Monday, April 6, 2009

A Gospel Weekend with Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

The Darin & Brooke Aldridge Quintet

The Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet has a fine new CD available, a great sound, a deep commitment to their faith, bluegrass gospel music, the broader world of bluegrass music, and a supporting band of unusual strength. This weekend we had a chance to see and hear this group in its home territory appearing in three different venues. Throughout the weekend, we saw them demonstrate their versatility, their humility, and their strength. This rising band sings stirring music that moves people to tears, uplifts their spirits, and warms their hearts.

Springs Alive Festival
Gardner-Webb University began its life as a boarding school in the early twentieth century and deveped into a junior college, four year college, and now a university offering a full range of academic programs including master’s degrees. Affiliated with the Baptist Church and enrolling about 4000 students coming from 30 states and 30 foreign countries. Gardner-Webb has a lovely campus in Boling Springs, NC, about 60 miles west of Charlotte. We attended the fourth annual Spring Alive Festival, which featured several bands, a group of kids clogging, the elementary school choir, games for children, and a vendors area with food and crafts.

The Gardner Veranda

Performing on the Veranda

The Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet kicked off the musical show on the veranda of the O. Max Gardner Hall under the bright and warm sun of early spring. With a small crowd gathered around and an unfortunately weak sound system not well set up to showcase bluegrass music, Darin, Brooke, and their crew gave a more than creditable performance. Brooke’s strong gospel/bluegrass voice rings out through almost any sound system. Characteristically, she sings off the microphone so as not to overpower the rest of the band. Her voice communicates her fervent faith with every note. Darin’s somewhat lighter tenor voice, sounding a great deal like that of one of his heroes Vince Gill, blends very well with hers. Together, they provide a dynamite sound filled with the spirit and their love for each other.

Eddie Biggerstaff
The band is deeply experienced in bluegrass and gospel music. Eddie Biggerstaff on bass provides the rock solid beat every band needs from its bass player. But far beyond that, his ability to sing both high tenor in songs like “Workin’ on a Building” and “I’m Goin’ Up,” bass in gospel quartets and baritone in trios brings great versatility to this band. He toured with Blueridge for many years as well as playing with Rambler’s Choice, and Larry Rice.

Chris Bryant

Chris Bryant was named NC state banjo champion in 1979 and has been in and around the western North Carolina bluegrass scene for many years. He toured with the Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen as well as in commercial radio and studio recording. He manufactures custom banjo parts for one of the large American-made banjo companies as well as the stainless steel picks for Sammy Shelor. His touch on the banjo is light yet authoritative, providing fine Scruggs style banjo, complimenting the vocals and adding to them with his well-blended baritone harmonies.

Perry Woodie

Perry Woodie brings a droll sense of humor and a delicate touch with the Dobro to his work in Darin and Brooke’s band. As with the other side men, his approach is to work to complement the lead singers and keep the focus on the song and its message. He also serves up some occasional comic relief with jokes that while they may not fit the content, seem to tickle the audience and his colleagues in the band. Although originally a banjo player, he has developed on the Dobro and makes a significant contribution. His experience is largely with regional gospel bands.

On Sunday morning we drove up to Stanley, NC to meet the band at the Solid Rock Baptist Church. Located in a former store front in a small strip mall, this struggling little church has called Reverend Jack Calloway as its Pastor. An experienced Baptist preacher, Jack Calloway had retired, but felt the call to help build this small church. Darin had told me that he and Brooke are willing to take the band to any congregation which asks them to help spread the Word. It is common in Baptist churches for performers and guest speakers to work for a “Love” offering, a free will collection dedicated to the visiting group or person. Such Love offerings can vary widely, but many bands come to churches large and small to assist in spreading their faith through praise, song, music, and the Word. Relying upon such offerings as a source of income takes a step of faith, too, and may or may not permit a group to support itself.

Pastor Jack Calloway

At Solid Rock Baptist Church the congregation is small and struggling, but gave Darin and Brooke’s band a warm and fervent welcome. At the end of their message in song and music, Rev. Calloway called on parishioners to come up and dedicate themselves to Christ. Half a dozen men and women came forward to knelt before the alter for a few quiet and moving moments. Afterwards, the congregation hosted the band and their guests for a tasty and welcome meal. As we headed off to Darin’s house for the afternoon, it was clear that the band had offered spiritual sustenance for this small and likeable congregation.

Darin Aldridge and Brooke Justice were married in December after a four year courtship/engagement. Brooke grew up in a musical family in Plumtree, NC, not far from the Tennessee state line and Johnson City or Grandfather Mountain in her home state. She’s a real mountain girl. She grew up in a large, warm family where music was a central part of their life. She sang country music and gospel when she was young and competed in singing contests in her cowboy hat and pleated skirt. Success in contests encouraged her to compete in the Nashville Star competition, where she moved through several steps before being eliminated. A trip to Chicago for and American Idol tryout yielded rich experiences but not a chance to appear on air. Her voice is a supple, rich, and powerful instrument that delivers gospel songs and traditional bluegrass with conviction and passion. Hearing Brooke sing the Isaac’s “He Ain’t Never Done Me Nothin’ But Good,” or her version of “More to Go to Heaven For” is a religious experience in itself. Brook graduated from Appalachian State University in Early Childhood Education is serves as a teacher’s assistant in second grade.

Chris Bryant Playing My Deering

Perry Woodie Plays My Deering

Some of Darin's Instruments

Darin, Brooke, and Irene
We spent Sunday afternoon at Darin’s childhood home where his delightful mother served up pound cake, ice cream, and coffee. Darin still maintains a studio in the basement where he grew up, although he and Brooke now live nearby. In this comfortable getaway, he teaches private lessons, maintains a recording studio, and houses countless musical instruments, both new and vintage. I had the opportunity to spend an hour or so with Chris and Perry learning about the bluegrass scene in North Carolina from the late seventies until the present. It’s always a pleasure for me to hear fine musicians play my banjo, and there are four banjo players in the band. In addition to regular performing in churches, at festivals with Brooke, and with The Circuit Riders (a band of Country Gentlemen alumni), Darin also teaches at the Gaston School of the Arts. Although only 31 years old, Darin has had extremely broad experience, having performed with the local band Acoustic Syndicate, toured with the Country Gentlemen up until Charlie Waller’s death, and worked with a variety of recorded projects. He is recognized as one of the top rising young mandolin players, as evidenced by his performances at the famed Mando Mania at Merlefest for the past two years. He also is a monster flat picker. Darin has been nominated four times for SPBGMA mandolin player of the year as well as a number of other awards. In 2005 he played with the Country Gentlemen at one of the presidential inauguration balls.

From the Choir Loft

Darin, Eddie, Brooke Trio

Later in the afternoon we all traveled to Waco, NC for another performance of the band at the Buffalo Baptist Church. This church represents a stunning contrast to the morning’s events. Located on a hill beside a lovely small cemetery, the present church was built in 1953. The skeleton of a new and larger church building sits on the flats below the present building. The comfortable, plain sanctuary presented an almost ideal setting for evening’s singing. Darin and his crew quickly set up their sound system and prepared for the congregation, which contained many relatives and friends, especially kin of Eddie Biggerstaff. Darin tries to emphasize, when he appears in churches, that they aren’t there as performers. Rather, songs of praise and faith are a witness of their ministry in support of the Lord. The humility and genuineness they bring to their church appearances is characteristic of their approach to their music and their relationships with friends and strangers. Our opportunity to spend a weekend enfolded in the embrace of a group of people whose lives reflect their beliefs in deep and meaningful ways was meaningful and enriching for both of us.
A Long Evening for Little Ones