Manns Choice, Pennsylvania – It’s Sunday evening and 184 people are crowded into the local Church of God. The pastor notes that that’s more than half the population of this small town in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania.
They’ve all come out to hear the Byrd Family, country gospel musicians and singers from Georgia. I’m traveling with the group this week, preaching after they play and sing.
After a hymn and a prayer, the pastor introduces Randy Byrd, who opens with a few rousing notes on the fiddle. It’s a foot stomping, hand clapping piece. “Let’s all go down to the river; there’s a man walking on the water….”
For the second verse of the song Randy switches from the fiddle to he five-sting banjo, and then on the third verse he plays the guitar. In a typical concert he will play five different string instruments and, and he’s master of them all.
Randy’s father, Darvin Byrd, plays rhythm guitar and sings lead for the group. In his younger years Darvin was manager for Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, regulars on the Grand Ole Opry. Then in 1958, Darvin found the Lord. That’s when he left the Nashville scene and formed a family evangelistic team with his wife, who was a licensed Pentecostal evangelist.
Randy was only 7 when his family hit the road for Jesus. Today he jokingly says, “I wasn’t called into the ministry. I was yanked into the ministry. My parents said, ‘Get up there and play that fiddle, boy, or you won’t eat.’” Randy, who now manages the group, has been traveling full-time ever since.
Mama Byrd went on to her eternal reward in 1972. That was not before Randy married Mary, who he met at the University of Tennessee. Although Mary was a Catholic from Toledo, Ohio, she has a good voice and blends with the family perfectly. Today Randy and Mary’s two youngest children, Joseph and Sarah, fill out the group.
Joseph, who plays bass guitar and sings solos, became the youngest person ever (at age 4) to join the American Federation of Musicians. Sarah, a bubbly teenager, has a beautiful soprano voice. Her father teasingly calls her “The world’s only bluegrass percussionist.”
This morning the Byrd Family led the morning worship service at a church in Boonesboro, Maryland. Tomorrow night we will be in Hanover, Pennsylvania, then back south of the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland again for two more dates before returning to Georgia for a couple of days.
Last week the Byrd Family sang in Florida. Next week it will be on to South Carolina, and then back up into the eastern shore of Maryland and Delaware. Almost non-stop they criss-cross the eastern states from Maine to Florida, and as far west as the Kansas/Colorado border large and small of all denominations.
I wondered: What makes them keep pushing so hard? Could it be the romance of the road? Just one week of traveling with them makes me doubt it. The romance soon wears thin; sleeping on the bus in a Burger King parking lot, traveling long distances between churches, arriving early to set up, and then having to stay late to tear down the sound equipment. There is an element of excitement, but is mostly plain hard work.
Could it be they are in it for the money? That couldn’t be the case as Randy has turned down many offers to wok in secular music for many times his current earnings. The Byrd Family members do not see themselves as entertainers or professional musicians, but as ministers of the Gospel. They never set a price, but live only on the free-will love-offerings of the people to whom they minister.
On this tour five pastors in a row have apologized for the small offering. Each has said, “I’m sure the next church will make it up to you.” But the next church never does.
The Byrd Family completed their package of songs in Manns Choice and I preached. They returned to the platform for the altar call. While they sang and the pastor and I waited, more than a dozen souls came forward to seek the Saviour. There was hardly a dry eye in the place. Families were reunited; the whole community was blessed. God received the glory.
The Byrd Family barely received enough offering to get them to their next engagement, but it had been worth it.