TUPELO • Many North Mississippians know Tom Evans as a bon vivant with a flair for entertaining large groups.
For 25 years running, the 72-year-old retired pharmacist has organized an annual Kentucky Derby party under a big tent on the lawn of his antiques-laden house on Robins Street in near downtown Tupelo. The event serves as a major fundraiser for Regional Rehabilitation Center.
On Derby day, Evans holds court, judges the ladies’ hat competition, and makes sure each of the 200-plus guests gets a Mint Julep – the bourbon-based cocktail long associated with the Kentucky Derby.
But once a month, Evans concocts a bourbon slush for an altogether different sort of gathering: an intimate, old-fashioned hymn singing around the twin grand pianos in his frescoed music parlor.
“It’s for our throats,” Evans said with a wink. “I make it strictly for the singing. It’s lemonade, lime juice, orange juice, strong tea, bourbon, and water. I freeze it and then thaw it out until it’s slushy. It’s good for the voice and good for the spirit.”
Evans said the group of neighbors and friends have been gathering once a month for the singing for more than two years.
“We usually have between six and 20 people,” he said. “We line up my 12 needlepoint dining room chairs just like in a prayer meeting, and we sing for about an hour and a half, or until I give out. People just call out the numbers and I lead them.”
“It’s so much fun I wish we’d do it twice a month,” said Sue Howard.
Evans, who conducts the singings from his piano bench, said he has been playing and singing for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve been around church music all my life,” he said. “My grandparents met at a singing school and I started leading singing when I was in high school.”
Evans said although he has been a pianist most of his life, his first teacher lacked faith in his ability.
“I started taking piano lessons when I was in elementary school,” he said. “My first piano teacher told my mother, ‘Jewel, you’re wasting your money. He’ll never learn to play.’ My mother said, ‘Well, it’s my money.’”
Evans said he was active in church even during his time as a pharmacy student at Ole Miss.
“I was raised Methodist,” he said. “When I was in college I got a commission from the Oxford-area Methodist conference as a church-and-community worker. I played piano and led singing at churches all around Oxford. I even preached sometimes.”
Evans said even though music was his strong card, he didn’t mind delivering the occasional sermon.
“It didn’t bother me,” he said. “I tried to take the scripture and go right to it.”
Evans said he is troubled by the “softening” of preaching in modern churches, and occasionally pines for the more strident sermons reminiscent of his youth.
“There’s less religion being preached from the pulpit now,” he said. “We could use some old-time hellfire and brimstone once in a while. Preachers are afraid to step on anyone’s toes. But you have to step on toes to get anything done.”
Evans said his father taught him a way to measure the degree to which a given preacher had “stepped on toes.”
“My daddy used to say if the preacher had to take off his coat while he was preaching, and if he had to go out through the side door when he was finished, then he’d done a good job,” he said with a grin.
Evans said he and the group who now gather for singings all have strong feelings about the “old standards,” even though they have fallen from favor in most churches.
“They don’t sing the old gospel hymns in church anymore,” he said. “They’ve all either got new hymnals or they do songs up on a screen.”
Participant Laurie Hawkins Teague agreed.
“I love the old songs because they’re not repetitive like the new stuff they’re doing now,” she said. “Now it’s all 7/11 – seven words repeated 11 times.”
Evans said while there is an element of nostalgia in his fondness for the “shaped-note” songs of old, he and the others who gather to sing appreciate the theological foundations upon which the songs are built.
“We sing these old songs because we know and love them,” he said. “But most of them are taken either from scripture or lifted from sermons. I still believe in the message of the songs.”
Bill Farrar said the monthly Sunday afternoons bring back sweet memories.
“I grew up in a musical family,” he said. “We used to gather around the piano and sing for our own entertainment. This reminds me of those times.”
Evans said while he isn’t as young as he used to be, he still enjoys hosting the monthly gatherings. And he said he’ll keep stirring the punch and tickling the keys as long as he’s able.
“Everybody has loved coming to hymn sing,” he said. “They love the old songs and the fellowship. I’ll do it as long as I can hold up.”