful experience for me. And if you look back on it, I never talked on the platform until I went with Gold City. Ever. And I had nine years to warm up to being able to do that.

Of course, I was able to do more preaching through those years. But then we wound up getting busier and busier and busier, and I wound up the last two years, not doing much preaching at all. No revivals, just doing a Sunday night thing once in a while.

And then at the end of that process, it was like God reminded me what He had called me to. And I thought, “You know, I’m not going somewhere else to do this. If I’m gonna keep doing this, I need to be able to set my own schedule, my own pace. I need to be able to book meetings, because evidently that’s what God wants me to be involved with the most. And if I do that, then He’ll bless the other side of the ministry.”

And that’s exactly what He’s done. I’m convinced in my heart that if I just quit preaching, then the singing side of our ministry would fly right into the side of a mountain and be over with.

But as God opens those doors, we continue to go through them. We’ve been privileged to see over 250 people say yes to the saving knowledge of Jesus since that time. And it’s invaluable to be able be able to continue to do that work.

In fact, at the end of this month, I’m going to go to Burlington, North Carolina for a four-day meeting. And of course, I spoke here at the National Quartet Convention. This is my second year to be involved here with the Bible Study and speaking in those arenas, and God just keeps opening the doors.

DJM: Anything you’d like to say about the current project?

Mark: Always Have a Song, or Vintage Gospel?

DJM: Well, maybe both, since Always Have a Song is your most recent project of new songs.

Mark: Always Have a Song is dear to my heart, if for no other reason than Loving the Lamb, which Kyla Rowland wrote. It’s the biggest song we’ve had to date. It went to #4 in the charts. It’s one of the top 10 songs for 2009. And I’m in shock, because it’s not one of those radio candy-type songs. It’s not upbeat—it’s not 2 ½ minutes long, it’s five minutes long, and it’s in your face with a powerful, positive message. And it just blows my mind how God’s working in that kind of thing. But that song, and that project, is dynamic.

Of course, the Vintage Gospel project—I love that project. I guess the big reason why is that there are parts of my life in the past which are involved in that project. “Standing on the Rock,” which my brother sang—recorded first with the Florida Boys. We sang it on there.

“Hold Me,” a song that George did in 1988, right after I was saved, the next recording that we did.

Things like that that are dear to me. “While All Ages Roll”—Mosie Lister’s one of my all-time favorite writers. And I got to hear the story of that song—the fact that Mosie has a speech problem. I didn’t know that he stuttered when he got nervous.

When he told me about the story, he told me that it was written about him. In the first verse is “Someday this stammering tongue will falter no more.” And—boom!—it hit me: He had been writing about him! But what he was going to about when he got out of this fleshly temple, and into a Heavenly body. And man, it hit home to me!

DJM: So did you arrange that as a bass solo?

Mark: No, all I did was invert the harmony, where I took the lead on the lower end, and built the harmony around that.

DJM: And people can get in touch with your ministry at…

Mark: Office number is 256-442-1621.

DJM: Thank you very much!

Mark: Thank you.