By Rick Hynum
Soaring harmonies and shouts of "Hallelujah!" filled the air as gospel singer Bill Gaither led a musical revival in the Tupelo Coliseum Friday night.
A sold-out crowd of 9,620 packed the arena to see and hear the Gaither Homecoming, a gathering of gospel's greatest stars, which included the Happy Goodmans, Jesse Dixon, Sue Dodge, Janet Paschal, Ivan Parker and the Gaither Vocal Band.
Gaither emceed the event, introducing a succession of performers who mixed old-time standards with contemporary numbers on a circular stage.
Between songs, Gaither told stories about his grandchildren and acted as straight man for Christian comic Mark Lowry, who mugged for video cameras and teased Gaither about his hair, observing, "It's not a wig. If he needed a wig, he wouldn't buy one that looked like that."
Gaither kicked off the show by leading the crowd in a singalong to "This Is My Story" before bringing out New Albany trio Paid In Full to perform.
Vestal Goodman noted her own Northeast Mississippi connection, telling the audience that an Itawamba County Courthouse employee had gifted her with a copy of her marriage license earlier in the evening.
"Howard and I were married in Fulton and we spent our honeymoon in Tupelo," she noted, eliciting cheers of approval from the crowd.
Howard Goodman missed the show due to illness. His son, David, filled in as Vestal Goodman belted out a crowd-pleasing set of songs, including "I Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now," "When God's Chariot Comes" and "Who Am I?"
Jesse Dixon added a rousing black gospel flavor with three songs of his own, while 78-year-old James Blackwood, a Choctaw County native, also brought the crowd to its feet in a solo performance.
Steve Humphries, a Belmont carpenter and business owner, said he and his wife, Judy, have traveled to Gaither Homecoming performances throughout the South, including Memphis and Birmingham.
"When you're a born-again Christian, there's not any other kind of music," Humphries said.
Humphries, whose wife sings in the gospel group, Simply Grace, said he prefers the vintage gospel sound to the more modern style.
"I like the good, old-time singing," he said.
The Indiana-born Bill Gaither and his wife, Gloria, started out in the old gospel style but have also launched careers for younger Christian Contemporary artists like Sandi Patty, Steve Green and Cynthia Clawson.
Other artists performing in Friday's concert included Candy Hemphill Christmas, The Martins and Anthony Burger.
Together, the Gaithers have written more than 500 songs and recorded more than 50 albums. Elvis Presley recorded his original composition, "He Touched Me," which won a Grammy.