News Column

Sing and Strum

December 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 10--Chason Farris cast a furtive glance at the perfectly coifed, silver-haired women donned in plaid vests and black ties.

"Most of the ladies are in their 80s and 90s," the Central Baptist Church minister of music whispered.

"You didn't tell how old we are, did you Chason?" Reba Barnes asked, adding boastfully, "I'm 86. Our oldest is 93 and our youngest, well, we don't know, we have one who won't share her age."

"Isn't that funny. She's the youngest and she won't share," Lee Pendergrass said. "I'm 87 and proud of it."

The nine women -- 12 when at full strength -- dubbed themselves the Sing 'N Strings.

Don't let their sweet grandmotherly demeanors fool you. This isn't just some nursing home-playing band, although those outings make up the majority of the group's gigs.

"Do you know, one time we traveled all the way to Charleston, S.C. And people actually came to hear us play," Sylvia Jones said. "We performed at one of Phil Waldrep's conferences. That was a big deal."

"We also played on stage with George Beverly Shea," Barnes added.

Yes, that George Beverly Shea. Best known for his "How Great Thou Art" version, Shea, a gospel music icon and sidekick to the Rev. Billy Graham, died in April at age 104.

Last week, Sing 'N Strings took their places for another performance anticipated by both the audience and the musicians.

"This is one of our favorite groups we bring in because they are our ladies," said Cathy Strom, children's ministries director at Central Baptist Church.

The feeling, Farris said, is mutual.

As lines of 3- and 4-year-old children sat cross-legged, the performers faces beamed.

"You can't beat this audience. Seeing these women perform to these kids is heartwarming. You can't help but smile," he said.

In a one-and-a-two Artie Shaw-esque introduction, Farris led the group in "This is the Day."

The perky pluckiness of the Appalachian-style music combined with the young voices to produce an innocent, light-hearted sound.

"I don't know who enjoys it more, the kids or the ladies," Strom said. "What is really great is that there is a connection being made and a need being filled. A lot of our ladies are away from their grandchildren, and a lot of our children are away from their grandparents."

Started in the mid-1990s by then-music minister Ron Rainer, the ukulele choir at one point numbered 48, thanks to Rainer's convincing.

"I'm not a singer, but the minister of music said we needed a senior choir and I was a senior. It has been a lot of fun," said Barnes, an original member and the unofficial leader of Sing 'N Strings. "We see this as a ministry, something small we can do to lift someone's day. That's why I joined."

When Rainer left Central in 2006, the choir, dwindling from age, illness and death, struggled.

"When I came here, I heard of things we always used to do and wondered why we didn't do them anymore. One of them was the ukulele choir," Farris said. "In my 15 years of ministry, I had never seen a ukulele choir, but there is something about it that fits. Ukuleles and senior women seem to go together."

On Tuesday, the women in their holiday outfits -- a third of their performing wardrobe -- strummed out "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells" as the children sang along and swayed to the beat.

The Sing 'N Strings represents one of several local groups showcasing old-time instruments and senior musicians. In Morgan County, the Sweet Tones Dulcimer Ensemble, a regular at 3rd Friday Downtown, performs a variety of tunes, from mountain music to the Beatles. And in Limestone County, the Athens Dulcimer Club's jam sessions feature bluegrass classics and waltzes.

"It is so much fun being able to get together to perform. We probably enjoy it more than who we are performing for," Pendergrass said. "We need some new blood to keep going. We're just getting old."

Catherine Godbey can be reached at 256-340-2441 or cgodbey@decaturdaily.com.

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(c)2013 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

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