Blue Ridge Mountain Memories with The Marksmen Quartet

What happens when you take 43 years singing and music experience and mix 20 of the most notable hymns of the church and some new material – you get the Marksmen Quartet’s latest CD “Blue Ridge Mountain Memories” from Rural Rhythm.

It was 1967 when Southern gospel quartet leader Earle Wheeler gave his then young group a new name that has now brought him to successes in the genres of Southern, bluegrass and country gospel.The group adds a nomination for 2010 Contemporary Gospel Group of the Year for the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America to be awarded in Nashville this February.“Came Out of the Wilderness,” “Kneel at the Cross,”  “Angel Band” are some of the recordings which features Earle’s solid lead vocals. His singing ministry began when he was just 14 years old at Wahoo Baptist Church in Murrayville, Ga. when he sang solos and with a quartet at the church. His father the Rev. Dr. Marvin Wheeler served as pastor at Wahoo Baptist Church. Although he remembers making his debut at the age of four for his grandfather J.O. Gilstrap in the Methodist Church.“When I was a boy Robert Hefner had a bluegrass gospel quartet and use to practice in my parent’s living room,” Earle said. “Robert was my hero.”Along with Hefner were Dean and Marie Bence playing guitar and mandolin and Lester Cantrell on upright bass. The Bences also appeared with WSM Barndance host Cotton Carrier. It was from this group that Wheeler gained his love of singing and in 1961 when he embarked on a career of his own; it was with his hero Robert Hefner at his side. The Gospel Hearts featuring Earle Wheeler (lead), Robert Hefner (baritone), Lloyd O’Kelly (tenor), and Little Roy Abee Jr. playing piano joined the elite of gospel music as they toured from Ohio to Florida, South Carolina to Alabama.“We worked date after date with Chuck Wagon Gang, Oak Ridge Quartet, appeared with the Kingsmen, The LeFevres,” Earle said.Earle said he studied under the classic groups of the 1950s and shared his insights that he gained early with the group’s singers through the years. “Whether it’s properly using one’s voice, proper enunciation for harmony, but most of all for me, I have worked for so many years to keep a consistent sound distinctive to what we are doing,” he said. A lot of that has been assisted with very minor turnover in the group especially since the early 1980s when Earle made the musical switch to the mountain sounds that he was raised around near his home of Murrayville, Ga.  The Blue Ridge Quartet, Wendy Bagwell and Sunliters, the Harmoneers were some of the other acts that shared the stage with Earle’s Gospel Hearts.“Happy Edwards of the Harmoneers use to carry Mark (Wheeler, Earle’s son) around and get him to sing,” Earle said. “Happy said ‘I’d make a million dollars if this boy was mine.’”Earle’s son evangelist Mark Wheeler helps lead the group while maintaining a preaching schedule as well. He sings baritone, lead and plays guitar.Several of the songs on the album are from his pen including their number one song “Love Letters in the Sand” which he co-wrote the Rev. Willard Thomas.“The Sun Didn’t Shine” is a black spiritual which beckons back to the spirituals of the Suwanee River Boys, which could have walked right out of the 1940s.“This is the first time I have been able to bring this five-man harmony together to reflect the original sound from the Golden Gate Quartet of the 1930s,” Mark said. “I was really excited we were able to capture this level of performance for one of my all-time favorite songs.”Songs such as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” feature the rich bass voice of long time group member Darrin Chambers. He is actually another second-generation member of the group beginning beside his father and former group tenor Keith Chambers as a teen. He sings bass, plays Dobro and bass. “Just a Rose Will Do” highlights the sweet tenor talents of mandolinist Davey Waller who joined the group several years ago.Mark Autry performs bass and sings selections such as “What a Friend.”Appearances were also made by former Marksmen Keith Chambers and Tommy Dutton; banjo players Barry Abernathy, Mike Tucker, and Josh Hicks; and fiddler Jim Van Cleve.Mark said their sound is “just mountain gospel music.”“It has been done this way for more than hundred years in these hills at the little old white churches at found at the head of many mountain hollers,” he said.Blue Ridge Mountain Memories is available from Books a Million,, and other locations.

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