Somebody Say "Amen!"

Gospel quarterback Bill Gaither

"They get in their motorhomes and tour-bus coaches, and they follow the tour from city to city, like the Grateful Dead. It's staggering," says Paul Emery, coproducer of one of the highest-grossing tours in the country. "We were in Pittsburgh on December 14, the last Christmas show of the season, and 147 coach buses showed up."

OK, pop culturalists, name the tour:

a) The Vienna Boys' Choir/Jackass Body Piercing Stunt Spectacular.


"The Gaither Homecoming"

Office Depot Center, 1 Panthers Pkwy, Sunrise

Takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, January 11. Tickets cost $20 to $30. Call 954-523-3309.

b) Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot book tour.

c) WWE's Saddam Smackdown.

d) The Gaither Homecoming.

Now, exchange papers with the person sitting next to you. If you're a serious Elvis Presley fan, the name Bill Gaither probably rings a righteous bell, and you would have been right to circle d.

"Elvis Presley won three Grammys," Emery explains, "and one of those songs, 'He Touched Me,' was Bill's."

Gaither is a gospel singer, writer, and producer. In the last half century, he's won five Grammys and recorded more than 40 albums, making him a big enough figure to put together the four-hour bluegrass/gospel/comedy spectacular called "The Gaither Homecoming."

The show's structure is probably like nothing you've ever seen. For its first half, the artists take the stage separately to belt out their own heartfelt tunes of suffering and redemption. For the second half, the entire lineup drags chairs on-stage.

"Bill is kind of the quarterback," Emery elaborates. "He picks the songs and the people who'll sing the songs, and they all kind of go with the flow. They just never know, and neither does the crowd, and that's what makes it interesting."

The "Let Freedom Ring" Homecoming tour offers more than a dozen simultaneously headlining musicians, including Jake Hess, the Gaither Vocal Band, Sara Delane, Ben Speer, Jeff & Sheri Easter, Lynda Randle, Ivan Parker, Jessy Dixon, Taylor Mason, Janet Paschal, Kevin Williams, Anthony Burger, Hoppers, Mike Allen, the Booth Brothers, and Vestal Goodman.

Although Southern gospel is steeped in religion -- with its uninhibited displays of emotion, choral harmonies, "garage-band" ethos, and vibrant instrumentations -- it has been a forefather to contemporary rock music since the Elvis era. Homecomer Jessy Dixon got his start singing backup for Paul Simon. In the 1950s, Jake Hess was backup singer for, and strong influence on, the young Presley.

Knowing that the music has an audience outside of the Christian faithful, Gaither says he has worked to create an inclusive show. Because of this, Emery and even a few of his industry colleagues are gospel converts. "When I started out with this tour, I didn't think I'd come to a place where I'd be listening to it," he says. "But now I do. There's a tremendous amount of vocal talent on this stage." -- Marli Guzzetta

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