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Rich: Joining with good friends to come home

POSTED: May 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.

To be quite frank, I don't remember from where the idea arose. It could have been at the suggestion of one of two friends or - and this is quite possible - it was my own bright idea.

Nonetheless, whether it was at the invitation of my longtime friend, Judi Turner, a noted Nashville publicist who oversees publicity for gospel music legend Bill Gaither, or from my best friend, Karen Peck, who is often spotlighted in Gaither's famous Homecoming videos, or I just invited myself, it was a wonderful idea.

Thank you to any of the three of us who thought of it.

Gaither, as usual, had gathered many gospel music legends together as well as country stars like the Gatlin Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys for a closed-set taping at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville for what would become No. 110 in a video series that has sold more than 20 million copies.

Though it started out as a simple idea, it became brilliant with Gaither highlighting church hymns and quartet standards by having them sung by legends like the Happy Goodmans, the Blackwood brothers and younger stars like Karen and the Easters.

He calls them "Homecoming" and tags on wherever they were recorded, such as "Homecoming at the Kennedy Center." This hearkens back to the days when churches annually threw a homecoming celebration and brought all members, past and present, back together for a day of celebration. A perfect analogy.

Closed set or not, I showed up. Beforehand, I called Judi and asked if I might bring two guests with me. I know. It was pushing it a bit, but with old friends, you can do that. Judi, predictably, responded warmly.

"I'll put y'all on the backstage list."

First, I called Linda Davis, a Grammy Award-winning country singer and one of my sweetest friends. Linda hails from East Texas and, like me, she grew up in a little country church singing the hymns that Bill Gaither honors in the video tributes.

She's a big Gaither fan so in less time than it took for Sherman to light a torch in Atlanta, she said "Yes!"

Then I called my childhood friend, Reita, who has a beautiful voice and harmonizes regularly with her family on those precious hymns in their tiny country church. Experiences like this should be shared with folks who truly appreciate them. Her response was immediately enthusiastic, too.

From the moment we arrived through the backstage door, we were greeted and treated warmly by Bill and Gloria Gaither, Judi and many of the legends who gathered.

Linda, having performed many times on the Opry, was hugged and loved upon by everyone from the stage door guard to the make-up artist to the Oak Ridge Boys. It was a true feeling of family.

We settled into our seats and, having the choice of an entire Opry house, chose the second row to the left center.

From her place on stage, Karen grinned and wiggled her fingers to welcome us. Judi perched behind us, then scooted forward so we could whisper chattily like kids do just before school starts.

"Isn't this wonderful?" Linda gushed, shivering with excitement and squeezing my hand. "Don't you feel just like we're back home in our little country churches with the old upright piano in the corner and the keys that always stuck?"

For a moment, I slipped back in time. As the choir of heavenly voices peeled through one childhood favorite after another, I lingered in that time. Then Karen stepped to center stage and in her beautiful soprano belted out "Satisfied" then segued into "Old-time Religion."

There on stage was the friend who knows me best, plus I was surrounded by three others who have significant places in my memories.

It was a sweet, sweet homecoming.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter.



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