Past the Press Release: An Interview with Michael Helwig

Past the Press Release is an interview series featuring a new member of a professional Southern Gospel group. It’s a chance to look past the “excited to be here” comment standard to every new hire press release and learn a little more about them. Meet the Dixie Echoes’ new tenor singer, Michael Helwig!
Daniel: I understand that you were born in Ontario, Canada. Could you tell us a little about your upbringing—specifically, perhaps a tidbit or two about growing up Canadian that might be surprising to residents of the United States?

Michael: I grew up in southern Ontario in a large city about an hour from Toronto. Growing up Canadian is similar to growing up American. It’s hard to think of any major differences, besides perhaps local customs and accents. We tend to go a little overboard on the Tim Horton’s coffee and donuts, and love our hockey, but contrary to popular opinion, we do not all live in igloos.

I had a pretty standard upbringing. I was raised in a Christian home with my three sisters. My dad has been a flooring installer for over forty years, and he’s one of the best out there. My mom stayed home and raised us until we were older, when she went to work in a bakery. Both of them were hardworking, loyal, and very supportive of all of us.

Daniel: Since you come from Ontario, Canada, you’re farther off the beaten path of the Southern Gospel circuit than anyone else I’ve interviewed here (with one exception, a tenor from Northern Ireland!) How did you discover Southern Gospel?
Michael: My dad sang in a local gospel group called the Shepherd’s Quartet when I was just a little guy. Quartet music in Canada is not nearly as prevalent as it is here in the south, so to be raised on this kind of music was not the norm. It was so different from other styles because of the harmonies and “vocal band” qualities; it wasn’t always about how cool it sounded, but more about how good it sounded. The quality of the music rested upon the vocalists, and that was very intriguing to me. My dad’s exposing us to southern gospel led me to my interest in groups such as The Statesmen. I remember as a little kid feeling very let down once I realized that these awesome records we listened to were actually pretty old recordings, and that I’d never be able to attend a live Statesmen concert. That led me to searching for “modern” groups that did the same style.

Daniel: Did you have the opportunity to grow up in a Christian home? If not, where along the way did you hear the Gospel? 

Michael: I was privileged to grow up in a Christian home. My parents always stressed the importance of being at church, and it seems like we were there whenever the doors were open. Dad was a deacon and a Sunday school teacher, so were very involved with our church. I was saved when I was eleven, and even though I went through some rebellious tough times as a teenager, their example and prayers stayed with me and helped me get back on the right path.

Daniel: How long after that was it that you knew you wanted to sing Christian music?
Michael: I don’t remember a time in my life where I was not singing. I always love to make and hear good music. I was fortunate to have early opportunities to sing in church and for things like the seniors’ meetings, weddings, and funerals. I started with my first regional group when I was 19.

Daniel: Your first position was singing tenor for Canada’s Torchmen; since then, you’ve sung lead and baritone for groups like the Wilburns and the Stamps. What have been some of the personal and professional highlights of your sixteen years on the road so far?

Michael: Actually, my first position was with a great group called the Unashamed Quartet. We were four young guys 19-20 years old, and we actually placed 2nd at the NQC Talent Search back in ’96 or ’97. It was a great first experience in this business and we had a lot of fun. The only award I’ve won throughout my career was with that first group: Favorite First Tenor in 1997 for the GMA’s Canadian division.

I have many other highlights to look back on, such as singing with the Gaither Canadian Homecoming (with The Torchmen – although they cut my song and never used it on tape lol). I got to do some amazing trips with The Stamps, such as our time in Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand. Singing for the King of Thailand was a pretty surreal experience. Also, performing on the main stage at NQC is always one of the highlights of my year.

Daniel: Over the years, with different groups, you’ve recorded quite a few songs. Of the songs you have recorded, which are your favorites, and what makes them stand out to you?

Michael: I’d Rather Have Jesus and O Holy Night are two songs that I’ve recorded with many of my former groups. I think those are both so well received because of the power of the song, and not the singer. You’d have to work really hard NOT to move the crowd when you’re singing either of those, because they’re filled with such solid truths and emotion.

One other one that I never actually recorded, but I love, is singing the lead on Ed O’Neal’s When I Cross to the Other Side of Jordan. When I was with the Stamps, Joe Frech, Butch Owens, Andy Stringfield and I would have a blast singing this song after we’d set up our equipment. I’d get a chance to mimic one of my favourite vocalists, Ed Enoch, who was usually still on the bus getting dressed.

Daniel: I hear from a mutual acquaintance (David Mann) that you are a licensed car mechanic in Canada. In your years on the road, have you played a role in any memorable bus repair stories?

Michael: First of all, although I am a mechanic and can fix just about any machine, I never finished my apprenticeship because I was too busy singing!

I’ve been fortunate out on the road to have group owners that share my philosophy of preventative maintenance, so there have been no major breakdowns to report. However, should it ever happen, I’m ready. My wife always teases me about the many multi-tools, flashlights, and knives I carry in my pockets at all times!

Daniel: Moving on to a couple of fun questions: In the Dixie Echoes, there are now two men named Randy and two named Michael. Randy Shelnut Jr. sometimes goes by “Scoot”; have you had any discussions with Mike Jennings about who gets to keep the name and who gets a nickname?
Michael: So far Mike Jennings has stayed “Mike” and they’re calling me by my full name, “Michael”. But with two Randys and two Mikes (singing into two mikes) there’s sure a lot of comedy material there, though.
Daniel: You grew up in Canada and are preparing to move to Florida; are you looking forward to or dreading the Florida heat?
Michael: I don’t exactly miss Canadian winters and shovelling the three feet of snow that would fall during the night. Heat has never really bothered me, as long as I have air conditioning. I’m looking forward to some nice breezes off of the Gulf of Mexico!
Daniel: I understand that you are married, with three children; could you tell us a little about your family?

Michael: Although we grew up in a big city and attended different schools, my wife and I have known each other all our lives. Word has it that we flirted a lot as babies in the church nursery. I told her when I was thirteen that I would marry her, we dated throughout our teen years, and we finally got married back in ’97. Leslie has always been amazingly supportive of my music; as a matter of fact, she was the one who gave me the push I needed to start singing full-time when I got the call from Jackie Wilburn. She has also home-educated our kids for the past seven years and is preparing to return to school herself. She’s my best friend and I know I’m blessed to have her in my life.

We have the best kids in in the world: identical twin daughters, Eva and Laura, who are about to become teenagers next month, and our son, Sam, is ten. The girls are very creative and artistic; they like to draw and animate cartoons and also do a lot of writing. Samuel is our budding physicist and computer expert. All three kids have a great aptitude for music and we’re excited to see where God will take them in the future.